You could almost hear a collective "Ha!" from around the world. The news yesterday that Jair Bolsonaro had been infected with the coronavirus comes after the Brazilian president's response to the epidemic over the past four months that mixed arrogant dismissiveness with outright lies:
The 65-year-old hardline right-wing leader first baselessly suggested Brazilians were immune; then shrugged off thousands of deaths, calling the epidemic a "little flu". As Brazil's death toll ballooned to more than 66,000 — the world's highest outside of the United States — Bolsonaro criticized local lockdowns introduced by some Brazilian states and refused to wear masks during official visits where he regularly hugged supporters.
He summed up his approach to prevention in late March: "We'll all die one day."
Thus many inside and outside Brazil took his contagion as poetic justice. Some celebrated; others went further.
"I'm rooting that his condition worsens and he dies. Nothing personal," columnist Hélio Schwartsman writes in a provocative piece for Folha de São Paulo.
His rather extreme reasoning in the leading Brazilian newspaper: Like any death, Bolsonaro's would be regrettable — yet it could save the lives of others. "Brazil would no longer have a president downplaying the epidemic and undermining containment measures." It would also be "a global cautionary tale" for other irresponsible politicians, and prevent further loss of life the world over. In other words, "Bolsonaro would render in death the service he was unable to offer in life," Schwartsman concludes.
The argument is tempting.
Anger is understandable, and the argument is tempting. After all, the news that he was infected doesn't seem to have changed Bolsonaro's attitude: Shortly after telling reporters he had tested positive, he stepped back, removed his mask and smiled, saying, "You can see from my face that I'm well" — playing down the epidemic again, and potentially infecting others around him.
Comprehensible as our anger and frustration may be, Thiago Amparo, a Brazilian lawyer and politics professor also writing in Folha, warns against actually hoping for Bolsonaro to die. Such thoughts strip us of our reason, humanity and trust in democratic institutions; it's a gut reaction that appeals to our rage against the injustice of having lost thousands of people that should still be among us.
But gut reactions hardly ever produce justice, Amparo notes. "If they did, the pre-Enlightenment system of public lynching would have been a great place to live," Amparo writes. "Let the anger against Bolsonaro reveal the diamond it hides: the thirst for justice."
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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