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Belt and Road Hazards, Coming to the Americas

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The Chinese train that came and went
At a nationally-televised press conference in Panama City in March 2019, a China-funded team of Chinese and Panamanian engineers took the stage. They unveiled the results of their feasibility study of the proposed Panama-Chiriquí Railway. They announced the megaproject would cost $4.1 billion and take six years to build. It would cut travel time from the capital to the Costa Rican border from eight hours to three. On this sunny day, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela was on hand to cut the blue ribbon, beaming alongside Wei Qiang, China’s Spanish-fluent ambassador. Varela said new urban areas would be created along the route, helping to develop Panama’s neglected interior. He added that the train would increase the export-competitiveness of Panama’s rural producers—noting it is currently cheaper to send cargo to Panama’s ports from Shanghai than from its own coffee-growing Chiriquí Highlands. Panama would modernize its slow, fragmented land transport, and China Railway Design Corporation would get a big fat contract. Everyone agreed it was a win-win.

“Win-win projects” are indeed the stated goal of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the BRI is China’s global economic strategy for the twenty-first century: to finance and build new infrastructure in partner countries around the world, linking them to China and Chinese-operated logistics hubs, putting China and its influence at the center of global commerce.

The Panama-Chiriquí Railway was to be China’s first BRI project in the Americas. Panama became the first country in the region to join to the BRI in November 2017. That was the year of what a local newspaper called a “honeymoon dance” between President Varela and Xi, when Varela cut Panama’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan and opened them with China. That same year, a Chinese firm won a $165 million contract to build the Amador Cruise Terminal at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. At the Atlantic end, another Chinese firm began construction of a $900 million liquid natural gas (LNG) power plant and the $1.1 billion Panama Colón Container Port, to be the largest port in Panama. With hard hats and shovels, President Varela and Wei Qiang stood together at the ceremony to lay the port’s first stone—Varela noting it was the biggest investment China had ever made in Panama. The deal also meant Chinese firms would soon control three of the six container ports on the Panama Canal, as Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Ports already manages the ports of Balboa and Cristóbal. China was on a roll in Panama.

As Chinese firms poured billions into real estate and infrastructure projects at both ends of the Panama Canal, many locals worried that Panama’s sovereignty was being threatened—a sovereignty only recently achieved, when the US handed over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1997. In a 2018 editorial in La Estrella, Universidad Interamericana de Panama professor Euclid Tapia warned of the debt-trap diplomacy for which China has become infamous in many other BRI countries. Tapia cited Sri Lanka, “where to pay its debts to Chinese creditors the country was forced to lease its most important port for 99 years.” He said similarly, and with little public attention, China was now seeking to construct a new fourth set of locks on the Panama Canal at an “unspeakable” cost of $15 to $20 billion—which “will gladly be financed by China,” precisely because Panama would likely be unable to pay it back. “Knowing the degree of corruption of our governments,” wrote Tapia, “it is highly probable that the fate of the Panama Canal will follow that of the Suez Canal, which due to Egyptian debt, England took from France. China could take over our canal and swallow us by osmosis.”

Perhaps slow to respond, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Panama City in October 2018 to discuss US concerns with President Varela. Pompeo warned the president of the “predatory economic activity” of China’s state-owned enterprise (SOEs). “In parts of the world,” he told local news, “China has invested in ways that have left countries worse off, and that should never be the case. Any time there is investment that comes from outside of a country, it certainly should be a good investment for the investor, but it has to be something that’s good for the country that hosts that investment as well.” Through the media, Pompeo issued a warning to all of Latin America: “When China comes calling, it’s not always to the good of your citizens.”

Pompeo also broached another thorny topic: the four-hectares at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal that Varela had offered China to build its new embassy. The idea of a giant Chinese flag waving before incoming ships at the mouth of the canal the US built did not appeal to the Trump administration. The month after Pompeo’s visit, Panama announced that plans for the Chinese embassy by the canal entrance had been cancelled.

Despite Pompeo’s warnings, Varela and Xi danced on. In December 2018, two months after Pompeo flew out, Xi flew in, becoming the first Chinese president to visit Panama. During the 24-hour visit, the countries signed 19 cooperation agreements on trade and infrastructure. In a televised address, Varela recalled that Xi had once told him that China’s economy is an ocean, adding: “I want to complement those words by saying Panama connects two oceans, and [Xi’s] visit consolidates our country as China’s commercial arm and gateway to Latin America.” A day after Xi left the country, Varela announced that Chinese firms had won a $1.4 billion contract to build a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal.

China-Panama relations were growing closer than ever. By spring 2019, the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project was rolling ahead full steam. But it hit a snag: Varela was reaching the end of his term limit. Panama elected a new president from an opposing party, Laurentino Cortizo, who took office in July 2019. By now having awoken to the threat of Chinese influence in Panama, the US wasted no time in putting pressure on Cortizo to rethink his country’s relationship with China. By September, Cortizo had scrapped the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project. In October, his administration announced an audit of Panama’s twenty-five-year contract with Hutchinson Ports, which ends in 2022. The Hong Kong firm has for decades been accused of not revealing its financial records and not paying the Panamanian government its 10% share of dividends from port operations.

Not losing a step, four months after leaving office, now ex-President Varela was again dining with Xi—this time in Shanghai at the China International Import Expo. But in December 2019, a bombshell dropped: Varelaleaks.com posted a phone chat between Panamanian officials indicating that Varela had received a $143 million bribe from China in June 2017—the moment he had switched Panama’s diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. There were calls for an investigation, which remains stuck in Panama’s bureaucracy.

Belt and Road hazards
The recent tug-of-war between US and Chinese interests in Panama foreshadows many more to come throughout the Americas in the twenty-first century. In the past decade, three of seven countries in the world to switch allegiances from Taiwan to China have been in the Americas, as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic followed Panama’s lead in 2018. (Taiwan claims China offered the Dominican Republic $3.1 billion in loans and investments to change allegiances.) Since Panama signed on to the BRI, eighteen of thirty-three countries in Latin America have done the same.

China markets the BRI as a more expedient alternative to traditional development projects funded by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In some ways, this is true. IFIs often make project funding contingent on countries’ agreement to structural adjustment programs as well as the creation of jobs programs which allow local workers to actually do the work. China asks for none of this. Instead, it presents itself as a friendly banker-contractor making an offer at a low price—the “China Price”—to do the job, do it fast, and loan the money—no strings attached.

But China’s BRI deals do come with strings attached—albeit different sorts of strings from those of IFIs. Among them, China’s debt-trap diplomacy and its penchant for targeting corrupt regimes and bribing officials have already been well-documented. But there are many other hazards along the New Silk Road which countries in the Americas should recognize.

Creating new geographies of corruption
China ranked second only to Russia on the Bribery Players Index published by Transparency International in 2011. Does China’s culture of bribery and corruption travel along to its overseas construction projects? It does, according to a 57-page 2016 Journal of Public Economics  paper entitled Chinese Aid and Local Corruption by Ann-Sofie Isaksson and Andreas Kotsadam. The study found that areas of Africa located within 50 km of a Chinese project showed significantly increased corruption. The results were based on matching data from 98,449 respondents to four Afrobarometer survey waves across 29 African countries with a new georeferenced dataset on the subnational allocation of Chinese development finance projects between 2000-2012. Notably, the study found that the new culture of corruption stays around long after Chinese constructions projects end—and that aid projects from other sources actually have the opposite effect:

“The results consistently indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption. Moreover, the effect seemingly lingers after the project implementation period, and does not appear to be driven simply by an increase in economic activity, but rather seems to imply that the Chinese presence impacts local norms. Moreover, China stands out from the World Bank and other bilateral donors in this respect. In particular, whereas the results indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption but have no observable impact on local economic activity, they suggest that World Bank aid projects stimulate local economic activity without fueling local corruption. Indeed, if anything, they suggest the opposite; there is some indication that World Bank health projects help reduce corruption. In line with this, suggestive evidence indicates that World Bank aid projects are successful in raising awareness of corruption. This is interesting considering that the World Bank has been at the forefront of the ‘anti-corruption movement’ among major international organizations, with explicit anti-corruption policies as part of their agenda. Comparing with other bilateral donors, who just as China might not have an equally explicit anti-corruption agenda as the World Bank, Chinese aid projects still stand out in terms of their estimated effects on local corruption. Indeed, in Uganda, Japanese and American aid projects, if anything, appear to bring reduced local corruption. Hence, the comparison of the local corruption effects of Chinese and other aid does not speak in China’s favor.”

What is especially concerning about these findings is that reducing corruption and bribery and establishing the rule of law are among the most difficult targets to attain within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are difficult to monitor and cannot be budgeted for in a development package like funds for a bridge or a port, which can be traced to their end use. As legal scholar Katherine Erbeznik puts it:

“Money can’t buy you law… Rule of law reform efforts have stalled. One reason is that reform has focused solely on formal rule of law institutions, rather than on the informal political or cultural norms that are needed to support such institutions. Little is known, however, about how to foster such political and cultural norms where they are lacking.” In Africa, which—like Latin America—is already struggling to make progress in changing cultural norms surrounding corruption, the Chinese presence on the ground is turning the dial backwards, further exacerbating the problem—an effect opposite that of any other development source.

Natural resource theft: the “Chinese Takeaway”
China is also the world leader in natural resource theft, and the BRI is only exacerbating this trend. For example, for over a decade, Chinese illegal logging has been rampant in Africa—dubbed by locals the “Chinese takeaway.” China has stringent regulations on domestic logging, so it looks abroad to feed the growing demand for luxury furniture among China’s middle class—and US demand for furniture made in China. Chinese agents pay Africans by the thousands to cut down trees for them—including in protected areas—and bribe local officials to get transport permits and sustainability certifications to allow the logs to be exported. China is now building an Industrial Wood Processing Park in Mozambique, where logs will be turned into chips, facilitating “log laundering.” Chinese illegal logging is already rampant in the Americas, including timber from the Brazilian Amazon and rosewood from Mexico and Guatemala. Increased Chinese presence and control of transport linkages in the Americas will only intensify bribery and the speed at which the region’s forests are pillaged.

The same is true in the seas. China sates its immense appetite for seafood in part by being the world’s largest perpetrator of distant-water illegal fishing, and the Americas have been a prime target. The US (especially Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina regularly intercept and detain Chinese fishing pirates in their coastal waters. The Argentines have shot at and sunk Chinese vessels in the last several years. Chinese mafias collude with Latin American fishing cartels in multimillion-dollar smuggling networks supplying traditional Chinese medicine. For example, Ecuador apprehended Chinese ships poaching endangered hammerhead sharks for shark fin soup in Galapagos National Park. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel colludes with Chinese pirates in smuggling bladders of the totoaba fish caught in the Gulf of California, which can sell for over $20,000 per kilogram on the black market in China. BRI port and rail projects in the Americas, manned by Chinese personnel, promise to facilitate more Chinese maritime piracy.

Spying by any other name
US cybersecurity firm FireEye, among others, reports that China has used BRI projects for cyber espionage many times and in numerous countries. In particular, FireEye notes that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have used infrastructure built as part of BRI projects to spy on a) foreign leaders who make BRI-related decisions, b) regional opponents of BRI projects, and c) government entities managing elections in BRI countries.

Take for example the new $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. China built it for free as a “gift” in 2012. In 2017, French newspaper Le Monde and other sources reported that China had hacked all the confidential data from the African Union’s IT network, recorded conversations throughout the building with microphones it had planted in the walls and furniture, and uploaded all this information to Shanghai every night from 2012-2017.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei provided the digital surveillance equipment in the African Union building. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation reported that Huawei technicians also helped African leaders in Uganda and Zambia spy on their opponents. In February, the US government accused Huawei of being able to secretly retrieve “sensitive and personal information” from users of 4G networks the company has built and maintained—in the US and around the world—via technological “back doors” designed to be used only by law enforcement. Yet the firm is already responsible for building up to 70% of the telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. Now it is building the first 5G network in Southeast Asia in Cambodia. Huawei is the leading contender to create new 5G networks throughout Latin America, including Panama. It is now seeking to build a system of security cameras in Colon Free Zone, Panama’s largest free trade zone, home to over 3000 companies from around the world. Thus the Huawei security system is a potential vehicle for Chinese spying on thousands of commercial operations in Panama.

In short, every element of telecommunications infrastructure built under the BRI—the Digital Silk Road—should be viewed as a potential instrument for cyber espionage.

A future as one of China’s somewhere elses
China today is in the early stages of attempting to transition from being the world’s factory to managing factories around the world. Chinese companies are moving to outsource manufacturing—to go from Made in China to Made by China, Somewhere Else. China is using BRI projects to create a global network of Chinese-controlled somewhere elses, where it can manufacture, transport, and sell. These include Chinese-built, Chinese-operated industrial zones overseas, where Chinese-managed factories set up shop, overseeing local workers. They also include Chinese-built, Chinese-run logistics hubs, including ocean ports and “dry ports” for rail cargo transshipment. And they include Chinese-built, Chinese-managed overseas marketplaces like malls, shopping centers, and tax-free zones, where China can sell.

The roots of China’s offshore manufacturing push precede the BRI. Having hosted foreign-owned factories since 1978, in 1999 China began its “Going Out Policy,” a push to engage in outward foreign direct investment. More recently, the explosion of China’s middle class has driven the cost of labor up sharply, prodding Chinese firms to outsource manufacturing. Many BRI projects create new spaces to do just that. To illustrate, one need only look to the experience of Africa, where China is involved in infrastructure projects in some thirty-five countries.

Take Djibouti, where China built the $3.5 billion Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) in 2018—the largest free trade zone in Africa. It was soon filled with Chinese-managed factories employing local workers at rock-bottom wages. China connected Djibouti to Ethiopia by building the 754-km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which will be operated by Chinese managers and drivers until at least 2023. Countries in the Americas should take notice that—while not sold as such—a key purpose of the BRI is to repeat this pattern: to create Chinese-controlled logistics networks accessing cheap labor markets to which Chinese companies can outsource factory jobs.

Or take Transsion, maker of the most popular smartphones in Africa, which sell under brand names such as Tecno and Itel. Transsion is a Chinese company, but it does not sell any phones in China and most Chinese people have never heard of it. It makes all of its African phones in factories in Ethiopia run by Chinese managers.

BRI projects have built extensive new transport networks in Africa to ship Transsion phones and thousands of other Chinese products now flooding the continent’s markets. (China is also using these new transport links to remove Africa’s natural resources at an astounding rate—legally and illegally—and discussed below.) In Kenya, China has already completed the Port of Mombasa—the largest port in East Africa—as well as the high-speed Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, the Thika Highway, and malls including Two Rivers Mall, the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the works is the Mombasa-Nairobi superhighway. Laying down thousands of kilometers of road and railways, China hopes to use Kenya as its primary gateway for commerce with 120 million people in East Africa. The plan is to funnel Chinese products through Kenya and on to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Tanzania, and South Sudan. Inside Kenya, products manufactured in Chinese-operated factories will be transported across Chinese-built highways and rail networks and sold in Chinese shops in Chinese-built malls.

China hopes to replicate this model the Americas. It wants to make Panama one of its Kenyas in Latin America, a gateway to commerce with Central and South America. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway would have opened the door for Chinese firms to outsource factories throughout Panama’s interior and ship the products easily by rail to the ports it controls on the Panama Canal. To be sure, Panama sorely lacks manufacturing and high-tech industries—which is why it could be tempted into signing on to projects that would, in actuality, yield large numbers of extremely low-paid manufacturing jobs. Panama would be well on its way to becoming one of China’s somewhere elses.

Part of China’s New World
Besides products, China unloads people through the BRI. In recent decades, over one million Chinese, mostly men, have permanently moved to Africa, as documented by Howard French in his book China’s Second Continent. Another million Chinese are currently working in Africa indefinitely, with more to come. Most came to work on Chinese construction projects and decided to stay. In Africa, Chinese workers often find blue skies, clean air, and freedom from the Communist Party for the first time. Many Chinese men have found African wives—an important factor, as China has a gender imbalance of 32 million more men than women due to the One Child Policy and families’ preference for boys, which led to the abortion of millions of girls. Many Chinese job-hop from one African country to another, gaining skills and experience and taking advantage of the vast assortment of Chinese projects—and Africa’s lax border controls. The highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, is about Chinese who made a new life in Africa.

Chinese emigration to BRI countries also helps reduce potential social unrest in China. BRI workers often come from the poorer, more neglected provinces in China’s interior, where development lags far behind that of the coast. Opportunities for advancement there are much rarer. But in Africa, Chinese workers often find they can apply their skills far more, get promoted much faster, and make more money.

While Africa has been a new world for many Chinese, this sort of influx of millions of Chinese workers is the last thing the Americas region needs. It is already plagued by broken borders and illegal migration—from the two million escaping Venezuela’s economic meltdown to the half million fleeing drug violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America to the nearly one million arrested along the US border each year. Migrants fleeing conflict zones, disasters, and repressive regimes around the world—such as Haiti, Cuba, and Syria—are currently spilling over Panama’s dangerous jungle border with Colombia, the Darien Gap, in the hope of continuing northward to seek refugee status in the US. Yet many of these migrants end up staying in Panama, a small, poor country of four million people. The US and the UN Refugee Agency have been working with the Panamanian government to manage this migrant overload, but it has been anything but easy. For example, with some 2,000 migrants stuck in a camp in Peñitas, Panama on the Colombian border and running out of money for food and water, some threatened to burn down the shelter they were staying in. Add a few million Chinese BRI workers looking to stay indefinitely to the Americas’ chaotic migration picture and stir, and it’s a recipe for havoc.

On the receiving end of the Great Unloading
Through BRI projects, China unloads many of its own excesses—products, construction, and also people. Building malls, ports, and railways overseas involves immense quantities of steel, cement, glass, pipes, wires, tools, construction machines, and other products—all of which come from China, where they are massively overproduced by its state-owned enterprises (SOEs). At home, China unloads these products by (unnecessarily) tearing down and rebuilding buildings every 20 to 30 years, making construction the top industry in China—(artificially) driving up the GDP and helping to stave off unemployment (while destroying tens of thousands of demolition workers’ lungs through the inhalation of silicon dust without adequate protection). BRI projects provide new opportunities for Chinese firms running out of infrastructure-building opportunities in China, while unloading China’s excess construction materials all over the world.

However, the quality of Chinese construction does not always match its quantity. In China, construction is often rushed and/or uses cheap materials and/or unqualified workers, leading to many shoddy buildings—including outright disasters such as collapsed bridges and skyscrapers. These have earned the nickname doufuzha gongcheng, or “tofu-dreg projects”—worse than the leftover dregs from making tofu. These includes the flimsy schools that fell like a house of cards during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing the students inside them. Time will tell if China has been exporting tofu-dreg construction along the New Silk Road.

Loading up and land grabs
As China unloads products and people out over the New Silk Road, it also uses it to load up on natural resources and farm products to meet the demand of its enormous population. For example, China has built new ports in a dozen countries in Africa, where it has been by far the largest extractor of the continent’s natural resources—such as oil from Angola, timber from Gabon, iron from Guinea, and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Victoria, the only Australian state thus far to sign on to the BRI, Chinese firms bought the Port of Melbourne—the country’s busiest port—in 2016 for $9.7 billion. China also bought northern Australia’s Port of Darwin in 2015. China now owns 2.3% of Australia’s land, including cattle farms, dairies, and wineries, and it uses its new ports to connect to its rapidly-expanding “land grab” farms.

Chinese investors have been buying up millions of acres of farmland around the world at an alarming rate. Chinese entities own roughly 200,000 acres of farmland in the US, and Chinese investment in US farming has multiplied tenfold in less than a decade. Along with South Korea and Saudi Arabia, China is one of the top “land grabbers” in Latin America today. It owns vast swathes of the South American soy giants Brazil and Argentina. Currently, China has a controversial $3.5 billion offer on the table to double the number of pigs in Argentina and turn it in to one of its main pork suppliers—a deal opposed by a petition signed by some 400,000 Argentines. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway project would have facilitated new Chinese land grabs around the hinterlands of Panama—and potentially neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia—by providing a way to easily get the farm products to ports controlled by China.

China’s land grabs help support its dietary transition, driven by increasing affluence. UCLA historian Philip Huang found that, in recent decades, China’s diet has shifted from an historical 8:1:1 ratio of grains to meat to vegetables to 4:3:3 today. However, 40% of China’s own farmland has been degraded by overuse, erosion, and pollution, forcing it to look for new farmland overseas.

Controlling the Crossroads
Chinese influence in Panama has special importance for the US for several reasons. Built in 1914 under Teddy Roosevelt, the Panama Canal is the US’ own signature megaproject. The Panama Canal Zone was a US territory from 1903 to 1979, similar to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. US public schools operated there, and “Zonians” received US mail addressed with the state postal abbreviation CZ. Heavy and growing Chinese influence in Panama today challenges the US’ historic cultural dominance of the “Crossroads of the Americas.” China’s control of Panama’s ports, in particular, is a threat to future US trade security. Today 63% of the cargo passing through the canal is headed to or from the US. China is currently violating nine other countries’ coastal waters in the South China Sea, persecuting over a million Uyghurs in re-education camps, and breaching its treaty with the UK on the governance of Hong Kong. So it is not hard to imagine that China could use its control of three Panama Canal ports to interfere with US trade in a time of war or other conflict. Further, China has for years tried to build new alternatives to the Panama Canal. These include plans for a maritime canal through Nicaragua (which would be an ecological disaster) as well as “dry canals” across Costa Rica and Colombia, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by rail. If any of these new canals materialize, China could use its BRI partnerships to redirect shipping to Chinese-built canals.

Alternatives Wanted
In the Americas, China sees opportunity. And in the BRI, countries in the Americas see opportunity. Argentina is the eighth-largest country in the world, yet it has no viable train system. In 2018 it signed a $1 billion deal with China Railway Construction to modernize its cargo rail by 2025. Mexico has the thirteenth-longest coastline in the world, but its aging ports use outdated technology. So it hired China Harbour Engineering Company to build a new $1.5 billion terminal at the Port of Veracruz—now the second-largest port in Mexico since the project’s completion in 2019. Colombia, a strong US ally, has had the least Chinese investment of the major countries in the Americas. But in 2019 the city of Bogotá signed a $4 billion deal for China Harbour Engineering to build a new metro system—and operate it for twenty years.

Panama’s canal has made it one of the world’s most globally-connected countries. Yet its internal connectivity lags far behind. As a result, Panama suffers from sharp regional inequalities. The average per capita GDP of the three provinces surrounding the canal is four times that of the seven outlying provinces. China promised to help change that with the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project and future investments, which would have opened the door to integrated development throughout the country—something the US never did in the 76 years of the Canal Zone era. While the Chinese project fell through, Panama is still looking for options—and China will present more offers. “We don’t offer constricting belts or a one-way road,” said US Vice President Mike Pence. But without alternatives, warnings are not enough.

“We need, and we have asked, that [the US] look toward the region more—the region, not just Panama,” said President Cortizo. “They need to pay more attention. While they’re not paying attention, another one is making advances.”

Robert C. Thornett is a social science educator and writer who has taught in four colleges and universities as well as international schools in seven countries. His work has been published in Yale Environment 360, Earth Island Journal, and The Solutions Journal. He currently teaches at the International School of Panama.

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Americas

The Private And Public Joe Biden: Belief And Policy

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Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

Joe Biden supports abortion rights politically, a position conflicting with doctrine in the Catholic church.  Despite the pope issuing a warning to act with care, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is now ready to prepare a teaching document that could potentially bar Biden from receiving Holy Communion at mass.  A central sacrament during mass, Catholics believe that eating the consecrated wafer dipped in wine, representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ, unites them with their savior fortifying them to face evil temptations.

The USCCB vote to prepare the document was an overwhelming 168-55, and a committee of US bishops has been assigned the task.  Responding to questions, President Biden called it a private matter.  The document is expected to be ready in time for debate at the November bi-annual conference of US Catholic Bishops.

If that is one headache for Biden, another is in the offing.  Perhaps as a consequence of US policy towards Iran, the election of a hard-liner in Iran’s presidential election seems almost certain.  Judge Ebrahim Raisi, who is also Iran’s top judge, is on his way to victory on the basis of the votes counted so far.

The 60-year old cleric spent most of his life as a prosecutor until he was appointed Iran’s top judge in 2019.  He is fiercely loyal to his fellow clerics, particularly to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has the final say in all matters.  All the same, the president does the administration and has significant input in both domestic and foreign policy.  Suffice to say, Raisi lost in a landslide to Hassan Rouhani, who sought accommodation with the West, in the previous election four years ago.

Having played hardball with Iran, the US is repeating itself with a Russia anxious for better relations.  Following the G7 meeting in Cornwall a week ago, President Biden flew to Geneva meeting President Putin at the Villa La Grange for a closely-watched summit.

Relations between the two countries have been tense following a series of events including the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The latter was transferred to Ukraine for administrative convenience when a connecting bridge was being constructed so that both ends of it would fall under the same authority.  The people of Crimea have no other connection with Ukrainians other than they were both part of the Soviet Union. 

Climate change, arms control, cyber security and American interest in jailed dissenters in Russia including Alexei Navalny .  Reading the riot act to Mr. Putin does little to further stability in relations.  Peace is not a problem among like-minded countries with a commonality of interests, it is a challenge when the parties are rivals, nuclear armed, and capable of blowing up the world.  Mr. Biden may be proud of his performance but is he able to accept the challenge, for if not where does it leave the rest of us …

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Is Covid-19 Zoonotic, Natural or Lab-engineered?

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President Trump led the US government propaganda that Coronavirus originated in WIV. However, even after twelve months the US government failed to provide factual or scientific evidence. Now, the Biden administration, inspired by the “dark web,” has tasked the US intelligence community to produce evidence in 90 days to establish that COVID-19 had no “natural ancestors.” As half the world’s scientific community is busy speculating, a simple forensic investigation is what is needed to find the answer.

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“Throw enough dirt, and some will stick”  – Thomas Boghardt, Historian

Recently, there has been growing renewed interest in Coronavirus “lab leak” hypothesis. One can only speculate if more recent revelations of the presence of coronavirus in the US in mid-December 2019 – weeks before the first confirmed case was announced on January 21, 2020, would impact Wuhan lab leak controversy. But thanks to Trump’s “anti-China xenophobia,” for past whole year the leak theory was sidelined in public scientific debate in the US. As Covid-19 was turning into a global pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis got stuck in “hyper-politicized context.” Looking to inject fresh energy in his ongoing anti-China rhetoric with eyes on the November presidential vote, President Trump began “instrumentalizing the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab leak theory and even called it “China Virus” and “Kung Flu.” According to media reports, such pernicious intertwining of anti-China rhetoric and the xenophobic framing of the pandemic “caused an apparent chilling effect among the scientific community.”

During the past twelve months, science writers mocked and some even condemned anyone claiming lab leak origins of Coronavirus. Now, same lot among these writers and a few more joining them afresh, have lately been saying that Coronavirus may well have originated in a lab in Wuhan. As The New Yorker’s veteran political editor Amy Davidson Sorkin observed last Sunday, with President Biden entering the battle over the coronavirus lab-leak theory “the debate about the origin of the pandemic has become loud, contentious, and infused with politics.”  A rare Chinese commentary even alleged the Biden administration’s call for a fresh probe into the origins of Covid-19 is inspired by the latest “explosive” new study by two European scholars claiming that “Chinese scientists created the virus in Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) laboratory.”

What has changed for these science writers? If we go by what author and activist David Swanson says, nothing really. Swanson, who is also a popular radio host, thinks the latest change in the stance of the scientific community is largely a question of fashion. (Emphasis added) Indirectly attributing the “new outlook” of the scientists to the fresh call coming from the White House, Swanson wrote in a recent article “One doesn’t wear a wrong outfit too early in the season, or explore the wrong epidemiological idea when the White House is claimed by one Party or the other.” In fact, Swanson refused to be persuaded by the fact that the virus jumping out of the Wuhan lab was cause enough to condemn or “hate” China. Why?

Swanson offers two reasons. First, the bogey that the virus was created by Chinese scientists engaged in “Gain of Function” (GoF) project. Further elaborating on “Gain of Function” projects, Sorensen told DailyMail.com in an interview recently, GoF research involves “tweaking natural viruses to make them more infectious” and had been outlawed by former US President Barack Obama. Although denying the money US invested in WIV had gone into GoF projects, Dr. Antony Fauci told US lawmakers just the other day that the US National Institute of Health funded WIF with $600,000 between 2015 and 2021. So, instead of limiting one’s hatred for China, if China is a military threat, then why fund its bioweapons research? Swanson asked. Indeed, extremely pertinent question!

The other reason Swanson did not consider Coronvirus lab leak theory worthy of condemnation has much to do with the issue of censorship surrounding the whole topic of bioweapons in the US. For example, no one is supposed to know what is common knowledge anyway that the 2001 Anthrax attacks originated with material from a US bio- weapons lab. Or that Lyme disease which affects 400,000 Americans every year spread from a US bioweapons lab. Therefore, for Swanson, plausibility of a lab leak, even if never proven, is a new good reason to shut down all the world’s bioweapons labs. It is beyond comprehension why all those for probing the coronavirous lab leak origin are silent and have not demanded a ban on all the world’s bioweapons labs! (Emphasis added)

But why even after one and a half year since Covid-19 was detected in Wuhan, its source of origin remains a mystery? What about the WHO probe? Perhaps a calculated decision, or maybe not, as soon as President Trump exited the White House, the WHO sent a much awaited investigative team of seventeen experts to Wuhan. After spending four weeks in the “city of silence,” during which the team visited the laboratory, the WHO scientists concluded the lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely.” But in a bizarre twist, even the so-called “China-centric” WHO chief Tedros surprised everyone and angered China, when speaking in Geneva two months ago he said “although the [WHO scientific] team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation.”    

On the other hand, China, as expected has repeatedly denied WIV was responsible for the lab leak and insisted that the virus emerged naturally or that it was zoonotic. In fact, by refusing to be either transparent or cooperative in sharing information, Beijing has only furthered global backlash against China’s antagonistic policies. China’s foreign ministry hitting back at the US as Biden ordered to revisit Wuhan lab leak theory is the latest example of its “wolf-warrior” attitude. China’s official media is no different. A month before the Wall Street Journal renewed media onslaught against Beijing in May end, official Chinese news broadcaster CGTN stated: “With Trump gone, the lab leak hypothesis is now acceptable. This plays into both an old Orientalist trope as well as a modern Sinophobic one to manufacture consent for America’s hybrid war against China.”

Though not officially declared a “taboo” subject, the op-ed commentaries have been scarce and few and far between on the WIV lab leak theory in China. A recent signed commentary jointly written by a seasoned India watcher who uses pen name “countryside Brahmin” and South Asian affairs expert Gao Xirui, strongly challenged May 26 executive order by President Biden. The commentary also ridiculed India for “piggy riding” America in the latest lab leak theory hype. The authors attributed Biden’s renewed interest in WIV lab leak to the recent study published in the science journal Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery by two European scientists, cited in the early part of this article.

Earlier on in August last year, WIV scientists had again refuted the leak theory. Speaking to the NBC News from the US which became the first foreign news agency to get access to the laboratory, Wang Yanyi, the WIV director had said: “None of the institute’s scientists contracted the virus, which made it extremely unlikely that the pathogen could have escaped from the facility.” NBC News in its report claimed WIV had been targeted because it was equipped to study the world’s “highest-risk infectious agents and toxins, like the latest coronavirus.” More recently, a GT editorial described President Biden ordering fresh probe as indulging in a bigger gamble against China than even Trump.  “No matter what Biden has in mind, the US government is generally up to something big against China,” the edit said.

As the flip-flop on the “leak theory” in the US continues, the narrative is not only inconclusive but still unfolding. Just as this write-up was near closing, the Financial Times reported researchers in the US fear “decades of fortuitous partnership” between the USA and P R China is under threat, all thanks to Wuhan lab row. “Beginning 2004, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed an agreement with the Chinese National Influenza Centre to help China improve its analysis of seasonal flu strains.  Scientists are now worried this type of collaboration is under threat, imperiled by mutual suspicions which have been exacerbated by the recent row over whether Covid-19 could have come from a lab leak in Wuhan,” the FT reported. Over the next decade, the US trained nearly 2,500 Chinese scientists and helped open dozens of laboratories in the country, the report added.    

Finally, according to Richard Ebright, “little has changed in terms of scientific evidence since the genome sequence of the virus was first released in January of 2020.” Ebright is one of 21 international scientists who detailed what a full, interdisciplinary investigation in Wuhan should look like in an open letter last March. At the same time, security analysts and think tank scholars in the US believe the new administration is forced to chase “lab leak” theory as “Biden doesn’t want to look ‘weak on China’.” Meanwhile, as China’s media is comparing the lab leak theory with the infamous “washing powder” lie about the WMDs in Iraq, professor Ebright has inadvertently replied to the New Yorker’s demand to find real answers. “The coronavirus origin can be answered through a forensic investigation, not a scientific speculation,” Ebright averred.   

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Juneteenth and Getting Over Our Systemic Induced Ignorance and Denial

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Juneteenth Day after generations of struggle for national recognition with local and statewide celebrations for years   here and there,is finally a paid federal holiday as of yesterday. If you are  an African American like me who grew up in the North with second generation or more deep southern born  parents and/ or in majority white communities or in those northern and west coast communities without deep southern African American migrants particularly from Texas, chances are you never heard about Juneteenth day while growing up. And like me you may not have even heard of the day before in much older age ranges unless you happened to be an expert in or well read in African American history, culture, and politics as an African American or Non-African American.And such  African American cultural expertise and literacy is a rarity in a nation which is routinely  ignorant of and has  denied its horrible enslaved African American history systemically ; which means most of we Americans irrespective  of our ancestries have  been victimized by systemic induced ignorance and denial by federal and state governments refusing for generations to tell us a truth which has kept us all degraded and dehumanized by a horrible racialized injustice with we  as a nation has yet to repent of and authentically do systemic penitence about. 

This systemic induced ignorance and denial about African American enslavement has gravely tainted our character as a nation since colonial times and  consistently makes our claims to be a democracy the brunt of cruel jokes globally through the generations.It  has over time constantly played effectively into the hands of our global allies and foes who then justify their own racialized and cultural prejudices and inequalities.

When not denied, the enslavement of African Americans even today has been publicly portrayed by right wing commentators as being not really all that bad or as a gift to Africans to save us through capture and enslavement  from the clutches of what they viewed and still do as the dark continent replete with what their hero formerly in the White House called sh**hole countries.

The seemingly surprising easy Congressional passing of The 2021 Juneteenth National Independence Day Act and its signing by President Biden was not so shocking given the present political climate in a guilt ridden  polarized country with a usual gridlock Congress and a President skilled at plucking off the branch low hanging apples and oranges rather than climbing the full  height of  the  tallest trees to get the even more ripe fruit. The passing and signing of the bill came off the backs of scores if not hundreds and thousands  mostly African Americans advocating for decades indeed generations  for the day to be memorialized as the  enslaved African American  day of independence from slavery already being celebrated around the country and recognized by 47 states though mostly as unpaid holidays. The problem is on the national level fresh from four years of mainstreaming of white nationalism in electoral and judiciary  appointment politics and a hysterical convoluted media about racial issues and in the aftermath of the George Floyd protest we remain  very much a rudderless nation without effective restorative justice leadership to lead us to a more just America including all of us. How can we become more just in more than symbolic ways if we allow ourselves to be subjected to the passing of  civil rights acts like this one which look good and mean good while we remain a nation in which systemic  ignorance and denial of the enslavement of African Americans and their continued enslavement after abolition though under different names and structures such as Jim Crow, chain gangs, cotton tenancy,  community massacres, mass incarceration, human trafficking, defunding public education, perpetual urban and rural poverty, street violent prone  illegal drugs dumping grounds,  loan shark predator communities, ill- health communities,and police brutalized communities with low standards of housing and quality of life services? The tossing of symbolic crumbs of racial justice progress by American governments, businesses, schools, media, faith communities, and nonprofit organizations with no sustainable advances in authentic justice has since the ending of the American Civil War in 1865  been a soroid American public tradition which keeps us twirling in a sewer of societal morass.Consequently , we continue to remain a nation in which we all grow up becoming less than what we all can be collectively and individually because we have buried this horrible crime of humanity which haunts and cripples all of us emotionally, economically, socially,and politically 

 in ways we systemically are induced to deny and ignore.We therefore  don’t have the cognitive and socioemotional tools and skills  to  bring ourselves to admit and authentically reckon with  the horrible blight of African American enslavement through genuine though painful restorative justice practices. Restorative justice practices that is   to regain our humanity through embracing truly the humanity of others we have been taught from the crib to old age are less than human or more than human due to their ancestry dangerously distorted through the myth making of ” race.” 

It is tempting to say as I started to write that well at least The 2021 Juneteenth National Independence Day Act  is a start.But the problem with that almost Freudian slip of a neo- liberal tongue is that we are always saying that about symbols of racial justice in America which usually just stay there ” as a start” which go nowhere except on the resumes of politicians and civil rights leaders while no next steps occur to assure genuine sustaining justice occurs. And when I say justice I mean for everyone since when one population is unfree we are all unfree..when one population becomes freed we all become free.

What this means in regards to The 2021 Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is that the Biden-Harris administration as the next step needs to, through Executive Order, mobilize their cabinet secretaries to do the necessary expedited policy  designs,declarations, and monitorings  to require the agencies and institutions under their jurisdictions with positive incentives to  effective policy implementers such as bonuses and promotions to spread public awareness about the atrocious history of the enslavement of African Americans , their legal abolition and their continued enslavement in these post- emancipation eras.It should be stressed that the enslavement of African Americans , legal emancipation, and the continued impacts of enslavement in its different names and structures is not just an African American experience.African American enslavement was and remains  a tragic societal experience which negatively impacts every American no matter our ancestral origin when it comes to our mental health, interpersonal relationships, our electoral and appointment politics, and the health of our  families,communities, and economies.

So as we move forward with The 2021 Juneteenth National Independence Day Act  let us not just assume it is for Black folks only though we all get the day off with pay irrespective of our ancestries and our care or awareness about the significance of the day.

Let us, we the people, insist to the Biden-Harris administration  as a means of accountability , that we  go beyond mere resume building  political posturing since they took the keys and opened a too long closed door we all need to step in as a nation and do the necessary to wake us all from the slumber of induced ignorance of this filthy little secret  -the enslavement of African Americans as a crime against humanity and its post- legal emancipation continuation  which impacts all of us in need of public exposure and resolution authentically.No  more symbolic resume building crumbs and celebrations which lead us down paths to nowhere except filled bellies and perchance hangovers once a holiday is over only to discover when sober again we are all still dehumanized by our systemic induced ignorance and denial  of a grave centuries long racialized injustice now in need of total exposure and genuine reckoning for now we can and thus we must.

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