Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dropping the glass half-full

When President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Myanmar in November 2012, optimism abounded. In November 2010, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had been released after some twenty years of house arrest. The military junta that ruled for decades had stepped down and been replaced by a quasi-civilian government in March 2011 that was engaging with the political opposition and easing media restrictions. The government was working with various ethnic groups to bring about a nation-wide ceasefire that would put an end to the intermittent civil war that has haunted the country since its 1948 independence - President Thein Sein’s January 2012 ceasefire agreement with ethnic Karen rebels was a particularly important development. It was looking pretty good, all things considered.

But not all the signs were positive and, as many noted in the context of Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar for the 2014 ASEAN summit, the country appears to be backsliding in a number of areas. One longstanding concern is the status and situation of the nation’s 1.1 million strong Muslim minority in Rakhine State, known as the Rohingya – although the government of Myanmar refuses to acknowledge a Rohingya ethnicity. In fact, in June and again in October of 2012, sectarian violence – largely between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – killed over two hundred people, destroyed more than 10,000 homes and buildings, and produced some 140,000 internally displaced Muslims – almost all of whom were moved into camps where they remain today. Some observers criticized the government for not only failing to prevent the conflict but for facilitating and even participating in the violence. President Thein Sein’s proposed resettlement plan that would relocate the Rohingya to another country certainly did nothing to alleviate concerns regarding the fledgling democracy’s attitude towards a religious minority.

The Rohingya are among the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to the UN. In 1978, 200,000 fled to Bangladesh after being attacked by the military. A restrictive 1982 Citizenship Law declared them to be non-nationals and foreign residents, on the basis that they had only recently (largely in the 20th century) moved into the country from Bangladesh (a claim that ignores Rohingya settlements in Myanmar since the 15th century). This severely limits their political rights and allowed for the Rohingya’s exclusion from this year’s census – Myanmar’s first in decades. More recently, legislation has been introduced in Parliament that would prohibit Rohingya from participating in the 2015 election and ban interfaith marriage.

Earlier this year the government put forward a path to citizenship for the group, called the Rakhine State Action Plan. This “plan” is enormously problematic in a number of ways: for one thing, it requires the Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali – a term many reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh. Furthermore, those who agree to fundamentally change their proclaimed ethnic and national identity would qualify for naturalized citizenship, which carries fewer rights than full citizenship, can be revoked, and leaves the “no-longer-Rohingya” vulnerable to deportation. Those Rohingya who refuse the Bengali classification would be placed in camps before being deported. The government asked the UN’s refugee agency to assist in the resettlement. Unsurprisingly, the latter declined..

While the human rights concerns are the most obvious and pressing problem in this situation, it is important to appreciate that this is not a problem confined to Myanmar, and that the specific rights of the Rohingya in Rakhine state are not the only issue. Violence has broken out before in Myanmar – 2012 was one of the largest conflagrations, but there have been other incidents since then (and more are likely in the future, unless all the Rohingya flee). The squalid conditions in which many Rohingya live in camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh are a breeding ground for numerous diseases (especially since the government forced out Médecins Sans Frontières earlier this year). Furthermore, while an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled the country since 2012, the Rakhine State Action Plan and other recently promulgated policies have spurred a major exodus – over the course of three weeks in October, some 15,000 Rohingya sailed from Rakhine State to Thailand, hoping to eventually reach Malaysia. In Thailand, smugglers and human traffickers often hold these “boat people” in jungle camps near the Malaysian border until relatives pay to secure their release. The Thai state is also struggling to handle those refugees that it intercepts.

Of course, the plight of the Rohingya is not the only challenge in Myanmar today. On November 20th, ethnic minority groups – specifically the Kachin Independence Army – said that peace talks with the government were in danger after 23 rebel cadets were killed by the military. A breakdown in talks and an escalation of violence would not bode particularly well for stability in the region – or for the Rohingya, for that matter. In addition, one should not discount the possibility that the government is shooting itself in the foot with its Rohingya policy. Who’s to say that other ethnic minority groups aren’t looking at the example of the Rohingya and digging in their heels? There can be little incentive to lay down arms and accept domination from the center when a primary example of domination from the center is the Rohingya experience. None of these groups are particularly keen on being chased out of the country.

Myanmar is certainly more democratic than it was, but democracy is nowhere near as entrenched as the Obama administration had hoped. This is not cause for despair, but for circumspection.

The glass may still be half-full. But that crack in the base is going to be a problem.  

"...The abyss will also gaze into thee."*


              While the streets still smolder in Ferguson, and the context and content of the Grand Jury’s decision remain objects of debate, the act of violence itself, the misunderstood shots that led to the media coverage and subsequent outrage, exist as an axis of sorts. Do cultural and institutional layers factor into the (apparent) rise of law enforcement mishaps in the U.S.? Have the hardware and software of war made their way onto a different operation system? The militarization of the U.S. policing has come into its own as a public policy issue in recent years, and the class discussion on Monday has prompted this abbreviated attempt at a basic understanding of the issue, in the context of public and foreign policy.

                There is a minimal, but constructive, dialogue on the relationship between civilian and military cultures during and after wartime but there is sparse, non-academic discussion with regard to the how war has affected the American polity and how the past decade’s military operations will integrate themselves into governmental structures at all levels and manifest in the expression of state power. This might be why shock dominates the tone of the majority of articles addressing the militarization of American law enforcement.

              Training is one aspect of the issue.  After World War II,  the research of Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall found that only 15 % of riflemen fired their weapons during combat. In terms of pure analysis of resource input versus desired output, these types of returns on investment were undesirable. The solution was to change the mental machinery that was activated in combat, to reprogram a soldier’s software in such a way that the hardware would be utilized more effectively. Firing range targets were changed from bull’s-eyes to human silhouettes.  The change was so effective that the firing rate among soldiers in the field increased to 95 % by the Vietnam War. Impressed with the results, Federal and then State law enforcement adopted the training modifications. As the military added faces and other realistic accouterments to targets, the law enforcement community followed suit. This modification in the training regimen of security forces, operating in both foreign and domestic environments, has saved lives, but it has also led to accidents that are the result of split second decisions in a chaotic environment. Training also influences operating culture and institutional protocols. How do tactics that inform combat operations, and by extension institutions that make war, effect civilian policing institutions?

                The connections between military and policing systems are not only present in shared training practices, but also in equipment acquisition. The “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” have injected an enormous amount of money into the defense industry and, directly and indirectly, into the law enforcement community. The winding down of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have also opened up avenues for surplus military equipment to enter the civilian market. The first major instance of this phenomenon appears towards the end of the Vietnam War which, consequently, saw the first SWAT teams form in major cities. Today, even small departments clamor for equipment and weapons that are often not needed given their current mission parameters. An example from my own experience comes from an interview that I conducted with my local police chief for an undergraduate public policy paper on the functioning of local government institutions. When the interview moved to matters of budget, the chief was open about the federal funding the department gets for qualifying as an exceptional program under certain guidelines. The grant that the department would receive could be reapplied for the following year, but the success of that application was contingent on the utilization of the previous year’s allotment. The chief was in the market for an armored vehicle. The community he serves is growing, albeit with retirees who have escaped the crime and heat of Florida (they are referred to, semi-pejoratively, as “half-backers”). The utility of an armored vehicle in this instance is questionable unless, of course, Wheel of Fortune is cancelled. What effect does military grade equipment have on a local, small-town police organization? It won’t sit idle in the department’s motor pool. Its mere existence necessitates it inclusion in operational planning.

                The War on Terror has produced a large number of combat veterans and highly trained security personnel that also happen to be exiting the services during a time of budgetary cutback and defense restructuring. These veterans represent a pool of highly desirable law enforcement recruits. They deserve goods jobs that take their unique experiences and skill sets into account. How should their integration into civilian police forces be mutually beneficial for both the departments and veterans? How can we prevent the tactical and operational mindsets of asymmetric warfare from permeating the vernacular of community policing?

                The issue is complicated but a conversation towards a resolution is about protecting some of the most courageous members of our society from becoming victims of convenience (in training techniques and equipment) and avoiding the creation of a military-policing industrial complex feedback loop. In thinking about these issues, we can move towards extending measured and adequate protection to both the civilian population and members of the law enforcement community.  Laying the blame on the national security state for the problem is counterproductive because those institutions and cultures serve their purpose in the operational environment they were tuned to. Creating scapegoats out of police departments ignores the real strains that these organizations have endured over the course of the “War on Drugs”, as well as neglects to take into account the powerful incentives that exist for militarization. A resolution will require targeted public policy at the local, state, and federal levels. The foreign policy community should also take note that the policy decisions that are necessary and essential for national security reverberate at the periphery of the public sphere for generations.

*Good Ol' Friedrich Nietzsche 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Implementation of Executive Action on Immigration

"I'm an executive order and I pretty much just happen! . . . And that's it!" Saturday Night Live's depiction of the legislative process vs executive action might be amusing (see below), but like many commentaries on the function of the US government, it misses a large portion of the story.  Executive orders may be simpler to enact than laws, but they face many of the same execution challenges as a new law would.  The vast bureaucratic cogs of what some describe as the deep state (the professional portion of the government which mostly doesn't change with elections) are the organizations which actually implement policies set forth in new laws or executive orders.

On November 20, President Obama announced a series of new executive orders to serve as a stopgap measure addressing the worst problems with the US immigration system until Congress can act on the issue, which many in both parties agree is a major priority.  These orders are intended to refocus immigration enforcement on removing undocumented immigrants with criminal records, while allowing those with family residing legally in the US temporary immigration protection, as well as increasing border security.  This would, for example, allow the children of US citizens who are not themselves citizens to stay in the US with their parents, increase resources for border control, and make it easier to collect taxes from undocumented immigrants.

The challenges associated with actually implementing these orders are highlighted on the page dedicated to them at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) site: "Important notice: These initiatives have not yet been implemented, and USCIS is not accepting any requests or applications at this time. Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available. You could become a victim of an immigration scam."  Just because the President has issued the order, does not mean that it has been enacted yet (and, of course, don't be a sucker, there are plenty of scammers who will cheerfully oblige).

In order for these executive orders to be enacted, a number of organizations will have to implement procedures to carry them out.  Many of these will involve significant reshuffling of priorities.  USCIS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are sections of the Department of Homeland Security, and took over a number of functions from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (which was part of the Department of Justice) when it was disbanded in 2003.  USCIS will have to develop procedures for undocumented immigrants to apply for waivers to be allowed to stay in the country, and conduct the background checks which President Obama stipulated in order for them to be eligible.  ICE will have to develop procedures to verify the waiver status of undocumented immigrants, as well as reshuffle its priorities in order to target for deportation different sectors of the population of undocumented immigrants--especially those with criminal records or who are members of gangs or organized crime.  This will likely change the hardware, software, and maybe even personnel needs of both organizations.  Developing the correct tools and training the right people to implement the new ruleset will take time and money, and divert the attention of both agencies from other tasks.  That diversion may be viewed as a feature not a flaw, but it will certainly change the function of the organizations.

In addition, President Obama's executive orders contained language to "fundamentally alter the way in which we marshal resources to the border."  This will involve hiring new personnel for both ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as well as strategically reevaluating how the resources of all organizations associated with border security are utilized and how they could be deployed more effectively.  This will not be a simple or fast process, but given that current practices are clearly inadequate, is a necessary one.

Throughout this process, policy is at risk of being altered or warped.  This is a symptom of the principal-agent problem, wherein agents empowered to make decisions on behalf of another entity (the principal) may choose to make decisions in the best interest of the agent rather than of the principal.  Bureaucratic priorities can often shape policy in ways that are not beneficial to the US, or fair to immigrants attempting to come here.  Every policy must be considered with this in mind--failure to do so is likely to result in inefficient or even perverse results.  In fact, many of the reforms included in the current executive orders seem to be addressing principal-agent related issues.  Importantly, these are that while immigration efforts have often targeted law-abiding undocumented immigrants, it is actually generally in the US's best interests for those people to be allowed to remain in the country.  Overall, they tend to be very economically productive individuals, many of whom are willing to work jobs that native born Americans are unlikely to want to do.  Refocusing immigration efforts to target criminals, while shoring up border security, will result in agents who better serve the principal--in this case the US.

The President, no matter his name or party, is an easy target for Saturday Night Live.  He's charismatic, interesting, and well known.  Bureaucrats in the Reagan Building are not nearly so interesting, but their function in carrying out policy is just as important as that of the politicians who make it.  Taking a closer look at the bureaucratic and organizational process is critical to understanding how US policy actually comes to be.

It Takes Two (Maybe)

              Last week’s meetings between President Obama and Xi Jinping were fruitful in more ways than one. The obvious success, and the most celebrated, was the “US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and CleanEnergy Cooperation”. A small aspect of the news conference, almost an aside, was the announcement of a renewed attempt at collaboration on increased dialogue between the two powers’ militaries. This includes notifications of major maneuvers and the development of a system of rules and norms for interaction at sea and in the air. These measures aim at avoiding a military confrontation between the US and China in Asia in a region that is plagued by territorial disputes. A strategic dialogue between the U.S. and China is an important first step in an attempt at obviating accidental war.
                In light of the implications of failure in this regard, it would seem that the promotion of greater transparency and expansion of communication between the PLA and U.S. military, as well as the respective National Security complexes at the political level, could only serve as a safeguard of the intertwined interests of the two economic giants. There are skeptics though, and the parallels to the US-Soviet cooperation of yore may be misplaced when they are used in reference to a far more complicated interstate relationship, as well as a more volatile and multi-interested geopolitical situation.

                Michael Pillsbury’s article in Foreign Policy blames the failure of past efforts on the “opacity of the Chinese”. While this could be argued in a very general sense, it could also be asserted that the divergences in Chinese and western strategic thought, along with the dictates of geopolitics and ideology combine to create a China that fails to see how its interests would be secured by increased cooperation with a status quo power, and a U.S. national security establishment that grows suspicious of Chinese stonewalling, even forcing some policymakers to consider the Chinese national security establishment as inherently opposed to the security interests of the United States, and therefore an inevitable adversary. This type of disintegration in common security interests and goals is the premonitory underpinning of the concept of the “Thucydides Trap”.

                The Chinese strategic tradition, summarized and compared to western thought in a concise manner in Henry Kissinger’s "On China", illustrates the strategic heuristics that possibly influence Chinese reticence to give away marginal advantages in exchange for a secure parity. One might consider the often compared games of Wei Qi and Chess, as an illustration of differences between Chinese and Western thought. Wei Qi requires patience, a long term strategy that focuses on marginal victories, often ambiguous and spread out among separate conflicting areas. Chess is a game of decisive battle, according to Kissinger, of total victory. There is mystery in Wei Qi’s management of stones; the chess board gives away all strategic possibilities as long as the player knows how to utilize the pieces.

 This comparison continues through both cultures’ canon of strategic thought, Kissinger and Lawrence Freedman come to similar conclusions on the effect of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu on their respective progeny. The efficiency of the structure of military institutions is what drives western strategic thought; the ability to utilize military hardware and the software of personnel to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to make use of its resources precludes the reliance (at least theoretically) on subterfuge to achieve objectives in western strategic thought.  Instead, intelligence gathering and misdirection make adjustments at the margins, in order to nudge the momentum of operation in a more precise direction toward wider strategic success. For Sun Tzu, the entire war is fought, won or lost, within those margins. The PLA has probably not only directly absorbed this conception of war from Sun Tzu, but also indirectly through Mao’s consideration of modern warfare and the PLA’s study of the Revolution in Military Affairs. With a strategic concept informed by victory at the margins, it’s not surprising that there might be a great deal of anxiety within China’s national security complex when it comes to increasing transparency and expanding communications with a possible adversary.

                In addition to strictly kinetic strategic considerations, one must also take into account the grand strategic implications of a security dialogue between the U.S. and China. The U.S. favors such a dialogue, because the prevention of conflict maintains the status quo, a status quo in which the U.S. enjoys intense comparative advantages and entrenched power. It doesn't have territorial disputes, and its main security concerns are tied to its extensive trade and economic considerations. Deterrence is the primary policy of a state interested in maintaining the status quo, and deterrence requires speaking in a language specific to the objective. So, a full display of U.S. power and intentions, through a strategic dialogue, fits into the vernacular of deterrence.

                This is not to say that the Chinese position is inherently aggressive. Chinese economic interests are vast as well and it has its own strategic considerations in the Pacific when it comes to the transportation of vital resources (such as oil) to its own economy. But, given its claim on Taiwan, the myriad of issues in the South China Sea, the territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayou islands, and contested borders with India, just to name a few concrete examples, the maintenance of the status quo is not in the Chinese geopolitical interests, especially if shifts in the current order present the possibility of making these concerns resolvable in China’s favor in the near future.

                How should the United States respond then if the prospects for this latest security dialogue flounder? If the Chinese security establishment is unwilling to meet the U.S. halfway, then the U.S. Military should invest in a rational, unilateral transparency policy (within the realm of national security interests) that serves the purpose of deterrence and the maintenance of peace in the region. As the Chinese government and military becomes more comfortable with its relative position, it’s possible that the need for asymmetric strategies (with marginal objectives) will dissipate, and the incentives for dialogue will become more appealing. 

Importance of Belonging to Something Special

Stories about 13 or 14-year-old girls from France, Britain, or Austria flying to Syria to marry jihadists and live "Disney-like" life are mind-disturbing, though have become a common narrative when it comes to the discussion on the Islamic State (IS) and its destructive activities in the 'Middle East+'. 
Today, the numbers of recruited by IS young representatives of the West and Asia have reached 4,000 (IS united about 40,000 people), with almost equal split between the targeted regions. The United States, British, and French governments warn about over 100, 500, and 700, respectively, citizens joining the terrorist group in its jihad against the world, not necessarily non-Islamic. Only Central Asian (five countries, but mainly Tajikistan) youth represent another 1,000 young fighters in the Levant. Local leaders, both state and spiritual, warn about the arithmetic progression the recruits are falling into while accepting the sister- and brotherhood that the IS offers.
Analysis of the reasons for following extremism portrait a paradox: on the one hand, unemployed or 'bored' with school life youngsters seek a venue for 'enriching' themselves and providing with better economic stand, on the other - they intend to find own niches in the complicated world of powers. Some research conducted by think tanks (i.e. Carnegie Endowment, the Middle East Institute, the Eurasianet) claim major five incentives for youth from across the world joining the terrorist group: (1) poor (domestic) education,(2) economic instability, (3) bad governance, (4) ideological polarization, and (5) no trust in the West (Asia). One could admit the rationale, if only.. if only the issues raised were somewhat exclusive and not global. It is hard to imagine that the Islamic State offers more than French Government does, for example. However, with time and long-term investigation of the matter, it becomes obvious that the IS remains being more marketable due to the ever-winning commercial of representing "something special" -- a war against injustice and a war for declaration of caliphate ruled by brothers and sisters.

Psychologists would support an argument that the teen ages are the most crucial when it comes to building individual's identity: sense of belonging to something of importance and bigger, better than standard pre-programmed path that the contemporary governments offer -- education, work, family, etc. But, at the same time, the question of how the IS is able to advertise itself as something more promising than the formal track in the West or Asia keeps triggering analysts' minds across the globe as the issue continues to rise. Social media and other psychological instruments (i.e. pressure on "making the choice of being pro- or against the democratic (unjust) principles") seem to lead the IS recruiters to success, given the emotional and ideological imbalance the youth between 13-30 often represent. "Brainwashing", in such circumstances, occurs momentarily as the video and audio sources designed by IT-savvy jihadists attract the audience and drive immature minds to take actions. Wanting to be part of the "change", even young adults are ready to take arms and embrace the feeling of belonging to the "union of global importance".

American, European, Central Asian reformists and general public blame the national governments for lacking responsibility to counter the Islamic State and prevent inhumane recruitment by 'psychologically ill' extremists. However, the opinions do not offer feasible actions that would guarantee success in the counterterrorism programs. Therefore, complaints are generally ignored and, in addition, responded back with unenthusiastic rhetoric from the governments, emphasizing the importance of joint actions which happen to turn into an even more complicated process. Improved social welfare or economic opportunities might or should bring positive outcomes in the long run; but, organizations, like the IS, are flexible enough to fill in any opening socio-economic-political vacuum with the brand that, apparently, makes many happier than democratic states could.

Since the issue is really about pleasing the psyche or offering the space for belonging to something special, maybe, the Western and Asian states should re-orient themselves into targeting those imbalanced minds via relying on marketing strategies while offering the 'standard path'. And, instead of simply stopping prospective members of the IS in Chicago or Paris or Jalal-Abad airports, raise awareness about the long-term (personal) threat joining the terrorist group causes. Obviously, the "awareness" should be raised using exactly the same tools that the Islamic State successfully exploits, if not even more attractive (for youth) venues. Understanding the youth and pinpoint targeting the youth' wants seem to be essential in winning the psychological warfare that religious extremists unveil online, sharing 'glamorous' stories from the ground. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

More than 52 years later

               Who are some of our closest neighbors? Canada and Mexico are the obvious ones. Our relationships with the two countries are pretty good. Each nation is part of NAFTA after all. Now, what other nations are there which are right on our doorstep? The Bahamas and Cuba are the other two that come into mind. For the most part, we are pretty friendly to our neighbor countries. Cuba is the sole, sore exception to that rule. What was once America’s play spot and sugar plantation has now become one of our antagonists.

               Why is this so? Some countries around the world believe that Cuba is a friendly country. Ask Ebola-stricken Liberia, which has over 100 medical personnel and doctors fighting the deadly virus and helping the overburdened hospitals. They've also sent doctors to help with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and the 2004 Sri Lanka Tsunami this past decade. Last year alone, they sent nearly 4,000 healthcare workers to help service Brazil’s rural areas. For a large portion of the world, they have helped the world prosper.

               Some might argue that it is because of Cuba’s Communist Government. Since the fall of Batista’s brutal regime, Cuba has been in the hands of the Castro brothers. However, our relationship with other communist countries has not resulted in a continuous embargo. Since the 1970’s, we have repaired our relationship with the People’s Republic of China, using it as a counterweight to Soviet expansion. The US has also begun to ameliorate their relationship with Vietnam’s communist government. For nearly 2 decades throughout the 20th Century, the US has frowned upon the Vietnamese communist’s existence. Whether it was through supporting French or the capitalist south US has sought to eliminate the communist government in favor for a west-favoring regime. In total, around 50,000 Americans soldiers were killed during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, we have now begun to trade weapons with the Vietnamese. More specifically, the US is selling lethal maritime arms to the country. It reveals a distinct change. Instead of trying to eliminate the government or create John Rambo movies against the evil Vietnamese, we are now trying to covertly support its naval territorial rights within the East/West Philippine/South China Sea.

               So why do we still have a ~50 year embargo against Cuba? Was it due to their choice to accommodate Soviet aggression against the US, which was within their own self-interests? It was one of the few occasions that the Cold War almost went Hot.  If given the order, US bombers would have performed several air-to-surface strikes against the known Cuban missile sites within 15 minutes. We are geographic neighbors. In fact, there are several areas within the Florida Keys that are closer to the communistic island than the nearest capitalistic behemoth known as Walmart. The main reason for the embargo lies within our own domestic politics and demographics. A lot of Americans were financially harmed by Castro’s revolution and several Cubans were forced to seek refuge within the US. Those that were forced to give up their property and flee Castro’s regime have not forgotten or lessened their hatred. The Cuban exiles have maintained a strong presence within domestic politics. Their power can easily be seen in the exceptional US policy towards Cuban migrants. The ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy is unique amongst the region. Numerous Haitians are turned back while several Cubans who won their race against the Coast Guard are allowed to stay. The Cuban diaspora is powerful. It is also the main reason why Cuba still has an embargo against it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#fueelestado: Mexico's Peña Nieto Struggles at Home, Abroad

Even in this polar weather, it's hard not to feel the rage boiling over in nearby Mexico.

In late September, 43 students at a teacher training school in Guerrero went missing. They had traveled to the town of Iguala to protest against government corruption. Investigations paint a grim story: eyewitnesses report that after violent clashes with police, the 43 were arrested and herded into police vans at the mayor's orders. Members of the same police force have since confessed to Mexico's Attorney General that they handed the students over to Guerreros Unidos (GU), a drug gang in southern part of the state. This month, GU members finally led authorities to the landfill where they killed the students and and burned their bodies. The remains are so badly burned that DNA analysis is expected to take weeks.

Anti-corruption protests have been raging throughout Mexico, from the Guerrero State Congress to the National Palace in Mexico City. The incident, along with multiple mass graves authorities uncovered in the search, highlights the brutal gang violence plaguing Mexico's rural areas. It also raises serious questions about corruption and the ties between gangs and politicians.

Firefighters arrive to try to extinguish several burning vehicles in front of the state congress in Chilpancingo on 12 November, 2014.

 The Economist

As President Enique Peña Nieto faces this roiling situation at home, he also finds himself burned by scandal abroad. This week, Bloomberg reported that Mexico abruptly cancelled a $4.3 billion high-speed railway deal with China Railway Construction Corp., a prominent Chinese construction firm. The cancellation followed the revelation that the unrivaled CRCC bid included Grupo Higa. Interestingly, Grupo Higa's boss also owns the credit firm financing Nieto's private, $7 million home. The cancellation is a significant blow to China-Mexico relations. Nieto himself has been trying to attract Chinese FDI in Mexico, and this collapsed deal is sure detract from his confidence-building measures.


Such scandals are undermining Nieto's legitimacy at home and abroad. As his international business relations suffer, Mexico seethes at his perceived indifference over domestic issues. Various analysts have called for reform in Nieto's Mexico, including anti-corruption, targeting crime and strategic security reform. Will such reforms be enough to save his faltering political career? Protests are already calling for his resignation, and the Chinese are unlikely to ever do business with him personally.

While change in leadership may put out fires temporarily, many of Mexico's underlying issues will remain. No matter who is in charge, Mexico's leader will need to enact significant changes in terms of corruption, which seems to underpin many of the current developments. Transparency in large-scale business deals and personal finance may be a good place to start. At home, incentivizing state security forces may cut down on ties to cartels, saving the lives of many and bolstering the leader's political credit. It's about time; the people of Mexico deserve it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Twenty Three Years as a Ruler -- Long Enough?

"Land of cotton", "Home of silk", "Nation of Silk Road history" -- these nicknames make Uzbekistan stand out from its neighbors (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) in Central Asian region. Given the population size of 31 million, the newly independent (from the USSR) country represents one of the most authoritarian nations across the world with its 76-year old president, Mr. Islam Karimov, staying continuously 'reelected' since 1991. 

According to the official data, GDP per capita in Uzbekistan is the 3rd highest (after Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) in the region and amounts 4,060USD. However, critics state that if the country's economy was allowed to operate within free market rules, every Uzbek would have access to over 20,000USD per annum. Corruption and political elite controlled circulation of goods and services prevent Uzbek economy from development, even if the annual growth remains being among the highest (c.a. 6.5 per cent) in the developing world. Thus, minimum salaries today (including in capital city, Tashkent) hardly bypass 90USD/month amount. President Karimov does not see the problem as a matter of survival for the population, but rather opposes growing external (labor) migration (in order to increase their standards of living, tripling their monthly wages at least) of Uzbeks (especially, young men and women) to Kazakhstan and Russia.

Uzbekistan is the world's 5th leading nation in production of cotton: 3.4 million tons of the "white gold" were harvested in 2014. Only the political elite and, primarily, the ruling family members, do not accept the fact of annual injuries and fatalities during poorly equipped process of picking cotton. Vast majority of workers and students of government institutions (i.e., schools and universities) are continuously forced to join the field work and demanded to meet minimum quotas, such as collecting 133 pounds (a season) if you are a student and 177 pounds - if you are a teacher. In response to the growing number of deaths in cotton fields (smoke inhalation, tragic incidents due to lack of equipment security inspection), President Karimov "congratulated" Uzbeks, calling them "my dears", for common accomplishments and asked to "be patient" in seeing future prosperity of the country.

In fact, local people are known to be the most resilient in the region: letting their government exercise the limitless authoritarian power and enrich the ruling clans. Some consider that notion as being an outcome of the massive shooting and killing of hundreds of civilians with President Karimov's command during street protests in Andijan (in 2005). All that people were demanding back then was economic reforms and protection of human rights. Today, after series of sanctions and embargo imposed on Uzbekistan from limited list of international partners (i.e., the EU) and provision of technical support (from Human Rights Watch and International Labor Organization) to the Government in order to monitor human rights violations, foreign analysts observe somewhat improvement in the conditions that Uzbeks live. Inspired by the international support, sometimes youth organize peaceful protests in public (where unrestricted) places around Tashkent to express their views on presence of state-sponsored labor exploitation in cotton fields and cases of torturing human rights activists reporting to foreign media outlets on violations in Uzbekistan.
Tentative progress in protection of labor rights noted by ILO in 2014 could be considered as an achievement of the effectively working government of Uzbekistan. If only..if only the out-flowing information was reliable, as the media outlets, as well as Uzbek personnel working for international organizations and even embassies, are absolutely censored and closely monitored by the "secret" agencies appointed by Karimov's growing clan. The world has already witnessed the split occurring within the ruling family (unusual for society with strong family ties): Islam Karimov's famous daughters -- a diplomat, pop star, model, and businesswoman Gulnara (currently under house arrest for bribing Telecommunication and Trade companies that brought billions in damage to the Uzbek government) and an Ambassador to UNESCO (Geneva) Lola (who tries to distance herself from the ongoing clashes within Karimov's family) -- seem to oppose their aging father's regime and, most recently, the "opposition" expanded, as President's grandson joined the 'club of warriors', asking Islam Karimov for political reforms. One can only hope that the younger generation of Karimov's clan are not seeking to replace their (family) leader by themselves, as the next presidential election is upcoming in March 2015.

Although in its 23-year independent history Uzbekistan has not experienced free and fair elections yet, Islam Karimov is getting obviously old and, therefore, less attentive when it comes to even existing diplomatic relations with other states. Uzbeks who are currently working outside of their home country want to return to the fertile land [and rich for natural resources (including oil and gas)] of their parents and grandparents, raise their children themselves and not having to earn living for their families on a distance, and fully exercise their rights for freedom of expression and assembly. Whether the situation in Uzbekistan will change for better soon or not remains to be hard to envisage now. However, given the dissolution occurring within the heart of the problem -- powerful Karimov's clan, -- Uzbeks might prefer continuous (but soon-ending) patience over possible massive killing of protesters who after all will not be able to introduce the long-awaited change into the land of "while gold".

Islamic State’s New Jab at Legitimacy

On Thursday, Islamic State announced their intent to create their own currency resurrecting the ancient Islamic dinar from 634 CE. This has consumed Western media and led the vast majority to completely discount this move as doomed for failure. Islamic State continues to move towards a true state as it established a Treasury Department that will manage the new currency. ISIL's success in this endeavor is not necessarily important. The fact that they are taking this new step indicates that terrorist organizations intend to be a lasting entity with a permanent place in global affairs, not unlike the rise of many nation states in centuries past.

Certainly ISIL has huge impediments to overcome to pull this off, but it might have more value than the world seems to believe. Sure no bank in the world will accept ISIL’s currency on the sole basis it comes from a terrorist organization. They will also need to pull enough money together to buy the necessary material for widespread dissemination. Plus the logistics of minting a new currency haven’t been ironed out and will be even more difficult to pull off with constant airstrikes. The continuing battles over control in Syria and Iraq will work against a stable government and currency. But just because there are many factors working against ISIL’s plan does not mean it will not get off the ground or end in utter failure. 

To ISIL’s credit they have not disclosed exactly how and where they will mint their new seven coins, made out of gold, silver and copper. Doing so would only provide an easy target for drone strikes. Coming up with the money to produce the new coins may not be as difficult as it seems as they are considered one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations from ransom demands and confiscated oil sales. Changing its current store of currency into new money might appear counterproductive. Except doing so contributes to ISIL’s caliphate and reinstatement of Sharia law by eliminating the “tyrannical monetary system that was imposed on the Muslims [leading to] enslavement and impoverishment.”

Using precious metals for currency not only ties the new currency to its historic roots but also ensures the new dinar has intrinsic value from its inception. Even though the world will not accept the new dinar thereby delegitimizing its value on a global scale, it can certainly help establish legitimacy in ISIL occupied territory. As a fledgling currency with no international recognition it wouldn’t be too difficult to use on a local level that is wholly controlled by ISIL. Gold and other precious metals have long been the currency of choice as its value transcends what the government sets, until this century.

The U.S. may have been too quick in casting ISIL as just a destabilizing force in the region and the world would be remiss to write off this latest announcement as impractical and a nonstarter. Even if it fails at the local level, the fact that ISIL has “assembled a team of experts to figure out how it is going to work” indicates their commitment to the establishment of a true state. This level of bureaucracy meant to outlive individual leadership demonstrates a new and serious threat. ISIL does not have to succeed at this juncture in establishing a lasting currency. The longer Islamic State can outlast the airstrikes while holding onto power and territory the more legitimacy they will gain in the region until they can mint again.