Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it

 

 

2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.

 

BURMA

myanmar

Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014

 

CUBA

cuba

Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

 

IRAN

iran

Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).

 

 

 

 

What Nigeria and Senegal (and Cuba) can teach the world about fighting ebola

free from ebola

 

While much of the mainstream media has all the hype about ‘Renee Zellweger’s latest face’ or ‘the desperate fate of Ebola outbreak’, these two African countries, Nigeria and Senegal, silently made a great breakthrough in fighting the disease. These two countries, normally identified as lower-middle-income nations with high percentage of population living in extreme poverty, decrepit public facilities and governments oftentimes beset by inefficiencies and bureaucratic logjams, surprised the whole planet with their rapid response towards the outbreak, unlike their much unfortunate counterparts, countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea. Tackling the spread of the virus in both these highly populated countries, each of which boasts 170 million and nearly 30 million, is no easy job, somehow. Nonetheless, with all the efforts made, all parties involved, and health authorities in particular, deserve the accolades for successfully keeping an otherwise apocalyptic maelstrom at bay. This is a great lesson for the world, and especially for other developing nations altogether.

Most importantly, it is not just about advanced technologies; it takes a complete willingness of all parties, especially a political one, to solve this problem. For some conservatives in US who talk about eliminating flights between the country and West Africa to avoid Ebola outbreak, think again.

This is the article from io9 that explains how Nigeria, for this case study, can contain the contagion.

 

Full article:

 

How Nigeria Stopped Ebola “Dead In Its Tracks”

George Dvorsky

Finally, some good news to report on the Ebola front: Nigeria and Senegal are now completely free of the disease. Here’s how they contained the outbreak — and why the world needs to take notice.

Earlier today, the World Health Organization announced that no new case of Ebola has emerged in Nigeria in 42 days. That’s the standard length of time required for declaring the end to an outbreak, since it’s twice the maximum 21-day incubation period for the virus. It’s an incredible achievement — one that should assuage fears and show that Ebola can be contained. Moreover, it’s proof that developing nations, with sufficient support from the international community, are fully capable of dealing with the epidemic.

Thwarting an “Apocalyptic Urban Outbreak”

Things looked bleak back in July when the virus was detected in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. Nigeria, with its 166 million inhabitants, is Africa’s most populous country and its newest economic powerhouse. Lagos boasts a population of 21 million, making it nearly as large as the populations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone combined. With its airport and large population living in often crowded and unsanitary conditions, news of Ebola was met with a palpable sense of dread.

“The last thing anyone in the world wants to hear is the two words, ‘Ebola’ and ‘Lagos’ in the same sentence,” noted Jeffrey Hawkins, the U.S. Consul General in Nigeria, at the time. The juxtaposition of the two conjured images of an “apocalyptic urban outbreak.”

In the end, Nigeria confirmed a total of 19 Ebola cases, of whom seven died and 12 survived. It’s a far cry from the situation in other parts of West Africa — but that’s not an accident. Here’s how Nigeria did it and the “best practices” that should now be employed elsewhere:

Effective Leadership and Public-Health Institutions

The WHO credits Nigeria for its strong leadership and effective coordination of the response:

The most critical factor is leadership and engagement from the head of state and the Minister of Health. Generous allocation of government funds and their quick disbursement helped as well. Partnership with the private sector was yet another asset that brought in substantial resources to help scale up control measures that would eventually stop the Ebola virus dead in its tracks.

The response was greatly aided by the rapid utilization of a national public institution (NCDC) and the prompt establishment of an Emergency Operations Centre, which was supported by the Disease Prevention and Control Cluster within the WHO country office. Nigeria also features a first-rate virology lab affiliated with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. It was staffed and equipped to quickly and reliably diagnose Ebola, ensuring that containment measures could be employed with the shortest possible delay.

Rapid Response to the Initial Case

Nigeria’s first Ebola patient, Patrick Sawyer, was initially thought to have malaria. But once that was ruled out, doctors immediately began treating him as a possible Ebola patient. He was kept in isolation, officials were notified, and a blood sample was rushed to a testing lab. Just three days later, Nigeria’s health ministry set up an Ebola Incident Management Center, which eventually turned into an Emergency Operations Center that co-ordinated the response and decision-making.

Sufficient Access to Resources

As noted, federal and state governments in Nigeria were able to provide ample financial and material resources, including well-trained and experienced national staff. Isolation wards were immediately constructed, as were designated Ebola treatment facilities (though more slowly). Other resources included vehicles and mobile phones equipped with specially adapted apps allowing healthcare workers to engage in real-time reporting as the investigations moved forward. Many of these efforts were supported by social mobilization experts from UNICEF, CDC and Médecins sans Frontières.

High Quality Contact-Tracing

Nigerian health officials, working with assistance from WHO, the US CDC and others, managed to reach 100% of known contacts in Lagos and 99.8% at the second outbreak site in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub. High-quality contact tracing was performed by experienced epidemiologists who expedited the early detection of cases and their rapid movement to isolation wards. And unlike the tragic situation in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, all identified contacts were physically monitored on a daily basis for 21 days. Some contacts tried to escape during the monitoring process, but they were all tracked by special investigation teams and returned to observation to complete the requisite monitoring period of 21 days.

Applying Lessons From Previous Outbreaks

Nigeria has been combating another blight, polio, for quite some time now and with great success. Among their many tactics, health officials use the very latest satellite-based GPS technologies to ensure that no child missed out on polio vaccinations. When Ebola first appeared in July, they immediately repurposed these technologies and infrastructure to conduct Ebola case-finding, contact-tracing, and daily mapping of links between identified chains of transmission. Nigerian health officials also adapted the learnings from their efforts to eradicate guinea-worm disease.

A Rigorous Public Education Campaign

Communication with the public was also key. Nigerian health and government officials rallied communities to support containment measures. This involved house-to-house information campaigns — spoken in local dialects — that explained the level of risk, effective personal measures, and the actions being taken for control. All the while, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, reassured his population on nationally televised newscasts. Traditional and religious community leaders were engaged early on and asked to play a role in sensitizing the public.Finally, the full range of media opportunities were exploited, including social media and televised facts about the disease delivered by Nigerian celebrities.

Screening At Borders — And A Refusal To Stop Air Travel

Instead of panicking and banning air travel, Nigerian health officials screened all arriving and departing travelers by air and by sea in Lagos and Rivers State. The average number of travelers screened each day reached a peak of more than 16,000.

Moving Forward With Vigilance

Clearly, this story isn’t over yet. Vigilance remains high and Nigeria’s surveillance systems remains on a high level of alert. It’s quite possible that, given the country’s success, people from neighboring countries may try to (illicitly) enter in.

As a final note, and as noted by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan: “If a country like Nigeria, hampered by serious security problems, can do this – that is, make significant progress towards interrupting polio transmission, eradicate guinea-worm disease and contain Ebola, all at the same time – any country in the world experiencing an imported case can hold onward transmission to just a handful of cases.”

 

Additional articles:

1. An article from Los Angeles Times

2. One of Cuba’s most reliable sources to conduct its global diplomatic finesse – doctors. Learn how Cuba is prepping up its global image by dispatching more than 160 doctors across West Africa to fight Ebola.

In Havana

 

When it comes to Cuba, what that comes in the mind of most people are no more than ‘Castro’, ‘Guantanamo’, ‘one of the world’s last socialist, and backward, states’, ‘Bay of Pig crisis’, and simply ‘immigrants who ended up moving to Florida’.

It is true the country still lives under the shadows of socialist regime, having hinged on a derelict Soviet-style system that no longer works in most parts of the world. Some reforms took place, but they didn’t completely transform the lives of Cuban people. It is growing slow, with all its outdated paraphernalia, leaving an impression as though the country were slowly left to die.

But it’s not a completely sad-ending story, somehow. As Ezaram Vambe recorded, through slow-motion pictures and time lapses across Havana, the capital, he sought to break our common misconceptions about how we should perceive the city, the people, and overall, the entire nation. It may be backwards, as you see from derelict buildings, but one thing you can hardly miss, in the end, is the people, their attitude, and their restless energy in making their lives advance forward.

May that spirit endure.