The Ripple Effect: A Cuban continuation

Cuba’s new president was named last Thursday. The plot twist? His name isn’t Castro.

Yes, for the first time in decades, someone unrelated to Fidel Castro holds that office: Miguel Diaz-Canel. It’s no surprise, seeing as he was selected to be the first vice president in 2013.

But apart from the (admittedly nicely-rhyming) name change, it’s unlikely that this shift heralds any greater transformation. This is, after all, the man who promised to bring “continuity to the Cuban revolution,” using variations upon the word ‘continue’ at least four times in his inaugural speech.

Not to say there aren’t elements that set Diaz-Canel apart from his predecessor, Raul Castro. For one, his attempts to embody the everyman led him to cut an extremely recognizable figure to Cubans in the 90s, according to NBC — that of the guy in Bermuda shorts biking to work. For another, he’s advocated for change to an extent in the past, in the form of promoting internet access for Cubans and other modernization, according to the New York Times.

Miguel Diaz-Canel (left), the Cuban first vice president under Raul Castro (right), was named the country’s president on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

But at the same time, the mild front of change is clearly tempered with constancy. The New York Times also reported, for instance, on Diaz-Canel’s support of the censorship of “subversive” websites, no matter the possible backlash. Moreover, Castro still heads the Cuban Communist Party (arguably more powerful than the president himself), still heads the military and will still, according to CNN, have a sizeable say in major decisions.

Had Diaz-Canel replaced Castro in all those roles as well, greater change may have happened — albeit in the opposite direction regarding U.S.-Cuba relations, judging by his criticism of the creakily slow normalization of relations under Castro. (In fairness, President Trump is averse to it as well.)

If anything, Diaz-Canel’s election highlights how much the Cuban Communist Party, once revolutionary with its implementation of things like free medical treatment and education, doesn’t want change. The party — now essentially led by octogenarians — sprang for a fairly young, Bermuda short-wearing, everyman-touting, mildly-revolutionary successor who, when it counts, will continue to defer to Castro on “major decisions.”

And there are definitely major ones coming up. Cubans are staring down an economic recession with an average salary of $30 per month in their pockets, America is shrinking away from the tentative ties reestablished under the Obama administration and modernization is crawling at a snail’s pace.

What’s clear for now is that when these challenges are faced by Diaz-Canel, the party line being held will be that of Raul Castro’s, by any other name.

The Ripple Effect: You’re only elected twice (or thrice, or four times)

In the recent Russian presidential election, incumbent President Vladimir Putin secured a record 76.7 percent victory. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

“The shocking results of the Russian presidential election last week caught the world off-guard!”

Or, at least, that would be the first sentence of an article written in an alternate universe. Rather, the least surprising outcome resulted from the election: Vladimir Putin is, for a fourth term, president of Russia.  At this point, the predictability of elections is likely why, according to TIME magazine, there is little pomp surrounding them.

Putin secured a record 76.7 percent victory, though with the number of polling locations that reported suspiciously exact percent turnouts of 85, 90 and 95 percent, much of it was due to rigged votes.  Not to mention, despite the Russian Central Election Commission’s assurances that the election was “free, competitive and transparent,” voters didn’t have much of a choice when casting votes. None of the other candidates were predicted to poll above 10 percent of the vote, and Putin’s greatest obstacle, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was ultimately prevented from running.

Navalny responded by telling his YouTube followers — all 1.8 million of them, in a country of 144.3 million — to boycott the election.

In contrast, Putin’s campaign spent a sizeable amount trying to increase voter turnout, in a bid to outdo his performance in the 2012 election. Tactics included a weirdly (though perhaps not unexpectedly) homophobic ad about the threat of gay people coming to live in people’s homes if they didn’t vote, the opportunity to win tickets to a concert for voting and “Only for Adults” Facebook stickers targeted towards the young male demographic, according to The Guardian.

While I’m certainly not opposed to increasing voter turnout, seeing as a poll’s no good without a large enough number of respondents, these tactics skew more to the side of “terrible” and “bribery” than “an exercise in promoting the use of voting rights.” Moreover, factors like state pressure on poll workers, as reported by the Washington Post, have, unsurprisingly, made some legitimate votes all but negligible.

So is Navalny right? If the polls are rigged, should people stop making the effort to vote?

Not quite.

Giving up the right to voice one’s legitimate opinion, even if that opinion is silenced before it has the chance to make its intended effect, is only a form of giving in entirely. So long as there is someone working to frantically toss out a disagreeable vote, it means that that vote has been noticed. Maybe it seems like a useless waste of energy to go to the polls when it appears no difference will be made, but even if a nation at large doesn’t see the true results, those who count will be counting them — in a panic.

That’s not to say that other methods of being politically vocal are useless. Earlier this week, in the Russian city of Kemerovo, thousands have hit the streets to protest the inaction of officials after a mall fire that claimed the lives of at least 38 people, including children who’d been brought to the movies with their teacher.

In light of the revelation that fire safety precautions were horrifically lacking, angry calls for officials — from the governor of the region to Putin himself — to resign have abounded, according to the BBC.

For these protests to be taking place in Kemerovo, a region where votes for Putin are as consistently high and unyielding as a brick wall, certainly makes a more visible point than the results of rigged polls. But by combining the two — suspicion over rigged polls and outcry in the streets — helps to paint an even starker picture of a people’s opinion.

Either way, what with the Putin campaign crediting some of its success to Britain’s accusations that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter, things are about to get a lot more convoluted. Welcome to the next James Bond movie — although this time, the data behind the scenes is just as important as the whizz-bang fireworks onscreen.

The Ripple Effect: The political facades of cuddling lambs and shaking hands

So, here we go again.

Although Forza Italia, the party led by Silvio Berlusconi, is leading a successful right-wing coalition in the Italian general elections, Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement has, by itself, arisen as a challenger. Photo courtesy of NBC.

In the vein of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Frauke Petry in Germany, the Italian general elections on Sunday skewed hard towards populists, the far-right and skepticism aimed at the European Union. Over half of the votes cast, according to the New York Times, went to populist parties such as the emerging Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Northern League.

But unlike France, the Netherlands or Germany, the entire center appears to have gone under as well. The currently-governing center-left Democratic Party (PD) hasn’t done too badly by itself, but the party coalition it leads is in third place, compared to the right-wing coalition and lone wolf M5S, according to CNN.

In an even more striking contrast, this election, which took a microscope to immigrant and refugee issues, occurred after much of the crises regarding them happened.

Italy has already hit its peak migrant influx, having shrugged refugees off thanks to an Italian-led EU policy of helping Libyan authorities intercept migrants traversing the Mediterranean. Of course, in the cases of all these nations, immigrants have been the easiest scapegoat, but at this point, Italy’s 10 percent foreign population is lower than that of a majority of EU countries, according to PRI.

One would think that this, coupled with the discouraging defeat of populist parties in other European nations, would have simmered down Italian support of similar movements. But instead, it’s clear that this Italian election cycle is a culmination of the far-right movements sweeping Europe these past few years.

This is the election cycle that has seen former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — once the face of Italian politics whom no one could take seriously, and slapped with fraud convictions that bar him from office until next year — turn into the moderate leader of the center-right coalition. In fact, he’s crafted an image of now being so much mellower, it’s totally ordinary for him to sit around cuddling lambs and talking about vegetarianism in a campaign ad, according to Deutsche Welle.

Despite, of course, the glaring fact that he has been making campaign promises of forcibly removing Italy’s 600,000 undocumented immigrants the whole while.

This is the election cycle in which the wild card that is the Five Star Movement gained ground with the youth vote. Emphatically pro-environmental issues and vaguely anti-European Union, it straddles whatever is left of the middle ground between the far right and the center  — and then some. The party, founded by a comedian and now led by an anti-establishment 31-year-old, refuses to form a coalition with others, meaning that while it gained a huge part of the vote, it still can’t technically “win.”

This is the election cycle that has seen a spike in politically-motivated violence, and also the one during which, according to the Atlantic, Facebook rolled out a new feature for Italian users designed to combat fake news. A wave of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment articles followed almost immediately.

And, to round it all off, this is the election cycle in which Russia barely had to meddle in. Berlusconi is friends with Putin to such an extent that he once gifted Putin a duvet with a photo of the pair shaking hands printed on it. And Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, which came out as the strongest party in the right-wing coalition, is also an ardent admirer of Putin (and also a pal of Le Pen’s).

If the Italian elections aren’t a bellwether for shifting attitudes in Europe — the pendulum swinging back to the far-right just after appearing to have been beaten down — then they are at least a sign of cracks in a facade that leaders like European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker continue to deny is crumbling. Maybe “Italexit” isn’t going to happen anytime soon, maybe Italy’s immigrant situation won’t change at all, but the reactionary instability whipped up by this election will last. And it may set a precedent to drag others down with it.

The Ripple Effect: Where the triple Salchow meets foreign relations

If you tune in at the right moment to the right channel this Friday, you’ll be just in time to watch athletes in matching outfits meander along a path. Crowds will roar. National pride will sizzle. International amity will simmer.

Now, I’m talking about the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will take place in South Korea even as the specter of North Korean threats loom in the distance.

But wait —  clearly, the Olympics are a time of international cooperation! The two Koreas are even going so far as to march under a “unified Korea” flag at the opening ceremony, according to the BBC. We’ve seen headlines pop up on our phones about blistering-fast talks between North and South Korea to arrange an awkward truce for the games. Even Kim Jong-un’s sister plans to attend.

Things are sounding pretty good, considering how much of last year was overshadowed by threats and missile tests made by North Korea. But at the same time, we must keep in mind that despite the spectacle, the Olympics aren’t an event where athletes end up joining hands and making a toast to cooperation; they’re more a thermometer dipped into the cesspool of international relations.

For one thing, North Korea is planning on showing off its long-range missiles in a parade set to coincide with the start of the Olympics, according to CNN, which doesn’t bode well for peaceful negotiations post-games. And matters have been just as icy on the other side. While some South Koreans are ready to cheer at the sight of two sets of athletes holding up a unified flag, not everyone is happy about this turn of events regarding the North’s participation.

That dissatisfaction has especially made itself known in regards to the Korean unified women’s ice hockey team, the only such combined team, according to the Independent: South Koreans have argued, in over one hundred petitions, that it gives their players a disadvantage. Around the same time, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating dived under 60 percent for the first time in his presidency.

The reaction and reasoning behind it may sound mildly petty, especially amidst what some are touting as the “Peace Olympics,” but it makes more sense upon remembering that the Olympics are a sporting event, not a promise of harmony. With so many harping excitedly on the possibility of future peace talks, it’s easy to forget such shows of tentative unity are pageantry at their core, just like everything else in the Olympics: they’re reality TV, international politics and a game show compressed into one blindingly spectacular package.

But while displays of symbolic unity are easy to fake, underlying tensions and subtle sport-driven power moves are not. There’s a historical precedent for the games themselves being political —  not only the issues looming over the nations, but the very consequences of who wins, who loses or who even is allowed to enter.

The Munich Massacre, prompted by the ongoing Israel-Palestine dispute, killed several Israeli athletes in 1972.

The 1976 Olympic boycott held by 28 African nations was spurred by New Zealand’s breaking of the athletics embargo on apartheid South Africa, which it had toured earlier.

And in 1968, Vera Caslavska competed as a Czechoslovakian gymnast, defying the USSR, and ended up winning a silver medal — which was placed around her neck as the Soviet anthem blared in the background.

The Olympic charter has historically tried to preclude the mingling of politics with the sports extravaganza — tried, and failed. But the one thing binding these and countless other politically-driven events during the games is that they displayed the mounting pressure of the conflicts in the world around them. And these are always preexisting issues; no new international friends nor enemies are made in the Olympic process, but the cracks already there are condensed within a stadium and broadcast as faultlines.

So, no, the Olympics are likely not going to usher in a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula, at least not while the North Korean government stands firm in its position. Yet while the Olympics are a barometer of how different governments feel about each other, we should just as much keep an eye out for how people in the audience react.

In the meantime, we can spend these next few weeks ooh-ing and aah-ing over ice skaters and skiers.

The Ripple Effect: Being frank about our lingua franca

What language do you speak?

I like to say that at most, I’m bilingual-and-a-half, although it depends on whether my third grade language arts class, my Spanish teacher or my mother is passing the judgment.

One of the languages I count in my comprehension is, obviously, English, which is the most widely studied second language in the world thanks to the expansive former empire of its country of origin. With 1.5 billion English learners in 2015, plenty of aspiring polyglots have it high on their list of languages to learn. Yet on Sunday, the Iranian government banned English-language education in primary schools, citing it as the root of a “western cultural invasion.”

A lack of foreign-language education in lower grade levels translates to poorer retention of the second language.

In fairness, this isn’t a drastic blanket ban — English is usually taught in schools after the age of 12, but in recent years, Iranians have pulled that starting date down to a spot earlier in the educational process, sending kids to after-school classes or private tutors if a course isn’t available at their primary schools. Yet standing in the way of early foreign-language education for children, no matter the country or the language at hand, puts these children at a disadvantage.

Now let me put this out there: I am absolutely for the preservation of your native language. It’s reasonable for an Iranian primary school to teach in Persian, because that’s what a  majority of Iranians speak. It’s reasonable for an American public school to teach in English, because that’s what a majority of Americans speak. Allowing language attrition to take place is a tragedy — there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not frustrated that I, an Indian-born immigrant, don’t know my native tongue well enough to pronounce words other than “mom,” “dad” and (maybe) “food.”

After all, a language is never just a dictionary or a dry lexicon turned into towering structures through complicated grammatical rules. A language is the key to a culture. From in-jokes and idioms, gendered nouns to gerunds, your first language is entrenched in your psyche, as seen in countless scientific papers debating the idea that language can gently nudge your perception of the world.

An experiment described in the New York Times gives us an example of this influence: native French speakers wanted a cartoon fork to speak in a female voice; native Spanish speakers expected it to have a masculine voice. The reason? “Fork” is a feminine noun in French (“la fourchette”), while it’s masculine in Spanish (“el tenedor”).

This concept taken to an extreme, then, must also be the reasoning of the Iranian government. Why pull people away from your shared culture and potentially shape everything from how they conjugate verbs to how they process events, all due to the addition of a second language? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even argued it this way: English education for children is the “promotion of a foreign culture in the country and among children, young adults and youths.”

But a second language in the curriculum for younger students shouldn’t be treated as an enemy.

We’ve all likely heard the benefits of multilingualism from our language teachers, but they bear repeating. The most obvious benefit is that it facilitates travel, but in the increasingly globalized workplace, knowing someone else’s language could endear you to a client or help you make sense of business trips — unless, of course, you’re an absolute pro at charades. Multilingualism even improves mental flexibility and multitasking skills, what with all the self-control required to not blurt a sentence out in, say, German to your French teacher.

According to the BBC, 60 to 75 percent of people in the world are multilingual, but the issue of monolingualism isn’t actually in nations like Iran — most monolinguals are, in fact, native English speakers. Perhaps it’s the complacency of already having learned the lingua franca of the past several hundred years.

Or, perhaps it’s because we don’t start on other languages at a young age. According to NBC, people learn foreign languages best between their births and the age of seven. Many European countries kick off their schools’ foreign language programs within this time frame, with over 20 requiring students to learn two languages in-class for at least a year, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet only a measly 15 percent of American elementary schools offer such classes, seeing as they usually begin in middle or high school, missing the linguistic window of opportunity by several years. Thus, American students often have low foreign language retention, their knowledge of the lexicon they made hundreds of flashcards for in high school fading rapidly away.

Iran cannot force its children down an ultimately monolingual path, the English learned as teenagers peeling away over time like wallpaper off an old room’s walls, if what’s truly best for them is kept mind. Neither can nations like the United States. The world is growing ever more interconnected: we can either travel to France and frantically flap our arms around in an effort to find out the directions to a hotel, or we can be able to immerse ourselves in the full, rich tapestry of a culture because we understand the words.

Engaging, but not a ‘runaway’ hit

‘Runaways’ follows six teenagers frantically trying to figure out what to do after they discover their parents could possibly be members of an evil supernatural cult.

A girl faces the wall in her parents’ garage, her back to the van behind her. Her outfit is a dedicated shrine to bubblegum innocence: there’s a little cat-shaped clip in her wavy hair, pastel dinosaurs on her pink shirt, purple speckles on her leggings and chunky magenta bracelets around her wrists.

The van starts rolling down towards her. She whips around and pushes it back with her bare hands, eyes flashing bright gold.

If there’s anything to be said about Marvel’s “Runaways”, which premiered Nov. 21 exclusively on Hulu Plus  and is based off a comic of the same name, it’s that its characters are more dimensional than the writing appears to be able to handle.

From Molly (Allegra Acosta), the aforementioned super-strong “baby” of the teenage team, to Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), a nerd who just wants to unite his friends again,  the first episode alone hooks the audience by offering  quick glimpses into each character’s life. But with over a dozen main characters — parents along with the teens — the followup to that hook suffers in trying to live up to and maintain that potential.

In fairness, the plot is a lot to juggle. Episode one begins innocently enough: with a “Riverdale”-esque vibe of underlying menace, the teenagers go about their vastly different lives, having grown apart after the death of one of their friends. In the meantime, Alex windmills desperately in the background trying to reunite the six. It’s relatable in a quietly sad way — how many teens have seen their friends drift apart, maybe not because of something as morbid as a death, but because of diverging interests?

But soon (although not quickly — the show takes much too long to set up background details), that relative normalcy is shredded apart with the discovery that their parents may or may not be part of an evil supernatural cult. It’s one thing to call your mom evil for grounding you, but it’s another to call her evil after seeing her go about nefarious deeds in sinister red robes.

So that’s new.

Or rather, what’s new is how “Runaways” handles this dilemma. Again, in keeping with the “Riverdale” comparison, the show takes a magnifying glass to the parents’ lives as well, going so far as to turn the second episode into a retelling of the first one from the adults’ perspective.

The pacing, once more, suffers because of this, as the cliffhanger in the first episode is only returned to after 40 minutes of the second one, but it does give some much-needed time to flesh out the gargantuan list of characters.

So, the plot takes its time developing. The questions outnumber the answers. Everyone has weirdly nice houses where they can throw outrageous parties.

At the surface level, “Runaways” is much less in the vein of the recent, more lighthearted Marvel movies, and more like every “edgy” teen show you’ve ever seen, complete with a host of characters all unrealistically capable of popcorn-worthy snark like “Great party! Thanks for all the pizza and sadness.”

Yet, under all the formula, “Runaways” has heart inherent in its characters. So long as it chooses to focus on the teens it’s telling a story about rather than just the shiny technology and glowy magic, it compels you to watch more.

 

Genre: Sci-fi, Action/Adventure

Release date: Nov. 21, 2017

Available on: Hulu Plus

Rating: 3.5 stars

The Ripple Effect: The Zimbabwean media’s happily-ever-after?

Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as the new president of Zimbabwe on Nov. 24. Photo courtesy of the BBC.

It’s like the prologue to a fairy tale.

The man who had been involved in Zimbabwean politics since the country’s independence and been as polarizing in his nation as he’s been a symbol of liberation, President Robert Mugabe, has resigned after a series of head-scratching events. He fired his old ally, Vice President (and now-President) Emmerson Mnangagwa — who had been roundly criticized by Mugabe’s wife, Grace — paralleling how in 2014, the previous vice president quit her job after a series of speeches by Grace Mugabe.

The clear bid to put the first lady in position to take over the presidency after 93-year-old Robert Mugabe seemed to be the last straw for the Zimbabweans bemoaning tyranny and the economic downturn, as military leaders effectively put Mugabe under house arrest in a coup and he, in turn, resigned. Then un-resigned. Then resigned again when threatened with impeachment.

Now would be around the point in the story where the knight in shining armor bursts in to slay the dragon of tyranny and restore democracy after Mugabe’s ouster. But, because this is reality, we have to settle for the return of Mnangagwa as the new president and accept that the military is still staunchly loyal to Mugabe’s party itself.

And, either way, an enormous issue lies in the way of erasing the specter of dictatorship: Zimbabweans aren’t engaged in their government. And they aren’t engaged because their media isn’t.

Sure, it’s difficult to note a lack of engagement when outright celebrations of Mugabe’s resignation have been taking place in the capital city of Harare. And lack of interest in the media isn’t an issue, judging by reports from the Zimbabwe Mail that those celebrating streets had been all but abandoned when news stations began broadcasting Mugabe’s resignation. Yet it’s exactly the atmosphere surrounding the government within Zimbabwe’s media that’s forcing up a barrier.

Of eight major Zimbabwean newspapers, three of them are government-owned, according to the BBC — that’s over one-third of them having enthusiastically pro-government leanings. Not to mention, criticism of the regime was stifled even in private-owned papers.

Even with a potentially freer media underway, trepidation still lurks around choosing straightforward reporting of government issues over the publishing of the usual, effusive praise of the president. Two weeks ago, when unrest regarding Mugabe’s presidency really kicked into high gear, the government-run newspaper The Herald ran the words “Business as usual countrywide” as the main headline of the day.

A brief spate of articles taking advantage of the newfound press freedom did run as well, according to the Washington Post, but were tempered with a note of uncertainty as to how long it would last. What would Mnangagwa’s version of the Information Ministry entail for journalism?

As early as Tuesday, the Zimbabwean media has already taken seemingly preventative measures by applying glowing praise to the new president. According to Reuters, a talk show host on state radio exuberantly lauded Mnangagwa for his apparent can-do attitude, inspired by seeing him in the presidential motorcade early in the morning.

The media is tiptoeing again, and so, in turn, are the people. Without the ability to be sure whether or not news outlets are in their “careful praise” or “press freedom!” modes, the sanctity of which truth to trust is battered once more in an already-wary population. When people can’t trust, they can’t understand. Without understanding, there can be no engagement, no participation. And what sort of democracy runs on a lack of participation from the people — the voters?

So, no: no knight in shining armor is going to be able to reignite democracy in Zimbabwe yet. At least, not so long as the two-headed dragon of a flip-flopping media carries on.

 

The Ripple Effect: Flattery, foreign relations and forbidden shrimp

At one point in his Asia travels, President Donald Trump spoke to business leaders about, among other things, “America first.” Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Out of all the coverage of Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia, I didn’t expect to read stories about the president eating something controversial. No, he didn’t reject a traditional meal cooked by another leader’s great-grandmother; rather, according to the BBC, he was served prawns from the waters around a contested area claimed by both Japan and South Korea.

Apart from his culinary adventures, another dangerously childish back-and-forth on Twitter with Kim Jong-Un and getting flak for following the lead of Japan’s prime minister while feeding fish, Trump spent much of the trip uneventfully. In keeping with his plan of building good relations with various Asian leaders, he played flattery ping-pong with all of them. Trump has a “great” relationship with China’s Xi Jinping, thinks Japan’s Shinzo Abe is “doing a wonderful job” and has a “warm rapport” with the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Yet throughout all the praise Olympics, not one word appears to have spoken about human rights violations in those respective countries, except in the vaguest terms possible.

This is most egregious in the case of the Philippines, where Duterte is making good on his old campaign promise of cracking down on crime and drugs with deadly force. “There are 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte has said in the past, according to CBS News.

The Philippine drug war has gone on for a year now. Thousands are dead.

And those dead aren’t big-time drug kingpins; rather, many are small-time drug users and dealers, killed both by police and through what the Human Rights Watch calls “unlawful executions.”

Certainly, seeing as part of Trump’s main agenda in Asia was to cement relations with other leaders, denouncing their practices would be antithetical to that goal. Or perhaps Trump wants to avoid being on the receiving end of the same reaction Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was met with Tuesday upon bringing the issue up. According to the Washington Post, after all, Duterte saw the inquiry as “a personal and official insult.”

Yet staying silent on such issues is beneficial to no one. Maybe other, geographically closer nations should speak out — and rightly so — but America can’t keep silent now when it’s positioned itself as the arbiter of democracy and human rights in countless other places since the end of the Cold War.

America doesn’t have the authority of a commanding figure standing right next to you and shouting about democracy, but it has set itself up to seem that way no matter the distance, and that projection should be maintained if human rights are under fire. Looking the other way when those you have “a great relationship with” are committing wrongdoings only invites allegations of hypocrisy and more suspicion from other potential allies.

The Ripple Effect: Looking ahead for Catalonia

Pro-secession Catalans celebrated their successful independence vote Oct. 27, although it was struck down soon afterwards by the Spanish Senate. Photo courtesy of CNBC.

Consider: a region has its own language, its own flag, its own — wait, I’ve been over this before.

It’s been two weeks since I last addressed the secessionist rumbles in Catalonia, and here we are again. The issue, simply to recap, is this: secessionists in Catalonia, a region in Spain, called an independence referendum in spite of the main government in Madrid declaring it illegal. The Spanish government responded by sending troops to bar people from voting.

Now, the Spanish government has swooped in and temporarily snatched away Catalan autonomy, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont mysteriously disappeared to Belgium and on Dec. 21, votes will be cast to elect a new Catalan government.

That December vote can proceed one of two ways: peacefully, without contention over the validity of the results, or tumultously, throwing Spain into even more chaos. It’s on not only the Spanish government, but the voters too, to steer their way towards the former option.

The Spanish government already needs to tread lightly, seeing as intimidation tactics doth not a democracy make —  or rather, missteps like meeting a peaceful vote with armed troops already look as un-democratic as one can get.

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allowed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to strip down Catalonia’s autonomy, was considered the “nuclear option”: It hadn’t been touched since Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s. Using it is already a blistering turnabout; using it on a region that prided itself on being one of Spain’s most autonomous is even more so.

Such a move is bound to inflame secessionists. Even if they’re in the minority, when the polls open up again in December, they’ll likely be the first ones there to protest the outrage. With this in mind, the simmering tensions needn’t be exacerbated more by further forceful actions.

The burden isn’t only on the Spanish government, either. The secessionists may be a minority, but the silent majority — pro-Spain, pro-Catalonia, proud of its dual identity — needs to speak up. I wrote before about how a vote is useless in a democracy if it doesn’t include everyone, and about how leaders shouldn’t accept such a vote as representative of the people they lead, but just as much responsibility lies on those voting.

I don’t intend to criticize what attempts the anti-secessionists have made at making their voice heard — rallies, demonstrations and more — but none of those actions will mean anything if a vote isn’t cast. Rallies and the like only serve as a thermometer for the mood of the people. Votes show what they really want.

Don’t slip into complacency. A loud voice doesn’t translate to paper; numbers do.

Certainly, demonstrations can influence which way politicians face, but in instances where everything hinges on the vote (like Catalan independence, and Puigdemont’s frantic grasping of the fact that of the 43 percent of Catalan voters who went to the polls, 90 percent voted for secession), there isn’t another option. And the thing that many don’t take note of is that in all instances, everything hinges on the vote.

Take America’s own year-old presidential election: I alone ran into several people last year wearing stickers touting Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton on their faces, but when the time rolled around to cast a ballot, many of them told me that they figured their vote didn’t matter, anyway, because they were “obviously” the majority based on their sheer vocalness within their own bubbles. But then, according to FiveThirtyEight, the registered voters who didn’t participate last year tended to be Democrats — and now we have a Republican president.

Don’t slip into complacency. A loud voice doesn’t translate to paper; numbers do.

So, Catalonia: try your hand at voting once more in December. Hopefully, there are no more roadblocks — either in the form of heavy-handed government interference or reluctant voters.

The Ripple Effect: What’s in a vote?

Catalans in favor of secession gathered in Barcelona as others attempted to vote in the Oct. 1 independence referendum that had been outlawed by the Spanish government. Photo courtesy of CNN.

Consider: a region has its own language, its own flag, its own parliament, its own police force and control over some matters of public life like its own healthcare and schools. Could it be a country?

The potential nation-to-be at hand is Catalonia, a part of northeastern Spain that boasts Barcelona as its capital and where Catalan is spoken side-by-side with Spanish. On Oct. 1, Catalonia went ahead with an independence referendum, despite the vote having been deemed illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

The Spanish government in Madrid responded by sending police officers to storm voters with batons and rubber bullets.

While Spain’s reaction to the vote was excessively violent, the country has its reasons for not wanting Catalonia to secede: according to the BBC, the area’s exports make up over 65 billion euros’ worth of Spain’s total, and at the same time, it owes a hefty debt to the government.

I am not about to pass judgment on whether or not Catalonia should secede. But a decision can’t be made based off such a deeply flawed vote defended as democracy in action.

Already, the “silent majority” of Catalans protesting against the independence effort have made it clear that not everyone got a say in the referendum, empathetically chanting “Yo soy español” (“I am Spanish”) in response to the secessionists’ cries of “Madrid nos roba” (“Madrid is robbing us”).

But the anti-secessionist side enthusiastically reaffirming its Spanish nationality barely appears in the referendum results. Much of the Catalan government’s justification of secession hinges on the argument that 90 percent of those who voted supported Catalonia’s independence.

Yet less than half of all eligible voters cast ballots to begin with.

Perhaps most voters just didn’t want to get in the way of the baton-wielding police officers storming polling stations, but what that then reveals about those who did vote is that they were the ones passionate enough about the question on the ballot that they opted for the risk. If 90 percent of 43 percent of a region supports something with that level of fervor, does that mean only 38.7 percent overall are committed?

Not necessarily, but this is what a sizeable chunk of the miscommunication between Catalonia and Spain boils down to. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s government is switching back and forth from the little picture argument of “90 percent of us who voted want secession” to the big picture concession of “We’re still placing our declaration of independence on hold to give us time for negotiations with Spain” — because it’s uncertain how many people that 90 percent vote represents. The conflicting messages give an indicator of how skewed such a tally is.

The democratic right to exercise the voices of the people is nothing if only a few amplify their voices with a vote and the rest are drowned out in the hubbub;  a problem not only in Catalonia’s present situation, but in democracies around the world. Even the U.S. isn’t exempt: according to Pew Research Center, out of everyone eligible to vote in the last presidential election — all citizens in the right age groups — the percentage of those who did hovered at a measly 55 percent.

Part of the burden lies on the people, of course. You can’t opt out of exercising that right and then complain about the outcome others decided on in your stead. But such a vote — especially one as precedent-shattering as that of Catalonia’s — should be made more accessible, at the very least, to keep people from making up simple excuses like “I didn’t want to be dragged away from a polling station by a cop.”

Yes, in Catalonia’s case, Spain’s argument that the vote was unconstitutional barred the way for a straightforward referendum. I’ll concede it now: virtually nothing could have been done by the Catalan government alone at that point to circumvent such an obstacle.

But I will say that its declaration of independence has rightfully been placed on pause. After all, an issue as fraught as secession, with the potential to stir up unrest in other nations, shouldn’t move forward in even the vaguest democracy without the input of as many as possible.

A decision can’t be made solely based on the loudest rather than the most.

The Ripple Effect: Europe’s chain reaction

If ever I could point at something and call it a political chain reaction, it would be the series of elections in Europe this past year.

In France, way back in May, Marine Le Pen’s pro-France-and-only-France National Front (FN) party was absolutely trumped by Emmanuel Macron and his party, En Marche!, winning 66.1 percent of the vote. But although the FN lost, it snagged over one-third of the votes cast — a record for the party.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ and his Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) lost to the country’s incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte. But while the PVV was defeated, some of its (less extreme, more palatable to the general public) ideas were still carried over by Rutte, whose participation in an echo chamber of populist campaign slogans factored into his victory.

Now take a look at Germany: on Sept. 24, citizens cast their votes to determine how many seats each political party gets in the Bundestag (their parliament), and effectively determined who the next chancellor would be in the process. While the status quo was preserved with incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s victory, ripples were still made by right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Although the anti-immigration, anti-climate change policy, anti-European Union AfD only reached third place, with 13 percent of the vote according to CNN, and it’s torn between a moderate and far-right subdivision,  but there’s a trend here. As the string of near-misses lengthens, the extremist portions of these right-wing parties only get more extreme.

Already, the less radical side of the AfD is weakening, with the refusal of co-chairwoman Frauke Petry (one of its more moderate leaders) to join the AfD’s parliamentary party in the Bundestag due to conflict with its other leaders.

In describing Petry as moderate, I must clarify that she’s “moderately moderate.” Petry leads the AfD like a terrifying schoolteacher would rule over a classroom — according to the New Yorker, after all, protesters who show up to her rallies get invited to speak onstage, and then have their arguments methodically torn apart by her. Both she and the other somewhat-moderate AfD leader, Alice Weidel, run damage control whenever Alexander Gauland (Weidel’s co-candidate in the election) continues his running pattern of saying something controversial enough to get in the day’s headlines.

Damage control, however, doesn’t necessarily mean disowning the extreme remarks of other AfD politicians, seeing as Petry has made similarly controversial remarks that refugees illegally crossing the border must be shot if necessary, and Weidel’s reputation for imperturbability has been marred by the unearthing of a racist email, according to Deutsche Welle.

Petry’s stepping back is less of a loss of a moderating influence in the AfD, then, and more of a realization of what it is in its core. She may cite the fact that there were disagreements over whether or not Björn Höcke, who heads the AfD in the Thuringia region, should be shut out from the party for polarizing statements about the Holocaust, but her leaving will eventually lead to the damage control team stepping back too and letting such hardliners grow stronger.

Far-right parties have recently tried outwardly toning down their stances and forcing rose-colored glasses on the rest of the world to lure in more supporters, and while that strategy may have worked at the start, their string of almost-successes in France, in the Netherlands and in Germany has shown them that they still need one last surge of voters for victory.

And where to get it? They’ve all but siphoned out the ambivalent voters, and an appeal too much further left would contradict their own principles. Even Germany’s Left Party, which has kept true to its on-the-nose name by pledging to oppose Petry, Weidel and co., has seen a sizeable chunk of its own voters switch over to the AfD. There’s not much further to wring out there.

The time has come, the far-right’s decided, to crush those rosy glasses, reveal itself and let those last few come from the furthest right. After zooming out to see the balancing act in its entirety, the AfD’s surprising snatching of third place for the chancellery shouldn’t be a surprise, then, seeing as it’s always been there, albeit with a reputation somewhat softened by smoke and mirrors.

We’ll see if the facade keeps collapsing in the eight major European elections left this year.  

The Ripple Effect: Refugees are not the death of your culture


T
he Silicon Valley is a bubble of diversity.

It’s a point I never refute when someone brings it up in a debate about culture and immigration. After all, this is the place where I can walk down the street and get almost anything from gyro to naan, and then wash it down with some all-American Starbucks.

All of this is thanks to the variety of immigrant groups in the area and California in general, as according to Niche.com, seven of the top ten most diverse cities in America are in this state. But this makes it easy to forget other places aren’t nearly as diverse.

The pre-existing diversity of an area serves more than just to give us a wide range of restaurants to dine at. Just as much as an established population of a certain ethnic group in an area leads to more members of that group migrating there to help them hold onto old customs, a lack of diversity can cause people to be averse to new immigrants.

These two contrasting situations are evident right now in Bangladesh, Hungary and Slovakia. Take the Rohingya refugee exodus, in which over 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have fled a vicious crackdown and trickled into nearby Bangladesh; it makes sense that persecuted Muslims would beeline towards a country in which Islam is the most practiced religion because there are common ties there.

On the other end of the spectrum, over the summer, several Eastern European nations, notably Hungary and Slovakia, refused to accept more migrants from the Middle East and Africa, partially because these refugees would overwhelm them, and also partially because they’re worried about terrorism and partially because, according to the BBC, migrants threaten their “homogenous societies.”

The pushback from Hungary and Slovakia’s been so fierce (according to Euronews, Hungary has accepted zero refugees) that on Sept. 6, the EU Court of Justice had to actually issue a ruling ordering these countries to adhere to the quota of migrants they have to accept. “Our people haven’t been exposed to Muslims, and they’re frightened,” the Slovak foreign minister said as part of his argument against the quota system, according to Deutsche Welle.

And there’s the crux of the matter: people are afraid, not only because of assumptions of terrorism, but also because they’re worried their own cultures will be wiped out in the process of accepting others. It was never about a supposedly outrageous quota challenging a countries’ capacities to care about these people, it’s about the fear of caring about them to such an extent that everything else will be blotted out in the process.

But immigrants are not the death of a culture.

To start with, the influx of migrants to Europe has, in fact, noticeably receded since 2015, and the quota each EU country must meet is scaled according to factors like the country’s size and resources. The scaling means the migrant population will definitely not overwhelm the people already living in the destination country; if Portugal accepted all 2951 migrants it’s required to take in, they would make up 0.029 percent of the overall population.

In fact, Hungary’s even better off compared to Portugal in terms of refugee population, seeing as if it ever meets its quota of 1294, the percentage of migrants would barely top 0.01 percent. And if that’s too mind-bogglingly small a number to quite understand, for reference, the percentage of people in America who live in Washington, D.C. is greater than that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The cultural upheaval that that amount of people would cause is clearly … minimal.

In fairness, the governments and people panicking over the introduction of a new culture are right to an extent; cultural exchange will happen as immigrants bring a piece of their home with them, and vice versa. Maybe these refugees will end up learning how to cook Slovak cuisine one of these days, but is that so bad?

It’s understandable that Hungary, Slovakia and other countries are adamant about preserving their identity as a people; they’re proud of it, as we all are. The fear of a different people, simply because you’ve “never met them before” and you’re worried about the power they’ll exert is also, in a way, understandable. We fear the unknown, and if the unknown is something you’ve only ever seen labeled as bad or dangerous, that trepidation only increases.

At this point, though, it’s probably futile to ask that people overcome their prejudices of a community they don’t truly know, especially if that prejudice has been ingrained over the years with disparaging portrayals in the media. After all, according to ABC News, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán was the man who decided the country needed a border fence to keep migrants (especially Muslim ones) out and wanted the EU to pay for it. And according to Deutsche Welle, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico wants to “protect” his country from Muslims by monitoring them. The hostility has clearly gone too far to talk down in time to save the lives of the refugees waiting in limbo.

However, there’s a chance a compromise can be reached.

Circling back to the Rohingya refugees, according to the Bangladeshi newspaper BDNews24, Denmark, of all countries, has allocated 256 million Bangladeshi takas as part of the relief fund for the refugees.

And why is Denmark invested in what happens to the Rohingya Muslims? The country hasn’t exactly set a precedent for friendliness towards refugees; in fact, according to The Atlantic, it’s passed laws cutting some of their social benefits and allowing authorities to seize any asset that costs more than $1450 from asylum seekers. This isn’t entirely because the country fears refugees, but because Denmark, with the free healthcare and free education it promises, might not be able to support them all, and so wants to dissuade them from pouring in.

The dissuasion tactic might just also work for countries that refuse to accept refugees at all on principle.

Certainly, if you don’t want migrants in your own country solely because of biases, that entrenched intolerance needs to be addressed. But if these people are dying and in crisis, and nothing will change your desire for them to stay as far away as possible — even if, according to Reuters, you’re about to be taken to court by the EU for not accepting any refugees (looking at you, Hungary) — perhaps the best compromise would be to send aid so they stay comfortably away in another country.

I write this not because I believe we should give up trying to eliminate hatred, but because we can’t possibly stamp out all the prejudice keeping people afraid of strangers and foreigners in time for more nations to simultaneously, wholeheartedly embrace those in need. As many times as I, sitting here in my Bay Area bubble, could type this out on my computer, I won’t be able to set up a tangible pre-existing diversity in countries that pride themselves on their homogeneity and have only ever seen the strange and unfamiliar through a screen. The paradigm shift that must occur won’t happen fast enough for the refugees for whom the clock is ticking down.

Ultimately, our alternative is having these countries pull a Denmark in the nick of time: If they fear the unknown enough, they might just go through roundabout acts of goodness to keep it satisfied far away.