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So what now? Joe Biden's challenges

It’s easy to look at present-day issues that trouble us and think like they’re the worst they’ve ever been, this tends to happen when we lack historical context. A one-term President who was voted out feels like a dictator, to others racism seems like it’s worse than 50 years ago, and a privately-owned, financially-thriving news outlet believes it barely survived after some of its most successful years. We’re all guilty of catastrophizing modern problems at some point or another, but this bleak, extremely-polarized outlook seems stronger today than ever in recent memory. What’s worse is that it seems like we’re all doing it. There’s a flip side of course. With President Joe Biden’s inauguration, traditionally left-leaning media outlets have decided to go home and cover the news in four years when the next election comes up. A CNN political analyst fell into straight adoration of the new administration when he spoke of the Washington, DC COVID memorial’s lights reflecting to look like Biden’s arms embracing the nation, a comment which Glenn Greenwald rightly compared to something straight out of North Korean state television. The flip side being that to the people who see things as apocalyptic, they also paradoxically seem to believe that we’re finally on the right track to solve every problem, with a new president, a new House, and a new Senate. Everyone will most likely get carried away by one of the recent currents. Either thinking that Biden’s election and inauguration is the end of the world or believing that Biden’s uniquely suited to bringing about wide-sweeping change that will right every wrong. But if we take a step back for a moment, it’s pretty clear that this sort of doomsday/messianic thinking isn’t very rooted in reality. So it’s worth asking, in the current toxic discourse, what are some of the big issues Biden will have to face? How will he deal with them? And what will #Unity look like? Incoming unity? “Unity” is the buzzword of the year on the Democratic side of the aisle, well, that and “empathy”. But in all honesty, unity is definitely something we’re in dire need of right now. The big problem is that no one seems rather committed to the idea if they have to sacrifice anything to attain it. Ever since winning the elections, the Democratic Party establishment and its elites had an amazing chance to bring the country together, instead, they’ve made every choice they could’ve made to ensure that Republicans feel like their worst worries and wildest conspiracy theories were actually right. In an insane way to kick off the year, Google, Apple and Amazon all united in the destruction of Parler, a social media alternative to Twitter that tended to host a lot of people with political opinions that wouldn’t sit well with Jack Dorsey’s ethics committee. For years people have been worried about the massive power that these tech giants wield, now, they crushed an app that had become the most downloaded app on Google’s store just days before its death. Parler’s annihilation in just a day should worry anyone who believes in free markets or freedom in general, regardless of how one could feel about the app’s users and their politics. If you want to find distasteful individuals just go on Twitter or Facebook, it won’t take long to find accounts dedicated to glorifying self-harm. But this show of force by Silicon Valley, an attempt to appease the incoming government, was just one of the actions taken recently that tried to find justification in the January 6th Capitol Riot. Anand Giridharadas, a contributor for MSNBC and Time, took a minute on January 22nd to call for the outlawing of Fox News for spreading “falsehoods”. It doesn’t matter what you think of Fox News, to call on the government to restrict speech you don’t like is authoritarian in nature and can only end up backfiring, a member of the media should know that. A writer called Don Winslow made and shared a video that’s been seen by over 4 million people where he basically says that our enemies are everywhere, hidden in every corner, they could even be our teachers or cops! Winslow then goes on to propose we should spy on our neighbors and denounce them to the authorities as terrorists for thinking or saying the wrong things. Beyond people like Giridharadas and Winslow taking an opportunity to lay bare their inner totalitarianism, others have gone on to suggest we take action against Capitol Rioters, which I agree with, but how far should we go? Domestic terrorism A few outlets online have published opinion pieces or articles about the Capitol Riots and the threat of domestic terrorism (like Winslow), but one of Biden’s greatest tests will come not from those seeking to restore Trump to the Presidency, but from the people who are trying to take advantage of this moment to expand the power of the state. Moments of crisis always serve as fantastic opportunities to grant dangerous powers to a few individuals, just look at what happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at home with the expansion of the security state that Edward Snowden risked his freedom to expose. Any move to grow the government’s power to spy on and detain citizens should be looked at under the greatest of magnifying glasses with the utmost care, especially when words as political as terrorism are used. “Terrorism” is an inherently loose term, after all, there’s a reason that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is such a popular phrase of wisdom. In fact, the United Nations doesn’t have a universally-accepted definition of terrorism, in part due to the risk of politicizing the term to mean people the government doesn’t like. Back in May of 2020, Donald Trump’s move to label ANTIFA as a domestic terrorist organization was met with backlash and suspicion, such should be the reaction now, especially in light of Representatives Brad Schneider, Jerry Nadler and others moving to pass a new Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. If someone tells you that the only way to protect our freedom is to expand the state’s power to spy on its citizens based on political ideology then that person has no interest in protecting our freedom. What’s worse is that those pushing for authoritarianism aren’t motivated by the desire of financial gain. They can’t be satisfied because they don’t see themselves as oppressors, but rather as liberators who have come to protect us from ourselves by dictating what opinions can be voiced, who you can vote for, and how you can act. The tough road ahead Joe Biden has the same task Donald Trump had back in January of 2017, to heal a divided nation. Trump was incapable of doing that, and only ended up heavily contributing to the vitriol. To be honest, I don’t think Biden has it in him either. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wish him well, if healing the nation is truly his intention. We should be mad at the political duopoly that holds the reins of the nation’s future in its hands for giving us such terrible choices this election cycle. The President will face pressure from all sides, from his own cabinet that literally embodies the legal corruption of the revolving-door, to the extremists who think ever supporting Trump should be a crime, to those who think Biden stole the election and will lead the nation down the road to communism. It can look like we’re all just surrounded by extremes, but if we look carefully there is a center. Not a political center, but rather people looking to put aside differences and try to right the current state of American politics which has us down a spiraling road of catastrophizing. If people as politically diverse as Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Rashida Tlaib, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Justin Amash and Bernie Sanders can all find agreement on critical issues, then surely the rest of us can too. That process of finding agreement, of coming together in true unity, can’t be left up to Biden alone, nor can we hand that task to any politicians, commentators, journalists or celebrities. We must all make efforts and sacrifices. We must make the effort to hear people out, rather than immediately judging them to be the worst extreme we can think of. Only open minds and hearts will lead us to a better place. Democracy is a slow slog, there are no overnight solutions, I hope Joe Biden can see that and resist the urge to ostracize those who think differently and appease the loudest among the crowd. I admit I don’t have much faith, but I do wish I’m wrong on that, we could all sure use some responsible people in power right now.

El miedo a la libertad

En 1843, explorando la idea de la “ansiedad”, Søren Kierkegaard señalaba en su libro “O lo uno o lo otro” como la sensación nos tiende a afectar más cuando nos encontramos en una encrucijada entre distintas opciones. El segundo libro del filósofo danés utiliza un ejemplo interesante para demostrar la sensación del temor/ansiedad, el lector debe básicamente imaginar estar parado al borde del techo de un edificio alto. Al principio sentirá el miedo de caer al vacío, pero igualmente sentirá algo mucho más aterrorizante: las ganas de lanzarse. El temor causado por ese conflicto de pensamientos es lo que Kierkegaard veía como el “mareo de la libertad”. Le tenemos un miedo primitivo a la libertad al reconocer que, si quisiéramos, podríamos saltar. El mismo miedo se presenta incluso en decisiones menos impactantes que aquella entre la vida y la muerte, ya sea cuando debamos elegir qué estudiar en la universidad, o si cambiarnos de trabajo, o si terminar nuestras relaciones amorosas. Ese miedo de saber que podemos elegir y somos responsables de esas decisiones, se ve también a la hora de votar. La democracia y la libertad son conceptos necesariamente atados, después de todo, si en una elección democrática el pueblo elige suprimir la posibilidad de escoger a sus gobernantes entonces se han perdido ambas. Pero en esencia son ideas, más allá de que la democracia también sea un sistema de gobierno. Para que una nación pueda ser democrática su gente debe serlo también, pero no en el sentido de estar a favor de elegir a sus gobernantes por medio del voto, sino de ser democráticos de mente. La libertad es una forma de ver el mundo, algo que John Stuart Mill ilustró muy bien hace ya 162 años en “Sobre la libertad”, una de las obras fundamentales del liberalismo. Los miembros de la sociedad deben estar dispuestos a ser libres, y como señalaba Kierkegaard, eso no es una tarea fácil. Al tomar decisiones debemos aceptar que nos tocará vivir con las consecuencias, reconocer que los demás también son humanos y también quieren vivir sus vidas a su manera, lo cual implica a su vez más decisiones y consecuencias que no podremos siempre controlar. Aquellos que queramos la libertad debemos estar dispuestos a escuchar ideas con las que no concordemos, a respetar la ciencia incluso si las conclusiones resultan de vez en cuando incómodas o distintas a lo que pensábamos, reconocer que las personas tienen el derecho de publicar libros que vayan en contra de la corriente popular o que algunos le rezarán a dioses distintos o quizás a ninguno. Debemos también estar dispuestos a aceptar que a veces los resultados de las elecciones no saldrán como queremos… Reconozco que no es fácil, pero las cosas que valen la pena rara vez lo son. El precio de la libertad es alto, eso queda claro si contamos cuantas democracias exitosas hay o cuando hablamos de cuan longevas fueron las que fracasaron. Da miedo vivir así, para muchos será paralizante, pero solo por eso no creo que debamos rendirnos. El temor por quién elegimos al poder, quién tiene mayoría en la legislatura, de qué corriente ideológica son los jueces que se sientan en el más alto tribunal llevará a muchos a desear que ojalá la sociedad no fuese tan libre. Muchos comenzarán a culpar la libertad democrática cuando en nuestra sociedad tomen fuerza corrientes ideológicas que hemos visto en el pasado y cuyos resultados han sido dañinos. Quizás gente realmente vil llegue al poder a través del voto y hagan de nuestra vida un infierno. ¿Por qué no nombramos a un defensor que nos proteja a toda costa de aquellas fuerzas? Las dictaduras se vuelven muy atractivas. En 1951, Eric Hoffer publicó un libro llamado “El fiel creyente”, en él Hoffer comenta sobre como los movimientos sociales en masa crecen y se expanden. Una observación clave del autor es que dichos movimientos están normalmente formados por personas que sienten que sus vidas están fuera de su control y, por ende, necesitan que alguien más ponga orden por ellos. Son personas que deciden desligarse de su responsabilidad individual de forma completa y responsabilizar al colectivo. Es claro que los humanos no pueden controlar todas las fuerzas que los influyen, pero tomar la postura que los demás son los responsables de toda miseria y, en consecuencia, necesitamos a un mesías que nos salve solo nos coloca en el riesgo de entregarnos de lleno a un culto religioso o a un dictador. En años recientes hemos visto aquella posición tomar mucha fuerza en Estados Unidos, y desafortunadamente no ha ocurrido en solo uno de los bandos ideológicos. La derecha y la izquierda se han radicalizado sin precedentes en aquella nación, y ambos creen que el otro es el radical y que ellos son los que llevan la autoridad moral del asunto y por tanto están del lado correcto de la historia. Ya sea proclamar a todos los blancos racistas, como ha hecho Robin Di Angelo, justificar la destrucción de vidas como lo han hecho las charlatanes Vicky Osterweil y Nicole Hannah-Jones o literalmente intentar destruir la institucionalidad democrática porque sientes que debiste ganar las elecciones como intentó el pasado 6 de enero el Presidente Donald Trump al presionar a Mike Pence para que lo proclamase como ganador. Las cosas se están saliendo de control, y Estados Unidos se ha vuelto tierra fértil para el auge de un dictador. Estados Unidos es una anomalía, una democracia y cuna de la libertad intelectual mundial desde su fundación en 1776, y que ahora se encuentra en un momento por el cual pasarán todas las democracias eventualmente. Una locura populista donde es bien difícil tener una conversación seria y de buena fe sin ser calificado de “fascista” o “comunista”. El camino que se tiene por delante es complicado y prever el resultado es casi imposible, pero el objetivo debe ser seguir luchando para que sobrevivan las libertades básicas que antes tanto se atesoraban. El precio de la libertad es alto, ojalá haya suficientes personas dispuestas a pagarlo. Luis Gonzalez es un abogado graduado en la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (Caracas, Venezuela), actualmente ejerce el derecho en el sector privado y es fundador y co-editor de The Explorer. Puedes encontrarlo en Twitter en @lagm96.

What company leaders and managers can learn from Jurassic Park

We all remember Jurassic Park, the famous film directed by Steven Spielberg in which a group of scientists visit an amusement park with cloned dinosaurs, created by a billionaire philanthropist and a team of geneticists, who escape and put the lives of those in the park at risk. But, beyond the science fiction, I believe that, from an organizational behavior point of view, there are a few lessons from the film that can serve company leaders and managers. This being said, here I share some key lessons that business leaders and managers of today can take away from this film: Caring for your employees’ well-being is important Since the start of the film, it is obvious that John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the owner and manager of the company that owns the park, does not care about the general well-being of his employees, but rather is blinded by his vision for the park. In the first scene, we see that an employee is mauled by a Velociraptor and nobody in the company seems to care enough about it, especially Mr. Hammond. The man is being sued by the deceased employee’s family for 20 million dollars and he doesn’t even bother to meet with his lawyer and discuss the whole problem. Moreover, he fails to provide a secure work environment, risking the lives of his own grandchildren and guests. For a business to be successful, employees must be healthy not only physically but emotionally as well. A healthy and secure work environment contributes to a healthy organization. Some researchers suggest that creating a positive culture for your team can contribute to a healthier and more productive work environment. Therefore, the lesson here is this: company leaders and managers must promote a healthy and secure environment for their employees, which will contribute to more successful organizations as the employees will feel safer, satisfied and more motivated. This can be done by creating a positive workplace culture. Motivating your employees is key In the film, we see that lead computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) is not motivated in working anymore at Jurassic Park. Nedry is probably the organization’s most important employee, as he is the person in charge of the park’s security, yet he feels unappreciated and underpaid. Therefore, to find other ways of making money for himself, he starts stealing fertilized dinosaur embryos to sell them to Hammond’s corporate rival. He deactivates the park’s security system –to which only he knew the security codes- to gain access to the embryo storage and steal them. We all know how the rest turned out. Now in my opinion, the demise of Jurassic Park was influenced, in great part, by the lack of motivation of its most important employee. Nedry’s motivation was, in turn, affected by the poor management decisions taken by Hammond who didn’t value his employee’s job. This is clearly evidenced during the scene in which Nedry starts discussing with Hammond about the difficulty of his job and how low he’s paying him to do it. Constantly, studies show that motivation of employees is a fundamental aspect for any organization to be successful. Motivation is defined as the “processes that account for an individual’s intensity, direction and persistence of effort toward attaining a goal”[1], specifically, an organizational goal. To be successful, companies and businesses need people who are willing to give their best for them. They need employees that are motivated to achieve the organization’s goals and contribute to its success. So, the main lesson here is this: company leaders must always seek to motivate their employees to be successful. As Robbins and Judge point out, the “level of motivation varies both between individuals and within individuals at different times”[2] so, company leaders and managers must identify what motivates their employees (bigger salary, recognition, feedback, bonuses). Therefore, it is up to them to learn to identify what motivates his or her employee, especially when they play a major role within the organization, as was the case of Mr. Nedry. Avoid biases and errors when taking decisions According to organizational behavior researchers, managers and company leaders tend to let errors and biases cloud their judgments when taking decisions. There is an extensive list of the most common biases and errors which a person commits but in relation to the film, only two seem pertinent in my opinion, namely: the escalation of commitment and the hindsight bias, which I’ll refer to separately. As stated by Robbins and Judge, the escalation of commitment is the tendency of “staying with a decision even when there is clear evidence it’s wrong”[3]. The authors note that the reason for escalating commitment may vary from an individual to another (e.g. a lot of time and energy in making the decisions), but people always tend to incur in this error “when they view themselves as responsible for the failure”[4]. In other words, even though there is new information that contradicts their path, managers and company leaders continue taking it. This, in turn, has led many organizations to their downfall, as managers continue to commit resources to a lost cause just to prove his or her decision was correct. Throughout the film, it can be noticed that John Hammond relentlessly escalates commitment. Most of the characters in the film constantly try to fight Hammond’s idea for the park, especially when they all learn that only female dinosaurs comprised the park’s exhibits to prevent them from breeding. They generally state that it is unnatural for dinosaurs to live in the same time as humans, and that they will eventually find a way to breed. We all remember Dr. Ian Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) famous quote on nature finding its way. Nevertheless, even after knowing the contrary opinions of the scientists that he hired to greenlight the park, Hammond continues to justify his decision. He still believes that the idea of creating a theme park with live dinosaurs is good business. He seems to have convinced himself that he's taking the right decision and denies to update his knowledge regarding the park in the face of the new information presented by the scientists, a clear sign of the escalation of commitment. Indeed, because of Hammond’s determination to prove his decision was right, the organization suffered greatly. As for the hindsight bias, the authors define it as the “tendency to believe falsely, after the outcome is known, that we’d have accurately predicted it”[5]. The main consequence of this bias is that it prevents people from learning from past mistakes. It lets managers and company leaders believe they are better predictors than they actually are and can make them falsely confident. In the film, Hammond incurs in this bias during a scene where he is talking with paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). While the T-Rex is on the loose and eating everyone, he says to her that he knows how he could have maintained control, but Dr. Sattler tells him, and I quote “You never had control. That’s the illusion”. Indeed, Hammond believed that, after all was lost, he could’ve predicted and prevented that outcome, thus, incurring in hindsight bias. That being said, the lesson to take away here is this: company leaders and managers must avoid committing errors and biases that will cloud their judgment when taking important decisions that can affect the organization as a whole. It is without a doubt better for them to be clear-minded during the decision-making process. Three key lessons Even if it goes without saying, it is obvious that the purpose of the film was to entertain and not reflect Mr. Hammond's mismanagement, which is why the character acted that way. However, I think the film can serve as a good reference for leaders and managers of today on what not to do or how not to run a company. In sum, there are three lessons that company managers and leaders can learn or take into account, namely: (a) ensure the well-being of employees (physical and emotional); (b) learn to correctly identify what motivates employees in particular and, consequently, use it to your advantage to keep them satisfied and motivated; (c) avoid letting errors and biases cloud you when making decisions that are of extreme interest to the company. Juan Andres Miralles is a lawyer from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (Caracas, Venezuela), currently pursuing his Master's Degree in Business Administration at Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración (IESA). He works in private legal practice and is co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Linkedin at Juan Andres Miralles Quintero and on Twitter at @JuanMiralles96. [1] Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge: Organizational Behavior. (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Prentice Hall, 2009), 202.
[2] Robbins and Judge: Organizational behavior, 202.
[3] Robbins and Judge: Organizational behavior, 180.
[4] Robbins and Judge: Organizational behavior, 180.
[5] Robbins and Judge: Organizational behavior, 181.

The Longest Failure: The US in Afghanistan

A lot is said of 9/11, especially of how it impacted everyone differently. People from all over the world and of all nationalities can still recall where they were and how they found out about the attacks. Those who had family members or loved ones on the planes, in the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon will of course never forget that absolutely harrowing day. Justice needed to be done for the atrocity that had been committed, and the world needed to see that the United States wouldn’t just sit around after a heinous attack. Unfortunately, the catastrophe of 9/11 ended up paving the way for a different one, one that is drawn out to this day. The original justification for invading Afghanistan (even if the hijackers weren’t from there) was that the nation’s Taliban government was sheltering al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that took responsibility for plotting and carrying out the attack, and on September 20th, 2001, US President George Bush made clear his intentions during a Joint Session of Congress when he said that the Taliban were to deliver al-Qaeda to the US or share in their fate. When we think of the war in Afghanistan now, we can rightly see it as an utter failure in US foreign policy. However, what might be missed from all this by most people is that the original goals were accomplished… for a while. Those goals weren’t achieved 10 or 15 years into the war either, it happened rather early on. So why has the US spent almost 20 years in Afghanistan? What succeeded and what failed? There are many areas to focus on when discussing what went wrong, but here I’ll focus on three critical issues: strategy, corruption and nation-building. Strategy, or lack thereof America's original objective when invading Afghanistan was to eradicate al-Qaeda presence in the nation, but that objective started expanding evermore to include overthrowing the Taliban government and later all other organizations that the Taliban worked with in what former Ambassador Richard Boucher called as a clear example of “mission creep”. In a 2015 interview with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Boucher talks about how American reasoning started going down a rabbit hole. Perhaps the most revealing thing learned by SIGAR from Boucher was that the US never had a clear exit-strategy. There wasn’t an achievable end-goal to aim for and call a definitive victory. Even if you set removing al-Qaeda or the Taliban as the end-goal, how would one define that? The Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapsed in mid-November, 2001, by December, al-Qaeda was on the run. So why didn’t those moments count as victories? As Boucher reveals, those couldn’t be considered accomplishments of the mission, as a weak Afghan government with an unprepared Afghan army, tribal rivalries and the cross-border nature of the Taliban would just lead to them being back in power soon and al-Qaeda training operatives once again. Retired US Army General Dan McNeill, basically confirmed Boucher’s testimony to SIGAR in an undated interview. Speaking of his experience as commander of NATO’s forces in 2007, McNeill states that he “tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant”, but states that there was no clear answer to the question. By 2007, the anti-Taliban Afghan government under Hamid Karzai was well into its sixth year, but as McNeill declared, the US still didn’t really know what it was doing. Military operations in the country by NATO forces had no clear plan and were mainly “reacting to conditions on the ground”. Both McNeill and Boucher observe that the goal seemed to shift from military-strategy to nation-building, and that the nation that the US wanted to build in Afghanistan was a “Jeffersonian democracy” and that such a thing was “just not going to happen in Afghanistan.” This disorder in planning continued to plague the US well into the Obama administration, as former US Army general David Petraeus recalls in his 2017 interview with SIGAR. Similar to Boucher’s comments about the Taliban’s cross-border advantage, Petraeus said that he never had confidence that the US would be able to “flip” Afghanistan the way they had done in Iraq. That pessimism was down to various reasons, but an important one was the fact that the Taliban could just retreat into Pakistan to reorganize and be back in fighting form. During a speech at West Point Military Academy in December, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that another 30,000 troops would be deployed to Afghanistan, and that in 2011 “our troops will begin to come home.” Petraeus mentions in his interview that this surge in troop numbers and timeline for the drawdown was “imposed” by the President onto military leaders two nights prior to that speech, and that Obama’s plan was “take it or leave it”. Knowing that what may have been the original exit-strategy was impossible now, the US focused on strengthening the Afghan government, both by providing vast sums of money and military training, believing that would create a strong Afghanistan that could defend itself after coalition forces were gone. But foreign assistance to Afghanistan faced a major problem the US didn’t foresee and failed to correct in time. Corruption, rampant and unhinged Corruption is an issue that is hard to handle because it’s very difficult to accurately measure how widespread it can become. In Afghanistan, corruption was described by SIGAR to be “systemic”, to the extent that Dr. Rangin Spanta (Afghan National Security Adviser) is quoted as saying “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance.” What’s clear from SIGAR’s report is that the US failed to understand the threat corruption posed to their efforts to stabilize the nation and later rebuild it in the fashion of a Western democracy. But this failure to recognize the scale and consequence of corruption isn’t the only reason America’s efforts to contain it failed, rather, containing corruption also found itself in conflict with more direct objectives of the US intervention. For example, in order to enforce security the US relied heavily on warlords and shady powerbrokers who did not turn out to be very good bureaucrats, as scholar Weeda Mehran has argued in the past. SIGAR found that these warlords, empowered by the US in its attempts to keep control of Afghanistan, would do nothing to ease corruption seeing as they depended heavily on it in order to maintain their power. This approach not only allowed warlords to uphold corruption, but the CIA also pumped their pockets full of US cash, approximately $1 billion in 2001 according to Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos. But $1 billion is sadly a small figure compared to the sums that would be funneled into Afghanistan (and, therefore, its corrupt power structures) over the following years. Since 2001, $115.5 billion have been disbursed in Afghanistan in the shape of foreign aid handled by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In his interview with SIGAR, Boucher says he believed that at least 40% of the money sent into Afghanistan would never reach the intended targets and just disappear through all the layers of corrupt officials. An unnamed senior US official interviewed in December, 2015 talks about how little oversight there was in the spending of assistance money for reconstruction in Afghanistan, and how due to that, big companies who secured large contracts would just subcontract those projects to smaller companies, who would later subcontract to Afghan NGOs who then hired out local contractors to get the job done, with money being lost at every rung of the ladder. It is incredibly hard to estimate how much money was lost to corruption in Afghanistan, but no way of looking at the issue could ever result in an amount considered acceptable. Since 2001 through 2019, the US spent around $2 trillion. While most of that wasn’t lost to corruption, what’s become certain after all these years is that it was lost anyway. Nation-building, not our job America’s complete lack of an exit-strategy lead to what will no doubt be seen as a textbook example of mission creep to be taught at military academies the world over. That ever-expanding mission, from eradicating al-Qaeda, to overthrowing the Taliban, to pacifying the nation’s rural areas controlled by tribal warlords, ended up with the idea of solving just about all of Afghanistan’s problems. To stabilize the country, a central government had to be created, democratic institutions set up, the economy repaired, a new legal system needed to be crafted, legal employment had to be created for everyone, warlords had to get 9-to-5 jobs… Boucher knew that these goals were nigh impossible in a country like Afghanistan. In his interview with SIGAR he talks about how when he first met with the Afghan government, then under Hamid Karzai, he realized how unprepared they were for the tasks they needed to undertake. From Boucher’s testimony one gets the impression that the Afghan government was a hollow façade. Sure, there was a ministry for women’s rights, and defense and education secretaries, but these were empty shells there for show and not for work. Boucher felt that the Afghans weren’t incompetent, they just didn’t want the type of government the US had. This idea that Afghan institutions were created more as ends (show ponies) rather than means through which to achieve stability is reflected in academic literature around capacity-building and economic development. In a paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for International Development (CID), Frank de Weijer argues that by 2013 Afghanistan’s basic institutions were clearly incapable of fulfilling the obligations of the state. De Weijer identifies many issues and reasons why local institutions were failing, among which are a “lack of critical mass of people able and willing to maintain them when external support recedes”, a bias toward the importance of immediate results over the creation of capable institutions and the top-down implementation model used. De Weijer noticed that, in great part due to the desire for quick results, Afghan government institutions had fallen into the now-famous concept of a “capability trap”, that is, they had become stagnant in development and effectiveness even as they externalized their intentions to grow and be better. Rather than focus on tailored answers to solve very local problems, Afghan institutions relied on “isomorphic mimicry” (as described by Andrews et al.), adopting reforms that would make them look good but didn’t actually improve performance. These reforms were usually cookie-cutter “best practices” imported by foreign advisors, and resulted in no benefit to them or the people they served. Looking back on the top-down approach to capacity-building, Boucher regrets not having incorporated more members of the Afghan diaspora into the process, people who may have better known the specific issues that needed to be dealt with in Afghanistan. De Weijer also points out how Afghanistan was never a country with an efficient or effective central government, and thus top-down policy mandated by edict would never work. Time has proven de Weijer and others like him right, the approach taken by the international community never changed over the following years. Now, the institutions that took billions of dollars to build face the same issues they faced over 18 years ago, they’re weak without external technical support, and it would seem that there just aren’t enough people in Afghanistan interested in making this project work. It appears then, that President Bush was right when he said in October, 2000 that the military shouldn’t be involved in nation-building. If only he had stuck to that. What now for Afghanistan and the US? It’s now December, 2020 and the US seems determined to withdraw its forces entirely from Afghanistan. After 19 years, around $2 trillion spent, some 2,500 American lives lost, and over 100,000 Afghan civilians dead, it’s time to come home. I’ve no doubt that the Afghan government will collapse after the US leaves, the Taliban have already made clear their intent to continue the war, the real doubt is how long that’ll take, and what the consequences will be. The advancement of women’s rights under the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani will be overturned by the Taliban whenever they get back to controlling Kabul. The women who obtained an education in those years will probably be punished harshly by them. That’s not to claim Karzai and Ghani were champions of women’s equality, but they weren’t the oppressors that the Taliban most definitely are. Al-Qaeda, while weak in comparison to their strength in 2001, will see this result as a win. After all, the US will leave, the Afghan government will fall and the Taliban will be back supporting al-Qaeda’s mission. The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban resisted the years of war, as Weeda Mehran writes, the Taliban consult with them on everything they negotiate with the US. So, al-Qaeda and the Taliban will be back in control of Afghanistan, which render the original goals now clearly unaccomplished. So did the US get anything out of this? Well, Afghanistan will hopefully serve as a brutal teacher of important lessons for the US foreign policy establishment. The appetite for war, in particular for regime-change wars, in the US has died down tremendously. The best we can hope for is for this war to serve as a warning to the government in DC, a gruesome tale of being unprepared, of a lack of vision and the consequences of hubris. Next year, a new government will be inaugurated under President Joe Biden. Biden will hopefully stay away from starting new wars, but the presence of people like Antony Blinken, Neera Tanden, Avril Haines and Lloyd Austin in high roles of the incoming administration leaves some worry over how different this government will be, because it’s starting to look like more of the same. Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.

Routine or Rupture: Spain's budget discussions

Pedro Sanchez’s government hasn’t been free of controversy since its beginnings. Being the first-ever coalition government, made only possible with support of Spain’s separatist parties, having one of the worst coronavirus responses in the world, and expected to suffer the biggest recession of all European countries, it is likely that it will continue to draw critiques from the opposition blocs. This time, it is Mr. Sanchez’s alliance with the separatist parties that has again drawn attention to him. In order to approve the new state budgets for 2021, and not extend for yet another year the 2018 ones drafted by the then-in-charge opposition party Partido Popular, the Spanish prime minister must again look for support within the controversial separatist parties. This week, the peak of the controversy came when Mr. Otegi, leader of the left-leaning Basque EH Bildu, promised his party’s votes in Congress in order to pass the budgets. Why is this so problematic? Because of Bildu’s behavior regarding the terrorist organization ETA. Since its definitive cease-fire in 2011 and their unconditional surrender in 2017, the terrorist organization ETA (short for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna - Basque Country and freedom), responsible for the death of 864 people, is still present in the Spanish collective consciousness. It is safe to say that EH Bildu and ETA are not officially connected, as they have passed the rigorous scrutiny of the Interior Ministry in order to officially operate as a political party. Said ministry has previously banned political parties for their links with ETA, such as Herri Batasuna and many others. Nonetheless, certain things about Bildu raise alarms. For starters, Mr. Otegi himself has served jail time for having praised terrorist activities and for having been a member of ETA. This is also the case of Iker Casanova, Ikoitz Arrese and Arkaitz Rodríguez, all members of the Basque parliament, and all of them also convicted for their involvement in terrorist activities. Furthermore, EH Bildu has avoided any public condemnation of ETA’s terrorist activities. For example, they abstained in the voting of a resolution in the Parliament of Navarre, condemning one of the most gruesome attacks of ETA, the 1987 car bombing of the Hipercor supermarket in Barcelona that took 21 innocent lives and injured 45 others. Most recently, Mr. Abascal, leader of the conservative party Vox, suffered an anonymous attack on his mother’s store in Álava. Besides damaging the storefront, the perpetrators left threatening graffiti reading “let’s see if you like this, you fascist”, in a modus operandi similar to those of ETA. We must note that Mr. Abascal’s family has had a long history of threats by ETA since the 80s, because of his father’s political role, now continued by him. In response to this, Bildu posted a tweet with a curious choice of words: “EH Bildu condemns the attack suffered by a family on their store last night in the municipality.” Attitudes like this, and many others, have earned Bildu the scolding of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), their coalition buddies in the Basque Parliament. It is also worth noting that in various occasions, Mr. Sanchez and other VIPs of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) have assured that deals regarding Bildu are a red line. “We aren’t going to make any political agreements with Bildu. For us, that’s a red line and we, the socialists, are very trustworthy”, reads a tweet by Carmen Calvo, Mr. Sanchez’s first vice-president, in 2019. “We are not making any political agreements with Bildu. I can repeat it five or twenty times.” said Mr. Sanchez in a political rally in 2015. Now, the moral compass appears to have shifted for the Socialist Workers Party. Recently, José Luis Ábalos, Minister of Transportation, who met with EU-sanctioned human rights violator Delcy Rodríguez in Madrid, has said in an interview for El País that “Bildu has had more sense of responsibility than the Popular Party regarding the State’s Budget.” Mr. Ábalos has also affirmed that “terrorism is something we’ve overcome.” The budget law is yet to be passed, and in the meantime, Mr. Sánchez continues to look for support wherever he can find it, even at the cost, it appears, of betraying his own moral standards. Correction: This article was updated to correct Mr. Arnaldo Otegi's name. Marc Suñer is a Law student at Autonomous University of Madrid, you can find him on Twitter at @marcsuner.

The Illiberal Internet

Let’s cast our minds back to the year 2011, Twitter had just unveiled the ability to share images and videos, the Arab Spring was cause for democratic hopes in the region, and the United States Congress was discussing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). SOPA’s objective was to cut off sites like The Pirate Bay by having US-based search engines block access to them, as well as forbidding US payment services from providing funds to sites that carried out “theft of U.S. property”. But if you remember anything about SOPA, it’s the pushback that it faced. The bill allowed the government to take action against websites that “facilitated” piracy. That’s a pretty broad term and at the Freedom Online 2011 conference Bob Boorstin, Google’s then Public Policy Director, warned that the law wouldn’t even allow sites like YouTube to function given that they could be punished for the actions of their users. That vagueness in language resulted in a lot of legitimate worry over the risk of sites having to censor the content posted by users in order to avoid being punished themselves. In the end, the tech industry’s concerns were taken seriously and the law was re-written, with both Democrats and Republicans responding to public worries. Now, we’re also seeing bipartisan unity on the question of internet freedom, but things have turned the other way. Why are calls for the government to take action against social media platforms so loud now when a few years ago public sentiment ran the other way? Why does it matter? And what even is Section 230? The Modern Public Square Since their inception, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have had enormous growth. As of July 2020, Twitter had around 353 million active users, with Facebook topping the list of all social media platforms with a staggering 2.7 billion users. Both platforms are also incredibly vast, they follow the popular rule of the internet: “if you can think of it, it’s on there somewhere”. From cat videos to surrealist memes, pencil portraits to political propaganda, you can find it all on either platform. But, in recent years, people have also been logging on to get their news. Surveys carried out by Pew Research estimate that around 68% of Americans get their news from social media as of 2018. That doesn’t mean people are getting their news from outlets like the BBC, The Washington Post or Fox News, they’re getting news from regular users that have amassed large followings or from new-media outlets that are mostly online operations. A few problems here are that people might be subject to “reporting” that lacks the proper research or “journalists” who are not interested in truth. However, journalism is in serious crisis, and those issues are not unique to new-media news outlets. CNN, Fox News, Vox, The Guardian and many others have become ever more interested in selling narratives than even attempting to present facts. The news have always had biases in them, but those biases have gone from choosing to cover certain topics more than others to outright straight-feeding us propaganda on the issues their owners feel lie in their interests. So, it’s a good thing that people can log onto their preferred social media platform and have access to such a wide range of outlets and sources, giving them the tools to form their own opinions, and identify biases by themselves. There’s a catch though, these platforms get to control what you can see, who can see what you publish and who you can contact on them. Most people could look at that and just say “well, they’re private companies, they can do what they want, if you don’t like it then use a different service.” While that statement might be correct in many instances, it lacks the nuance of this particular situation. As we’ve seen, these companies have an insane reach, their algorithms decide what links you see, what videos you’ll end up watching, what you’ll consider news, and (even more dangerous than any of that) what you’ll consider to be “true”. They no longer sell some basic product that you can go buy somewhere else if you don’t like the Terms of Service, they have become the public square. These are the platforms on which political debate and political organization is now conducted, and their power around elections has now been confirmed. Social Media Bias The accusations of Silicon Valley being biased against conservatives aren’t new. While some would point at data from Facebook about number-of-interactions to push back against the claim, others can note how companies in the Valley seem to be ideological echo-chambers that have famously cracked down on dissent in the past. The people who believe that these platforms are biased against conservatives felt vindicated this past May when Twitter decided to place a fact-check on one of US President Donald Trump’s tweets for the very first time. Response to that action was pretty varied but fell mostly along party lines, Republicans were outraged at Twitter and many Democrats were happy that they were finally fighting against some of Trump’s unfounded claims. But this backed Twitter into a tough corner. What now? Would Twitter actively fact-check every tweet? Only those of politicians? Politicians from where? Would it be only elected officials? What ended up happening was that Twitter doubled down on their fact-check. They not only continued doing it to Trump, but they also started adding on different warnings for different types of tweets. Finally, we were on the cusp of the 2020 US Presidential elections, and Twitter went a step further than it ever had before. On October 14th, 2020, the New York Post ran a story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, regarding his overseas dealings in Ukraine. The story reveals that Hunter Biden did indeed peddle his family name in Ukraine in order to benefit himself financially, the emails also seem to suggest that Hunter spoke to his father about his business dealings, something that Joe has denied previously. Twitter decided to respond to this by blocking every link to the NY Post article that got shared on its platform, they soft-blocked links shared via Direct Message and they also suspended the Post’s twitter account. Just like that, a 200 year-old tabloid had its access to Twitter completely blocked. The Post was eventually reinstated (in a rather confusing way), but the insane part of all this is that Twitter had no way of knowing if the article was true or false, they had no way of knowing if it was based on hacked materials (the reason Twitter alleges they blocked the link for), instead, Twitter decided that it knew. The NY Post got its account back because of the massive uproar that the incident caused, but that’s only because they have a large following. What could happen to smaller outlets or individuals that rely heavily on the exposure they stand to gain on Twitter under this type of guilty-until-proven-innocent justice? Section 230 With this, talk of government action against social media companies has become popular once again, and maybe this time some real action could be taken. During the run up to the elections, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden spoke about repealing “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act”. So what is it? Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the Act’s original purpose was to limit internet freedom, but Section 230 was a safeguard introduced in order to ensure that social media companies could thrive without fear of being sued over what their users posted on their sites. The idea was to allow the internet some space to regulate itself, and allow social media companies to feature content produced by users without running the risk of being treated as the publishers of said content. However, the internet has changed a lot since 1996. Back then companies didn’t regulate what was being published on their forums and platforms, now they do. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all regulate what users can or can’t post through the establishment and enforcement of community guidelines or hateful speech policies. So, if these companies get to review what gets published on their platforms, and they even get to decide what gets published and what doesn’t, aren’t they then acting as publishers? Why should they get to act as publishers without having to take up the ethical and legal responsibilities that they must observe? This is the special treatment that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden claimed they wished to end, Trump even produced an Executive Order back in May of 2020 instructing all executive agencies and departments to investigate the application of the protection and ensure that it is being properly used by social media companies. While Twitter and Facebook’s actions are extremely worrying and dangerous given their reach and unique position in what is almost a private duopoly on free speech in the internet age, we’d do well to be careful, excessive limitations on these companies could give us a government monopoly on online freedom and well… that wouldn’t be a solution either. The Dangers of Overcorrection The truth is we’re not in the best of situations regarding internet freedom. Social media companies have amassed a worrying amount of power, but holding them responsible for what their users publish on their platforms will only lead to greater levels of self-censorship, their community guidelines will tighten, their enforcement will get tougher in an attempt to avoid any and all liability. Letting the government impose general guidelines for speech online would be at best equally terrible, but no one knows how bad it could actually get. The clearest path forward might be civilian action to push companies into making their community guidelines clearer for everyone, and holding them accountable if they enforce non-existent policies, or when they stretch the scope of their policies beyond strict interpretation. Their freedom is truly in our best interest, but they have to help themselves and ultimately help us. Guidelines must become clearer, and they must stop acting like publishers, or they’ll be forcing the government’s hand, and only making us less free in the end. Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.

What does it mean to really be there for your employees?

Have you heard of a Chief Well-Being Officer? This new approach is what many companies are implementing to solve the problem of burnout in their employees. Many are feeling burnout due to COVID-19 pandemic. People are suffering from Zoom fatigue; teachers and students are trying to adopt a new model of teaching and learning, and working mothers are trying to balance home life with work life. The sum or combination of all these situations has produced a catalyst for changes to society and companies. Some leaders strongly believe that the Coronavirus pandemic brought a lot more flexibility to balance work with family life. Even though this may be true for some, for others it has been a real challenge to take care of their kids and home while at the same time fulfilling the same productive goals of the job. For some people, the ability to work from home has resulted in no boundaries and a 12 - hour workday. The impact the pandemic or any other situation may have on your work and family life has a lot to do depending on the conditions of your home, the nature of the job, and the capability of the company leaders to effectively handle and lead teams into positive remote work experience. A well-being strategy is not an exact formula for everyone. For some, well-being could mean exercising every day, Netflix and chill, or taking a vacation somewhere on the beach. Employees, along with their leaders and the Chief Well-Being Officer, must evaluate and reflect on the organization’s habits, routine and evaluate improvements on the company’s possible high - pressure environment, to work on effective strategies for each member of their team to avoid burnout. The company and its leaders must understand that burnout is not the price of success; it should not be the driver to finally offer that employee his or her deserved promotion or raise. It should be quite the opposite; it should be a leader's job to constantly offer opportunities to grow professionally, notice when their employees are on the brink of collapse, and teach them how to recover and thrive, as well as integrate their purpose with that of the company’s. This new position of Chief Well-Being Officer should be considered the norm. It should already be a standard position inside an organization, as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Leaders should find support in this new area. By taking care of their people, practicing compassion and humility, and empowering teams to focus on their well-being, an organization can solve some complex problems, earn revenue, and be more productive. The well-being of your employee means the well-being of your organization. But taking care of your employees’ well–being is not just about throwing money into apps, tools, or programs, without a clear strategy or purpose. The well–being strategy should be embedded and be an important part of the corporate culture. A cultural transformation is needed to engage leaders, from the top down, to understand that the needs of the employees are as important as revenue and that a one size strategy does not fit all. The Chief Well-being Officer needs to work on the overall business plan strategy like, for example, the CFO does, contributing towards a common goal. This new role is all about helping leaders build awareness, and turn the support the company can give to employees into concrete and effective actions. The position should be more than a human resource leader; it should aim to transform a human resources department into a resource for humans. Well–being is not just physical, it also includes mental and emotional health, as well as financial well–being. To correctly enforce this strategy; transparency and honesty should be an important part of corporate values. Employees need to trust their leaders; trust they will not use the information against them. Particular programs or benefits only do so much, the real change occurs when actions are part of the corporate culture. An important part of effective well-being support from leaders is that they need to understand and respect boundaries, respect holidays and weekends. For example, sometimes leaders confuse checking in with only talking about work-related activities. Checking how your employees are feeling means listening to them on their recommendations for better job performance, ideas, etc. The leader must try to reach the common ground or provide what the employee needs to continue doing the work as best they could. Sometimes it’s better not to check-in, meaning if you are going to call on a Friday afternoon or the weekends, for example, or if you are just going to ask about how work is doing every time, it’s better to avoid the call altogether. A simple time out or space to breathe is also good for the employee and the company’s productivity. According to a survey from TELUS International and published in Forbes Magazine, about 80% of workers would consider quitting their current position for one that focuses or invest more in employee's mental health. The survey also finds that 75% of US workers have struggled at their job due to anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic and other events. Taking care of your employees and investing in their well–being will help organizations retain talent. More than hiring short–term mindsets, today the focus should be on building employees' skills. Companies should be the first to adapt to the new normal and future. Make mental health a priority and promote the importance of rest. Engage your people, involve them in the process and initiatives, receive and implement their feedback. Thanks to COVID – 19 pandemic organizations have learned about the importance of resiliency and investing in mental health and the need for rest and recovery, but it has to translate to leaders to effectively change the culture inside an organization. Isabella Miralles is a social communicator from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (Caracas, Venezuela), as well as an advisor of strategic and corporate communications. You can find her on Twitter at @isaMiralles and on Medium at isaMiralles.

How Covid-19 is affecting elections worldwide

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, in many countries, voting processes are scheduled to be held this year. Electoral authorities of each country have done everything possible so that elections are held, of course, taking the corresponding health and security measures. In some cases, the voting processes have already been held successfully, but in others these have been postponed and it is not yet known how they will be carried out. In this sense, it seems interesting to analyze how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected elections worldwide. In my opinion, the pandemic has affected electoral processes from three points of view: (a) as for the election itself, (b) as for the candidates, and (c) as for the voters. As for the election itself The holding of the electoral process as such has been affected by the pandemic as it adds new logistical implications in terms of organizing and coordinating said events. . First, because, as it is well known, elections involve the gathering of people in voting centers, which increases the risk of contagion of the virus among citizens. And second, due to the measures of restrictions on the free movement of people that various governments have taken with the aim of mitigating the levels of contagion of Covid-19, it is difficult for citizens to go to the voting centers to cast their votes. From this perspective, the holding of elections has clearly been affected. But not all countries are in the same situation. In some countries, leaders have managed to handle this crisis with great success, while in others, they have failed to control and mitigate the effects of Covid-19. Hence, depending on the country in question, the pandemic has affected the holding of elections to a greater or lesser extent. As an example of the first case, that is, of countries in which the pandemic has affected the holding of electoral processes to a lesser extent, New Zealand can be mentioned. In said country, general elections were originally scheduled to take place on September 19th, but during the month of August, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the elections were to be postponed for a month. It was not until a few days ago, specifically, on October 17th that said general elections were held without major problems. The same happened in Bolivia, where on October 18th presidential elections were successfully held with the corresponding sanitary measures. These general elections were initially scheduled for May 3rd, but due to the emergency of Covid-19, they were postponed twice (for September 6th and then definitively for October 18th). In contrast, among the countries whose elections have been affected the most is the United States. In said nation, the rate of infected and deceased due to Covid-19 increases more every day. This situation has cast doubt on whether or not the presidential elections should be held in November. In light of the above, alternative mechanisms have been proposed to voting in person, such as casting the ballot by mail, but such an alternative has not been well received by the community, mainly because of the lack of confidence of the citizens in the American postal service. As early as the end of July, even President Trump himself had suggested that the November presidential elections be postponed since voting by mail could lead to fraud or inaccurate results. However, this decision depends on the approval of Congress, since the president does not have the power to make such a decision. So it seems that the elections will take place on the scheduled date. The case of Venezuela is also worth mentioning as an example of the second situation. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, parliamentary elections are to be held at the end of this year but, due to the pandemic and other political and legal causes, most citizens have decided not to participate in them. Even more so when the infection and mortality rates increase exponentially every day. Certainly, many countries have found it necessary to postpone their electoral processes due to the pandemic, not only at the national level but also at the legislative, state and even local levels, until adequate sanitary conditions that ensure the well-being of the population are guaranteed. Likewise, it should be noted that not only electoral processes have been affected but also other events of a similar nature, such as popular consultations and referendums, as is the case for example, in Mexico and Chile, respectively. As for the candidates Like the electoral process itself, candidates have also been affected by the pandemic. Due to the restrictions and sanitary measures taken by governments, as well as the risk of contagion or infection, electoral rallies have had to be modified or even canceled. Political propaganda has been hampered. The candidates cannot and have not been able to carry out large-scale events with the participation of citizens who support their candidacies and political projects. Health and safety measures have had to be taken to hold these types of events, which has led to a reduction in the presence of voters. In addition to this, there is the fact that such events pose a greater risk of contagion for the candidate himself by having to appear, speak and interact with a multitude of people. Certainly, the celebration of these types of events will depend on the levels of infection in certain countries, but in those nations where the situation has not been successfully contained, the rescheduling and cancellation of electoral rallies has become common. In this way, Covid-19 can affect and influence the results in the elections that are carried out worldwide. As for the voters There is no doubt that the issue of Covid-19 is present in the minds of all voters. The handling of the pandemic has become the subject of discussion among candidates and voters. It has already been seen how in most electoral debates, candidates are asked what actions will they take to control the pandemic and voters are looking forward to a dignified and convincing response that earns their vote. The influence that the pandemic has or has had, in some cases, on citizens when choosing which candidate to vote for is evident. Voters will seek to elect the candidate who, not only best represents their political ideals, but also the person capable of leading the country during a crisis of this magnitude. In this way, the candidate who is opting for re-election may be favored or disadvantaged since the handling of the crisis will have a lot of weight when citizens cast their vote. Let's look at two concrete examples of this situation. An example of how the Covid-19 crisis affected the decision of the voters and favored the candidate who opted for re-election occurred in New Zealand where, as I indicated above, general elections were recently held. Without wishing to delve into the voting system that governs this country, suffice it to mention that voters must choose both the members of parliament and the political party they want to govern the nation. In this sense, according to most polls, only two political parties dominated the contest, namely: the Labour Party led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the National Party led by Judith Collins. Before the arrival of Covid-19, the only thing that was on the minds of voters were the campaign promises not kept by the Prime Minister during her government. However, with the arrival of the pandemic, another idea arose in the heads of voters which greatly influenced the electoral results: Covid-19. Voters began to focus more on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government's handling of the crisis rather than on her unfulfilled campaign promises. As it is well known, Ardern's response to Covid-19 has been and is one of the greatest examples of how a leader should behave in a crisis of this magnitude. In my opinion, this led the Labour Party and, consequently, Prime Minister Ardern into winning the re-election. In contrast, as an example of how the Covid-19 crisis is affecting the decision of voters and can disadvantage the candidate who opts for re-election is the case of the United States. At the beginning of the year, it seemed certain that President Trump was winning the re-election, but recent polls seem to indicate otherwise. This, in large measure, due to the inefficient handling of the crisis by the Trump administration, which has led to high levels of unemployment, infections and deaths nationwide. Faced with such a situation, the opposition candidate to Trump, Democrat Joe Biden has been favored, since voters could rely on him to take the reins of the country and handle the situation in a more effective way. In short, I think that this type of situation shows how important the election, the candidacies and their political projects all are. It shows the necessity to take electoral processes with absolute seriousness. Although the pandemic has caused numerous deaths and infections, I believe that it can also serve as a reminder to citizens that, when choosing between candidates who are opting for important public positions in society, they must elect the person with the sufficient qualities to govern or to legislate. They must choose the person capable of leading the country during a crisis and ensuring the general welfare of citizens. The pandemic is, in the end, a warning to all about the importance of electing and having world leaders who are well prepared and trained to respond to situations of extreme urgency. Juan Andres Miralles is a lawyer from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (Caracas, Venezuela) currently working in private practice and is co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Linkedin at Juan Andres Miralles Quintero.

The Empty Stage: Foreign policy under Trump

The United States has been consumed over the past few months of the coronavirus pandemic by many questions that will no doubt influence the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election: race relations, the integrity of the rule of law, doubts about authoritarianism and the massive death toll and economic consequences that have resulted from the pandemic itself. All of these issues are being perceived as determining of the elections. While the voter’s attention may be elsewhere, America’s outlook and behavior on the world stage have left much to be desired, and the White House’s foreign policy actions over the last four years have endangered the world order with no good substitute in sight, and no clear plan on the President’s side, despite isolated success. Liberal Hegemony The end of the Second World War evidently marks a moment of historical inflection, and among the many issues that were decided and permanently changed the world after the war was the way we conduct politics between nations on the global scale. The new world order was one based on liberal values: free markets, free trade and the respect of democratic institutions and ideas were key to any nation willing to thrive. This is often called the post-war order of “liberal hegemony” as Barry Posen noted in a March, 2018 piece for Foreign Affairs. It was based around creating a geopolitical system that would be so beneficial for those within it, that stepping outside of it would be far too costly. In order to make it attractive and ensure nations wouldn’t resort to armed conflict, a series of treaties, trade deals and multilateral organizations were born. The United Nations, NATO, and the European Union are all the result of this system. The post-war order can be conceived of as a game. Like any game, players compete to achieve individual objectives. But this game has been created in such a way that the players (countries) must cooperate with each other in order to achieve their goals. This game doesn’t seem to end, players keep playing, and they keep making progress in their individual arenas. Just as in any other game, if a player cheats then they reap the rewards of the game without having to abide by the rules. The integrity of the game must be saved by punishing the cheater, if they are not punished, then cheating seems like a wonderful thing for others to do. Why play by the rules when there are no consequences? If the integrity of the game is corrupted in such a way, then we’ve all lost. We can’t play if everyone cheats. So who imposes the rules? Who punishes cheaters? Who upholds the order? That’s where the “hegemony” part comes in. It was the hegemony of the United States, achieved through the establishment of multilateral organizations, its leadership in them, its willingness to help allies, its economic stability and its military might that the system was kept functioning. The US and the other nations in the system should’ve been harder on the cheaters. They weren’t, and now we are facing the consequences of not having acted in time. Slow Collapse The system had always smelled foul, after all, the United States and United Kingdom had supported coups in the past in order to install dictatorships that were loyal to them, notably in Chile and Iran. But regardless, the core idea hadn’t been entirely betrayed or abandoned. Countries still acted within the system, committing more and more to its principles by working together and forging even more alliances. National governments have failed at maintaining the order. While America’s failings aren’t recent as noted above, the previous two administrations have seen some of the greatest tumbles. Of the Obama administration’s failures in foreign policy, by far its most unforgivable mistake was standing by as Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. This is one of the greatest transgressions of recent memory and one that only happened because Russia knew that NATO would stand by. It left a few things clear: (i.) Russia was not going to play by our rules; (ii.) NATO was unable to stand up to the threat it had been created to stop, and; (iii.) it cracked belief in the system, why should countries play by the rules if no one would protect them from the cheaters? Trump’s Grand Strategy As Posen and others have observed, Trump didn’t abandon the “hegemony” part of the previous world order. He kept up defense spending, ran more military maneuvers around the Korean Peninsula, upped US participation in the fight against ISIL, took a clear stance against Iran and didn’t hesitate to suggest the United States would use military force in order to defend itself or its allies. However, America’s role in the world became much less active and much less liberal. Major issues were abandoned and Trump praised foreign dictators and took protectionist economic measures when he picked a fight with China. With no clear strategy of his own he set about acting. The 2015 deal between the P5 nations plus Germany and Iran that was forged in order to effectively neuter the former’s nuclear program had been highly successful. Uranium stockpiles were reduced by 98%, centrifuges were cut down from over 20,000 to the 5,060 least efficient ones, and uranium enrichment levels were limited to 3.67%, a far cry from the 90% enrichment required for “weapons grade” material. Tehran had to open up its nuclear program to investigators from the International Atomic Energy Association who would verify that they were complying. Trump opined that these concessions over the course of 10 years weren’t good enough, so he decided to tear it up by imposing economic sanctions. Now Iran can freely get its program up and running. In Syria, the war against Bashar Al-Assad has been effectively lost. Our biggest allies in the region, the Syrian Kurds, were left to be massacred by Turkey when US troops pulled out. It must be made clear that this is one of the greatest failures of American foreign policy, it proves to the world that the US most definitely cannot be trusted. The Kurds’ fate was obvious prior to Turkey crossing the border, it was obvious to policy strategists, it was obvious to the press and it was obvious to the military, so it can be safely assumed that Trump had been made aware of the possibility. He just didn’t care, or he didn’t believe anyone who tried to explain the consequences. The pseudowarring with Iran has resulted in irresponsible moves within Iraqi territory. Most notably the January 3rd, 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, near the Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and was responsible for numerous attacks on American servicemen and women abroad. His assassination within Iraqi territory was among the things that the Iraqi Parliament considered to be too much. They saw it as the US recklessly endangering the Iraqi people and thus voted to remove US troops from the country on January 5th. The only reason why this vote didn’t pass into law was because Iraq’s Prime Minister had resigned in December due to anti-government protests and the caretaker government had restricted powers. Furthermore, foreign policy in the Middle East in general has been contracted out to Israel and Saudi Arabia, nations with different goals and values who do not get along, and whose objectives don’t include benefitting America’s interests. While it is true that both nations are willing to accept each other when facing common foes like armed religious extremism, their commonalities stop there and the ways in which they differ far outnumber them. While Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t prone to working together, they seem to have a behind-the-scenes proxy relationship through Bahrain and the UAE, who have become closer to Israel in the past few years and who, undoubtedly, only act in this manner with the Saudis’ blessing. In Europe, the United States has antagonized its allies, NATO nations have been called “free-riders” by the President and while defense commitments have been renewed in certain cases, Trump refrained from mentioning the importance of the mutual-defense provision in Article 5 of the NATO Charter during their first meeting. But the real worry regarding Trump’s approach to Europe has been the strange closeness he has shown to Russia. Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 US Presidential Election has been well documented and investigated, Russian diplomats were expelled from the country over it. Just as these sanctions were being imposed by the Obama Administration, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was on the phone with the Russian ambassador asking him to convince the Kremlin to react in kind and not escalate the conflict. He asked a foreign government to act against the US. Beyond that, Trump has acted in a way that benefits Russia. He was convinced by Rudy Giuliani that Russia wasn’t an issue, but instead the real threat was Ukraine. In that now famous incident on July 25th, 2019, Donald Trump attempted to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into providing damaging information on political rival Joe Biden in exchange for a $400 million congressionally-mandated military aid package. The President was willing to endanger a European ally over personal gain, a message that didn’t come across well with other nations. Recently, Trump mentioned publicly that Russia should be let in the G7, arguing that the group was not representative of the world anymore, clearly missing the point of the G7 and also missing the irony of making such a statement and wanting to include Russia. Worryingly, the President has spoken of removing 9,500 troops from Germany. His claim that the troop removal was down to Germany missing payments is both inaccurate and proves that he looks at policy decisions as economic transactions, and doesn’t understand why the US has troops in Germany in the first place. After all this antagonizing of allies, the US picked a fight with China, a nation that is as rich as America but far more organized in its political purpose. China is a dictatorship, willing to renounce its alleged communist principles if it helps it amass power. Beijing has grown incredibly powerful in the background and now challenges the sovereignty of other nations in the South China Sea. They have progressed their campaign of outright genocide against the Uighur Muslims unopposed, have moved to quash pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and now have engaged Indian troops along their border over disputed territory. China has been a dormant superpower over the last few decades, but it does feel like Beijing thinks its day in the sun is upon us. The Positive It would be unfair to disregard Trump’s foreign policy as a complete waste seeing as that simply isn’t reality. While the President clearly had no plan as a substitute for the previous order, measures have been taken that can cast some of the White House’s actions on the global stage in a positive light. One of Trump’s most lauded policy decisions has been his reluctance to participate in foreign wars. While some commentators expected Trump to endanger the US and the world in general by getting involved in wars abroad as a result of his diplomatic inexperience and clear willingness to leave his mark on history, any close analysis of Trump’s personality revealed that such a perception was flawed. Donald Trump doesn’t like losing, and he’s smart enough to avoid most situations that would leave him looking like a loser. So something as complex as war seemed like a no-go for his term. But what analysts, news anchors, writers and voters will point to as Trump’s biggest achievement in foreign policy (and perhaps his greatest achievement in general) will be the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15th, 2020. The Accords are really the result of the long-hidden relationship that Israel had formed with its Arab neighbors. In part, Obama’s Administration contributed greatly to the deal, but maybe not in the way they would like to be remembered for. The Iran Deal tried to achieve two things: (i) neuter Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and; (ii) de-radicalize Iran by trying to integrate it into the liberal world order. While Iran’s nuclear capabilities where without a doubt successfully limited, Iran never de-radicalized. With sanctions removed, the regime continued its particular brand of state-sponsored terrorism in the region, ensuring that Israel and the other nations in the region finally had an enemy that could unite them. This culminated in a historic moment, one that will mark a turning point for the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain recognizing Israel as a state. The nations agreed to normalize relations, and flights going from Israel to these Gulf nations were even allowed to cross Saudi Arabian airspace. It should be noted that this deal could only happen with Saudi blessing, the UAE and Bahrain would never commit to such a monumental agreement without Riyadh’s approval. Both Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have said they expect Saudi Arabia to sign on to the Accords at a later date, as well as several other nations. But in all the excitement over this genuinely significant moment, we must not forget the Palestinian people, who deserve better than what their failed leaders can give them. We would do well to keep close watch of their situation and ensure that they too get to enjoy newfound peace. The Uncertain Future Back in 2016 there were many doubts, doubts that polls were accurate and doubts over Trump’s unpredictability. We knew he didn’t really stand for any traditional political ideology, and so we knew his actions would reflect that. Four years later and that has certainly been proved right. There isn’t much rhyme or reason to many decisions, one day he’ll renew security commitments and the next he’ll endanger allies. Nations have only trust between each other to govern actions. We believe a nation’s promises because they have kept their word in the past, because they have acted according to certain beliefs and values and because they are predictable. Unpredictability equals danger in international relations. It is safe to believe that another four years of the current administration will lead to more of the same. More unpredictability, more doubts about what America stands for, more distrust of our allies and more of the US playing into the hands of hostile nations that care not for the values our society holds, we’d do well to remember the last four years as a whole, even when recent legitimate success could cloud our vision. Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96. Original image used for cover: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Will Venezuela lose its longstanding dispute with Guyana over the Essequibo Region?

On June 30th of this ongoing year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held public hearings on the Venezuela-Guyana longstanding dispute over the Essequibo region. Said hearings were to be initially held on March 23rd, 2020, but they were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the ICJ held them via online which marked the first time in history that public hearings were held in that manner. Not only was this important to note, but also the fact that Venezuela decided not to participate in the referred hearings. In that sense, it seems necessary and interesting to see the legal implications of Venezuela’s non-participation in the hearing and the proceedings as a whole, and what this can mean for said country. A little background The origins of the Venezuela-Guyana dispute go back to 1835, year in which Great Britain commissioned Austrian explorer Robert Schomburgk to embark on an expedition to define the limits between what was known at the time as British Guiana and Venezuela. Mr. Schomburgk drew up a map in which the limits between both territories where established in the Essequibo River, except for the Pomerun and Moruca regions, in an area of 4,920 square kilometers. This border came to be known as the Schomburgk Line. However, in 1840 the same explorer advanced that line another 142 square kilometers further into Venezuelan territory, resulting in what became known as the second Shomburgk line, which is reflected on the so-called Sketch Map from the Parliamentary papers of that year. After the publication of said map in that same year, the Venezuelan government protested British hindrance on Venezuelan territory. This marked the official beginning of the Venezuela-Guyana territorial dispute. Ten years later, Venezuela and Great Britain signed an agreement, namely the Agreement of 1850 in which both nations agreed not to occupy the contested territory. Said agreement lasted until the 1899 Arbitration Award, but during that time, the issue of the territorial dispute was raised by the Venezuelan representative at the 1889-1890 Pan-American Conference held in Washington, although no resolution was achieved in favor of the country, mainly because of the rejection of the United States (US). Five years after, a group of English commissars who had lowered the Venezuelan flag and raised the Great Britain’s instead in the disputed territory were arrested by Venezuelan troops, in what came to be known as the “Yuruan incident”. Although this incident cost Venezuela a fine, it also helped in changing the U.S.’s position to curb the expansionist aspirations of Great Britain in the continent (For more information regarding the origin of the dispute see Allan Randolph Brewer-Carias, “Guyana-Venezuela Border Dispute”, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Oxford University Press (2006): 1-7; and Federica Paddeu and Brendan Plant, “The Dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo Region”, Blog of the European Journal of International Law, https://www.ejiltalk.org/the-dispute-between-guyana-and-venezuela-over-the-essequibo-region/). On February 2nd, 1897, Venezuela signed an Arbitration Treaty with Great Britain, in which both nations agreed to submit the territorial dispute to arbitration. The Arbitral Tribunal was composed of two representatives for the British and two representatives for Venezuela, namely: Lord Russell of Kilowen and Lord Henn Collins for the first nation and Melville Winston Fuller and David Josiah Brewer, as representatives of the latter. The Russian jurist Federico De Martens was appointed to preside over the Tribunal and the Secretary of the Tribunal was Mr. Severo Mallet Prevost. No Venezuelan jurist was allowed to form part of the arbitration tribunal. On October 3rd, 1899 the referred Tribunal adopted an Arbitral Award which resulted unfavorable for Venezuela, as it granted the British the Essequibo territory. The Arbitral Award was immediately rejected by Venezuela and in 1903 said country denounced it before the International Permanent Court of Justice in The Hague (predecessor of the ICJ); the Award was executed notwithstanding. In 1949 the posthumous Memorandum of Mr. Mallet Prevost was published, in which all the details of how the "farce" of the arbitral Tribunal was carried out were revealed. In 1962, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister at the time denounced before the United Nations (UN) that the arbitral award of 1899 was null and void because it was the product of fraudulent acts between English arbitrators and the president of the court, the Russian De Martens. This situation motivated the opening of talks between both nations in which Great Britain accepted the existence of a controversy or territorial dispute with Venezuela. On February 17th, 1966, during the government of President Raúl Leoni, a delegation negotiated with Great Britain and the Prime Minister of the still-colony of Guyana, which resulted in the signing of the well-known Geneva Agreement, in which both Venezuela and Guyana agreed that there was indeed a territorial dispute and that the means will be sought to achieve a practical solution acceptable to both States. To this end, a Mixed Commission was created. But, in May 26th, 1966 Guyana declared its independence from the British and, thus, the negotiation process continued between Venezuela and Guyana solely. Between 1966 and 1970, a series of negotiations were held between both nations in order to find practical and satisfactory settlements for the dispute, but unfortunately they were never reached. In 1970, the Protocol of Port of Spain was signed, an agreement to suspend the application of the Geneva Agreement for a span of 12 years. In 1982, Venezuela announced that it was not going to extend the Protocol of Port of Spain and decided to take the dispute to the UN. In the years after, negotiations between Venezuela and a UN representative began in order to determine and agree on the method of peaceful resolution. In 1989, the method of Good Offices was agreed, which consists of the assistance of a third party in the negotiations to help the negotiations but does not decide anything about the positions of those who are negotiating. From that date until 2014 there have been three Personal Representatives of the Secretary-General appointed to conduct the Good Offices Process (one resigned and the other two passed away). In July 2015, Venezuela requested the UN the appointment of a new Personal Representative of the Secretary General to continue conducting the process. In 2017, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed Norwegian Diplomat Ya Dag Nylander, marking the first time a person from a non-Caribbean country held the position. Guyana’s application before the ICJ On December 16th, 2016, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that the Good Offices Process would continue for a final year, until the end of 2017, with a reinforced mediation mandate. Mr. Moon also stated that if by the end of 2017, the Secretary General concludes that no significant progress has been made towards a complete agreement to resolve the dispute, the ICJ would be chosen as the next means of solution, unless the Governments of Guyana and Venezuela, jointly, request that he refrain from doing so. On January 30th, 2018, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, announced that in the absence of progress, he will leave the solution to the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana in the hands of the ICJ. Said decision was supported by many Caribbean countries, but was immediately rejected by Venezuela. Following the UN Secretary General’s decision, on March 29th, 2018, Guyana filed an application against Venezuela before the ICJ regarding the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award (to see application click here). On June 18th of that same year, Venezuela notified the ICJ its intention of not participating in the proceedings before the Court regarding the case over the Essequibo region introduced by Guyana, because it holds that the Court lacks jurisdiction to resolve the dispute. On April 18th, 2019 the time-limit for the filing of the Counter-Memorial expired for Venezuela (to see the ICJ’s order click here). In light of the above, Venezuela’s Chancellor, Jorge Arreaza issued a statement through which he ratified Venezuela’s intention of not participating in the proceeding before the ICJ, as well as he announced that Venezuela would be transmitting the necessary information to back its position in relation with the ICJ’s lack of jurisdiction, as per article 53 (2) of the ICJ’s Statute. Additionally, Venezuela’s National Assembly issued a Parliamentary Agreement that was remitted to the Office of the ICJ’s Secretary, in which it reiterated its rejection to the application filed by Guyana, as well as it also held the ICJ’s lack of jurisdiction (to see the aforementioned Parliamentary Agreement click here). On the other hand, Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which it made public its request that the ICJ continue to set the deadline for holding the hearings regarding the issues of jurisdiction and admissibility as soon as possible. Current status of the proceedings before the ICJ As mentioned in the beginning of this article, on June 30th, 2020 the ICJ held public hearings on whether it has jurisdiction to resolve the longstanding border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela, in which the latter country decided not to participate. Now, it is up to the ICJ to decide whether or not it has jurisdiction to resolve the territorial dispute between the two nations, based on the memorial presented by Guyana and the arguments presented by said nation in the referred public hearings, as per articles 36 and 37 of the ICJ’s Statute. Mistakes or strategy? It is important to remember that the whole proceedings surround the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award. Thus, Guyana is intending on obtaining a final and binding ruling from the Court that establishes that said Award remains valid; whereas, Venezuela is holding that the ICJ lacks jurisdiction, hence its non-participation stance in the proceedings. Unfortunately, regardless of Venezuela’s non-participation, the nation is a part of the proceedings as it has been held by the Court in previous decisions (see inter alia, Fisheries Jurisdiction, paragraph 17), and the final ruling will be legally binding, as per articles 94(1) of the UN Charter and 59 and 60 of the Statute of the ICJ. This raises the question if Venezuela’s choice to not participate in the public hearings was a good decision at all. In my opinion, holding the historical position of not recognizing the Court’s jurisdiction in the case was and still is the right strategy. But not participating in the public hearings seems like a mistake. Although it is true that as per article 53 of the ICJ’s Statute there is no obligation for States to participate in proceedings before the Court and Venezuela is free to decide at any stage of these to participate as it has been held in previous occasions by the ICJ (see Nicaragua v. United States of America, paragraph 284), Venezuela should’ve grasped the opportunity to present its arguments and counterarguments formally before the Court. From a strategic and legal point of view, not participating in the public hearings and, consequently, not being able to plead or answer questions raised by the judges, or to submit supporting evidence or challenge those introduced by Guyana was a grand error. Moreover, when the lack of jurisdiction is an argument that Venezuela must’ve presented formally to the Court, but which wouldn’t have meant that it recognized the Court’s jurisdiction on the case. Certainly, not presenting any arguments nor evidence whatsoever to support its claims could take a heavy toll for Venezuela in the present case. What can we expect? The ICJ could declare that it has jurisdiction in the case, based on the arguments and evidence presented by Guyana in the proceedings. If that is the case, Venezuela would need to change its legal strategy and start participating in the proceedings. Despite the fact that there is a chance the Court might take into consideration Venezuela’s informal statements to ascertain and determine important facts on the matter, as it has been done in other cases (see, inter alia, Aegean Sea Continental Shelf) this may not be enough. Historical data shows that there have been very few cases in which the ICJ declared the nullity of an Arbitral Award. Therefore, Venezuela could need to appoint experienced legal representatives for the case, as it may well require all the legal manpower it can get to defend its rights and interests over the contested area. Truthfully, the years in which the Good Offices Process was applied should’ve been seized to achieve a practical and peaceful agreement. But now, Venezuela may well have to engage in a drawn-out legal proceeding that could prove harmful to the country’s geopolitical future. Juan Andres Miralles is a lawyer from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (Caracas, Venezuela) currently working in private practice and is co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Linkedin at Juan Andres Miralles Quintero.

Catastrophizing an Election

“This is probably the most important election of our lives.” The phrase that’s paraded around every election cycle. The 17th of August, 2020 marked the beginning of the Democratic National Committee’s Convention, one look on Twitter shows the phrase (in every variation imaginable) being thrown around quite liberally. It’s become hard to hear the phrase without wanting to roll our eyes a little, but we’ll keep hearing it. Not just from the Democrats, this is truly a bipartisan issue, and it is without a doubt an issue. Some could say it’s just a bit of political showmanship, something which politicians hope we’ll say so that we go to the polls (or mail in our vote) come the 3rd of November. But in recent times it’s been tied to a more complicated, more insidious narrative. Something that had never happened in the United States: the open questioning of the validity of the elections. Sure, people have cried fraud before, but since 2016, the longstanding tradition of American Presidential candidates recognizing the legitimacy of our electoral process has been broken. The setup During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump made several public comments about the elections being rigged in his opponent’s favor. He was pressed on this matter by journalists who rightly called this out as being a dangerous and consequential claim. Towards the end of the campaign, Trump was asked if he would recognize the results of the election if Hillary Clinton, the Democrat's candidate, came out the victor, Trump refused to answer these questions. The campaign truly set the ground and expectations for what would come to be a rather unusual (by US standards) presidency. There were several smart plays made by Trump before the 2020 election. He started forming a solid narrative, one that would be hard to disagree with. Trump painted the Democrats as extremists, he pointed to Bernie Sanders and a group of congresswomen made up by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib as examples that following the 2016 defeat the Democrats had turned hard left. He started making the claim that they were socialists. This is a strategy employed by every politician ever and has a name. It’s called a strawman. A strawman is a type of fallacy whereby someone deliberately misrepresents an opponent’s argument or position in order to make it easier to attack. The strawman is only as hard as you make it for yourself, and Trump had it real easy. Thanks to the prominence of people like Bernie Sanders and AOC, Trump found it incredibly simple to claim that the Democrats were becoming more and more socialist. So the American people were going to have to decide, either vote for socialism, or vote for democracy. The President went beyond that, he painted them as socialists who were under the control of an establishment that did not care for the far-left leanings of many new party members. During the Democratic Presidential Primaries in 2019, Trump continued to make claims that the elections would be rigged, there would be some form of fraud employed by the Democrats to win back the White House. He accused them of being corrupt, as they had countless times accused him. In what was probably an intelligent tactic, he claimed that the Democrats would “betray” Senator Sanders in the nomination race, and would instead opt for an “establishment” candidate. He was right, one by one the Democrat’s candidates for nomination began dropping out and endorsing former Vice-President Joe Biden. Now that Biden has officially been nominated by the Democratic Party as their candidate for President, Trump and the GOP have doubled down on their previous rhetoric. The trap Trump found a way to make his claims about rigged elections more believable. As the COVID-19 pandemic claimed lives well over 100,000 by late May, the Democrats saw an opportunity to look like they cared about public health more than the President, and started to push for universal mail-in-voting across the United States. Trump saw this as the chance he was looking for, and began making claims about possible fraud committed through mail-in-voting. As more and more states began accepting fear of COVID-19 as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot to vote by mail, some states decided to mail out ballots to every registered voter, regardless of whether they had asked for them or not. The President took to Twitter (as he does) in order to slam the system, proclaiming its fraudulence. Thus the US Postal Service found itself at the heart of the culture wars, you either loved the USPS or you wanted it gone. The two parties that make up the corrupt duopoly central to our political process both claimed to be pro-USPS and that the other was trying to sabotage it. Conspiracy theories popped up everywhere, whether it was a picture of mailboxes piled one on top of the other used as evidence that Trump was manipulating the electoral system or the Dems’ questioning of the Postmaster General taken as irrefutable proof that they were trying to rig the elections. With just a few weeks to go and with early vote-by-mail already having started in some states, both sides have become entrenched in their previous slogans and talking points. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump called Biden a “Trojan horse” for the far-left. He said Biden’s too weak to stand up to the more socialist-leaning members of the party and that he’ll be nothing more than their puppet if he wins the White House. The Democrats have played straight into this narrative. On the day of the first night of the DNC Convention, DNC Chair Tom Perez found himself speaking to The Washington Post, where he stated that Bernie Sander’s input had been “invaluable” to the drafting of the party’s 2020 platform. It wasn’t hard for the Republicans to use this to claim that Biden was being used by the progressive wing of the party in order to get into power. But by far the one thing that has divided the nation more than anything these past few months and that will have the strongest influence on the election are the protests and riots that have sprung up all across America following the death of George Floyd. The Democrats have tried sticking by the protests, replicating the same narrative that America is a racist country erected atop a system of oppression. They’ve tried including groups like Black Lives Matter and commentators like Ibram X. Kendi into their base, and with them they’ve had to adopt increasingly more radical claims made from the fringes of each movement. Even as the protests devolved into riots that have consumed American cities for over three months now the Dems vacillated in condemning them, calling open riots “mostly peaceful protests” and resorting to generic condemnations of violence “on all sides”. While true that little by little Democratic politicians have begun to speak out against the violence, they refuse to call out the specific ideology that feeds it. This refusal to denounce the rioting and looting and their embrace of a dangerous new orthodoxy when it comes to race in the United States will only further complicate electoral discourse. The GOP now points to this as evidence that the Democratic Party is dead and is just a shell for Marxist ideologies, and the Dems point at the heightened fear-mongering from the RNC’s Convention as proof that the Republicans have given in to fascism. Recently, after the shooting by police of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Joe Biden had a chance to attempt to heal the divide, to stand up to extremists and let everyone know that he would fight for a united America, a rational America where we put civility first and violence as far last as possible when it comes to discussing complex issues. Instead, Biden went to Pennsylvania and talked about something else, handing the momentum to Trump who did head to Kenosha. Did Trump take advantage of Biden’s absence and make a plea for unity? No, he continued his own personal brand of inflammatory rhetoric and even seemed to fake a photo-op. Self-fulfilling prophecies The 2020 election has now become an all-in affair, pundits and politicians claim that you must vote for their side or watch the Republic crumble. If the Democrats continue to voice support for a movement that claims the other side is racist beyond repair and fascist at heart then people will continue to believe it. If the Republicans continue to claim that the Democrats will destroy the country if they come into power then their followers will continue to believe it. What people believe matters, if everyone genuinely believes that the opposition will destroy the country if allowed to come into power then they might take actions on their own in order to “protect” the nation. Just imagine if the rhetoric continues the way it’s been going, imagine the reactions on election night after the results are announced and imagine the extremes to which some people may go in order to “right” what they see is wrong with the system. Who wins has become irrelevant, both parties claim the electoral system is weak and the other side will commit fraud. If the parties don’t believe in our elections, why would the people? We’ve come to the point where the greatest real danger isn’t who wins but by how much they win. If either candidate wins in a landslide then things will probably calm down, if the margins are tight (or if things were to swing in the opposite direction while everyone’s asleep) the next day will be incredibly unstable. After all, we know from 2016 that Trump might not be willing to concede a close race, recently Hillary Clinton told Biden not to concede under any circumstance. It seems we’re just running full speed at a wall. It is impossible not to think of self-fulfilling prophecies when we talk about our elections. The more our politicians claim we’re on the edge of absolute destruction, the more radicalized people will become, and the less they’ll believe in the system. The dangers of the narrative are two-fold: first, the more we cry wolf the harder it’ll be to spot it when it actually shows up and; second, the more we claim that our opponents will destroy democracy then the closer we’ll get to destroying it ourselves in the name of saving it. We’re just a few weeks out from the elections, and if anything has become clear it’s that we can’t trust on politicians to right the discourse for us. It’s our responsibility to make sure we can step back from the cliff’s edge. Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.

Homo Dualis

Es la tendencia en la era que corre hablar con una doble conciencia sobre la naturaleza humana. Por un lado, se supone al hombre como un ser interesado sólo en sí mismo, que no toma decisiones desde su convencimiento de qué es lo correcto, sino únicamente desde cálculos de qué le traerá mayores beneficios. Con esta lógica se suele explicar el comportamiento de políticos, negociantes y grupos sociales y profesionales. Por el otro lado, reconocemos en nosotros mismos, en nuestros allegados, en las historias de las personas que admiramos, la voluntad, en algunos ocasional, y en algunos permanente, de tomar decisiones y formar hábitos con miras al bien de otros, que no es más que ese amar al prójimo al que se exhorta en las iglesias y colegios cristianos, que se infunde en las familias que siembran valores en sus hijos, y que en distintas versiones se enseña en otras tradiciones religiosas y filosóficas. No faltan ejemplos en la experiencia de quienes mienten, manipulan y se aprovechan de otros para satisfacer un deseo o ambición personal. Pero no faltan ejemplos tampoco de quienes sacrifican sus sinceros deseos por buscar el bien de otros. Por cada historia de cínica manipulación electoral recordemos a tantos quienes, teniendo la posibilidad de privilegiarse, más bien se ciñeron a participar en igualdad en elecciones justas. Por cada relato de engaño romántico, recordemos a una pareja madura, sostenida ante tentaciones por mutua lealtad. Por cada gran crimen de la humanidad, recordemos las heróicas gestas de quienes, a menudo en sacrificio de la vida propia, los enfrentaron, a veces acabando en admirable fracaso y a veces en dichoso éxito. Por cada traición a un amigo, un sacrificio por él. Lo que se hace evidente al observar sin prejuicios, es que la naturaleza humana incluye una natural inclinación hacia el bien común (practicada en sus inicios con familia y amigos), así como una natural inclinación hacia el beneficio propio. Así como también una tendencia masoquista, que insiste en comportamientos que le traen amargura a uno mismo y disgusto a los demás, tendencia que se solapa consigo misma en las falsas sonrisas y engañosas racionalizaciones que esconden y refuerzan estos patrones perpetuadores del sufrimiento propio y ajeno. En la medida en que el ser humano persigue su propio bien, lo hace de todos modos en trágica incompetencia. Persigue de a momentos lo que sus padres o la sociedad o la terquedad propia le dicen o insinúan que ha de perseguir, y sufre en el camino diciéndose que sólo ha de llegar al destino, y sufre en el destino preguntándose en qué falló. Se entrega así en la búsqueda de dinero, fama, poder, hallando en ninguno el bien propio y acabando con el vacío e insatisfacción en los huesos. Bastan, por fortuna, quienes en vez de entregarse a búsquedas arbitrarias, cultivan en sí un sentido de apertura a la realidad, que les permite identificar el bien cuando aparece en una cosa y dejar de perseguir eso cuando el bien la abandona; un sutil entendimiento de qué trae realmente calor al corazón y energía al cuerpo, dedicándose a sí mismo en la justa medida y a otros del mismo modo. Hay quien competentemente halla en el día a día aquella media virtuosa de la que hablaba Aristóteles. Nos conviene notar que el egoísmo es, de todos modos, una forma de estupidez respecto al bien propio, basada en la simplista noción de que el bien propio lo consigue quien lo persigue a exclusión del bien ajeno, ignorando las beneficios que nos traen la confianza, la generosidad, la honestidad, la harmonía social y todo aquello que se hiere cada vez que se sacrifica una cosa por la otra, en vez de agarrar la cosa completa, que incluye la justa relación con los demás. El hábito de hablar del ser humano—es decir, de nosotros mismos—como un ser irredimiblemente egoísta, nos brinda una cómoda excusa para ser egoístas, y para ponernos ínfulas de santo cuando hacemos el extraordinario contranatura de servir al otro. Pero este hábito, nacido de la peligrosa tendencia de repetir lugares comunes sin cuestionarlos, no soporta la más mínima revisión de su contenido. Pues, Ssí, como hemos visto, bastan ejemplos de personas enfiladamente persiguiendo el interés propio, pero bastan también ejemplos de su contrario, por lo que una verdadera imagen de la naturaleza humana ha de incluir ambos conviviendo en tensión. Más que en los torpes intentos de las actuales ciencias sociales, conseguimos una buena descripción en la conocidísima leyenda de los indígenas norteamericanos, la de los dos lobos—uno negro y uno blanco—que combaten perpetuamente en el alma, ganando aquél al que uno alimente. Invito al lector entonces a que reflexione sobre el asunto, que lo vea con el lente de su propia experiencia, pues no es de sabios creer a ciegas ni descreer a ciegas. Y que vea no sólo el hecho, que es más bien estéril, sino sus implicaciones para la propia forma de hablar, de entender las acciones de los demás, de entender los cambios de bienestar en la vida propia y ajena, y de ponerse a actuar. Lo invito a perseguir la felicidad, sí, pero con la mente bastante abierta a las posibilidades sobre de dónde puede venir, abriéndole paso a lo que no acostumbre considerar. Lo invito también, en última digresión, a sospechar de científicos sociales—economistas y politólogos—que tienen hundida hasta el tuétano la astilla de esta visión incompleta y engañosa de la naturaleza humana, suposición que domina sus interpretaciones del todo lo que tocan y que, de ser creída por los quienes confían en sus títulos universitarios, reemplazaría el muy superior sentido común de quien no ha pasado cinco años siendo convencido de un cuento que tanto el desleído como el bien leído identifican de inmediato como mentira. Somos, en breve: generosos y egoístas, de acuerdo a la trayectoria de nuestros hábitos, hábitos que están en todo momento bajo la influencia de nuestro juicio y nuestro entorno. Entender esto y hacerlo valer contra cada faceta de nuestra mente donde una mentira o la contraria se han postrado, y hacerlo ajustar nuestros comportamientos, puede ayudarnos a perseguir juiciosamente ese verdadero bien propio, que está en justa relación con el bien común. Alberto Delgado es economista y en su tiempo libre piensa en los por qués y para qués de las cosas.