BEIRUT â€" An Italian diplomat once said that â€œthe darkest corners of a crisis can be the most illuminating in understanding geopolitical dynamics.â€ This is where Lebanon finds itself: One of the few Middle Eastern countries that is not at war, yet one suffering in the trenches nonetheless.
These days Lebanon is far from the glare of the international media, except for minor coverage of the â€œYou Stinkâ€ protests against the waste collection crisis in Beirut. But it does find itself squarely in the sights of foreign experts, who see Lebanonâ€™s ever fragile sectarian equilibrium as the key to understanding the future of the region.
In private, one eminent member of the French foreign ministry confides that Lebanon is â€œthe extreme frontier of local stability, where at any moment the entire structure can come falling down like a house of cards.â€
A recent attempt to elect a new president was the 30th to fail, and the country has been without a head of state for a year-and-a-half. The executive gridlock is due to the intransigence of Beirutâ€™s two opposing political blocs â€" the pro-Iranian March 8 alliance led by Hezbollah on one side, and the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance on the other.
There is talk of a compromise, with a transitional president possibly chosen from the armed forces. But this is just one of Lebanonâ€™s woes, adding to the spillover from the Syrian civil war that has brought 1.6 million refugees fleeing across the border. Syrians now account for more than one third of Lebanonâ€™s population, but the government in Beirut is reluctant to establish proper refugee camps for them, fearing that they will become permanent like the Palestinian ones set up in the past.
The country also faces a fragile economy and volatile borders. According to the World Bank, the Lebanese economy lost $7.5 billion between 2012 and 2014, plunging 170,000 people into poverty. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) still maintains the ceasefire on the southern border with Israel, but Hezbollah is openly at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Nusra front â€" al-Qaedaâ€™s affiliate in Syria â€" on the eastern border.
An inside look
â€œThe city has never been as full as it is now,â€ says Khaled, a 40-year-old restaurateur from Beirut. â€œThere are Saudis who canâ€™t go anywhere else to spend their money due to political tensions. There are Russians. There are rich Syrians who have been waiting four years to return home, and poor Syrians who beg for money on the street. There are journalists from all over the world, humanitarian workers, spies, and Western businessmen: Beirut is completely full.â€
Khaled says Lebanese have a way of living â€œas if nothing happened, congratulating the army for pacifying Tripoliâ€ after sectarian violence. â€œBut the army is everywhere, even downtown. The parliament building is unrecognizable, they built a wall around it after the protests and now it looks like a prison,â€ he says. â€œEveryone is depressed and living hand-to-mouth, you can still go out in the evening but now everything is expensive.â€
Lebanese society is resilient, perhaps because it is always in such a precarious state. Khaled recently returned to Beirut after a long spell abroad, much to the surprise of many locals eyeing any opportunity to leave the country. â€œThereâ€™s a long line in front of the German embassy for visas, even though Lebanese donâ€™t qualify for political asylum,â€ he says. â€œSome even travel to Turkey and try to make it to Europe like the Syrians.â€
Life is tough in Lebanon, according to Khaled. â€œEverything must be paid twice, you pay the government and the generator company for electricity because thereâ€™s no power for 3-4 hours every day,â€ he says. â€œState-provided health care doesnâ€™t work so people get private insurance, especially because of the bombings. And in your free time you canâ€™t go anywhere, because there is war at our borders.â€
Peace still holds in Lebanon, but the country must navigate a minefield of threats every day. Narcotics trafficking is rapidly expanding to fund the war effort in Syria, and the authorities recently confiscated two tons of synthetic drugs from a Saudi princeâ€™s private jet. The Lebanese army continues to use air attacks to pound al-Nusra and ISIS territory in the countryâ€™s northeast, even as the latter group is reportedly infiltrating Palestinian refugee camps, stoking internal sectarianism.
Because of the myriad problems that Lebanon faces, the mass anti-government protests of the â€œYou Stinkâ€ movement must be looked at in a broader context than just the waste collection crisis, as a symbol of Lebanonâ€™s numerous challenges. It has become a metaphor that is uniting a divided society â€" Christian, Sunni, Shia, and Druze alike. "It's the best, cleanest thing to happen to Lebanon in a long time," says Khaled.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
- Green Is Ugly: Style Problems Plague Clean Energy Push ... ›
- Solar Power: Researchers Map Out Colombia's Sunshine Hotspots ... ›
- EVs Start Moving Latin American Cities To Sustainability ... ›