Geopolitics

Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 24: Brexit Latest, Alibaba Probe, Zoom With Santa

COVID testing in Göppingen, Germany, on Dec. 24
COVID testing in Göppingen, Germany, on Dec. 24

Welcome to Thursday, where Israel announces a 3rd national lockdown, a Brexit deal looks imminent, and we've got the price for zooming with Santa in Lapland. We also look at the effects the pandemic is having on the gig economy.

SPOTLIGHT: JOE BIDEN'S REAL CHALLENGE: MOVING BEYOND ANTI-TRUMPISM

President-elect Joe Biden's ample support base is fluid and can melt away, if his administration ignores the social and political grievances that led millions to vote for Donald Trump, writes Federico Finchelstein in Buenos Aires-based daily Clarin:

U.S. President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will face immense, and in many ways unprecedented challenges, upon taking office on Jan. 20. Future historians will have much to say on how "Trumpism" or radical right-wing views espoused by the outgoing President Donald J. Trump, took populism close to fascism and dictatorship. But history will also record how, after one term, he was rejected on Nov. 3. A record number of Americans — more than 81 million — voted for Biden, united by their opposition to Trump and his ideas.

As the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges said, it wasn't love that brought them together but fears. The question concerning the United States now, and in the future for countries like Brazil and Hungary is: Can you engage in politics merely on the basis of fear of what has already happened?

On the one hand, Biden is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis. On the other, he must solve a political crisis, which actually can point to some precedents.

How should he rebuild democracy and generate genuine support among those who voted for him simply for not being Trump? Biden will need to be more than just honest, or not racist or discriminatory. It will not be enough for him to merely avoid scandalizing the public or manipulating and demonizing the media.

Biden needs to widen democracy, and improve living conditions, healthcare and education in order to represent his voters and avoid the inertia of the past.

In many cases, anti-Trumpism warned of the dictatorial dangers and risk of fascism inherent in the president's style of leadership. But critics often presented an alternative myth: that of historical exceptionality. This was the idea of a normality before Trump that was not in fact entirely "normal." As the case of Marine le Pen"s repeated candidacies in France shows, a "barrier" is not enough to keep long-term votes and support from gathering.

The pre-Trump period had its share of problems: elitism, technocratic predominance, aggressive police tactics, stock market and banking deregulation, President Barack Obama's inaction — or at times regressive measures — regarding immigrants, lack of gun control legislation, massive incarceration rates for ethnic minorities and restrictions on public education and healthcare that, alongside other issues, distanced many voters from the Democratic Party.

Should it view the Trump presidency as an interlude, the Biden administration will see its large support shrivel — as it will without proper judicial investigations into possible criminal actions by the outgoing president.

With foreign policy and U.S. relations with democratic and authoritarian leaders, one can expect a rapprochement with the European Union — but what will happen to Trump's global accomplices? Which policy will it adopt toward the tropical Trump that is Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil? How will it act with the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela or the Saudi kingdom?

Doing nothing is not a viable option, though it is always possible Trump will stick around in politics as a useful reminder to citizens of the failures of his administration. In any case. Trump may allow Biden a few months of complacency and inaction.

That Trump, and to a lesser extent the Republican Party, are currently rejecting the democratic results of an election should be a warning against urgently declaring the last four years an exceptional event in an otherwise healthy democracy. American democracy must be improved and widened in social, economic and political terms.

After the end of the Latin American dictatorships of the Cold War, as happened in Europe with the fall of fascist states in 1945, many eminent intellectuals espoused the same, misplaced optimism. They were naive because authoritarianism and xenophobia persisted on both sides of the Atlantic after those periods.

Considering fascism and authoritarian populism as aberrations rather than expressions of strong, local and global trends, can impede the work of democratic reconstruction needed to uproot them.

There are patterns of continuity in U.S. history, as in any history, and change as well. We must record our histories and both the friends and enemies of democracy, if we want to defend it and improve it for the future.

— Federico Finchelstein / Clarin



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Brexit deal expected today: Following months of negotiations, an announcement of a Brexit trade deal is reportedly imminent after UK and EU negotiating teams worked through the night in Brussels to finalize the last details of the agreement.

• COVID-19 latest: Japan registers another daily record in the number of cases for the ninth consecutive day with more than 3,200 new infections, while in the United States, California surpasses 2 million cases, doubling its total in less than six weeks. Israel announces a third national lockdown for 14 days to fight rising infections.

• More Trump pardons: U.S. President Donald Trump announced 26 pardons, including for his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime confidante Roger Stone, both convicted of crimes relating to the Mueller investigation. He also granted a pardon to Charles Kushner, the father of his son-his-law Jared, who was convicted in 2005 of tax evasion and witness tampering.

• Massacre in Ethiopia: More than 100 people have been killed by unidentified gunmen in the latest ethnic massacre in western Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said.

• China investigates Alibaba: China has launched an antitrust investigation into e-commerce giant Alibaba over alleged anti-competition practices, as the country tries to curb its ever-expanding internet titans.

• RIP Xin Xing: Xin Xing, the star of China's Chongqing Zoo and the world's oldest giant panda in captivity, has died at 38. She had more than 150 descendants around the globe.

• The Queen's digital doppelgänger: UK's Channel 4 will broadcast an alternative Christmas message featuring a deepfake of the Queen, to warn against the dangers of fake news and manipulated videos.


"Hold on to your loved ones," titles German daily Die Tageszeitung, highlighting the "most important feeling in the world" in times like these, as people around the world get ready to celebrate Christmas.


HOW COVID-19 EXPOSES THE HARD QUESTIONS ABOUT THE GIG ECONOMY

Consumers are convinced. Wall Street is buoyant. Demand around the world for app-based services is booming, with entire nations stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns and the prospect of goods and services at their door with just a click.

As the so-called "Gig Economy" spreads alongside the pandemic, society has struggled to keep up.

• Online sales in South Korea have grown by 17% this year, and 42% in food deliveries.

• The freelancer platform PeoplePerHour registered a 300% increase of users in March of this year in the UK, 329% jump in Spain, and 513% in Japan.

• Upwork reported a 24% increase in signups over the summer.

How it works: Rather than earning a regular wage, these apps pay for each "gig" completed. While it's not uncommon that people turn to freelance work during periods of economic downturns, the health crisis presents a unique scenario in which freelance workers risk being exposed to the virus in order to get paid.

• In the UK, a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) found that 78% of app workers thought their health was at risk while working.

Exploited & Exposed: The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of millions of workers already in precarious financial situations and without a safety net. Deliverers are considered "essential," but they don't receive the same protections (both physical and economic) as other essential workers.

• With Uber Eats in France offering 10 euros to customers on three orders during lockdown, workers have accused the tech-giant of "promonavirus," that is, using them as "cannon fodder," to serve meals while everyone else stays at home, Le Monde reports.

• "We have no protection," migrant food delivery rider Diego Franco in Australia recently told the Sydney Morning Herald.

• Already this year, 15 delivery workers in South Korea have died from "kwarosa," literally "to die of overwork." The gig-world is at its tipping point.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.


€79

Lapland, Finland (where as we all know the real Santa Claus lives and works) may be currently closed to foreign travellers — but you can still reach him, provided you're willing to pay 79 euros to talk to him five minutes via WhatsApp, Zoom or Teams. (Warning: up to €99 on Christmas Day!)


Putting your own citizens at risk abroad won't divert attention from catastrophic failures at home.


— Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted in response to Donald Trump blaming Iran for a rocket attack Sunday on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.



PHOTO OF THE WEEK

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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