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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief 6/3/19

Coming Up This Week

  • Pres. Trump is in the UK for a three-day state visit, and he’s already caused a stir by telling The Sunday Times the UK should “walk away” from the EU with no Brexit deal if the EU doesn’t offer it a good alternative.
  • After his UK visit, Trump will go to France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Friday.
  • Today and tomorrow mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Three decades on, China still tries to hide the real story of the “political turbulence” (in the Defense Minister’s words) that happened that day. The Economist had a good op-ed on the massive cover-up—and the utility thereof. It’s pasted below.
  • The Women’s Football World Cup starts on Saturday, with an opening game between France and South Korea. The U.S. won the tournament last year.
  • Mexico and the U.S. will meet starting Wednesday to talk about trade. Mexico wants Pres. Trump to cancel the new 5% tax he announced on all Mexican exports to the U.S., which would otherwise go into effect June 10th.

DPRK

  • We learned that at least one aspect of reporting on North Korea’s recent purge is incorrect: Kim Yong Chol, who Chobun Ilbo said was in a labor camp, was photographed with Kim Jong Un at a concert over the weekend. (Though, as BBC points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t briefly sent to a labor camp and subsequently released).

RSS

  • South Sudan criticized the UNSC for renewing its arms embargo, saying the ban “adds unwanted pressure to the peace process.” I’d say a proliferation of weapons in an unstable country adds unwanted pressure to the peace process, but who am I to judge?

Sudan

  • Police reportedly fired at protesters camped out in Khartoum, killing at least two in a raid that’s still going on this morning.

Algeria

  • Speaking of Sahel countries with recent coups, Algeria, said it would not hold elections as planned on July 4th. The constitutional council rejected the only two presidential candidates, so it wasn’t going to be much of an election anyway.
  • Protesters had demanded that the election be cancelled, given that it was sure to offer only a token choice of the same entrenched elite they’ve been demonstrating against for sixteen weeks now.
  • However, that leaves the country in an impasse, with no clear plan for a transition to democracy.

Libya

  • GNA forces staged a large counterattack against Khalifa Haftar’s LNA south of Tripoli on Saturday, and—according to media reports the GNA probably propagated—succeeded in pushing the LNA back a bit.
  • The GNA tasked its navy with watching out for LNA attacks on Tripoli by sea, under what it humorously calls its “Volcano of Rage” operation. So far, the LNA has only pushed into Tripoli by land from the south, but Haftar is probably frustrated by a lack of progress there, and may indeed try a different route.
  • Meanwhile, twin car bombs targeted LNA forces in Derna, wounding 18. (The LNA controls Derna, which has been relatively quiet—at least on the warped Libyan scale for violence—over the past year.)

Afghanistan

  • IS claimed yesterday’s triple bombing in Kabul, as well as an attack on a government-allied militia in Nangarhar.
  • A group from the self-organized People’s Peace Movement is marching 100 miles into Taliban territory to plea with the Taliban for peace. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid seems unreceptive, and accused the group of “working according to the direct guidance of Afghan intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Iran

  • SecState Pompeo said the Trump administration is ready to negotiate with Iran with “no preconditions,” which is a little less aggressive than recent U.S. rhetoric. Pres. Rouhani said over the weekend that he’d be open to talks if the U.S. showed a little “respect,” so we might be getting somewhere.

Venezuela

  • The Telegraph had a sad article about desperate Venezuelan “Guaire Miners” who sift through sewers for the odd earring back or necklace link, hoping to find enough gold to sell for food. Article pasted below.
  • The same Telegraph article says the average Venezuelan has lost 11 kilograms—24 lbs—by following the Maduro Diet of bad economic policy that makes food prohibitively expensive.
  • Fox reported that Russia has revoked some of the defense contractors it had sent to Venezuela as advisors—apparently because Pres. Maduro is running out of cash to pay them.
  • Canada said it would suspend operations at its Embassy in Caracas, since Maduro’s government is refusing to renew its diplomats’ visas.

Mexico

  • Pres. AMLO kicked off the beginning of construction on the new $7.7 billion Tabasco oil refinery yesterday with a speech calling for Mexico’s energy independence. That goal is still a long way away. The bidding process for six phases of the refinery’s construction will start in late June.
  • After drumming up some national pride with the idea of energy self-reliance, AMLO also cautiously clarified that: “We have, I repeat, a good relationship with the United States, and with all governments in the world, but we do not want to be exposed and therefore it’s important that we are self-sufficient.”

U.S.

  • Virginia Beach police say the gunman in Friday’s shootings had just put in his two weeks’ notice to leave his job at the city’s public utility, and was facing disciplinary action for a recent “violent altercation” at work.

Israel

  • Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria, in retaliation for two rocket attacks on the Golan Heights over the weekend. The airstrikes reportedly killed 10 Syrian soldiers and allied foreign fighters.

UAE

  • The NYT had a couple of articles warning about the “increasingly bellicose agenda” of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), who earned Pres. Trump’s ear through clever analysis and engagement of Washington. I’m not sure what sparked the issue now, but I bet we’ll see a lot more follow-on reporting about MBZ.

Other News

  • Colorful Philippine Pres. Duterte told a crowd in Tokyo that he used to be “a bit gay,” before “beautiful women cured me.” So, happy Pride Month, Mr. Duterte! (He appears to be joking, as he regularly uses “gay” as an insult).
  • A bomb factory in Dzerzhinsk, Russia blew up, injuring 79—but there were somehow no deaths.

Many Chinese know little about the bloodshed in Beijing 30 years ago (The Economist)

What if China’s rulers pay no price for the massacre that ended the Tiananmen protests?

Three decades after troops used murderous force to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square and central Beijing, covering up that crime has become a bit of a chore. China’s security machine is ready to censor, arrest and imprison those who speak too candidly about events in 1989. But 30 years on this work of repression is carried out with cold, bureaucratic efficiency—a far cry from the terrors of June 3rd and 4th when soldiers and tanks shot and smashed their way into the ceremonial heart of Beijing, as loudspeakers metallically intoned that the army “loves the people”.

The most recent jailing linked to the Tiananmen protests occurred on April 4th this year. A court in the south-western city of Chengdu sentenced an activist, Chen Bing, to three-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His offence: labelling bottles of baijiu alcohol with the iconic image of the lone protester who stared down tanks near the square. That picture, and any other reference to Tiananmen in 1989, is politically taboo in China. Each year, as the anniversary approaches, the relatives of those killed by the army, including the mothers of school pupils gunned down in cold blood, are placed under surveillance or taken on enforced trips out of town.

The cover-up is a headache for internet and social-media companies, which are obliged to employ armies of people to erase banned content. In order for these 20-somethings to be able to spot and delete references to Tiananmen, they must first be taught what happened there, the New York Times reported in January from one “content-reviewing factory”.

Such ignorance was once thought impossible. In all, hundreds of people, if not thousands, were killed in Beijing and some in other cities. Tens of thousands, at a minimum, were arrested for involvement in what was declared a “counter-revolutionary riot”. Suspects were snatched from homes and workplaces, or off the streets. The protests had drawn students and workers, magistrates in court uniforms and police cadets, and journalists from state media who marched beneath banners reading “We want to print the truth”. None was safe. Many endured re-education meetings. The unlucky were jailed. A few, having suffered horrors in prison, were exiled. Millions witnessed these terrors or their aftermath.

Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party’s leader in 1989, was ousted during the unrest for opposing military action. In internal debates Zhao had called the protesters patriotic and endorsed their demands for a more accountable government, tougher anti-corruption measures and the observance of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. He was purged and detained until his death in 2005. In a letter written from house arrest in 1997, he warned that the people would not forget the protests or the party’s demonisation of them.

Yet there has been much forgetting, some of it the work of parents who see no good in filling children’s heads with politics. It is not hard to imagine the dream of modern party leaders: that all China should forget the passions, fears and dashed hopes of 1989, so that future anniversaries pass without a flicker of dissent. The same party leaders surely hope that foreigners let go of memories of 1989, too. Even as blood was being scrubbed from Beijing streets, Communist officials argued that they had crushed the protests to avoid civil conflict, and to restore party unity so that China could be stable and prosperous. Their argument today, in essence, is that China has succeeded because of that use of force, not despite it.

It frustrates party officials that so many in the West doubt that claim, and suggest that China is weakened to this day by that legacy of violence, paranoia and intolerance of debate. It angers them that foreigners pay such heed to independent-minded people, whether religious believers, feminist campaigners, environmentalists or left-wing students working with unofficial trade unions.

China’s leaders want the outside world to believe that they rule in a majoritarian compact accepted by almost all their citizens. They would include in that social contract the grim dystopia that they have built in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where perhaps a million members of the Muslim Uighur minority have been sent to re-education camps and millions more endure unsleeping high-tech surveillance. Party leaders insist that most Chinese approve of this, believing it a price worth paying for eliminating radical Islam and the threat of terrorism.

Communist bosses should be careful what they wish for. Nobody knows how stable their support is because China is so secretive, and because the broad contentment of a country enjoying economic growth is easy to mistake for informed consent. But if a Tiananmen anniversary ever does pass without a flicker of dissent, that would be a dangerous moment, setting up the Chinese nation, and not just its rulers, for a backlash across the democratic world. For the party’s swaggering, authoritarian ways are a challenge to the universal values which help to define the West. That is true even though President Donald Trump is a disturbing outlier. He has described the violence in Beijing 30 years ago as a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot”, albeit with horrible force.

Made reality, the party’s dreams would make the world recoil

For sure, foreigners have been guilty of a certain narcissism in imagining that ordinary Chinese, as they grow richer, will aspire to Western freedoms. But dissent in China matters. It allows Western governments to say that their disputes are with China’s leaders, not its people. It is because not all Chinese are seen as agents of the party-state that they are welcomed in the West as students and business partners. The party should be grateful that some citizens want a more transparent, accountable government, and distrust propaganda. They should welcome intra-party disagreements that pit reformers against hardliners. They should be glad that the chore of censorship never ends, on June 4th or any day. For a serenely unified, nationalist Chinese autocracy, unequivocally backed by its people, would be a terror to the world.

Panning the sewers of Venezuela for gold (The Telegraph)

Luis cups the sludgy water with his hands and swirls the residues, staring intently into his palms. He takes what was once a common household broom, now without its handle, and uses the bristles to comb through the mud. He’s found treasure – the back of an earring.

Luis lives in La California, a Venezuelan hillside slum that is about as far away from the crystal clear streams of the California gold rush rivers as possibly imaginable.

Yet Luis and his friend Angel pan the sewer river of Caracas – searching through a stream which, for decades, has served as the capital’s drain, collecting runoff from the slums and filthy waste from factories that line its banks.

“It’s disgusting, and dangerous,” Luis admitted. “I don’t like doing it. But if I don’t, I don’t eat.”

It’s a new “profession” in Venezuela, and one to be avoided by all but the most desperate. But for the growing number of “Guaire Miners”, as they call themselves, there is no other option.

“We look for anything we can sell,” said Angel.

He shows off his small collection from that morning’s work, begun at dawn: the clasp of a watch, a few links of what was once a necklace. He adds it to Luis’s earring back.

“It’s not nice. But it’s for food.”

Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America, and possesses the world’s largest oil reserves. But in recent years the socialist country headed by former bus driver Nicolas Maduro has been plagued by poverty, a lack of medicine, rampant inflation, and rolling power blackouts.

Venezuela’s economic collapse means that now almost 90 per cent live in poverty. Over one in ten Venezuelans have left the country; those that stay have, on average, lost 11 kilos in bodyweight amid serious food shortages and soaring prices of basic goods.

So the men – The Telegraph only saw men wade into the river – scour the fetid waters for trinkets and lost jewellery. A gram of gold would fetch them 130-200,000 Bolivares (£18-25); four times their monthly minimum wage.

For decades, this stream has served as Caracas’ drain, collecting runoff from the slums and filthy waste from factories that line its banks.

Middle class Caraqueños, as inhabitants of the city are called, have reacted with horror to the scenes. Yet for Luis, Angel and their friends, who all live in the La California district of Petare, the huge Caracas slum, it is survival.

“It’s so hard to find anything to eat. From the most humble to the rich ones – food is scarce,” said 19-year-old Miguel, not his real name, who lives inside the Torre Unidos squat in the slum. “If I don’t work, I don’t eat. Everyone here has the same battle.”

The sprawling slum, one of the world’s largest, home to 400,000 people living hand-to-mouth in the hills above Caracas, used to be fiercely pro-Hugo Chavez, champion of the poor. But now the people are desperate for a change.

“They don’t see what happens to the children here,” said Francia, 40. “It’s desperate. So many have died.”

Miguel nodded his head. “So many people live from scraps, eating stale food which is thrown out by the nice hotels and restaurants.”

Francia, washing her clothes as she spoke, added: “Thank God I haven’t sunk that low, yet. You know, I voted for Chavez. But with this Nicolas Maduro, no way. It’s all a disaster. We just want it over – welcome, someone, anyone. Just get us out of this crisis.”

All agreed that the situation in the slums was “hot” – the city of Caracas has the highest murder rate in the world, outside a war zone, and Petare is one of the most dangerous places.

Beyond the danger from street crime, the feared police battalion FAES terrorise the population.

The FAES – the Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian National Police’s Special Action Forces – are police Death Squads in all but name; their skull and crossbone logo leaving little to the imagination.

Keymer Avila, researcher for the Central University’s Institute of Criminal Sciences, told The Caracas Chronicals that 14 people a day died in 2017 at the hands of state security forces – representing 30 per cent of all the murders in the country.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” said Miguel. “They kill people in broad daylight. They come looking for a bad guy, and if they don’t find him they’ll kill a few people they find. They were last here around a month ago.”

Anthony, 28, has spent 15 years living in the streets, recycling rubbish and selling what he could.

“This is no longer Venezuela,” he said. “Before we could eat spaghetti and sardines. Kilos of cheese. But now we have to live of scraps – chicken feet or skin, bits of intestines thrown out from the fancy kitchens. Do you know how much mayonnaise costs? 25,000 Bolivares – I can’t remember what it tastes like. And we’re trying all the time to run from the police, because they beat us up all the time.”

A father of two, his youngest, aged five, has known nothing but eating rubbish. As he spoke he picked at a fetid bucket of rotting ham and cheese, carried under his arm.

“This is going to end in war. We’re absolutely fed up. The bad guys will rise up and we will follow them. This can’t go on.”