SAO PAULO — Donald Trump is horrifying. Still, there's a part of his package that could be quite useful to have in Brazil.
I'm referring to the president-elect's threats against General Motors, Ford and Toyota to try and force them to bring back factories installed in Mexico to the United States. It's true that a lot of what Trump says and tweets is pure bravado, and his first threats were issued months ago during the campaign. In any case, even The Washington Post, a fierce critic of the president-elect, had to admit that Trump has already saved 3,500 jobs and helped to create 700 new ones that Ford would have otherwise transferred to Mexico. And I'm only taking into account last week's tweets.
Or course, you could argue that this is a mere trifle in a country that, in December alone, still under Obama's presidency, added 156,000 jobs.
A Brazilian equivalent of Donald Trump, however, if he acted in the same manner — and didn't just tweet — could potentially help save a lot more jobs than that.
According to an extensive report published in early January in Gazeta do Povo, a newspaper in the southern Parana state, our poorer neighbor Paraguay has attracted 124 Brazilian companies since establishing the so-called "Maquila Law" (its very name indicates a copy of the Mexican system at the border with the U.S.).
Most of these companies, 78 of them to be precise, have moved their operations away from Brazil in or after 2014. Unsurprisingly, that was the year when the Brazilian crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse. And what is it that attracts them to Paraguay, you may ask? Well, a mere taxation of just 1% for any company that relocates 100% of its production there. To compare it to the number of jobs Ford won't be taking to Mexico, the 124 Brazilian companies who moved to Paraguay employ 11,300 people, once again most of them (6,700) since 2014.
The obvious question is simple enough: Would it be worth it to adopt the sort of blatant protectionism that Trump has been trumpeting?
I confess I used to be in favor of such policies, but the world and the modes of production have changed so much and so quickly that these policies don't seem to make sense anymore now. As The Economist recently wrote, "a smartphone might be designed and engineered in California and assembled in China, using components made or designed in half a dozen Asian and European countries, using metals from Africa."
Who are you going to protect, and against whom? In the specific case of Trump v. Mexico, the magazine reminds us that in each dollar of Mexican export, there are 40 cents of American output.
A second question could be: Is there any chance that a Brazilian government — the current one or another one in the future — might adopt non-mainstream, even protectionist, policies?
Donald Trump's great weapon is that he doesn't have an ideology — and his country has tremendous power and influence. He can, therefore, do what he does without taking major risks. In Brazil, though, there doesn't seem to be a single politician, or indeed an "outsider" like Trump, capable of going against the flow.
Going down that road, you always run the risk of ending up like Venezuela, the worst-off Latin American country at the moment. But it must be said that the scope of Brazil's crisis is such that it requires boldness and outside-the-box thinking.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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