CLARIN
Clarin is the largest newspaper in Argentina. It was founded in August 1945 and is based in Buenos Aires.
Geopolitics
Jorge E. Malena

China Is Now The Superpower With Biggest Stake In Afghanistan

China has big business interests in Afghanistan and security concerns on its western border; and following the U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover, Beijing will not tolerate the country becoming a source of regional unrest.

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — For Beijing, the recent U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover makes Afghanistan an urgent matter. A hostile Afghanistan could not only threaten its hold on the "autonomous" western region of Xinjiang, but also the implementation of China's Belt and Road Initiative (or New Silk Road). Chinese interests in Afghanistan relate principally to security, but also the potential impact on the economy.

That is why, hours after the Taliban took over Kabul, Beijing warned the group not to become a refuge for terrorists. In the past five years, China has participated in building transport and energy infrastructures in Afghanistan, within the Belt and Road initiative.
This vast plan includes six land corridors, two of which cross Central Asia: the China-Central Asia-Western Asia corridor, and the China-Pakistan corridor. Once complete, they will allow China to boost trade with Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as expand the development of natural resources business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan could distract China from other regions.

Afghanistan has around $1 trillion's worth of extractable rare metals in its mountains. It also has the largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, lithium, mercury and gold, also valued at over $1 trillion.

China is the country's largest foreign investor, and needs a stable and safe Afghanistan to make a profit here. Another concern for China, from a longer-term perspective, is that the U.S. withdrawal will benefit Washington by assuring two of its objectives. One is to distract China from other regions (especially the Asia-Pacific zone) and the other, give the United States greater time and resources to contain China.

Before the Taliban took back power, the group's spokesman declared China to be a "friendly country" that was "welcome" to help rebuild and develop Afghanistan. Referring to fears of Muslim separatism in the Xinjiang, he said the Taliban were concerned by "the oppression of Muslims, but we will not intervene in China's internal affairs."

A recent UN Security Council report noted that three militant groups — the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, which China considers a direct threat to its security) — are present in Afghanistan. ETIM has hundreds of active members in the Afghan province of Badakhshan that borders Xinjiang; and the organization, according to the Security Council report, wants to create an independent state in Xinjiang. To that end, it facilitates the movement of fighters into China.

The Taliban could stop ETIM from operating in Xinjiang or striking at Chinese projects in Central Asia. But one cannot be certain of this, as the Taliban regime has yet to prove it will govern with moderation. Indeed, it is difficult to know whether or not the Taliban effectively control Islamist groups in Afghanistan, or are prepared to lose legitimacy as a fundamentalist group by agreeing to curb ETIM.

It is simply far too early to know how the Taliban will rule. Their early promises seem aimed at winning international recognition and assuring themselves a fairly stable transition of power. If they honor agreements made before taking power, Beijing will benefit from New Silk Road projects crossing Afghanistan and curbs on separatism in Xinjiang. The United States' withdrawal would also present it with an opportunity: to promote an alternative world order, following reduced Western military presence in Asia.

But if a radical Taliban regime fuels instability in Afghanistan and Islamic militancy in parts of Central Asia where China has interests, or inside Xinjiang, it will be testing China's stated policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.

*Malena heads the Department of China Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

Society
Manuel Cuesta Morúa*

San Isidro v. Stalinism: Cuba's Eternal Obsession With Artists

Cuba's dissident artists are challenging not just the communist state's repression, but also its claim to be the socio-cultural guide for the nation.

-OpEd-

HAVANA — Joseph Stalin's famous response to Pope Pius XII's criticism of the Soviet regime was to brush aside the pontiff, asking: "How many divisions does he have?"

Totalitarian terror is safe indeed inside its borders, a machine designed to control society without armies. Stalin could claim victory when novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was thrown out of communist Russia, and yet faced posthumous defeat when the Soviet state rehabilitated its critic, the scientist Andrei Sakharov. Arms play no role in totalitarian terror's anonymous routines and quiet paperwork. That is something sectors of Latin America's political left cannot understand, not seeing in Cuba that the bloody antics of dictatorships live on.

Totalitarianism is clear on one thing: To govern, it must demolish the disruptive field of symbolism. That is why Stalin won't disappear. He has migrated to Cuba, instead, to face down the Movimiento San Isidro, a dissident artists' collective.

Paradoxically, the Castro brothers were evolving toward an authoritarian model wherein civil liberties were starting to be a less costly and dramatic bone of contention, provided the state's hegemony was not challenged. Independent music, art and poetry festivals were suppressed as they could become public venues and gathering spaces for an active mass of psychedelic youngsters. But small-format spaces managed to find a way of living alongside the regime of the Castro brothers in its terminal phase.

But their successor government, whose belated attempt to lift the Communist party into the leading role, has recovered Stalin. So, while the Castros must face history's judgement, the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel is up against a combined crisis of legitimacy and leadership. And in that situation, culture becomes a central challenge.

The San Isidro Movement is at the root of the government's dual-legitimacy problem: as the single party wielding all power, and as the country's ideological home.

It is poetic justice.

With a decree to contain the cultural movement at the start of its administration, its authors were reacting to a robustly emerging reality on the margins: that of all those expelled from the institutions and pushed out of society. The San Isidro movement sums that up. Its symbolic power unites a sidelined social body and street anger, with the creative mind of free artists who cannot be confronted aesthetically, conceptually or imaginatively.

The party's repressive response merely highlights and accelerates culture's movement from inside to outside the state. This libertarian movement and its wealth of multiple manifestations, like its social hymn, Patria y Vida, is changing the paradigm that serves as reference to Cuban society.

Emerging as it did from street-level cultural resistance, the San Isidro movement pitted itself against the state in the two areas where original Stalinism had triumphed: the destruction of the bodies of victims and the disappearance of their art. With its dismal communication strategy, the Cuban state has legitimated the latter — and to safeguard its weakened image, launched an operation to rehabilitate the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. In the street.

It's poetic justice. In its new, impoverished version, Stalinism is defeated in San Isidro. Culture can be transgressive, corrosive and liberating when it hits you by surprise.

*Cuesta is a Cuban writer and dissident.

Geopolitics
Sergio Rubin

Argentina Plays Politics With Pope's Words On Property Rights

Some would like to paint the Argentine-born Pope Francis as a sympathizer of his native country's leftist government. But his 'socialist' declarations are in line with more than a century of Church doctrine.

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued the Rerum novarum encyclical (1891), which christened the Roman Church's Social Doctrine, any time a pontiff attributes a social purpose to private property, the Catholic defenders of capitalism make their voices heard.

And whenever the current pontiff, Pope Francis, reiterates the position as he did recently, calling property rights a "secondary right," criticism is even sharper, since many free market advocates considered him a "leftist," unlike other popes like John Paul II. Yet the Polish pope, who helped bring down communism, said many of the same things, asserting in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) that private property is "indebted to society."

In Argentina's case, the native son pontiff Francis happened to return to the subject (in a message to the recent International Labour Conference on June 19 in Geneva) just as Argentine President Alberto Fernández was criticizing the owners of idle farming lands and the Avellanada municipal council (in Buenos Aires) voting a controversial motion to confiscate such plots.

It does not imply the abolition of the property right or its collectivization.

Let's be clear, these declarations should be considered separately, says Pablo Blanco, professor of Social Doctrine at the Papal Catholic University of Argentina. "When property rights are described as "secondary," it means for starters that it is a right that is subordinate to a higher end, namely the enjoyment of goods and opportunities by all men, as recognized by the universal destiny of goods." Blanco adds that the fact that it is not an absolute right is in line with what "the Social Magisterium has already recognized from Leo XIII to John Paul II, that there is a social debt above the property right itself." But it is also a confirmation that as a recognized right, institutional regulation of its application is required.

Blanco says that calling property rights a "secondary right does not imply the abolition of the property right or its collectivization." It is instead simply an observation that it is a right to be "regulated and subordinated in order to attain the common Good of society." He dismisses the idea that in reiterating an established Church principle, the Pope was echoing the Argentine president or backing the ordinance approved in Avellanada. "We should stop being so self-referential and think that everything the Pope says and does has to do with Argentina," he said.

In a paper published in 2014 by the UCA Digital Library, Father Gustavo Irrazábal states that the "Church's Social Doctrine has maintained since its inception the legitimacy of private property as a guarantee of personal autonomy, identifying its diffusion as a path to social justice, above all through payment of a fair wage."

So even if Francis won't manage to avoid another controversy in his country, and Argentina's ruling coalition will likely pounce on his words to make political capital, calmer minds should simply remember that Jorge Bergoglio is no longer the archbishop of Buenos Aires, but Pope to one billion Catholics around the world.

Geopolitics
Rafael Toriz*

Nothing Is More Latin American Than Not Wanting To Be One

Argentine President Fernández's suggestion that Argentines were more European than others from the region was a sorry bid to ingratiate himself with Europe — and so typically Latin American.

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — The denial of reality, provoked by a range of neuroses, is a particularly acute malady in Argentina. It's as if facts were banished in this strange land and only their interpretations permitted. Even anachronistic and decadent interpretations are welcome, like those this week from President Alberto Fernández...

The Argentine President declared on a trip to Spain — in a supposedly "eurofriendly" gesture — that he had a "European vocation. I'm someone who believes in Europe." Revealing an indelibly colonial mind, he explained that this was because Argentines were "from Europe." He cited Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who he claimed once wrote that "the Mexicans had come from the indians, the Brazilians had come out of the jungle and the Argentines, we had arrived in boats. They were boats from Europe." These were gratuitous words, no doubt uttered just to get along!

Without considering his syntax —which presidents spoil more often than most — the declaration was unfortunate for so many reasons. It would be best to stick to his words, to avoid any suspicion of spite.

Octavio Paz, the patriarch of the main, if now dented, tradition of Mexican literature, may be accused of many dubious utterances but nothing as coarse and mediocre as the words attributed to him by this president (which are in fact from a "trendy" if dated song by Litto Nebbia, We Came in the Boats).

Now, while the current state of our democracies may be turning us into believers in magic, circus acts and hat tricks, neither the Mexicans nor Brazilians "have come out" of anywhere. We are a mix of Europeans and native Americans, to which we may add those brought here in the millions from Africa in the course of the continent's domination and colonization. Regarding those African migrants in the New World, let us recall that they were the ones who built buildings, bridges and cities and broke their back —alongside indigenous people — to work the land, sea and even the mines, and who gave this continent its countenance, its population and foundations.

"We are split between our deepest desires, what we can do and what we are."

We all know Argentina long thought of itself as the continent's most European society. This impression (and undoubted imprecision) is the fruit not just of foreign travellers' tales, but of a potent public myth fomented by the country's élites. Their deep and superficial vanity still cannot resist the slightest nod of approval or flirting from Mother Europe.

While rightly mocked by internet memes across the continent, the Argentine case and its aspirations are in fact deeply Latin American. You have to have been born somewhere between the Río Bravo and Patagonia to know just what it feels like to belong to this part of the world. We are split between our deepest desires, what we can do and what we are. In its totality, Latin America is a perennial, relentless struggle between reality and desire, between what we see in the mirror of our fantasies and the reality revealed in the gaze of others.

An old train station at La Plata, Argentina — Photo: Noralí Nayla

There is nothing more Latin American than not wanting to be one. As the Guatemalan poet Alan Mills wrote,

"The indian is not the one you see on the tourist brochure/Loading bundles/Or serving you your food/.

No, the indian is inside/Coming out at times, so just accept him/Even if you would bury him under surnames/

And thwart him at every turn/And negate your childhood stain,/No, that's the one,/ I'm the indian,/Now, repeat after me."

Look straight in the mirror Mr. President and, to say it in my crystal-clear Mexicano: no la chingue.

(Don't f**k up)

*Toriz is a Mexican author living in Buenos Aires. His books include Animalia and La distorción.

Future
Emma Flacard

Good And Evil Uses Of Facial Recognition Around The Globe

Much has been said about China's use of biometric technology for mass civilian surveillance. But facial recognition is being used elsewhere too, and not always as a tool for crime prevention.

Leo Colombo Viña had just hopped onto a Buenos Aires subway when he was approached by a police officer and taken in for questioning over a robbery he'd supposedly committed 17 years prior.

The computer science professor and software company founder had done no such thing. It was a case of mistaken identity, one that was triggered, ironically, by the latest in digital technology: a facial recognition system. But as civil rights activist Eduardo Ferreyra explains in a recent op-ed piece in the Argentine daily Clarín, it didn't stop the Colombo Viña from having to spend six days in jail.

"They surrounded him, told him he had to accompany them to a police station, handcuffed him in front of his family," Ferreyra writes of the incident, which took place in 2019.

For some time now, debates over facial recognition tend to focus on places like China, where the technology is being used for social control, or perhaps India, notorious for its use of facial recognition to identify anti-government protesters.

But as Colombo Viña's case shows, the technology is gaining a foothold far and wide, including in Argentina, where starting two years ago — much to the chagrin of groups like Human Rights Watch — it's even being used to target juvenile suspects.

Biometric technology raises obvious concerns about mass surveillance.

Here is an overview of several of the controversies (and sometimes, pleasant surprises!) surrounding the use of facial recognition tech around the world:

Missing the mark

Biometric technology raises obvious concerns about mass surveillance and the extensive gathering of private information. It's also proven to be racially biased: The programs have more difficulties distinguishing among dark-skinned people, inevitably leading to false arrests.

In the United States, a 2019 case saw an innocent Black man arrested after a false facial recognition match was used as evidence to detain him, CNN reports. The 31-year-old New Jersey resident spent 11 days behind bars before he was finally released, and even then, it took a year for the charges, including unlawful possession of weapons, to be dropped.

A face recognition system at the Narita International airport in Narita, suburban Tokyo — Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO via ZUMA Press

In China, where facial recognition technology has been used for many years now, and especially in provinces that are said to house separatists, the BBC has just revealed that artificial intelligence and facial recognition intended to reveal states of emotion has been tested on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. According to an anonymous software engineer, Uyghurs have been used as test subjects for emotion detection cameras.

Tracking political opponents

Thousands of kilometers away, in the middle of the African continent, the Chinese influence on biometric technology is still prevalent. In 2019, the Chinese company Huawei sold an invasive surveillance system to the Uganda government to track down, arrest and torture political opponents, Quartz Africa reports.

During anti-government protests in November 2020 that led to the death of 50 people, the Uganda police reportedly used Huawei's facial recognition tech to track down and arrest suspects.

Others see facial recognition as Big Brother.

The technology is being put to use in Europe too. In southeastern France, the seaside city of Nice has also become a testing ground for high-tech surveillance tools. Starting a dozen years ago, the then mayor, right-winger Christian Lestrosi, implemented a vast surveillance system that has gotten increasingly high-tech as times goes on. More recently, starting in 2018, Nice began experimenting with facial recognition and has even tested biometric technology in high schools.

Just say cheese

Elsewhere, though, the technology is being used not to fight crime, but to keep people healthy. In East Africa's Tanzania, developers are employing it to fight against rabies, with an application that can determine immediately — with just a cellphone camera image — whether a dog has been vaccinated against the illness.

Facial recognition technology also has the advantage of being hands-free, and can thus be a tool in the fight against COVID-19. In the main airport of the Bahamas, biometric technology allows passengers to travel without having to physically present their (potentially germy) documents, The Bahamas Tribune reports.

Across the planet, in Australia, lawmakers are considering an entirely different use of facial scanning: as a requirement for internet users to access online pornography.

For proponents of such programs, facial recognition tech can help keep us safer. Others see it as Big Brother, and warn that by allowing its increasing use, we're progressively transforming public spaces into spheres of oppression. As Eduardo Ferreyra urges in his Clarín piece: "It is the responsibility of all of us to commit ourselves and work to prevent this from happening."

Geopolitics
Leonardo Weller*

The Key To Reelection For Bolsonaro? Lula's Arrogance

Fears of an economic slump under another leftist government led by an 'unrepentant' Lula da Silva may prompt Brazilians to reelect authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro for a second term next year.

-OpEd-

SAO PAULO — The Brazilian Workers Party refuses to take a critical look at its past. Sticking to a mistaken narrative about the governments their party led under presidents Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff could help reelect the current, arch-conservative President Jair Bolsonaro. And while not as openly absurd as Bolsonaro's obscurantism and paranoia, the continued delusions of the Workers Party (PT) can be just as harmful to Brazil.

The PT will not recognize the mistakes it made, which mired the country in the worst recession in its history in the years after 2010. It is suggesting the party would adopt the same, disastrous economic policies should Lula win a third term as president. This is just the fuel the Bolsonaro camp needs.

The second Lula government and first Dilma presidency produced a veritable disaster that mostly punished the poorest.

And by already labeling anyone who is not with the PT as "coup" supporters and "radical neoliberals," the PT leadership is reducing the chances of drawing them to their side in a second electoral round in 2022. The PT's economic disaster happened gradually. In his first government beginning in 2003, Lula faced major challenges and achieved surprising success thanks to a virtuous and consensual program, which sadly did not last.

His income redistribution policies, like Bolsa Familia, are important, but we can only reverse centuries of social exclusion within a sustained process of economic growth. For that, one needs predictable policies that assure currency stability and balanced public spending, and bolster the business environment.

In Lula's second government, it became clear these were not among the PT's objectives. The aim then was to expand public spending and intervene in the economy through state-sector firms and autarkic entities like the Central Bank, as previously outlined by PT economists.

The change in orientation began with the rise of Rousseff and the economist Guido Mantega at the end of the first Lula presidency. They replaced the team that had laid the bases of growth in the decade after 2000. Spending increased with the 2008 slump and became excessive under Rousseff's presidency, as its poor results began to emerge.

Costly subsidies did not increase investment. Inflation exceeded set targets, but the government forced the Monetary Policy Committee to cut the base rate in 2011. From then on, Rousseff ordered price curbs in a clumsy attempt to control inflation.

It was a blatant turnaround in priorities. Macroeconomic policies are meant to keep stability for the economy, so firms can invest, work and produce more. The president did the opposite, using state firms as tools to obtain macroeconomic goals. It led to stagflation (inflationary recession).

Lula_Brazil_politics

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva (PT) holding a press conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 2021. — Photo: Vanessa Carvalho/ZUMA Wire

The first Lula government's strength had been its ability to form a team that could combine economic stability with income distribution policies. That was the best thing they did. By moving away from the economic consensus of the early 2000s, the second Lula government and first Dilma presidency produced a veritable disaster that mostly punished the poorest, and reversed the social achievements of the preceding decade.

Yet in spite of its tremendous failures, the PT refuses to criticize its past. On returning to the political arena last month, Lula remained in his usual, parallel reality, qualifying the troubled Petrobras oil giant as a "well managed state firm."

Brazil's biggest firm was not only the victim of corruption, but further undermined by government interference in fuel prices and auctions of oil fields. While corruption is terrible, it is not the worst of our ills. We would probably not become a developed country with honest politicians alone, and must have the right economic policies.

Refusing to accept its past economic policy failures, the PT can only explain its fall through conspiracy theories. Lula's conviction and Dilma's impeachment were, in fact, legitimate. But such institutional atrocities happened in Brazil precisely for the economic crisis their governments had generated. It wasn't just the elite taking their revenge. The PT fell because of its own errors.

But when economic crises are too deep, democracy itself can collapse.

Politics and economics are independent forces that become related in the most complex form. Presidents are more likely not to be reelected when there is stagflation. Thus Dilma Rousseff almost lost in 2014 and Bolsonaro may lose next year.

But when economic crises are too deep, democracy itself can collapse. That happened to Brazil in 1964, and is a process that is again, regrettably underway since 2014. The PT's cherished, and mistaken, vision of recent history is strengthening Bolsonaro's authoritarian project and complementing the harm of his "necropolitics." Its narrative is blocking the possibility of a broad coalition of Brazilians, including PT supporters, who believe in democracy as a force that can free the country from Bolsonaro's autocratic aspirations.

The recession that began in 2010 was primarily the work of the PT, and Bolsonaro's rise to power, its consequence. To prevent history repeating itself, it is imperative for the guilty to recognize their mistakes.

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Economy
Gabriela Samela

VR For HR: Virtual Reality As A Tangible Tool For Human Resources

Latin American firms are joining others around the world testing Virtual and Augmented Reality solutions in personnel recruitment and training.

BUENOS AIRES — The image of someone wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset immediately makes you think they're playing games. Yet immersive simulation is now being used to recreate a work environment where present or future employees can learn, practice and train for work.

While simulation technology is used more frequently for operations or the security sector, in Argentina some firms are using it to manage human resources: in selection processes and in staff inductions and training.

VR is part of an "experimental learning methodology," says Tomás Malio, CEO of Covrel, a firm that develops VR solutions. It "lets people retain much more information than grabbing and reading a document," he says.

The reason why learning this way is more effective is because it is about "perceiving, feeling and doing," says Malio. He calls it "active learning that allows you to retain between 90 and 95% of the information, because you can actively experience it."

A key characteristic of VR is its ability to simulate "situations at a highly realistic level while the user is interacting in a safe space and receiving constant feedback," says Gabriel Pereyra, CEO of Modo Beta, a management consultancy. It is ideal for situations where insufficient training could prove highly dangerous to the employee, for example where they handle heavy machinery, repair high-voltage equipment or work in potentially toxic environments. Pereyra calls this a "new paradigm in learning, immersive learning."

Some VR developments are also focusing on recruitment or as Malio says, as part of "assessment methodology."

Assessment is used in group interviews that include role-playing and other methods to see how candidates react to situations. All this can be done in a simulated environment. VR can also be used to introduce a new employee to a firm's culture. Beermakers Cervecería y Maltería Quilmes have developed, with Malio's Covrel, a VR experience where recruits "tour" their premises and get a sense of how it feels to work in its emblematic brewery in Quilmes in the capital.

The experience was created in 2019 and the firm wanted a headset per workcenter. But the pandemic changed that, says María Guadalupe Narvaja, head of the firm's Culture and People Experience, and "we opted for cardboard goggles that let you circulate with a phone application."

virtual_reality_headset

VR can also be used to introduce a new employee to a firm's culture. — Photo: Fauxels

The virtual tour of the firm became "our ally," she said, when people had to work from home. Narvaja says "it's impressive how well virtual reality and the experience are connected. Those who have done it not only know the firm like they had toured it, but also get to know the brewing process and history of Quilmes."

These tools cost money, but Narvaja says "their returns are high at all levels: in terms of learning, because when you do something you really grasp it, but also to democratize opportunities in firms with considerable geographical expansion."

She says Quilmes could use the technology into other areas, "like learning to make beer. I don't know how the new normal will be but I think we're going toward multi-platform experiences because we don't all learn the same way."

The postal firm DHL has in past years accelerated use of multiple technologies to its processes, including using augmented reality (AR) glasses in warehouse management and VR in staff training.

It can change the nature of virtual meetings.

In South America, DHL uses VR for inductions. With tours and games, new workers are immersed in an interactive platform on the firm and its operations. The firm says this boosts their interest and work efficiency.

AR is used to show staff the difference between urgent and standard deliveries, the right import and export documents, agents' functions and responsibilities and procedures for following up, receiving and charging for packages.

Alberto Oltra, head of DHL Global Forwarding for Spanish-speaking Latin America, calls VR training "a more collaborative, innovative and efficient experience." And he says the technology is increasingly important not just for training but also to present products or empower customers.

Globant, a digital solutions firm, has created VR prototypes in the pandemic "for internal use, to measure the state of the art and see how it would work," for example for virtual group meetings, says its Technology chief Gonzalo Ordeix. He says VR is presently used in sectors like aeronautics or to train factory staff, which are areas where training itself is risky, "or to travel to places that are inaccessible personally."

Ordeix says VR is in its early stages in Latin America, but "has begun and will keep evolving," particularly in hardware. "Current headsets are fairly uncomfortable and we're also limited by the bandwidth. We're not ready yet for the 360 degrees video streaming."

Geopolitics
Marcelo Cantelmi

Raul Castro's Exit, Biden's Arrival And The Future Of Venezuela

With Trump now out of the picture, Cuba and Venezuela — both in economic shambles — are once more toying with piecemeal liberalization, Clarín's international affairs chief explains.

-Analysis-

Power and authority are not necessarily synonymous. Force is not authority, and can even indicate weakness. The philosopher Max Weber observed that dominance is only legitimate when people recognize and accept authority. In some democracies, rulers have compensated the fading of legitimacy with higher doses of authoritarianism. The pandemic has exacerbated this distortion.

This is the conjuncture facing several experiments in governance that are imperfect, populist or downright dictatorial. Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey all fit these labels to a greater or lesser extent.

In some of those cases, what's helped that big-stick-style authoritarianism survive is a setting where income distribution is at least consistent. China, fore example, breathed new life into its authoritarian system with the capitalist experiment begun by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. Its brand of modernization may have left the Chinese indifferent to the concept of communism, but not to the social mobility the system assures them.

Today, the People's Republic has the world's biggest middle class, with a per capita income that keeps growing. Vietnam has a broadly similar situation, while Saudi Arabia has spent big chunks of its oil fortune to bolster wages, pay subsidies and keep the peace.

Regimes without economic success can only rely on coercion.

Regimes without economic success can only rely on coercion, which has shown stark limitations. In Paraguay, the regime of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) fell with the end of the generous funds spent on the Itaipú dam. With no more "sweeteners' for his cronies, Stroessner was sent packing when another soldier, Colonel Lino Oviedo, marched into the presidential office holding a hand grenade.

With North Africa during the Arab Spring, rising food prices pushed people onto the streets to challenge the authority of their rulers. Anyone who claims ideology can make up for such pedestrian needs as food and personal fulfillment should listen to speeches made by Cuba's Raúl Castro when he took over the presidency from his late brother, Fidel. The revolutionary veteran who announced his retirement days ago, aged almost 90 years, admitted in the middle of the last decade that the communist island's "insignificant wages' had cut through its youth's "revolutionary conscience."

The Cuban case confirms you can do a lot with history, except negate its dynamics. A section of Cuba's gerontocracy seems to have understood that history is not static, and understands what it means to fall into an abyss. The younger of the Castros warned his peers in the nomenklatura that unless things changed in Cuba, the communist polity would fall.

When Venezuela stopped sending it money, Cuba sought out historic negotiations with the administration of President Barack Obama, to break decades of isolation and attract vital investments. This détente, later dashed by Donald Trump's erratic geopolitics, is now back on the table.

Castro's retirement and the handover of powers to his political godson Miguel Díaz-Canel point in that direction. Castro has also taken with him some old party hands opposed to any glasnost. One is Ramiro Valdés, who designed Venezuela's repressive apparatus of recent years.

Raúl Castro took over the presidency from his late brother, Fidel — Photo: Ernesto Mastrascusa/EFE via ZUMA Press

Castro and Díaz-Canel made similar sounds at the recent Eighth Party Congress. Both spoke in favor of normalized ties with the United States, like those it maintains with other states including Vietnam, whose capitalist economy and communist political control is a model that Castro wants Cuba to follow.

Vietnam's economy has grown in leaps since the 1980s, when it dropped its opposition to the free market. It even grew 2.9% in the pandemic year of 2020, when Cuba's economy shrank 11%. Interestingly, Castro has admitted that 50 years of U.S. blockades were not the only reason for Cuba's economic failures.

Today, Cuba's "Fatherland or Death" motto may well morph into "Open Up or Die," as a columnist in the Spanish paper El País recently observed. Like Venezuela, the island nation is suffering an aggravation of inflationary trends that is fueling discontent, protests and repression. In 2020, the price of clothes and foodstuffs doubled or even tripled, while services like electricity quadrupled. The decision last January to have a single exchange rate contributed to this inflation.

For now, Cuba must wait before the seeds it has thrown at the U.S. germinate. The administration of President Joe Biden won't do anything with Cuba until after congressional elections of 2022. It must boost its legislative power and cannot afford to lose Florida, as it did in last year's presidential elections.

Florida's Hispanic, anti-communist voters don't want anything to do with Cuba — whatever the subtleties. If the Democrats stumble in mid-term polls there, it means Trump could return. That might be good news for China in its race to become the world's paramount power, but would not in any case halt changes on the island.

Cuba's ally and pupil Venezuela might open the oil sector to private investments.

Cuba's ally and pupil Venezuela is also shifting its positions, beginning with its economy. Last year, on the advice of the Russian Economy ministry, a state commission discussed opening the oil sector to private investments.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro is preparing legislation to end the state's monopoly on oil through the firm PDVSA. And in January, the state began talking to concessionary firms on how to broaden participation in exploiting the country's pharaonic crude reserves. With output having dropped below 500,000 barrels a day, Venezuela needs investments that can match their scale to revive a crucial source of revenues.

While U.S. sanctions are an immediate obstacle, there are ways private firms could take over Venezuelan assets without falling afoul of laws. The U.S. forbids any business with PDVSA, the Venezuelan regime and its helpers. In theory, independent firms could take over businesses no longer controlled by PDVSA. Bloomberg is already reporting anti-sanctions lobbying by big oil and financial firms in the U.S., concerned about losing Venezuela to competitors.

Washington might initially allow U.S. firms to swap fuel for Venezuelan crude, which Trump blocked. This might be done before the midterm elections, using humanitarian pretexts.

Many in the northern hemisphere think a process of détente opens a straight path to regime change in Venezuela, while parts of Venezuela's middle class are already banking on a gradual transformation. And if Cuba begins heading in another direction and loosens its grip, Venezuela's regime may also do what it must, to survive.

Geopolitics
Loris Zanatta

The Pandemic, And The Siren Song Of Demagoguery

Like the last century's world wars, the COVID-19 crisis is causing trauma on a global scale and opening the door to enticing but deeply dangerous political impulses.

-OpEd-

The pandemic is not a war, but like wars, it raises big questions. What caused it? How do we come out of it? How to avoid its recurrence? Diagnosis and answers are connected here.

The situation also gives rise to an old dilemma: Will it impose a closed, or an open society? Will we be seduced by dangerous visions of a tight-knit tribe to protect us from the menacing ocean? There is enough trauma for the recoil instinct to prevail.

When history becomes a hostile place, and life a dangerous exercise, people begin entertaining thoughts of sterilizing the first and protecting the second, by shutting themselves in a familiar place. Utopias have accompanied humanity since Plato's Republic. The Platonic state or the City of God is an oft-recurring fantasy of the world kept in check. That is the yearning of populism and its collectivizing urges: a homogeneous people and a closed society, behind a solid door.

Conflict is life, change is the norm and recurring trial-and-error, inevitable.

The closed society triumphed after World War I. Not in all places, but almost. Nationalism was one of its main causes, as many believed they would find safety in its torrid embrace. Cultural uniformity, economic autarchy, autocracy, a sense of belonging, and pride in one's identity all seemed like umbrellas against history's bluster.

Those who chose more cooperation, democracy and free trade were defeated: The open society, exposed to the winds of its time and its own unpredictable, unstable and conflictive nature, survived only where it was born — in Anglo-Saxon countries.

Yet coexistence did not work inside, or between, closed societies. Internally, calls for unanimity stifled liberties and fueled the desire to recover them. Internationally they provoked another war. Nationalists hardly love each other.

At the end of World War II, the open society prevailed, at least in the Western world. Frontiers expanded, and later brought down the walls of closed societies. Then followed an extraordinary period of economic growth, social mobility, political participation and international cooperation. There were also ideological conflicts, social confrontation, the end of empires, sexual revolution, etc.

Like it or not, open societies are like this: Conflict is life, change is the norm and recurring trial-and-error, inevitable. While this dark side kept alive a vague nostalgia for closed societies, in eastern Europe and Latin America, decades of oppression opened the doors to the open society. Now these same societies are facing their own, nostalgic backlash: It's cyclical.

Evidently neither model of society exists in its pure state and each includes ingredients of the other. Like a good recipe though, the trick is in the proportions.

Commemorating COVID deaths — Photo: Diego Radames/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

So, which type of society will emerge from the pandemic? Which is the most desirable? Is it better to take inspiration from the end of the First or of the Second World War? Some contend that dramatic social conditions and a sense of vulnerability have reached a point where the closed society seems destined to win. This is understandable. Everywhere, the apocalyptic party has the wind in its sails.

Nothing will be the same again, they claim (with scant historical sense). We must start all over. The apocalypse wants to be redeemed. It is impervious to the fact that evil exists in history. It always seeks scapegoats to blame, in spite of the dubious links it finds. And crises that encourage this mindset, be it the pandemic, global warming or local wars, are always out there.

The disaster party is quick to find its culprits: liberal globalization, plotting powers, greedy banks, corrupt politicians. And the solutions — a return to nature, native renaissance, worship "the people" and its purity. In other words, the closed society ...

The loftier the goal, the more horrors it justifies in the process.

It is not a sustainable narrative, though one may ask if it can provide at least a sensible, feasible solution. Like the thinker Karl Popper, I see it as a remedy worse than the ailment it would cure. The idea of eliminating evil by shutting out history and restoring the supposed purity of the past is a powerful illusion, but a dangerous one.

And the more powerful it is, the more dangerous it becomes. The loftier the goal, the more horrors it justifies in the process. What won't we do to "protect" ourselves?

That, after all, is what happened after World War I. The open society, with its modest pragmatism, isn't as seductive. It doesn't promise anything beyond its prerogatives, like identity, community and belonging. It rests on our responsibility, respects our freedom and gauges our civic culture.

All this may appear abstract but is, in fact, quite specific. The present vaccination campaigns finely illustrate the differences between open and closed societies. Those of the first are universal in character, and the latter, tribal. The more open the society, the more universal its vaccination criteria, and the more closed, the more discriminatory they become.

Open societies have ordered vaccinations beginning with those most at risk. On the other side, there has been jostling by sectors: firms, lawyers, teachers, professionals or trade unions. Not to mention cronies. It's best to tie ourselves to the mast like Ulysses and not succumb to the closed society's siren song. It is enticing, but deadly.

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Society
Luis Galeazzi

The Education Revolution Began Before The Pandemic

Technology is turning education into a data-driven, personalized learning process. It's up to humans to be sure it serves the needs of students, and societies.

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — One of the most striking effects of this time of social isolation is the way we have turned to digital tools to adapt our behaviors and routines. And in no area of society is this more evident than the experience of studying and learning online.

Knowledge is no longer perceived as a large store of information to be absorbed within a limited period of study. The emphasis today is on fomenting aptitudes and skills needed for research, experimentation and knowledge generation. Those are now the key educational values.

The student isn't an object or target of education anymore, but the subject or protagonist of a personal learning process. Developing the ability to learn becomes the decisive element in the evolution of students. Real talent, in other words, is having adaptive skills in the face of new challenges and conditions.

Here in the 21st century, people can choose the skills they wish to forge to propel their life projects. Educational trajectories are becoming ever more personalized, and constantly remolded to fit personal needs.

The difficulty has become knowing how to use the information.

This personal experience will develop in an infinite universe of educational materials, considering that access to information has become simplified to the point of allowing access to data — or courses, essays or books — within seconds.

Encyclopedic information used to compile knowledge that is now easily, even freely, accessible on a device. So the difficulty has become knowing how to use this information. How do we make an intelligent link between so much information and our specialized area and particular goals?

E-graduation day? — Photo: Mohammad Shahhosseini

The work now is to ensure that we don't drown in a sea of data, that we can put the information in context and weave it into a logical, progressive thread of knowledge that must then be used to solve the problems of our particular project.

Another dimension of the challenge is knowing how to socialize the learning process. We run the risk of becoming solitary explorers of a vast universe of contents, potentially overwhelmed by the impossibility of catching or assimilating relevant parts.

We are experiencing a violent transformation in the very concept of education. As traditional models begin revealing their limitations, a new educational paradigm is taking shape. This is not just about replacing traditional teaching materials with digital tools or questioning the roles of the school or teachers. It is about redefining our understanding of education, learning and talent cultivation beyond a finite schooling period, into a continuous process of personal development.

And it is not just local and national governments that must involve themselves in this teaching and learning revolution, but every entity that elaborates and makes intensive use of knowledge. Education can no longer be seen as restricted to school and university activity. It is an integral and transformative experience that marries the basic right to learn with every citizen's freedom to decide his or her future.

Ideas
Rúben Perina

China And Russia, Or The West? Latin America Must Choose A Side

The region's democratic states must close ranks and work with the United States to protect the rule of law at home and abroad against 'an authoritarian onslaught,' Rubén M. Perina* writes in Clarín.

-OpEd-

The international order features a growing rivalry between the interests and values of the liberal democratic world, and those of an emerging, autocratic world. The first is represented by powers like the United States of America, the European Union (led by France and Germany), Australia, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa and other, lesser powers.

The second bloc of emerging, autocratic if not dictatorial and revisionist powers, consists of states like China, with its starkly rising economic, military and technological power and Russia, with lesser economic capabilities but considerable military and technological reach.

This rivalry is perhaps more specifically evident in the relationship between the U.S. and China, after recent evolutions. Under U.S. leadership, the liberal-democratic world briefly enjoyed, starting in 1989 as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union began to collapse, a period of hegemony that has gradually waned as the U.S. entered into relative decline. It remains, nevertheless, the premier world power.

Meanwhile, China's dizzying rise to economic preeminence is paving the way for a bipolar rivalry brimming with conflict possibilities. Although for now, at least, it is not a "to the death" fight or a "zero sum game" like the Cold War. Today, the two sides will compete intensely over values and interests, and cooperate in global strategic issues of mutual interest.

As Latin America seeks to adapt to this alignment while preserving its autonomy, experts have proposed approaches variously termed "equidistant diplomacy," "selective collaboration," "strategic autonomy," "active neutrality" or "peripheral realism."

The basic idea to bear in mind, however, is that Latin America belongs to the liberal-democratic world by virtue of history, geography and political culture. That, then, makes it incumbent on certain regional heavyweights to end their "strategic flirting" or fake neutrality between two poles of unequal moral weight. There have been calls for these states to commit themselves, unequivocally, to a strategic alliance of liberal democracies headed by the U.S.

The two sides will compete intensely over values and interests.

Where is the problem in joining an alliance with the world's first power, as most democratic — and mostly the more prosperous — states are doing? The strategic-democratic alliance means a firm commitment to the defense and promotion of democratic values and practices, including an unflinching respect for the rule of law, human rights, freedom, human dignity and the like.

This global commitment begins with a strategic-democratic alliance in the hemisphere. Latin America is part of the inter-American system, which has enshrined its historical ideals and democratic values in legal instruments like the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio de Janeiro, 1947), the Organization of American States (Bogotá, 1948) and the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José, 1969). These constitute pillars of a regional system of cooperation on which to build an alliance with a role in the new world order.

At a market in La Paz, Bolivia — Photo: Martin Alipaz/EFE via ZUMA Press

This bloc, or even a lesser bloc within it like MERCOSUR, can act significantly to defend democracy against the authoritarian onslaught, either in the wider democratic world or as a hemispheric alliance. Its commitment must be clear in moral and political terms. There can be no neutrality or complaisance toward tyrannical regimes like those of Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela, which are not the moral equal of democracies.

The alliance could include a new trade integration initiative to reduce poverty in the hemisphere. Democracy must show it can solve problems and offer opportunities for progress and prosperity. There are significant precedents: the Alliance for Progress conceived by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and the U.S. in the 1960s, or the Free Trade Area of the Americas, an initiative of the elder President Bush, well received at the 1994 Summit of the Americas but dismissed in 2005 by the regional trio of anti-American leaders: Hugo Chávez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Néstor Kirchner.

The alliance would strengthen Latin America's ability to defend and project its values and interests, both in the hemisphere and the concert of nations. It would exert greater influence on decisions for transnational issues like the pandemic, climate change, organized crime and trafficking, corruption, money laundering or terrorism.

The commitment would not mean losing the freedom to actively trade with the rest of the world. The democratic world is perfectly compatible with economic and commercial openness, which is also the surest path to the prosperity of nations.

Mid-level powers like Germany, Canada, France, Great Britain and Australia have not hesitated to align themselves with the U.S to defend democracy and freedom. They are unconditional and trustworthy allies, though this has not prevented them from trading with China and Russia, in spite of ideological differences. Certain global challenges and economic and security concerns demand cooperation, but without abandoning basic, liberal and democratic values.

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Geopolitics

Argentina's Meat Industry Has A Beef With Paul McCartney

Is the former Beatles band mate to blame for declining beef consumption in the BBQ-loving country?

BUENOS AIRES — It goes without saying that beef is a big deal in Argentina, where barbecuing remains an almost sacrosanct pillar of social life. And yet, as of January, consumption has dropped to an historic low of 41 kilograms per person annually. So what gives?

That's the question Argentine beef lobbyists in what's known as the IPCVA, the meat industry's promotion institute, are asking. Could it be that the rise of vegetarianism and veganism are taking a toll?

The question has particular relevance given that just this past January, former Beatles singer Paul McCartney wrote to Argentine President Alberto Fernández to ask him to join the Meat Free Monday initiative.

To gauge the impact, IPCVA asked a sample population of 1,100 nationwide how they reacted to such actions on the part of environmental or vegan activists. The result? Seven out of 10 said that such campaigns did not lead to reduced meat consumption. Respondents found such actions ineffective, in other words.

Why, then, are Argentine's cutting back on beef? For money reasons, most likely.

That, at least, is the conclusion of the IPCVA, which accuses pro-vegetarian activists of being unnecessarily divisive. Their campaigns merely add to the "the social divides we sadly have in our country," the institute deplores.

Beef consumption has dropped to an historic low of 41 kg per person annually — Photo: Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EFE via ZUMA Press

In this case, the lobby group argues, there's a "food divide," with people expressing their opposition to one another "in the way each of us manifests his or her way of eating."

Most of the poll's respondents effectively blamed vegans for feeding this gastronomic divide, accusing them of being more "narrow-minded" than meat eaters.

How should the meat sector respond to this hostile setting? Should it defend itself?

The IPCVA tells this daily that "clearly" for both the countryside and the city, where meat is produced and consumed, meat was not to blame for "this senseless argument."

"A meat eater would never reject a vegan... and always make place for them at a barbecue, so they can share grilled vegetables if they want to," states the lobby group.