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Stablecoins as a route into Venezuela?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/11/2020 - 9:57pm in

Over the last decade, few nations have experienced as much monetary and payments chaos as Venezuela has. Fans of bitcoin, Dash, and other cryptocurrencies have all tried to help by introducing Venezuelans to their preferred coin. But even with Venezuela's bolivar currency entering hyperinflation stage, cryptocurrency adoption never happened

Circle, a U.S.-based company that issues the stablecoin USDC, is the latest to join the Venezuelan crusade. Last week it belatedly announced that it had partnered with the opposition Guaidó government  to deliver financial aid to Venezuelan health care workers. Here is Circle's CEO, Jeremy Allaire:

In its blog post, Circle says it helped to get million of dollars to Venezuelans by leveraging "the power of USDC...to bypass the controls imposed by Maduro over the domestic financial system." Allaire suggests that in his tweet that stablecoins have now become a "tool of US foreign policy."

Did stablecoins play a vital role? I'm skeptical. If you pick through the transaction chain carefully, USDC's role was trivial. Nor does the wider claim made in Circle's post, that stablecoins have somehow arrived on the world stage as a foundational infrastructure in the future of the international monetary system, hold much water. 

For those who don't know, stablecoins are sort of like bank accounts with U.S. dollars in them, the difference being that they are hosted on a blockchain like Ethereum. Yes, they are a new and rapidly growing segment of the payments ecosystem. But if any payments instrument has helped Venezuela over the last few years, it's not stablecoins. Rather, it's the twin combination of old fashioned U.S. paper money and regular U.S. dollar bank accounts. More on that later.

A bit of background. The U.S. has declared the Maduro-led government to be illegitimate and thrown its support behind the Venezuelan opposition government led by Juan Guaidó. In 2019, U.S. officials cut off Maduro's access to Venezuela's U.S.-based bank accounts and put Guaidó in control. To give credence to the Guaidó opposition, an idea was hatched to take $19 million from these U.S. bank accounts and somehow airdrop it into the pockets of poorly paid Venezuelan health care workers. Each health care worker was to get $100 a month for three months.

Airtm, a money services business that offers U.S. dollar accounts, was recruited by the U.S. government to be the distribution agent for this $19 million airdrop. Airtm is a traditional e-wallet, much like PayPal or Skrill. People can get an Airtm account after going through a know-your-customer process, submitting ID and such. Having been approved, they can then transfer funds between their bank account or other wallets like Neteller. The money can also be spent using a virtual MasterCard debit card.

The first step in the Venezuelan campaign: move Guaidó's $19 million from his U.S. bank account to Airtm's U.S. bank account so that Airtm could distribute the funds. 

This is an easy step, right? It's just a US-to-US transfer, after all. Guaidó's bank simply initiates a wire transfer via Fedwire, the Federal Reserve's large value payment system, upon which the $19 million arrives in Airtm's U.S. bank account. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes. With that step out of the way, Airtm can now create $19 million in Airtm deposits for distribution to Venezuelan health care workers.

Instead, USDC stablecoins were substituted (either fully or partially) for Fedwire. Guaidó's bank bought $19 million in USDC stablecoin tokens (or maybe just a portion of that), and then sent these tokens to Airtm. Now Airtm could create $19 million in Airtm deposits for distribution.

By inserting itself into the US-leg of a transaction, Circle gets to make the claim that it was part of a stirring effort to bypass "censorship by the Maduro regime." But really, all it did was take the place of a very plain vanilla Federal Reserve transaction, one that never faced any obstacle anyways. The tough part isn't state-side, it's getting the fund to Venezuelans, In effect, USDC's role in this chain of transactions is superfluous (a point that Cas Piancey also makes here). Mind you, it certainly does make for good marketing.

Once Airtm had received the $19 million (via Fedwire or USDC), it could now embark on the tricky Venezuelan leg of the campaign. This involved signing up Venezuelan health care workers for Airtm accounts and then crediting their new account with U.S. dollar balances. (Nope, it didn't credit the workers with USDC. Airtm created internal database entries representing U.S. dollars for distribution to health care workers). From the sounds of it, this process didn't always go smoothly. The Maduro regime blocked Airtm's website, which meant that Venezuelans would have to use a VPN to connect. After talking to a number of medical workers, José Rafael Peña Gholam described the payouts as "somewhat chaotic."

I suspect this is why PayPal, which has much wider usage in Venezuela, probably opted out of the airdrop and let Airtm conduct it. PayPal didn't want to put its existing business at risk of being sanctioned or blocked by the Maduro government.  

If Airtm is to be the deployment vehicle for future Guaidó airdrops, it will have to refine its process. This isn't Airtm's first attempt to airdrop funds into Venezuela. Leigh Cuen chronicled an earlier attempt by Airtm to airdrop cryptocurrencies to Venezuelans for charity purposes. Only 57% of recipients ever engaged with the funds.

Now for my second criticism. The Circle press release describes Airtm's U.S. dollar accounts, or AirUSD, as a stablecoin-backed dollar token. And thus it can boldly claim that thanks to the combination of AirUSD and USDC, the world has just witnessed a "global first with use of stablecoins for foreign aid."

But Airtm's so-called stablecoins are not stablecoins. That is, U.S. dollars held at Airtm are not U.S. dollars held on a blockchain. Rather, they are very much like U.S. dollars held at PayPal or Skrill or Neteller. You know, good ol' fashioned centralized money. So for each Venezuelan that did succeed in connecting to Airtm to claim their dollars, they were getting non-blockchainy stuff.

So much for a "historic moment" in which "economic and political leaders have turned to stablecoins." USDC played a bit role, and AirUSD aren't stablecoins. 

That being said, stablecoins like USDC could be part of future relief programs. We'll have to see. One problem with using stablecoins for these sorts of airdrops is the massive customer due diligence requirements. The airdrop required vetting 60,000 Venezuelans to determine that each one was indeed who they claimed to be. But compared to e-wallets like PayPal and Airtm, stablecoins issuers have incredibly lax know-your-customer standards. Circle probably just doesn't have the staff to pull a carefully targeted airdrop off.

For now, no payments product has been more helpful for Venezuelans than classic U.S. paper dollars. So much U.S. currency has flooded into the country that it has effectively dollarized. An honourable mention goes to Arizona-based Zelle, a network that allows for instant transfers between U.S. bank accounts. Venezuelan retailers have adopted Zelle as an electronic payments method, although this surely goes against Zelle's terms of service:

I've written about Zelle usage in Venezuela before. Just as there is nothing blockchainy about paper dollars, there is nothing blockchainy about Zelle either.

Cuba Could be on the Brink of a Revolutionary COVID Vaccine, But US Sanctions Are Slowing It Down

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/11/2020 - 6:04am in

Cuba has announced positive and promising results for a number of separate COVID-19 vaccines it is currently developing, but U.S. sanctions against the small island nation are hampering the development and rollout of the potentially life-saving treatments.

Two candidates, named Sovereign 1 and Sovereign 2, have generated antibodies blocking infection in animals and are showing similarly encouraging signs on tests on human subjects. Meanwhile, a separate vaccine, based on a protein from the hepatitis B virus, is unique in that it is delivered through the nasal tract and does not require a needle to administer.

Should any of these efforts ultimately succeed, the Caribbean nation — already a medical powerhouse that has developed a lung cancer vaccine and methods to stop mother-to-baby HIV and syphilis transmission— will likely become an important supplier to other Latin American and developing countries who have been effectively shut out from purchasing COVID vaccines from Western companies, as rich nations have already begun hoarding coronavirus medicines.

Dr. Helen Yaffe of Glasgow University, author of “We Are Cuba!: How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World,” was impressed and heartened by the news, telling MintPress:

Cuba now has four COVID-specific vaccine candidates under clinical trial. The fact that a small Caribbean island can achieve such a remarkable feat is testimony to its state-owned biotech sector, which is directed towards public health demands and integrated into its healthcare and education systems. After years of being told that only the market can lead to efficiency and innovation, Cuba’s socialist planned economy demonstrates what is possible when there is political will, good coordination, organization and the priority of social welfare.”

However, Cuban immunization developments are being seriously hamstrung by the actions of the U.S. government, primarily due to the decades-long blockade on the island, something which the Cuban government estimates has cost it over 750 billion U.S. dollars.

As Reuters reported, cash-strapped Cuba cannot afford to buy the raw materials necessary to upscale its vaccine development to help other countries. Hospitals face huge obstacles importing lifesaving equipment from abroad due to the blockade, while the sanctions force the country, which imports the large majority of its staples, to spend far more on food than other nations. As a result, almost one third of young children suffer from anemia due to the monotonous and sub-par nutrition available, according to the World Food Program.

The blockade also forces Cuba to continually repair its crumbling infrastructure and halt the importation of vehicles, even leading to a return of horse-drawn carriages on the island. Food production is hampered; with little petroleum available for agriculture, the country instead went back to relying on human or animal labor. The blockade also led to the forced development of a domestic pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, which has grown to become among the most advanced in the world.

Last November, the United Nations voted 187-3 in favor of ending the blockade (with the U.S., Israel, and Brazil voting “no”). Almost two-thirds of Americans support an end to the action as well. Despite this, the Trump administration has, in fact, intensified the pressure on Cuba, as Yaffe explained:

Cuba has been subject to an additional 46 sanctions and new measures to tighten the blockade, to scare off foreign investors, to create scarcity, to create difficulty for Cuba to access raw materials, including for its biotech sector and for its pharmaceutical industry.”

One example of this, Yaffe notes in her new documentary, “Cuba and COVID-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity” is that the island can no longer purchase ventilators or parts for existing machines because the Swiss company it dealt with was purchased by an American one and fearing potential reprisals, it halted any contact with Havana.

A more positive, but nevertheless difficult, challenge the Cuban government faces in testing its new vaccines is the lack of COVID-19 patients on the island, which has the highest proportion of medical professionals per capita anywhere in the world. To date, the country has recorded only 7,639 cases and 131 deaths. U.S.-backed conservative neighbors such as Brazil, Ecuador, and (until last week) Bolivia, that had expelled Cuban doctors working inside their borders, have fared far worse.

Under Trump, the U.S. also led the world in the theft of medical equipment and personal protective gear, confiscating shipments, and diverting supplies away from other countries to keep for itself. And at the height of the outbreak in Iran, the government was unable to buy or import lifesaving gear due to American sanctions, as no nation was willing to risk the wrath of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who threatened harsh sanctions on anyone willing to do business with Iran. Finally, the World Health Organization directly intervened, gifting Iran supplies, sparking the Trump administration to leave the WHO among other reasons.

The U.S., along with other wealthy nations, has also been quietly buying up the majority of any future supply of vaccines, cornering the market, and leaving little hope for developing nations to secure their own supply of vaccines. The for-profit corporations conducting the research have made it clear that they intend to withhold production secrets in order to cash in. Furthermore, they do not have the capacity to immunize the entire world. U.S./German company Pfizer, for example, predicts that it could supply enough for only around 650 million people by the end of 2021. This is why the development of treatments outside the for-profit model is so important.

Today, Pfizer announced that its own trial, featuring over 43,000 people in six countries was a success, with a 90% immunization rate and only 94 people contracting the virus from the vaccine. Massachusetts-based Moderna claims that its vaccine is even more effective, with a 94% immunization rate, and does not have to be stored at -80°C temperature like Pfizer’s offering.

The first country to announce a potential vaccine was Russia, however, the government sharing the news in September, with researchers claiming “Sputnik V” was 90% effective and that Russia could produce 500 million doses annually. The Russian and American offerings appear to be based upon the same scientific logic and have produced broadly similar results. However, the Russian vaccine has been near-universally panned in the Western press, while the American ones heralded as a historic achievement. Thus, Sky News’ headline described Pfizer’s breakthrough as a “great day for science and humanity” while casting doubt on the validity of Sputnik V, claiming the Russian’s secretive approach is a throwback to “its spirit in the Cold War.”

Regardless if any or all of the treatments work, the world will need a sustained and coordinated international effort to immunize itself against COVID-19, as no one company can possibly supply the entire planet. By continuing the blockade against Cuba, the U.S. government might be condemning much of the world to living months longer under a deadly pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 1.32 million people.

Feature photo | A Cuban health worker collects a sample for a COVID-19 test from a baby who arrived in a flight from Mexico at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 15, 2020. Ramon Espinosa | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Cuba Could be on the Brink of a Revolutionary COVID Vaccine, But US Sanctions Are Slowing It Down appeared first on MintPress News.

Critics Say New Iran Sanctions Designed To “Choke off Humanitarian Exports” Amid Pandemic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/10/2020 - 5:36am in

Yesterday the State Department announced the beginnings of yet more sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the country’s financial industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the move was necessary to “further deprive the Islamic Republic of Iran of funds to carry out its support for terrorist activities and nuclear extortion that threatens the world,” adding that his actions were part of a “maximum economic pressure campaign” that will continue until Iran ceases its “malign behavior.”

Pompeo insisted that the sanctions “do not affect existing authorizations and exceptions for humanitarian exports to Iran, which remain in full force and effect.” Yet existing sanctions have already wreaked havoc on the Islamic Republic, killing thousands. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch condemned the Trump administration for “drastically constraining the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines and medical equipment,” its executive director Kenneth Roth describing Washington as “compounding Iranians’ misery by depriving them of access to the critical medical resources they urgently need.”

Iran was one of the first countries to be hit badly by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the U.S. used the opportunity to cause maximum devastation by intimidating other nations into refusing to sell or donate them medical supplies, lest they be hit with secondary sanctions. As a result, Iran was woefully under equipped to deal with the problem. In the end, the World Health Organization stepped in, sending supplies themselves — part of the reason the Trump administration was so keen to leave the organization. Washington insiders openly discussed using the pandemic to force the Iranian government out of office and implement a regime more suited to their needs.

While the government claims that the sanctions are “directed at the regime and its corrupt officials that have used the wealth of the Iranian people to fuel a radical, revolutionary cause that has brought untold suffering across the Middle East and beyond,” it is widely understood that the attack on the banking center will affect Iran’s ability to function and even purchase basics like food from abroad.

The National Iranian American Council (no lovers of the current administration in Tehran) condemned the action as “heartless and sadistic,” claiming the sanctions were explicitly designed to “choke off humanitarian exports to Iran” and displayed the cruelty of the Trump administration. “It is critical that the American people and our elected representatives put an end to this cruel, inhumane, and strategically catastrophic suffering and humiliation that is being imposed on innocent Iranians in our names,” they concluded.

“I don’t know how many times I have to read a headline about #Iran that breaks my heart. Why are the lives of Iranians disposable? Do we not have compassion for the hurt, the pains, the struggles of the people of Iran? Why must we be so callous?” asked Leila Gharagozlou, a producer at MSNBC.

“Contrary to the US claims, humanitarian goods and services are affected by the cruel sanctions. Financial institutions fear the US vengeance, which is why the financial channels created to facilitate transactions for humanitarian commodities, have had no tangible results,” said Mohammad Zareyian, an Iranian representative at the United Nations General Assembly.

The sanctions have already caused serious hardship on Iran, sending the prices of consumer goods soaring and the value of its currency, the rial, plummeting. Like in Venezuela, oil production has sputtered, as the Islamic Republic can find few buyers for its main national export. The price of food has also become a serious issue for many. “The sanctions deliberately target ordinary Iranians, women and children,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Professor of English Literature at the University of Tehran told MintPress last week. “They are designed to kill hospital patients and to create poverty. They have had partial success.”

The U.S. has dreamed of a change of government in Tehran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 overthrew the American-backed Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as leader. To that end, it has propped up dictators like Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, fomented protest movements, supported virtual shadow governments like the MEK, and imposed suffocating sanctions on the nation.

Earlier this year, Trump assassinated top general Qassem Soleimani as he was attending regional peace talks in Baghdad. In the summer it imposed new “snapback” sanctions on Iran for its refusal to comply with the nuclear deal, despite the fact that the U.S. had already walked away from the same deal. In August, Trump appointed disgraced Iran-Contra hawk and regime change specialist Elliott Abrams as his chief advisor on Iran, a signal to all those paying attention that increased hostilities were in the offing.

There is speculation that Trump will attempt to increase hostilities with Iran before the election, provoking an international incident. If that is the case, these sanctions are merely a prelude to something bigger.

Feature photo | A member of the Iranian army walks past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for coronavirus patients set up by the army at the international exhibition center in northern Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2020. Ebrahim Noroozi | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Critics Say New Iran Sanctions Designed To “Choke off Humanitarian Exports” Amid Pandemic appeared first on MintPress News.

Hoping to Force an Outcome, US Sanctions Opposition Parties in Venezuela Ahead of Elections

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/09/2020 - 4:43am in

Elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly are fast approaching. But the United States does not want them to go ahead at all. Sanctions on Venezuela are nothing new. But yesterday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the unusual step of sanctioning leaders of local opposition parties in an attempt to pressure them to pull out of the contest in December.

Remarkably, considering the well-documented flaws with the same problems in the U.S., Pompeo’s statement dubiously claimed that Venezuelan voting machines are unreliable, that millions of voters remain unregistered, and that the country’s supreme electoral council is politicized and hand-picked by the executive branch.

That many parties are contesting the upcoming December elections to the National Assembly (that the opposition already controls) seems to undermine Pompeo’s claim that Nicolas Maduro is a “desperate and illegitimate dictator.” The 56-year-old former CIA Director, however, explained that they are merely “puppet parties” participating in an “electoral charade.” The National Assembly is roughly akin to the French Assemblée Nationale or the U.S. House of Representatives.

Last week Pompeo toured Venezuela’s neighbors to discuss regime change. “Maduro has to go,” Pompeo said while in Guyana. “We know that the Maduro regime has decimated the people of Venezuela and that Maduro himself is an indicted narcotics trafficker. That means he has to leave.” The United States and Guyana announced that they would subsequently be carrying out joint military border patrols along the country’s sparsely populated bur disputed frontier with Venezuela.

The Venezuela-Guyana border dispute is an extremely old one, going back to unresolved disagreements between the Spanish and British empires, long before either’s establishment as a state. The large, heavily forested region claimed by both countries is largely untouched and thought to be home to uncontacted tribes. Because of this, the dispute has never spilled over into a serious conflict. Pompeo claimed that the operation is purely an anti-drugs operation, but in the same speech described as a “narco-trafficker,” muddying the waters further.

Earlier this month an American ex-C.I.A. agent was arrested outside the country’s largest oil refinery complex in possession of C4 explosives, a grenade launcher, and other weapons.

The United States already tried the tactic of sanctioning Maduro’s opponents during the 2018 presidential elections, when it demanded opposition leader Henri Falcon drop out, threatening him with sanctions. Falcon remained in to contest the election, but with many of his coalition heeding American advice and boycotting it, he was resoundingly beaten. In the end, Maduro won with 68 percent of the vote. The process was watched over by 150 international observers and foreign dignitaries, who attested to its veracity. Maduro has asked teams from the United Nations and European Union to oversee the December vote, something the U.S. does not want to happen.

Since coming to power in 2013, Maduro has presided over an increasingly dysfunctional economy and falling standards of living. Inflation has racked the country, there have been acute shortages of certain goods, oil production has collapsed, and many have left the country as a result. Much of the mayhem, however, is due to the impact of American sanctions, formally condemned by the U.N., and estimated to have killed at least 100,000 people. Earlier this week, the State Department announced sweeping new “humanitarian support” for Venezuelans, although, given its history in the country, it is highly likely to be politicized. Much of it is actually earmarked for the neighboring countries Pompeo visited.

Maduro’s public approval rating is very low. Yet his party still stands a decent chance in the National Assembly elections. This is partly due to the equally unpopular opposition coalition, which is fractured and unsure what to do. Some favor a boycott of the vote like in 2018, others to compete and win.

Historically, when eschewing violence and pursuing purely electoral means, the opposition has fared relatively well at the ballot box, winning the National Assembly in 2015. Two years earlier, their candidate Henrique Capriles received 49 percent of the vote for the presidency. However, they are beset with infighting, with the United States propping up self-declared president Juan Guaidó as the legitimate ruler of the country, even though he wields no power. Earlier this month Capriles called on him to stop “playing at government on the internet.”

Guaidó rose to prominence in January 2019 when, as it was his party’s turn to lead the institution, he was appointed head of the National Assembly for one year. He immediately declared himself president, however, shocking the world, and would go on to launch five unsuccessful coup attempts since, all with U.S. backing.

While Guaidó enjoys virtually unanimous support among Democrats and Republicans (he was a guest of honor at Trump’s State of the Union, where he was given a standing ovation by both parties), a number of embarrassing financial and alcohol-related scandals have made him a deeply unpopular figure inside the country. Recent polls put his public support at three percent. In January he “resigned” from his party, meaning he has no formal political office at all.

Despite this, the U.S. continues to bankroll his stunts, even supplying him with money it stole from the Venezuelan government so he could give a large stipend to the country’s 62,000 health workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trying to explain Latin America to an international audience, the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described his region as an “upside down world,” where everything is turned on its head. Thus, Venezuela is an autocracy with upcoming elections, presided over by a dictator who was elected twice, with a larger share of the electorate than Trump in 2016 or Obama in 2012, holding sham votes watched over by impressed international observers. The land of the free, however, attacks anyone who participates in elections or the 97 percent who do not support their own self-declared president, a man who has never even run for the office he claims he holds. The U.S. helps forces for democracy launch coup d’etats, assassination attempts, or terror plots in order to bring about relief from the suffering it is causing through its own actions. No wonder so many people are confused.

Feature photo | A man passes a mural of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, July 22, 2020. Ariana Cubillos | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Hoping to Force an Outcome, US Sanctions Opposition Parties in Venezuela Ahead of Elections appeared first on MintPress News.

Podcast: The Beirut Explosion, Economic Terror and the Drumbeat of War Against Hezbollah

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/08/2020 - 7:16am in

Welcome to MintCast — an interview series featuring dissenting voices the establishment would rather silence– I’m your host Mnar Muhawesh Adley.

Lebanon is reeling from a blast that destroyed much of the capital Beirut on Tuesday, August 4. 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate in the city’s port is thought to have caught fire and exploded, killing at least 157 people and injuring thousands more. The blast, believed to be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, destroyed much of the city and has left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.

Exploiting this tragedy are the usual suspects within Western media and government including the United States and Israel who are beating the drums of war as they try to blame Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah for the massive explosion.

Joining us today to discuss this and what this means for the region and world are two independent journalists and analysts who lived through the blast, Laith Marouf, and Marwa Osman.

Laith Marouf is a journalist, geopolitical analyst, and activist who has served as Canadian National Chair of the group, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. He was the Executive Director of Concordia University Television in Montreal and currently lives in Beirut where he saw first hand the devastation caused by the August 4 explosion.

Marwa Osman is a lecturer at the Lebanese International University and Maaref University. She’s also the host of the MidEaStream broadcasted on Al-Etejah English Channel. Her writing focuses primarily on Middle Eastern issues and can be found in a wide range of outlets, including Press TV.  Like Marouf, Osman is a resident of Beirut.

The explosion could barely have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is suffering through an economic meltdown, with a collapsing currency, rampant inflation, employment difficult to come by, and food becoming increasingly scarce. Worse still, the country’s Economy Minister Raoul Nehme confirmed that grain silos at the port, containing around 15,000 tons of wheat, were destroyed. As a result, the country has barely a few weeks of food in reserve.

Hospitals, already feeling the strain due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, have been overwhelmed, and have been forced to turn away many arriving for urgently needed medical care. With the city destroyed, roads closed and vehicles upended, most of Beirut’s residents have had little option other than to stay where they are, begin to clean up, even as clouds of toxic fumes engulf the area.

The blast occurred in a context of rapid economic decline, increasing public outrage over corruption — including from Washington — and Western economic sanctions that have squeezed the country dry.

This program is 100 percent listener supported! You can join the hundreds of financial sponsors who make this show possible by becoming a member on our Patreon page.

Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Please leave us a review and share this segment.

Mnar Muhawesh is founder, CEO and editor in chief of MintPress News, and is also a regular speaker on responsible journalism, sexism, neoconservativism within the media and journalism start-ups.

The post Podcast: The Beirut Explosion, Economic Terror and the Drumbeat of War Against Hezbollah appeared first on MintPress News.

US Threatens European backers of Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, NATO in DC’s Crosshairs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/07/2020 - 12:35am in

The U.S. is starting to fret about the imminent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the second of two underwater gas pipelines running from the Russian Baltic city of Ust-Luga to Greifswald, Germany, and has begun issuing informal threats of repercussions to companies who are backing the nearly-finished project. 

According to unnamed sources, at least a dozen American officials from three separate departments held video conference calls with European contractors working on the pipeline, while U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo reportedly warned private European backers of “risk[ing] the consequences” of continuing their support for the key energy infrastructure project.

Several European energy concerns, such as France’s Engie, Germany’s Wintershall Dea and Uniper and Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell have indirect financial ties to the massive $11.7 billion-dollar underwater oil pipeline being constructed by Russia’s partially state-owned Gazprom, which will double Russia’s oil export capacity to Europe and seriously infringe on Atlanticist designs over the old continent.

Only six percent of the 1,200-mile pipeline remains to be laid in Danish waters, which is stalled due to U.S. sanctions against the European contractors working on that particular stretch. However, Denmark has recently circumvented the sanctions by licensing different vessels, and construction is set to resume by September.

Gazprom CEO, Alexei Miller disregarded claims that U.S. sanctions would stop the project from being completed, and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the pipeline would be commissioned before the end of this year. The completion of the Russian pipeline would mean a practical end to the viability of American LNG exports to Europe; a fate the U.S. has been trying to avoid since the project’s beginning in 2012.

 

US economic warfare

On July 15, the U.S. State Department updated its public guidance on sanctions against Russia and singled the pipeline project, imposing “sanctions on “a person” that “knowingly” invests in Russian energy export pipelines, or that sells Russia goods, technology or services for such pipelines where certain monetary thresholds are met.”

The revised Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) reverses previous stipulations, which contained explicit exemptions for any pipeline projects that were signed before the sanctions were made law. Nord Stream 2 falls within this category and given that the investment threshold for triggering sanctions is relatively low, practically “any significant work done to advance the Nord Stream II pipeline” could be at risk of being targeted by U.S. economic warfare.

The potential ramifications of the new guidance are significant in light of Germany’s clear interest in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project as well as their recent ascent to several key leadership roles within NATO and the EU. Tensions between the U.S. and Germany regarding the Atlanticist organization – punctuated by Trump’s intention to withdraw U.S. troops from the Teuton nation – have started to rise as a result of the pipeline’s unique potential to diminish American influence over its European partners.

 

The end of NATO

German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, admitted that the relationship between his country and the U.S. while remaining cordial, was now “complicated.” Meanwhile, a member of the German Bundestag (parliament), Christian Schmidt, called for the resumption of talks surrounding the inclusion of Russia into NATO; a topic that was last seriously considered in the 1990s during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Such rhetoric coming from a key U.S. ally in Europe and a vital NATO member could be the canary in the coal mine for an eventual trade war between the U.S. and the EU. In addition to Schmidt, who was Germany’s Minister of food and agriculture and the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, a group of German MPs have outright stated that the revised CAATSA targeting the Nord Stream 2 project was nothing less than a “threat to European sovereignty.”

America’s unilateral strategy of economic aggression against its traditional allies in Europe is facilitated by its position as the number one trading partner of Europe and its second provider of goods and services after China. But the pressure to bow down to Washington’s dictates is starting to fray the boundaries of diplomacy and the threat of an actual trade war between the U.S. and Europe is becoming a strong possibility.

Even the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-controlled think tank for NATO policy, is beginning to question whether the military alliance “will still be relevant in the future” in a recent article recapping a debate similarly titled “Is NATO still relevant?.” The panelists were mostly of the same mindset when it came to the diminishing importance of the post-war Atlanticist alliance from the American perspective and making the argument that it no longer served U.S. “defense needs.”

Participants stressed China’s preeminent role as America’s new main antagonist and expressed skepticism over NATO countries’ willingness to provide any “military assistance” in U.S. efforts to contain China. “I don’t dislike NATO,” said Chicago University Professor, John Mearsheimer, “but we live in a completely different world. For most of my life, Europe was the most important area of the world. That’s no longer the case. The distribution of power has changed. Asia is the area that really matters the most to the United States today. The question is, what can Europe do [about China]? What can NATO do? My argument is it can do hardly anything. We have to wake up and smell the coffee.”

Feature photo | Tubes are stored in Sassnitz, Germany, to construct the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 from Russia to Germany, Dec. 6, 2016. Jens Buettner | DPA via AP

Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.

The post US Threatens European backers of Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, NATO in DC’s Crosshairs appeared first on MintPress News.

Trump Fires Latest Salvo in US-China Sanctions War

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/07/2020 - 2:33am in

In a speech at the White House Rose Garden yesterday, Donald Trump announced new sanctions on China due to their “interference” in their own Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. The president said that he was placing “massive tariffs” on Beijing and that Hong Kong would now be treated the same as mainland China, with “no special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies.”

Trump’s new law, the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, unanimously passed Congress, and places mandatory sanctions on officials or organizations (including businesses) that the White House views as helping Beijing clamp down on political freedoms.

Earlier today, China’s foreign ministry said it “firmly opposes and strongly condemns” the new law interfering in its domestic affairs, adding that it would “definitely hit back,” by taking, “necessary responses to protect its legitimate interests, and impose sanctions on relevant U.S. personnel and entities.”

 

A new Cold War?

The move is merely the latest chapter in the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing. Even before taking office, Trump was demonizing China as an enemy and the reason for America’s flagging economy. He has also taken every opportunity to frame the COVID-19 pandemic as the “Wuhan China Virus,” even committing the United States to pull out of the World Health Organization for refusing to censure Beijing.

In 2012, President Obama announced the U.S.’ new “Pivot to Asia” strategy, beginning to build up military forces in the region to surround China and Russia. The 2021 Pentagon budget explicitly focuses on an upcoming war in the region, requesting an increase in funding as a result.

Along with the political and military conflict brewing, Washington has also been prosecuting an information and trade war against China on the world stage. The Trump administration is attempting to convince other nations to restrict Chinese company Huawei from controlling the worldwide 5G network while mulling over a total ban of popular Chinese video app TikTok. “It’s something we’re looking at,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week. Last month a U.S.-government funded think tank also managed to convince Twitter to delete over 170,000 pro-Chinese accounts. American military analysts have publicly advocated that the U.S. should bombard Asia with “Taiwanese Tom Clancy” stories, where Beijing is the enemy, as part of a new Cold War.

 
The U.S. has also been funding and supporting what it calls “pro-democracy movements” across China and Hong Kong, including the famous protests that have engulfed the city for over a year. Official figures show that the National Endowment for Democracy has spent over $29 million bankrolling anti-Beijing efforts since 2014. China’s newly passed national security law criminalizes subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, leading many of the protest leaders to immediately fly to the United States or Great Britain. Despite the new law, Hong Kongers’ support for the protests remains relatively high, at 51 percent, although that number is dropping.

 

The history of a city-state

The insatiable British thirst for tea began to develop in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the Chinese empire would accept only gold or silver for their valuable crop, which they maintained a monopoly over. The trade was beginning to bankrupt Britain, so it used its military to force the Chinese to cede Hong Kong to it, from where it flooded the country with opium, devastating the society. By the end of the 19th century, around a third of China was addicted, further weakening the empire, which was forced to sign over the region to the British for a further 99 years in 1898. The British used Hong Kong to swap tea for opium. At the same time, they stole the plant and began cultivating it in northern India. The innumerable death toll and the loss of sovereignty contributed to what the Chinese still call the “century of humiliation.” While Hong Kong was handed back in 1997, the city maintains a 50-year agreement with Beijing called the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which gives it an amount of self-autonomy, something which protesters today say is under threat.


Pro-Trump protesters stage a rally outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong, Dec. 1, 2019. Vincent Thian | AP

While its local economy boomed when China was relatively closed off from the West, economically, Hong Kong began to decline in the 1980s and 1990s due to increased competition from other Chinese regions. After 1997, it largely became just another city, and was outpaced by new powerhouses like Shenzhen and Shanghai, leading to economic malaise and a declining or flat-lining quality of life for many residents, adding fuel to the current protests. Many protesters have flown the colonial British flag because they associate it with a more prosperous time.

 

Bi-partisan consensus

In his briefing yesterday, Trump also took shots at his opponent for president, Joe Biden, whose “entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party,” he claimed, adding that, “it’s been devastating for the American worker.” Trump also suggested that Biden loved China more than the United States. For their part, Biden’s foreign policy team claim their number one priority is “dealing with authoritarian governments” like China, hinting they would welcome a new war with Beijing.  Biden himself has tried to one-up Trump, condemning the president for supposedly being “soft” on China, suggesting he would take a tougher line.  He currently holds a 9-point lead on Trump in combined polls for November. Regardless of who wins, increased conflict with China seems likely.

Feature photo | Pro-China supporters step on an effigy of US President Donald Trump outside the U.S. Consulate during a protest, in Hong Kong, May 30, 2020 over a series of US measures aimed at China as a rift between the two countries grows. Kin Cheung | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Trump Fires Latest Salvo in US-China Sanctions War appeared first on MintPress News.

The Caesar Act: The Latest Western Attack on Syria Didn’t Drop From a Plane

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/06/2020 - 1:50am in

Talib Mu’alla served as a soldier in the Syrian Arab Army before he was wounded in Aleppo in 2014. As he described the multiple shots he took to his body, I thought it remarkable that he survived.

“A shot (bullet) to my chest, a shot to my stomach, three shots in my spine. My chest, stomach, and intestines ruptured, and I lost a kidney. I was also shot in the right side of my face,” he recounted. “I fell into a coma for 25 days, then woke for a few days and fell back into a coma for another 16 or 17 days. It took two years for me to be able to walk again.”

Talib was discharged from the army after his injuries and has since joined an auxiliary of the army. “From  2011 until now, I haven’t taken off my uniform. And I won’t take it off until the war is finished,” he said.

 

The media’s monsters

As a consequence of the war on Syria, there has been immeasurable loss: the destruction of historic places like Palmyra, Maaloula (the ancient Aramaic village northeast of Damascus), Aleppo’s souqs; and the destruction of city districts in the fight against terrorism. Aleppo’s souqs were being carefully restored when I traveled to Syria in March. Yet, there is still much rebuilding to do and thanks to the Caesar Act, that just got harder.

More appalling than the destruction of Syria’s historic places is the human loss, civilian and military alike. Regarding the latter, little concern is meted out by Western press over the deaths and maiming of members of Syria’s national army. On the contrary, the Syrian Arab Army is portrayed in Western media and by Western politicians as murderers and thugs personally belonging to President Assad and not to Syria.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed countless videos and anecdotes of Syrian soldiers putting their lives on the line in order to protect and save civilians from terrorists are available for any who wish to see them. The army is a conscript army but also includes career soldiers and men and women who voluntarily joined in order to defend their country.

Last August, I interviewed the Syrian Arab Army’s Head of Political Administration, General Hassan Hassan. He noted that the Syrian army “includes in each of its formations, soldiers from all Syrian governorates, with no exception.” This defies Western media’s portrayal of the Syrian army as “Assad’s army” or their claims that those fighting “rebels” (terrorists) are only from the Alawi sect. These types of claims are put forth in an attempt to create the illusion that in Syria, it has been President Assad and “his forces” against disenchanted Sunnis, an utterly false claim.

This sectarianism exists largely in the minds of those backing terrorism in Syria, be they Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, or Western leaders.

When I asked General Hassan to speak more on the army, he replied:

The two greatest armies in modern history have failed to achieve what the Syrian Army has accomplished. In Afghanistan, fewer than 10 percent of the number of terrorists in Syria were able to defeat two armies: the Red Soviet Army and the U.S. Army.

But, the Syrian Army defeated such terrorism. The Syrian Army fought battles that can be classified as new in military science. The Syrian Army fought above ground and underground battles in addition to their battles against the media war, intelligence war, information war, economic war, gang and street-to-street wars. Despite all of that, the Syrian Army achieved victory. Therefore, can we imagine the magnitude of the sacrifices made in this respect by the Syrian Army?”

On various trips to and around Syria over the years I’ve encountered Syrian soldiers in hot zones where terrorists linger nearby and in liberated areas, at checkpoints and in hospitals. Many are young, and others are grey-haired, proud to be serving in the defense of their country and citizens.

Many drive taxis in their off-hours to compensate for the meager salary they receive, a salary that doesn’t compare to the hefty salaries paid to members of Gulf and Turkish-backed armed militants.

Together, and with the help of Syria’s allies, they staved off some of the most heinous and powerfully-backed terrorists the modern world has known, but at a great price.

The numbers of wounded soldiers, particularly critically-wounded, are not published, so it is hard to gauge just how large their numbers are. However, given that the war on Syria has raged for nearly a decade, with soldiers fighting well-armed terrorists from around the world–terrorists with the backing of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria — the numbers of martyred and maimed can only be tragically-high.

 

Wounded veterans prepare for life after war

Given that the U.S. government frequently criticizes the government of Syria for not taking care of its citizens, it’s worth reflecting on the shameful manner in which the U.S. neglects its own veterans of war. But in Syria, a myriad of associations work with war-wounded soldiers to provide prosthetic limbs and rehabilitate them after their injuries, giving them life skills to work or start their own businesses.

Jerih al-Watan (The Wounded of the Homeland), is a veteran support program founded in 2014 by the Syrian Presidency with the support of the Syrian Trust For Development and medical experts. The aim of Jerih al-Watan, according to its Facebook page, is “providing adequate care and appropriate rehabilitation to secure a decent life for the wounded,” from the army, popular defense forces, and internal security forces.”

Jerih al-Watan focuses on physical rehabilitation, social and psychological support as well as vocational training for jobs ranging from construction to food production.

The latter is what I saw last week when I traveled to the Qardaha region in northwestern Syria. A region I had not previously visited, Qardaha is a paradise that the average person may not associate with Syria, as many mistakenly imagine the country to be all desert. It is not, of course.

Traveling a familiar route from Damascus to the coast, I passed rows of greenhouses and the citrus and banana trees that are prevalent in the Tartous and Latakia region and finally moved up along a road lined with pine trees and wildflowers, winding up through the mountainous hills of Qardaha. Photos of martyred soldiers appeared when passing through Qardaha itself, as they do all over Syria.

I reached the training point, where, in the evening, a gorgeous pink sunset descended over the layered hills, the sea in the distance.

Soldiers were receiving training in the skills of cheese and yogurt making, staples of the Syrian diet. They were first shown how to make the products, then had a hand at making them themselves. The final results were the delicious spice-colored yogurt balls and black-sesame-laden cheeses that are ubiquitous in Syria’s restaurants.

Syria Wounded soldiers

Wounded soldiers learning to make dairy products. Photo | Eva Bartlett

Syria Wounded soldiers

Making yogurt balls, cheese and yogurt. Photo | Eva Bartlett

With these skills, the soldiers are able to start a small enterprise and support their families.

In between training sessions, wounded soldiers sat chatting in the shade. With their permission, I spoke with some of them about their injuries and feelings about having served in the army. With injuries ranging from vision and speech impairments to difficulties walking or loss of hands, I was struck by the graceful confidence of the injured soldiers.

Syria Wounded soldiers

Wounded soldiers discussing their options after receiving vocational training. Photo | Eva Bartlett

Instead of wallowing in their injuries, they looked to future prospects, improving their knowledge to improve their lives.

 
A reservist in the army, Ayet Yusef was wounded in 2013 while serving in Aleppo. “We were attacked at 2 am by armed terrorist gangs. A clash occurred, during which I was wounded by shrapnel in my left eye. I lost sight in that eye. But after treatment, it is now fine.” Yusef, like most wounded soldiers I’ve met, is proud of having served, and even prouder of his injury. “We raise our heads to the sky. We were in the Syrian Arab Army and that is an honor for us. And if they now asked me to serve again, no problem,” he said.

Another soldier, 30-year-old Du’a Ijna, had difficulty speaking as he explained how he was injured in 2011. “We were on patrol in Khan Sheikhoun (Idlib),” he recalled, “A terrorist group attacked and I was wounded by shrapnel to my brain. That affected my hands, legs, and speech. I was paralyzed for a month and a half, but after physiotherapy, it got a little better.”

Jaafar Badran was injured in 2016 while serving in Aleppo. His injury left him without his right hand or left leg. “We resisted the terrorism, and there will be martyrs and wounded among us, and that’s okay. What matters is the country returns to stability.”

Inad Ahmed was injured while serving in Tulul al-Himr, al-Qunaytra. “I was shot in my spinal column, and for three years I couldn’t walk.” Ahmed now walks with a severe limp but speaks with a smile. “I have to be optimistic about what I’m going through and keep looking ahead. What happened happened.”

Just beyond the training location, a beautiful sunset burst out and I thought about the many wounded soldiers, some whose lives were disrupted forever, others who overcame major injuries to the point they could walk, or at least hobble, again. They were all gracious. Some on the shy side, others — including men whose injuries were the worst — gregarious and humorous. Spending time with them was humbling, but also reaffirmed what I already knew about the army: they are some of the most courageous people I’ve met and those who write lies about them should hang their heads in shame for being so far from the truth.

Syria Wounded soldiers

Post-training photo of the group of soldiers who received vocational training. Photo | Eva Bartlett

Initiatives like this, teaching and encouraging economic self-reliance, are more critically-important than ever these days in Syria. After over nine years of war and relentless sanctions on the country, Syria’s economy is as shattered as the cities formerly occupied by terrorist groups. Neither would be devastated had the U.S. and allies not launched its clandestine war against Syria, but they did, and the economic war on Syria will only worsen.

The Syrian Trust, a nonprofit national development organization headed by the first lady of Syria, has been quietly helping soldiers with rehabilitation and prosthetics as well as giving them training, even supplying machinery and other equipment needed for small businesses.

In November 2016, after having visited Aleppo for the fourth time just weeks before the city was finally liberated from the array of terrorist gangs occupying its eastern and southern regions, freeing the people of the hell on earth they’d endured for years — I was back in Damascus and visited the Hamish Hospital in Barzeh, where Jarih al-Watan was manufacturing prosthetic limbs performing physiotherapy for wounded soldiers.

There, I saw many soldiers going through differing degrees of physiotherapy and rehabilitation after having been injured. Many were without one or both legs, others missing hands and arms.

I met Ali, a 30-year-old soldier who lost both his legs in a mine blast a year prior on the Khanasser road to Aleppo. The first time I went to Aleppo in July, the taxi driver told me that Da’esh (ISIS) routinely creeps onto the road at night to lay mines and the SAA in the morning has to clear them so the road is safe for civilians and transport trucks.

Ali was a slight young man, and emblematic of the stoic, strong nature of Syrians fighting this war against terror and for their country. Ten days after losing his lower legs, Ali was walking on artificial ones. When I met him, he was finishing physiotherapy and wants to go back to defending Syria.

I am discharged from the army but I want to go back. We want this war to be over.”

He isn’t the only gravely wounded soldier I’ve met who wanted to return to service. In May 2018, Syrian soldier and incredible photographer Wassim Issa was gravely injured in a terrorist landmine blast that blew off both his lower legs and left him in a coma for two days. When I visited him in the hospital three days after his injury, he was sitting up in bed wearing a huge smile at my visit. Although I already knew him to be a courageous and gentle man, I was surprised at how upbeat he was, having just escaped death and lost his ability to walk.

In subsequent visits over the years, Wassim maintained his positivity that he would walk again. Indeed, by October 2018 Wassim had been fitted with prosthetic limbs and done the needed physio in order to walk again.

On one of my visits, he told me: “I don’t need money, I don’t need a house, I just need peace for my country.”

Syria Wounded soldiers

A screenshot from a news report shows Wassim Issa in January 2019 via the Facebook page, “Here Lattakia

I met Captain Ali, a Syrian pilot and soldier who was injured five times (more, actually, but he only counts the major injuries), several times in Latakia in July and August of 2016. He was shot by a sniper, the bullet going through his arm, sniped through his hip, shot in his head (requiring 26 stitches), received shrapnel in his chest, and finally lost his left leg to a Da’esh suicide bomber.

Captain Ali was awarded the Russian Medal of courage for his work in the Latakia countryside. He also had stories of the helicopter he was flying being hit on three different occasions but not being downed.

His personality was a mixture of humility, confidence, humor.

Syria Wounded soldiers

Meeting with Captain, Ali in a Latakia hospital in 2016. Photo | Eva Bartlett

And in Aleppo this past March, I met Ahmed Abo Alkef, 29, in then recently-liberated al-Zahra’a, Aleppo. Alkef joined the army in June 2010 and was close to fulfilling his conscription service when he was shot in the head by a terrorist sniper, leaving him in a coma for several months.

He is now paralyzed on one side of his body, the bullet still in his skull. Like other soldiers I’ve spoken with, Alkef without hesitation to my question replied he is proud of serving in the army and proud of his injury, life-shattering as it is.

In the Barzeh Center physiotherapy training hall, Ali walked with a young man who appeared to be around the same age, also missing his lower legs.

At the prosthetics factory, the Director, Dr. Yousef Sarraj, stressed that in his experience 25 percent of those patients they treat request artificial limbs specifically with the intent of returning to the battlefront to defend Syria, including the ten officers who are currently waiting for limbs so they return to the battlefront.

While there, the power briefly went out and roughly 20 seconds later, the generators kicked in. Dr. Sarraj noted: “We can overcome problems of power, but we can’t overcome the problem of getting raw materials for the prosthetics.”

Unsurprisingly, Western sanctions on Syria include prohibiting key materials needed in prosthetic limbs manufacturing, including (among many things) resin, the primary material used in the manufacture. According to Dr. Sarraj, to acquire 100 kg of resin would take around one year.

 

Meeting the needs of sanctions-ravaged Syrians

In addition to its work with injured soldiers, the Syrian Trust For Development also focuses on providing micro-credit, assisting disabled Syrians, supporting children with cancer, rural development, supporting families of missing persons, supporting victims of sexual violence, culture, and heritage, and children’s and women’s issues.

In October 2016, I visited a community center in Barzeh, Damascus, supported by the Syrian Trust. The community center manager, Ahmad al-Khodr told me the center had opened in 2015 and served a diverse community.

“There is a lot of political and religious diversity here in Barzeh, as many people from all over Syria left their homes, due to the war, and settled here in Barzeh. In this community center, you’ll see a small glimpse of Syrian communities around the country. Every day there are more than 400 beneficiaries here, between children, men, and women.

Barzeh and nearby Aysh al-Warwar had big battles. The FSA (Free Syrian Army) was there for a long time. In 2014, there was reconciliation here between the Syrian army and the FSA. This community center is very near the region under truce. So this place is more diverse than other regions of Damascus (in terms of political leanings).”

He explained the Trust’s approach to assisting those in need:

We study the cases to know what are the needs of the people here. We visit their houses. We don’t implement any plan without knowing what is needed and knowing that the plan will meet their needs.

We have a law department which, among other things, helps people who have lost their identity papers during the war.”

Vocational training is offered at the center, including teaching women to sew and men to paint homes.

Syria Wounded soldiers

Learning sewing skills at the Barzeh Community Centre, October 2016. Photo | Eva Bartlett

We also support them with courses on how they can start their own businesses, how to market their products and business. After the workshop we provide them money to start their own businesses, some are loans and others they don’t need to repay. After the courses, we connect the beneficiaries with factories or places of work. And others start their own small businesses.”

Khodr explained that psychological support is offered to women whose husbands were martyred or kidnapped by the FSA or other terrorist groups and to victims of domestic violence. “We teach them to know their rights,” he said.

Children also received psychological support, and for children who have left school because of the war, the Trust gives them special classes to get caught up enough to return to schools.

“This applies to children up to baccalaureate level. We also have classes for people who never studied, elderly who don’t know how to write or read. They receive a certificate from the Syrian government.”

I asked about the women whose husbands might have been members of the FSA or other terrorist groups. “Aren’t you worried that the women will earn money and give it to their husband, to the fighters?”

Khoder replied, “The people who live here are very poor, very in need. They want to live, eat, sleep in peace, they won’t be giving their money to fighters, they need it simply to live. Here we work with beneficiaries as people, not numbers. Other NGOs (UN etc) you’ll see them working in high-class clothing. Here we work with them as brothers and sisters. We work with them whatever their religious or political view. We work with them as humans. They are our brothers and sisters in Syria.”

This last point, about how the Trust deals with those it helps, I saw for myself when Trust employees were talking with the injured soldiers receiving vocational training. They indeed took an interest in the soldiers’ lives, engaging with them as fellow Syrians, to the point that when it was learned that it was the one year birthday of a soldier’s daughter, a cake was procured and we visited the family.

Over the tabbouleh and kibbeh the family offered, as the birthday girl wobbled around the room charming all, the grandfather, himself having served many years in the army, spoke with pride about his wounded son’s service. The personal insights gleaned from conversations and from seeing the state of homes helps the Trust to assess their needs, even needs not mentioned by recipients themselves.

 

More misery from the West: increased sanctions

In 2020, it’s no secret, and no longer debatable, that the misery Syria’s people have faced for almost a decade—the relentless, savage, terrorism of civilians and military alike—is a product of Western, particularly American, covert and overt meddling.

Western countries use forums like the United Nations as well as government-funded media to further their goals and distort the reality about events on the ground in Syria. The West supports terrorist gangs who have slaughtered and pillaged since the war on Syria started in 2011. In fact, the West and its Gulf allies instigated the non-revolution, flooding money and weapons into Syria before the first protests even emerged.

As I wrote on my personal blog in 2015:

In 2002, then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton added Syria (and Libya, Cuba) to the “rogue states” of George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil,”…meaning Syria was on the list of countries to “bring democracy to” (aka destroy) even back then.

Anthony Cartalucci’s “U.S. Planned Syrian Civilian Catastrophe Since 2007” laid out a number of pivotal statements and events regarding not only the war on Syria but also the events which would be falsely-dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Points include:

  • General Wesley Clark’s revelation of U.S. plans to destroy the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.
  • Seymour Hersh’s 2007 “The Redirection” on NATO and allies’ arming and training of sectarian extremists to create sectarian divide in Lebanon, Syria and beyond.

The 2009 Brookings Institution report, “Which Path to Persia?,” on plans to weaken Syria and Lebanon, to later attack Iran.

Further, asreported:

  • U.S. funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005.
  • Since its founding in October 2011, the Syrian National Council has received $20.4 million from Libya, $15 million from Qatar, $5 million from the UAE.

Former French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Roland Dumas, in aJune 2013 TV interviewspoke of his meeting (two years prior) with British officials who confessed that:

Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned….”

 

The Caesar Act

The recent passage of the Caesar Act is the newest level of criminality targeting Syria, even the name of the act is based on a lie. An implementation of yet further brutal sanctions against the people of Syria, it will cause immense suffering, all under the premise of targeting Syria’s leadership and helping Syria’s people. The flawed and hypocritical logic is one which the U.S. has applied to tens of nations who have refused to cower to its hegemony.

Even U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey has acknowledged America’s intentional destruction of Syria’s economy, allegedly stating recently that the sanctions, “contributed to the collapse of the value of the Syrian pound… the Syrian regime is no longer able to manage an effective economic policy… due to the economic crisis that is also affecting Lebanon. ”

In the same statement, Jeffrey claimed the sanctions will “protect” Syrians, a comment far from reality.

Recall that after the sanctions-induced murder of between one million-one and a half million civilians in Iraq, the Western narrative of sanctions as merely targeting leaders of nations has long been exposed for the malevolent lie that it is.

The website Sanctions Kill notes that “Sanctions are imposed by the United States and its junior partners against countries that resist their agendas. They are a weapon of Economic War, resulting in chronic shortages of basic necessities, economic dislocation, chaotic hyperinflation, artificial famines, disease, and poverty. In every country, the poorest and the weakest – infants, children, the chronically ill and the elderly – suffer the worst impact of sanctions.”

In Venezuela, sanctions led to the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans in 2018 alone.

Heavily-sanctioned for years, Syria faces the same risks.

As Syrian-American activist, Johnny Achi, told me:

The sanctions on Syria have been imposed since I could remember. Firstly in 1979, when the U.S. first designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism for its roll in support of the PLO and the Palestinian cause.

‏In 2004, a new set of sanctions was imposed by Bush the son after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and after Syria refusing to kneel to the demands of the new world order.

Since the so-called “uprisings” began in March 2011, the Obama administration intensely pursued calibrated sanctions to deprive the Syrian government of the resources it needs to quell the terror and violence inflicted on the Syrian population by Obama’s supported Nusra and ISIS terror groups, and to pressure the Syrian president to give in and resign, “to allow for a democratic transition as the Syrian people demand.” Which could not be further away from the truth, since President Assad, by most Western reports, continued to enjoy no less than 70% popularity amongst all Syrians.

All these sanctions up to the new Caesar Act were bearable since Syria has always pride itself of being self-sufficient economically and never needed help from the international community, and refused to be in debt to the IMF or the World Bank.

The Caesar Act of 2019 came in direct response to the series of victories by the Syrian Army against terrorists across the whole country, setting the stage to the final battle of Idlib, the terrorists’ final hotbed.”

Under the sanctions levied by the Caesar Act, Syria cannot import vital medications or the materials to produce them, including for cancer, hypertension, and other critical ailments. Sanctioning Syria’s ability to import medicines, medical equipment, and among many other things, materials for rebuilding, is criminal and an act of terrorism.

As I wrote in a December 2019 editorial for RT:

When I was in Syria last October, a man told me his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but because of the sanctions he couldn’t get her the conventional treatments most in the West would avail of.

In 2016, in Aleppo, before it was liberated of al-Qaeda and co, Dr. Nabil Antaki told me how –because of the sanctions– it had taken him well over a year to get a simple part for his gastroenterology practise.

In 2015, visiting Damascus’ University Hospital, where bed after bed was occupied by a child maimed by terrorists’ shelling (from Ghouta), a nurse told me:

“We have so many difficulties to ensure that we have antibiotics, specialized medicines, maintenance of the equipment… Because of the sanctions, many parts are not available, we have difficulties obtaining them.

In 2018, Syria’s Minister of Health told me that Syria had formerly been dubbed by the World Health Organization a “pioneer state” in providing health care.

“Syria had 60 pharmaceutical factories and was exporting medicine to 58 countries. Now, 16 of these factories are out of service. Terrorists partially or fully destroyed 46 hospitals and 620 medical centers,” he told me.

I asked the minister about the complex in Barzeh, targeted with missile strikes by the U.S. and its allies in April 2018. It turns out that it was part of the Ministry of Health and manufactured cancer treatment medications as well as antidotes for snake or scorpion bites and stings, the antidote also serving as a basic material in the manufacture of many other medicines.

Syrian-American doctor Hussam al-Samman told me about his efforts to send chemotherapy medications to Syria for cancer patients in remission. He jumped through the various hoops of America’s unforgiving bureaucracy to no avail. It was never possible in the first place.

We managed to get a meeting in the White House. We met Rob Malley, a top-notch assistant or adviser of Obama at that time. I asked them: ‘How in the world could your heart let you block chemotherapy from going to people with cancer in Syria?’

The U.S. and allied Western countries imposing the sanctions on Syria should be imprisoned for their crimes against humanity and their support of terrorism in Syria. Yet, there is never justice and the criminals run the show.

Fares Shehabi, a Syrian member of Parliament from Aleppo, highlighted the attack on his country’s economy in 2011:

…when EU backed “rebels” began a systematic campaign of burning & looting thousands of factories in Aleppo, including my own!” The EU, he continued, “sanctioned the Syrian economy to make things worse for our people!”

The latest round of sanctions against Syria, which came into effect on June 17, will target not only the people but also Syria’s ability to rebuild the country. This includes rebuilding the city of Raqqa, utterly destroyed by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, whose presence is in violation of international law and of Syria’s sovereignty.

“Sanctions Kill” also notes, that, “Currencies are devalued and inflated when sanctions are levied. Countries are pressured to stop doing business with targeted countries. The first sectors affected are generally medicines, cost of food, power, water treatment and other essential human needs. Sanctions violate international law, the UN charter, Geneva and Nuremberg conventions because they target civilians by economic strangulation, creating famines, life threatening shortages, and economic chaos.”

According to the World Food Program, “7.9 million Syrians are food insecure – an increase of 22 percent in just one year. Syria is in the grip of a severe economic crisis, and this is driving levels of food insecurity. Rising food and fuel prices and a depreciating informal exchange rate are making it more difficult for families to access the food they need.”

This is precisely what is occurring in Syria, which, with the help of its allies, is attempting to rebuild. US sanctions will hinder the rebuilding process.

The other day I was chatting with a college student, Naji Kaskas, about how this new round of heightened sanctions affects him. He said:

I started working this year, my savings are in Syrian pounds. Now, they’ve lost half their value, or more. This Caesar Act, what it already has done to us is to contribute to the collapse of the Syrian currency.

We’re unable to buy food like chicken and meat, now, they’re way too expensive. Even milk. We’re not living a normal life, we have anxiety because our future is not stable.

Before, 500 Syrian pounds were equal to US$1 (Note: before 2011 it was around 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar). Now, it has reached 3,000 Syrian pounds, so our salaries are much less now.”

Jordanian political figures denounced the heightened sanctions appropriately as “economic terrorism”, calling them “one of the most dangerous types of crimes against humanity.”

Syrian-American activist Johnny Achi has been back to Syria countless times during the war, including since early 2011. He has seen the effects of the war and also the effects of the sanctions. He told me:

These final sanctions have broken the back of Syrians, whom after 10 years of war are exhausted, resources depleted, and simply put, were looking forward to the rebuilding process and the economic recovery. And that is precisely what these sanctions are meant to stop. Any country, or entity that attempts to help Syria gets back on its feet, will too become a target of the brutal US sanctions.

In a nutshell, what they could not take from us by force, they’re trying to take by punishing and starving an entire population.

But we will always remain resisting. After all that we’ve been through, and all the sacrifices we paid, we have no choice but to continue to live free or die free.”

Indeed, the people of Syria are fighting for their country, families and future, at great personal expense. Meanwhile, the US does everything in its power to destroy their future, country and livelihoods.

Who is really the terrorist state here?

Feature photo | A Syrian soldier who lost his legs while fighting in Syria’s war, helps his comrade after a physical therapy session, at the Ahmad Hamish Martyr hospital in Damascus, Syria. Hassan Ammar | AP

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian independent journalist and activist. She has spent years on the ground covering conflict zones in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Palestine. She is a recipient of the International Journalism Award for International Reporting and the Serena Shim Award For Uncompromised Integrity In Journalism. Visit her personal blog, In Gaza, and support her work on Patreon.

The post The Caesar Act: The Latest Western Attack on Syria Didn’t Drop From a Plane appeared first on MintPress News.

Trump Hammers Cuba While Cuba Cures the Sick

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/06/2020 - 12:58am in

A team of 85 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Peru on June 3 to help the Andean nation tackle the coronavirus pandemic. That same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced another tightening of the sanctions screws. This time he targeted seven Cuban entities, including Fincimex, one of the principal financial institutions handling remittances to the country. Also targeted was Marriott International, which was ordered to cease operations in Cuba, and other companies in the tourism sector, an industry that constitutes 10 percent of Cuba’s GDP and has been devastated globally by the pandemic.

It seems that the more Cuba helps the world, the more it gets hammered by the Trump administration. While Cuba has endured a U.S. embargo for nearly 60 years, Trump has revved up the stakes with a “maximum pressure” strategy that includes more than 90 economic measures placed against the nation since January 2019. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, called the measures “unprecedented in their level of aggression and scope” and designed to “deprive the country of income for the development of the economy.” Since its inception, the embargo has cost Cuba well over $130 billion dollars, according to a 2018 estimate. In 2018-2019 alone, the economic impact was $4 billion, a figure that does not include the impact of a June 2019 Trump administration travel ban aimed at harming the tourist industry.

While the embargo is supposed to have humanitarian exemptions, the health sector has not been spared. Cuba is known worldwide for its universal public healthcare system, but the embargo has led to shortages of medicines and medical supplies, particularly for patients with AIDS and cancer. Doctors at Cuba’s National Institute of Oncology have had to amputate the lower limbs of children with cancer because the American companies that have a monopoly on the technology can’t sell it to Cuba. In the midst of the pandemic, the U.S. blocked a donation of facemasks and COVID-19 diagnostic kits from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

Not content to sabotage Cuba’s domestic health sector, the Trump administration has been attacking Cuba’s international medical assistance, from the teams fighting coronavirus today to those who have traveled all over the world since the 1960’s providing services to underserved communities in 164 countries. The U.S. goal is to cut the island’s income now that the provision of these services has surpassed tourism as Cuba’s number one source of revenue. Labeling these volunteer medical teams “victims of human trafficking” because part of their salaries goes to pay for Cuba’s healthcare system, the Trump administration convinced Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil to end their cooperation agreements with Cuban doctors. Pompeo then applauded the leaders of these countries for refusing “to turn a blind eye” to Cuba’s alleged abuses. The triumphalism was short-lived: a month after that quote, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil begged Cuba to resend its doctors amid the pandemic. U.S. allies all over the world, including in Qatar, Kuwait, South Africa, Italy, Honduras, and Peru have gratefully accepted this Cuban aid. So great is the admiration for Cuban doctors that a global campaign has sprung up to award them the Nobel Peace Prize.


A Cuban medical worker disinfectants his hands before he boards a bus at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, June 8, 2020. Yamil Lage | AP

The Trump administration is not just libeling doctors, but the whole country.  In May, the State Department named Cuba as one of five countries “not cooperating fully” in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The main pretext was the nation’s hosting of members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN). Yet even the State Department’s own press release notes that ELN members are in Cuba as a result of “peace negotiation protocols.” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called the charges dishonest and “facilitated by the ungrateful attitude of the Colombian government” that broke off talks with the ELN in 2019. It should also be noted that Ecuador was the original host of the ELN-Colombia talks, but Cuba was asked to step in after the Moreno government abdicated its responsibilities in 2018.

The classification of Cuba as “not cooperating” with counterterrorism could lead to Cuba being placed on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which carries tougher penalties. This idea was floated by a senior Trump administration official to Reuters last month. Cuba had been on this list from 1982 to 2015, despite that fact that, according to former State Department official Jason Blazakis, “it was legally determined that Cuba was not actively engaged in violence that could be defined as terrorism under any credible definition of the word.”

Of course, the United States is in no position to claim that other countries do not cooperate in counterterrorism. For years, the U.S. harbored Luis Posada Carriles, the mastermind of the bombing of a Cuban civilian airplane in 1976 that killed 73 people. More recently, the U.S. has yet to even comment on the April 30 attack on the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., when a man fired on the building with an automatic rifle.

While there are certainly right-wing ideologues like Secretary Pompeo and Senator Rubio orchestrating Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, for Trump himself, Cuba is all about the U.S. elections. His hard line against the tiny island nation may have helped swing the Florida gubernatorial campaign during the midterm elections, yet it’s not clear that this will serve him well in a presidential year. According to conventional wisdom and polls, younger Cuban-Americans – who like most young people, don’t tend to vote in midterms – are increasingly skeptical of the U.S. embargo, and overall, Cuba isn’t the overriding issue for Cuban-Americans. Trump won the Cuban-American vote in 2016, but Hillary Clinton took between 41 and 47% percent of that electorate, significantly higher than any Democrat in decades.

As an electoral strategy, these are signs that Trump’s aggression towards Cuba may not pay off. Of course, the strategy might not be just about votes but also about financing and ensuring that the Cuban-American political machinery is firmly behind Trump.

The strategy has certainly not paid off when it comes to achieving the goal of regime change. The Trump administration is arguably farther from achieving regime change in Cuba now than the U.S. has ever been in over 60 years of intervention. During Trump’s tenure, Cuba calmly transitioned from the presidency of Raul Castro to that of Miguel Díaz-Canel. In 2019, Cuban voters overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution. These aren’t signs of a country on the brink of collapse.

All Trump has achieved is making life more difficult for the island’s 11 million inhabitants, who, like people all over the world, have been battered by the economic impact from coronavirus. Tourism has collapsed. Income from remittances has tanked (both because of new U.S. restrictions and less income in the hands of the Cuban diaspora). Venezuela, once a major benefactor, is mired in its own crisis. But Cuba’s economy, which was forecast to contract by 3.7% before the pandemic hit, has been through worse, particularly during the 1991 to 2000 economic crisis known as the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A change in the White House would bring some relief, although Joe Biden has staked a rather ambivalent position, saying he would restore relations as President Obama did, but adding that he was open to using sanctions as punishment for Cuba’s support to the Venezuelan government.

It’s clear that from now until November, and perhaps for four more years, the Trump administration will pummel its island neighbor. Cuba will continue to seek global condemnation on the blockade (the 2019 UN vote was 187 against vs 3 in favor—the U.S., Brazil, and Israel) and continue to show what a good neighbor looks like. It responded to these latest provocations in the way that only Cuba does: with more global solidarity, sending Covid-19 healing brigades to Guinea and Kuwait a day after the June 3 round of sanctions. A total of 26 countries now have Cuban medical personnel caring for their sick.

That is the kind of goodwill that money just can’t buy and it greatly presents a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s shameful behavior during the pandemic. Back in March, as Cuban doctors arrived in Italy, former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa tweeted:

One day we will tell our children that, after decades of movies and propaganda, at the moment of truth, when humanity needed help at a time when the great powers were in hiding, Cuban doctors began to arrive, without asking anything in return.”

Feature photo | The first Cuban medical brigade of the Henry Reeve Contingent returns from Italy at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, June 8, 2020. The Cuban doctors had gone to Italy on March 22 to help with the COVID-19 emergency in the Lombardy region. Ismael Francisco | AP

Medea Benjamin is an author/activist, and cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK.

Leonardo Flores is a Latin American policy expert and a campaign coordinator with CODEPINK. For more on the Nobel Prize for Cuban Doctors campaign, see www.cubanobel.org.

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