Poland, The World Order, and A Tale of Two Donalds

In 1795, Poland was wiped off the map. Partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the country would not reemerge for over a century. 98 years ago from yesterday, the First World War ended and Poland reemerged as an independent state. As a result, November 11 is celebrated as Poland’s National Independence Day. This year, however, Poland’s government did not laud the country’s independence. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the country’s governing party, the Law and Justice Party, instead lamented the loss of sovereignty to the European Union. Meanwhile, tens of thousand of Polish citizens took to the streets of Warsaw. They set off flares, shouted ultranationalist slogans, and carried banners. One banner read “God, Honor, Fatherland,” and another read “Death to the enemies of the fatherland.”

In recent years, Poland has lurched far to the right. It has cultivated nationalism and rejected internationalism. It is riding the very same wave that has led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the shift in public opinion throughout Western Europe. Contrary to what many in the United States believe, it is impossible to escape this wave by fleeing to Canada. The people of Poland, Europe, and the world, too, appear to be rejecting the very foundations of the post-WWII global order.

Ever since Law and Justice took power last year the Civic Platform Party, once led by a man named Donald Tusk, Poland has turned sharply away from the European Union and towards authoritarian nationalism. It has gutted the country’s highest court, strengthened its grip on the media, promoted “traditional” catholic values, encouraged nationalism and xenophobia, rejected refugees, and taken a strongly eurosceptic position. Yet economically, it is not right-wing as imagined by most Americans. It is a strong proponent of the social safety net and opposes cuts to welfare spending. Thus its platform can be described a fusion of right-wing ultranationalism and left-wing socialism.

This same recipe is taking the world by storm. Donald Trump won the US presidency with the same formula, appealing to “America first” white nationalism while also pursuing protectionist and pro-welfare policies. Brexit, too, followed this formula, combining little-Englander nationalism with the economic concerns wrought by globalization. France’s FN, whose Marine Le Pen is set to be one of the country’s presidential candidates in 2017, is also staunchly protectionist while at the same time encouraging a resurgence in French nationalism. Political parties that merge left and right in a rejection of international integration have sprung up across The West.

While this ideology may seem like an honest expression of the alienation of the working people, it is in truth an insidious affront to the very ideals upon which the post-WWII global order was built. To see why, one needs not look any further than the Second World War. One of the most important effects of the Second World War was that it taught the lesson of how democratic systems of government come crashing down. When the global financial system crashed in 1929, economic insecurity skyrocketed. When faced with economic adversity, the population responded by blaming outsiders and retreating into nationalist tribes. Lower living standards made the people susceptible to grandiose promises to restore prior glory. The ability to recognize nuance was destroyed by fear, anger, and oversimplified narratives. As a result, Germany’s “national socialist” party would lead the world into a dark cloud of genocide and war.

Out of the ashes of Europe rose a new western order based on the ideals of international integration and multiculturalism. Leaders convened to ensure that the lessons of the Second World War would be learned and its horrors never repeated. Leaders promoted economic growth and created welfare states to ensure that citizens would never become so economically downtrodden that they felt compelled to blame scapegoats. They promoted globalization and economic integration to make countries dependent on one another and therefore more likely to cooperate. They embraced a multicultural society as a rejection of the racist horrors of the Second World War. Today, the champion of these values is the European Union, and Poland’s loudest cheerleader for these values is former-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has spread its model across Eastern Europe. Poland transitioned to democracy, became a member of NATO in 1999, became a member of the European Union in 2004, and has has seen some of the greatest gains of any country following the fall of communism. Like the rest of The West, Poland has enjoyed relative stability and prosperity under the guidance of the post-WWII order. International dependence has meant that no major war has broken out between global powers, international trade has opened up markets and enabled economic growth that has lifted millions into the middle class, and international interaction has meant that the world has become far more tolerant towards individuals from different backgrounds and nationalities. The benefits of this system were so apparent to the Polish people that, in 2011, they re-elected a Prime Minister for the first time. That Prime Minister was Donald Tusk, and he is now the President of the European Council, one of the most important bodies of the European Union.

Yet the events of yesterday indicate that millions of Polish citizens have now rejected the international global order. And as of earlier this week, so too have millions of American citizens. Across Europe and the United States, the far-right is once again wedding nationalism and socialism. At no time since the end of the Second World War have these two ideologies been so closely intertwined. And at no time since the end of the Second World War has the international integration that ushered in stability and prosperity been so threatened.

The all-important question, then, is whether this rejection is temporary or permanent. Is it the desperate dying breath of an old ideology of division, or is it the violent awakening of a new chapter in the international state of affairs? In order to ensure that this new wave of illiberalism does not threaten the stability and progress enjoyed by The West since the end of the Second World War, European leaders must not let their continent go in the same direction as the United States. Now that the enforcer of the current global order has abandoned it, it us up to the leaders of the European Union to position itself as the global defender of international integration and cooperation. Donald Tusk, meet Donald Trump. You may have lost Poland to this movement, but it is not too late to save Europe and the world. Good luck.

 

From South America to Africa to Asia: Insight From Political Change

All across the world, this week has been a tumultuous one. Presidents have been toppled in two countries, and protesters have taken to the streets to demand the same in three others. From South America to Africa to Asia, leaders are struggling to hold back some of the most fundamental forces of political change–partisanship, popular disapproval, and death. The countries in which these political changes occur paint a telling picture of how these fundamental forces work.

Brazil

After barely holding on to her presidency in a narrow re-election victory in 2014, Dilma Rousseff has finally been forced out of the Planalto. While she was suspended back in May, she was officially impeached this week as The Senate decided 61-20 that she was guilty of breaking budgetary laws. Towards the end of her presidency, Ms. Rousseff became massively unpopular as she weathered an sweeping corruption scandal and increasingly poor economic conditions. Considering the widespread dissatisfaction with her presidency, widespread relief seems to be an expected result of impeachment.

The truth, however, is more complicated. While many of Ms. Rousseff’s opponents support the impeachment, many Brazilians feel that it was simply a partisan political move. They feel that Ms. Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, will be equally corrupt but will not face the same level of judicial inquiry. Many who opposed Ms. Rousseff’s presidency nevertheless believe that the impeachment is an affront to the democratic will of the people. Thus opinion is starkly divided over the matter.

Uzbekistan

Like Brazil, Uzbekistan lost a president this week. Unlike in Brazil, however, the former president of Uzbekistan did not succumb to political forces. Instead, he succumbed to his own old age. Islam Karimov, who had ruled the repressive central Asian nation with an iron fist since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, died this week after suffering a stroke. Karimov, who was 78 when he died, leaves a mixed legacy. While he has been praised for his harsh stance against Islamist extremists, his government has been condemned for its authoritarianism, disrespect of civil liberties, its violent criminal justice system, and its support of forced-labor in the cotton industry.

With 30 million people, Uzbekistan is the most populous central Asian nation. After today, however, its future is uncertain. Mr. Karimov did not leave any clear successor. The most likely contender is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is, however, the first change in leadership in Uzbekistan’s history. The current situation has no precedent, and as a result the future is uncertain.

Gabon

Following the re-election of its president, Ali Bongo, the central-African country of Gabon has been marred by violent protests. Mr. Bongo was elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler and Mr. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. When Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Gabon was rocked by protests similar to the ones that occurred this week. This time around, however, the protesters may have an even stronger case in their favor.

Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that he had lost, his supporters became livid–and for good reason. Mr. Ping had been leading up until the very end, when results for Mr. Bongo’s home province were counted. Statistics indicated a 99.9% turnout with 95% of voters in favor of Mr. Bongo. Considering the turnout elsewhere was only 59%, these statistics are unlikely. For this reason, protesters turned out in droves. The national assembly was set ablaze, 5 were killed, and 1000 were arrested. With billions of dollars in oil revenue spread extremely unevenly among Gabon’s small population, the people are right to be angry. While it is unlikely that they will unseat Mr. Bongo today, the tide may soon turn.

Venezuela

Venezuela, like Gabon, has enough oil to make its people vastly wealthy. But also like in Gabon, the people are suffering under extreme economic distress. The brand of socialism espoused by Nicolás Maduro, who has been president ever since Hugo Chavez passed away in 2013, has wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy. Price controls have caused a massive shortage of important goods. People are forced to wait in line for hours to buy food, and they are often met with empty shelves. For that reason, the Maduro government has grown less and less popular.

This unpopularity was clear last December, when the opposition won a majority in the legislature. One of its first acts was to call a referendum in order to hold new presidential elections. Maduro’s officials, however, have been accused of deliberately delaying the process. That’s why so many Venezuelans have taken to the streets. In fact, almost one million protesters marched in opposition to Maduro. Thus Maduro is struggling to maintain his place of power amid widespread populist disapproval.

Conclusion

In Brazil and Uzbekistan, leaders have fallen–one died a political death and the other a literal one. In Gabon and Venezuela, deeply unpopular leaders are struggling to hold onto power in the face of massive discontent. These political events offer significant insight into the current state of the world. We see leaders facing political threats, populist threats, and threats to their health. But if we look closer, we see something more.

Brazil is a democracy. Venezuela and Gabon have a mixture of democratic institutions and authoritarian ones. Uzbekistan is a full blown dictatorship. It just so happens that the threats facing leaders around are closely connected to the types of government under which those leaders operate. In democracies like Brazil, it is not uncommon for leaders to be unseated by a change in the political tide. In Gabon and Venezuela, however, leaders have entrenched themselves enough that the will of the people is not enough to remove them from office. Leaders can rig elections, so people have no choice but to take to the streets. In Uzbekistan, people do not even take to the streets. Repression is so severe that they are either to uneducated or too scared to resist. Thus political transitions either come as a result of a coup d’état or the death of a leader.

Clearly, the events of this week are not surprising considering the political environments in which they occurred. Politicians in democracies die at the hand of legislature or the ballot box, politicians in hybrid regimes die at the hand of populist uprisings and revolutions, and politicians in dictatorships die at the hand of death itself.

Colombia Makes Progress Toward Peace

This Thursday marks the end of a 52 year long war in Colombia. The president of Colombia and the leader of the FARC rebel group held a ceremony in Havana, Cuba to sign a cease-fire. It lifts the last significant barrier to a comprehensive peace deal that will be signed in the coming months.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is a guerrilla group that began as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964. Since then, it has led a Marxist-Leninist insurgency that has wreaked havoc on the country. Its members raised funds through kidnapping for ransom, and the chaos it caused helped turn Colombia into a haven for organized crime and the production and smuggling of illicit drugs.

In recent years, however, the situation in Colombia has improved. The effects of organized crime have been minimized, and the FARC has been largely driven into remote jungle camps. For the past three and a half years, negotiations have taken place in Cuba between the Colombian government and the FARC. These negotiations have culminated in unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC last year which was made officially bilateral yesterday. Soon, the two parties will finalize their peace deal.

COL_orthographic_(San_Andrés_and_Providencia_special).svg
The location of Colombia in South America

As a result, Colombia’s future is looking bright. The FARC will permanently lay down its weapons, ending the decades-long conflict and bringing stability to the region. The kidnappings that plagued the area will be sealed in the pages of history. The Colombian government will be able to better focus its efforts on the organized crime that benefitted from the chaos of insurgency.

Yet challenges remain. One condition of the peace deal is that most of the rebels will be granted amnesty or light sentences. Another condition is that the rebels, once disarmed, will be protected from their enemies by Colombian security forces. To many in Colombia, especially those who oppose the current government, these conditions do not sit well. They feel that the deal is not harsh enough.

Another challenge is that the FARC will now attempt to become a legitimate political party. For a group that has been militant organization for so long, the transition may be difficult. Many members of the FARC left their families for the jungle camps long ago and have made enemies since then. Thus reintegration will pose a challenge.

But the alternative to the deal would have been continued war. While war may seem far away to many in modern Colombia, it is war nonetheless. Thus this deal, despite its flaws, represents positive progress towards a safer and more stable Colombia. While Colombia still faces significant challenges, especially concerning organized crime, it can now divert more of its resources to pursue even greater progress.

Letter to (Some) Liberals: Israel is Here to Stay

Over in the United Kingdom, a controversy has been brewing as Ken Livingston, the former mayor of London, was suspended from the Labour Party for comments that were deemed anti-semitic. A few weeks before, a Harvard Law student was criticized for calling a visiting Israeli politician “smelly.” And before that, the University of California released a statement condemning anti-semitism in response to accusations that criticism of Israeli policy had taken on a more sinister tone. Across the United States and Europe, it appears that a minority of liberals has begun to express opposition to the very idea of Israel’s right to exist. While criticism of Israeli policies are usually completely justified, the claim that Israel has no right to exist is at odds with liberal ideology.

The recent surge in anti-zionism has its roots in liberal opposition to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Over this course of this occupation, Israel has built illegal settlements on Palestinian land, has arguably responded to Palestinian protest with excess force, has blockaded the Gaza Strip, and has enforced overtly discriminatory policies. There is widespread consensus that these actions constitute human-rights abuses. On top of it all, the current Israeli government has shown little commitment to restoring peace and dignity to the Palestinians. As a result, it is no surprise that liberals, who value equality and the respect of human rights, object to Israel’s actions. Yet channeling opposition of these policies into a hatred of Israel is a gross oversimplification of a complex conflict. Thus, while the criticism of Israel’s policies can and perhaps should be encouraged, the small group of liberals that condemns Israel’s mere existence should rethink their beliefs.

Israel was founded as a refuge for persecuted Jews. In the years following the Holocaust, it became clear that such a refuge would be a welcome addition to the world. Now, its Jewish residents have called it home for generations. Over the years, it has developed into the strongest democracy in the Middle East. It has a prosperous economy and is a beacon of stability in an unstable region. For that reason, it is a stalwart military ally of the West. It is unfortunate that such progress came at the expense of Palestinians, but to argue that Israel should be dissolved is foolish based on both strategic realities and liberal principles.

To many, it appears that Israeli Jews have switched sides. They’ve gone from the oppressed to the oppressor. And because they are the oppressor, that means that some liberals consider them the enemy. Such reasoning is incoherent. To direct one’s anger at millions of innocent Israeli Jews is an example of the same generalization and lack of empathy that many liberals take pride in loathing. While Israel certainly is oppressing Palestine, we must still remember that Israel is a nation of individuals who, like everyone else, deserve our consideration. Those who condemn Israel’s existence seem to forget that.

For this reason, criticisms of Israel should be kept within the realm of politics. We must always feel free to criticize policies and governments, but we must refrain from judging an entire country or people. It is judgements like these that we liberals hate most. This is a very complicated conflict, and we liberals owe it to both the Israelis and Palestinians to consider every facet of the issue before coming to a conclusion.

Blatant Corruption in Brazil Provokes Mass Protests

Regardless of where you are in São Paulo, you can hear them. All across this city of 20 million people, a palpable tension hangs in the air as the sound of discontent reverberates through the sky. It is called a Panelaço, and it is one of the most common forms of protest in Brazil. Whenever the president makes a speech, the people react. They open their doors and windows, bang pots and pans together, honk their horns, and flicker their lights on and off. It is quite a spectacle to behold, and it is representative of the massive frustration that tens of millions of Brazilians feel towards their government.

São Paulo: Brazil’s commercial center and largest city

To provide some context, these past few days have seen important developments in the corruption scandal that is rocking Brazil’s government to its foundations. Earlier this week, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, appointed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as her Chief of State. In response, millions of Brazilians all across the country took to the streets in protest. Why, you may be wondering, did such a seemingly insignificant act provoke such furor? Well, to answer that question, there are a few things you need to know about Dilma and Lula.

First, it should be noted that Lula was the president of Brazil before Dilma, his close ally, succeeded him. He is widely considered the most influential politician in Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), of which Dilma is also a member. As a left-wing party, Lula and the PT were immensely popular due to their social welfare policies aimed toward helping the poor. But today, PT’s reputation is tarnished. A corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company of Brazil, has ripped through the party. Billions of dollars disappeared while Dilma was the chairwoman of the company, and very powerful politicians and businessmen have been swept up in the case. Impeachment proceedings are underway against Dilma, and many of PT’s most influential politicians have been taken down by Sérgio Moro, the federal judge leading the investigation into the scandal.

A few weeks ago, Lula was the latest high-profile politician to be implicated in the scandal. His home was raided; he was taken into custody; and he was questioned by federal police. While he wasn’t charged, frustrated Brazilians have their suspicions. And if they weren’t suspicious before, Dilma just gave them a huge reason to question the integrity of both herself and Lula: her appointment of Lula as her Chief of Staff.

As a cabinet member, the Chief of Staff cannot be prosecuted by a federal court or by Moro. Instead, they are only allowed to be be prosecuted in the Supreme Court. Seems fair enough, except Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president. As a result, judges appointed by Lula and Dilma form a majority in the Supreme Court, making any real punishment unlikely. This is why Brazilians took to the street in anger. What Dilma claimed was simply a move to strengthen her government was interpreted by many of the citizens of Brazil as an attempt to shield Lula from the onslaught of the corruption investigation.

As of now, Lula’s appointment has been suspended by an injunction from a federal judge. Thus he is not shielded from investigation by federal courts. Nevertheless, a long legal battle is likely to ensue as Dilma has said she will appeal the decision. And quite a bit of damage is already done. While protests have been a regular occurrence in Brazil since Dilma’s re-election in 2014, the events of this week have renewed and invigorated them.

This year has been a tumultuous one in Brazil. While the corruption scandal is one of the primary complaints Brazilians have about their government, it has coincided with a sharp economic downturn. Brazil has entered its worst recession in decades; inflation has risen sharply; and its currency has lost half of its value against the dollar. After years of economic growth, things are looking down. So the sound of pots and pans banging together periodically rings through the air.

Perhaps, though, there is a silver lining to the tumult. Brazilians are demanding accountability and change. They are no longer willing to stand idly by as their government steals from them. Corruption is finally being challenged from the inside, and Moro has shown that he is not afraid to go after the big names. The scandal has ripped through the government like a wildfire. So while the next few years will be difficult for Brazil, the country may, like a forest, need a fire to clear the old and make way for the new.

 

Bolivia’s Choice: Evo Morales Denied a Fourth Term

Last Sunday, Bolivians went the polls to choose whether or not they would approve proposed changes to their constitution. But while they’ve done so before, the stakes were higher this time.

Located in western South America, Bolivia is a landlocked nation of around 11 million people. 60% of the country’s population are ethically indigenous, and indigenous culture is still ubiquitous in Bolivia. While much of the country’s land is composed of Amazon rainforest, most of the population is concentrated in Bolivia’s high plateau–the Altiplano. Flanked on either side by the Andes mountains, the Altiplano is one of the highest plateau’s in the world. La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, is the world’s highest capital city at an elevation of 3640m (11,942 ft).  Despite its high elevation, La Paz is a bustling metropolis. And in a clear sign of the importance of the referendum, walls and buildings across the city are covered in political graffiti.

Bolivia's location in South America
Bolivia’s location in South America

The crux of the proposed changes to the constitution is a provision allowing Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president, to seek re-election in 2019. In power since 2005, Morales would not be allowed to run again under current rules. Consequently, this referendum has largely boiled down whether Bolivians are satisfied with Morales or whether they want a new president in 2019. So what did they choose? Preliminary results indicate that, by a tiny margin, Bolivians have voted “No” to the constitutional changes. They’ve decided not to give Morales his coveted fourth term.

Following a string of electoral victories, this defeat is a blow to Morales’ Movement for Socialism Party. Since he took power with his socialist program in 2005, Bolivia has seen significant progress. Natural resources have been nationalized to fund social programs, the GDP has grown threefold, poverty rates have plummeted, and the constitution has been amended to give greater recognition to indigenous communities. As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales is wildly popular among the poor and those living in rural areas.

But he has his critics. With corruption rife throughout the government, he has been attacked for his weak response to the issue. He is also embroiled in a scandal in which he is accused of helping an ex-lover to accrue valuable government contracts for her company. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his opponents accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, asserting that he is using this referendum as an attempt to undermine democracy and consolidate his rule.

His critics most certainly have a point. Already on his third term, Morales has technically exceeded the constitutional maximum of two terms per president. But a controversial ruling before the previous election decided that he was eligible for a third term. Why? Because in a 2009 referendum, Morales succeeded in passing significant changes to Bolivia’s constitution. In accordance with the egalitarian tradition of the Movement for Socialism, it, among other things, renamed the country to “Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia” to recognize its multi-ethnic heritage. As a result, it was decided that Morales could run for a third term because it would only be his second term under the new constitution.

By the end of his third term, Morales will have been in power for 14 years. While they will have been a 14 years of consistent progress, they will also have allowed Morales to slowly increase his power through the entrenchment and consolidation that accompany any longtime ruler. Thus while one may argue that Morales provides a better future for Bolivia than the fragmented and ineffective opposition, perhaps it is time for that opposition to be given a chance to organize itself into a viable alternative for Bolivia. It is this narrative that Bolivians have chosen. While many will be bitterly disappointed to see their effective and beloved ruler go, even more will be relieved that the country has chosen to deny Morales the chance to consolidate his rule any further than he already has.

Graffiti arguing in favor of allowing Evo to run again
Graffiti arguing in favor of the proposed constitutional changes
Graffiti arguing against the proposed constitutional changes
Graffiti arguing against the proposed constitutional changes