The desert cities – VI

Image: Anselmo Pessoa


Comment on recent events in international politics

United States, Brazil and India, three countries that lead a tragic list: almost half a million dead from Covid-19. There are 36 million cases in the world, more than a million deaths. Behind the numbers, uncertainty and tragedies. Around 13 new cases in England last Friday. Great growth of cases in Italy. Record of infections in France, with about 17 thousand in one day.

Spain adopts new closure measures. According to the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC), the highest rate of cases and deaths in the European Union in the last two weeks has been recorded. Further afield, follow the Czech Republic and France. Hospitals have begun to prioritize ICU beds. As of Saturday – the Spanish authorities announced – there will be entry and exit controls in cities that have a contagion rate of more than 500 people per 100 inhabitants. In the most important one, Madrid, the contagion rate exceeds 700 cases. With the capital in the hands of the conservative Isabel Diáz Ayuso, president of the Community of Madrid, there is no agreement to apply the new restrictions imposed by the government of socialist Pedro Sánchez. “It is difficult to define what is happening these days between the government of Spain and that of Madrid. A dantesque political spectacle, but with the additional component that the lives of citizens are at stake. At this moment, with Madrid as the epicenter of the coronavirus in Europe, there is no agreement, no dialogue, no collaboration and the words spoken seem to be worthless,” published journalist Celeste López in the newspaper La Vanguardia, last Thursday, October 1st.

To the political stalemate is added the economic one. The Ministry of Finance decided to suspend the application of tax rules, authorizing city halls to use – when they have them – their reserves, both this year and next. Reserves that the ministry estimates at 16,7 billion euros. The forecasts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Spain are for a negative growth of 12,8% this year. The current circumstances, with the necessary increase in spending, will make the public debt exceed 120% of GDP, but he proposes a gradual adjustment to face them. The IMF makes an optimistic estimate for 2021 of economic growth of 7,2%, then adds that the forecast is conditional on limiting new infections (something uncertain, as the situation shows) and warns that it will take many years to recover its pre-pandemic condition. But it will be a very different economy, with new productive sectors, investments in infrastructure and labor and tax reforms. Reforms whose contents are difficult to predict and which inevitably arouse political tensions.

Now… Trump

And, naturally, the news of the hospitalization of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, affected – he and his wife – by the coronavirus, just one month away from the elections of next November 3rd, draws attention. It was an extraordinary 24 hours and nothing indicates that what follows will be more peaceful, as read in the British The Guardian last Saturday, in reference to the political situation in the United States.

Trump had just been admitted to the Walter Reed Hospital, near Washington. Hours later, he would speak of the hospital to the whole country. A short four-minute speech, with puffy eyes, a little pale, but with good rhythm when speaking; nothing to indicate shortness of breath. I'll be back soon, he assured her. His illness raised all sorts of considerations. First, about the veracity of the information; then, on its seriousness (or not), followed by the most varied speculations on the institutional situation created by the hospitalization of the president and an eventual succession, and on the repercussions of this fact in the electoral campaign.

Confined to hospital, Trump's speech on Saturday night cannot be seen outside of the electoral context. In a carefully prepared scenario, it was a risky bet. Still in a benevolent scenario - indicated the The Economist –, the situation is not politically good for the president. Even if sympathies were expressed in the polls, they probably wouldn't be many and Trump is, after all, seven points behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, the magazine said. Which gives him – they say – “only one chance in ten of winning the elections”. And “while he recovers, Americans will remember that Trump spent all year downplaying the severity of the virus, even to the point of pointing out that it might just disappear.” Obviously, that's not what happened. It seems difficult to belittle Trump's illness, but there was no lack of those who cast doubt on it, such as filmmaker Michael Moore, a harsh critic of the president. “There is an absolute truth about Trump,” he said. “He IS a consummate liar, absolute, relentless, intrepid, professional. A serial liar.” “Why should we believe him today? Has he gained your trust now?” he asked.

A completely unpredictable scenario before the elections. A factor that is impossible for any campaign director to predict, unless it is really another – imaginative, but particularly risky – act of campaign strategy. Hard to imagine, with so many people involved, including possibly some more distant from the president's political circle, and with a press that will be relentless in verifying any false information. But Biden will also have to review his campaign, without ruling out the possibility that he too will contaminate, which would add another factor of uncertainty to a completely unimagined scenario.

Washington looking in the mirror

Even gringos who can't tell Belize from Bolivia are now worried about the adjective "caudillo" that Trump has earned during his presidency, said Tim Padgett, editor of Miami-based broadcaster WLRN. Caudillo – he explained – “is a Latin American dictatorial strong man”, a model to which, in his opinion, Trump now adds. Last month, Padgett says, I'd rub my eyes in front of the TV, asking, "Honey, is this Donald Trump or Manuel Noriega?" For Padgett, one of the reasons for the US invasion of Panama in 1989 was to end the chaos caused by armed bands that sowed terror and supported Noriega, whom the US arrested and put in prison in Miami after invading the country and leave thousands dead. The same bands, like the Proud Boys, whom Trump asked to stay "stand back and stand by” – wait and wait – because he could be needed to face the Antifa movement and the left, as he said. It is not possible to guarantee that Padgett is one of the North Americans capable of distinguishing between Belize and Bolivia. His list of Latin American caudillos is a curious mix that includes Hugo Chávez, Anastasio Somoza, Fidel Castro, Juan Perón and the Panamanian Noriega. He does not consider Trump a “homicidal tyrant” like Pinochet, but he is surprised that the election results are questioned and he refuses to condemn extreme right-wing groups that support him, such as the Proud Boys.

What is certain is that – even if Padgett does not recognize it – both Noriega and Pinochet are products of US politics in which the image of their president is now reflected, who refuses to recognize in advance the election results of November, as was done in the old military coups that Washington promoted in Latin America. Adapted to new political conditions, it was repeated recently in Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia, based on the use of massive networks of false information and judicial instruments to disqualify governments contrary to their interests. As was well documented in the performance of judges and prosecutors in Operation Lava Jato, which condemned former President Lula in Brazil and prevented him from running in the past elections, for which he was a strong favorite. Or in Ecuador, against former president Rafael Correa and his political group; or, more recently, in the coup against the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, orchestrated with the support of the OAS and the Bolivian military.

The United States is scared now that it sees at home the result of the policies it has always promoted in Latin America. A story that Costa Rican Vicente Sáenz explained in detail 90 years ago in his book Breaking chains, or that, more recently, José Luis Fiori, professor of the Graduate Program in Political Economy at UFRJ, describes in an article about the role of the Brazilian military in the construction of what he calls a “vassal state”. Military personnel who were key in the legal decisions that allowed the arrest of former President Lula, based on accusations that were, one by one, rejected in other judicial instances. Soldiers who, in March 1964, took power through a bloody military coup and, a year later, in April 1965, joined the US troops that invaded Santo Domingo to overthrow the government of Juan Bosch and put the conservative Joaquín Balaguer. Then others followed, in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia... and the Condor Plan was expanded throughout South America, organized by the coup military and its sponsors.

cancel debates

Two days before being hospitalized, Trump was involved, on Monday, September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio, in the first debate with his main rival in the November elections, Joe Biden. “For 90 minutes, both rivals exchanged accusations and personal attacks that reflected the great moment of division that the country is experiencing”, in an interaction that the BBC Latin American service qualified as “fierce” and “chaotic”.

Trump's hospitalization ended up suffocating comments about that first meeting, but it could not prevent those that, since Monday night, flooded the media. “With interruptions, lies and derision, Trump ends decorum in debate with Biden,” read the headline of the New York Times. Less critical, the Wall Street Journal he limited himself to pointing out: “Trump, Biden confront each other in controversial first debate”.

In Latin America, David Brooks, correspondent for the Mexican newspaper The Journey in the United States, he considered that, in a chaotic crossfire, “nobody won”. In an electoral context that he described as “unprecedented”, marked by the worst public health crisis in a century, the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, by social outbursts of protest against systemic racism and by a political and constitutional crisis provoked by Trump “by declaring that he will not respect the results or the peaceful transition of power if he loses the November 3 elections.” What is not known now is whether there will be others. “For the good of the country, cancel the pending debates,” complained George F. Will, a columnist for the The Washington Post. "The putrefaction of America's public life was ruthlessly shown on Monday when, for 98 minutes, what remained of the nation's domestic confidence and international recognition withered like a fragile autumn leaf," Will said. Most of Trump's statements sound like murky streams running through mud. The president could end his term without uttering a single complete sentence, with subject, object and predicate, he added. But Will said something else to justify his demand: Presidential debates do not examine much of what a person needs to be president. The media also highlighted the small percentage of voters who have not yet decided on their vote, which would make them of little relevance for decision-making.

pompeo vs china

As events derailed the election campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was touring Greece and Italy. On Wednesday the 30th, he arrived in Rome for a meeting with the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio. With both of them he wanted to talk about relations with China and warn them that their support for the Silk Road, President Xi Jinping's ambitious proposal, was "dangerous".

Pompeo carried a similar message to the Vatican, and had requested an interview with Pope Francis. I wanted to warn you of the inconvenience of renewing the agreement with Beijing – one of the most complex reached by Vatican diplomacy, after negotiations carried out by the last three popes – in order to put an end to an unacceptable practice for the church, that the government appoint bishops without the approval of the Holy See. Their relationship is so complex that the Vatican doesn't even have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Nor does it appear to plan to establish them quickly. For now, it is one of the few states that maintain relations with Taiwan. A change in this issue would have enormous repercussions, precisely when Washington sent top officials to Taiwan, in an attitude that Beijing considers an interference in its internal affairs, contrary to the political agreements that recognize only one China, of which Taiwan is a rebel province. “Many evangelical Christians in the United States have always believed that their country has a divine mission to save the world,” published, last August, the director of the Center for Sustainable Economy at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs. “Under the influence of this crusade mentality, US foreign policy has often swung from diplomacy to war. He is in danger of doing it again.” Sachs was referring to a speech by the secretary of state in relation to China that he described as “extremist, simplistic and dangerous”. All contrary to Vatican diplomacy, whose subtlety and patience could not be more radically contrasted with that of the State Department. Shortly before his trip to Italy, Pompeo said in a tweet that two years ago the Holy See reached an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party “hoping to help Catholics. But the CCP's abuse of believers has gotten worse. The Vatican would endanger its moral authority if it renewed the agreement.”

With the US government straining relations with China on the particularly delicate issue of Taiwan and in the most diverse scenarios – from the South China Sea to Hong Kong, from accusations that they are responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic to war commercial – Francis refused to meet with Pompeo. Pompeo was welcomed by Secretary of State Pietro Parolini and Secretary for State Relations Paul Richard Gallagher. In a long meeting, they explained the Vatican's views on relations with China, in which they do not need Washington's interference. And they justified the pope's refusal to receive him with the argument that, given the proximity of elections in that country, he wanted to avoid any attitude that could be used as an expression of party support.

Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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