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Newsletter 10-1-2021

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now onto this week's edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic.

No Craic

(1) After suspending much of the constitution and ruling by executive diktat for most of the summer, Kais Saied's ambling walk out in Tunisia took some interesting turns over the past few weeks.

First, he appointed a female Prime Minister, Najla Bouden, offering up an enticing natural experiment for evaluating where the commitments of many-a-modern neoliberal ultimately lie. Is it truly identity and representation all the way down for these folks (lady bosses unconditionally= civilizational progress) or are they compelled at all by old fashion notions--including those derived from liberalism itself--regarding popular sovereignty and democracy? Only the hashtag discourse shall reveal.

Second, the old man in Carthage signaled his intention to redesign the character of the legislature by apportioning seats more on the basis of geography than population. To be fair, some kind of power rebalancing is necessary in order to mitigate the extractive and polarizing effects of the core's relation with the periphery in Tunisia. This relation follows the archetypal beats of the accumulation by dispossession diggy. Natural wealth (principally phosphates and oil) is taken from the periphery and processed in the coastal metropoles; the refined product is then traded on international markets, with the profits predominantly accruing to the upstream operators in Tunis/Sfax/Djerba. The communities where the original commodities were mined end up getting very little while suffering all the consequences, ecological destruction and elevated cancer rates especially. Too poor to retain political influence, they're also subjected to disinvestment and state neglect as well.

While change obviously need be made to address such an f'ed arrangement, any time the principle of one person one vote gets violated--as is the case when a province of 100,000 people is assigned the same number of seats in parliament as an one with 2.3 million--one should be more than a bit weary.

Big picture: the story is far from over in Tunisia. So long as none of the contenders present a plan for dealing with the fact that the incomes of 64% of Tunisian households no longer suffice to cover basic needs, instability will be the rule.        

(2) Finding and repatriating the billions in assets that the Qadhafi family and its associates embezzled over the course of decades has proven tough sledding for Libyan authorities. Whether parked in real estate or as cash deposits at financial institutions, much of this misbegotten wealth continues to circulate around London, where laws on data protection, privacy, and burdens and standards of proof have stonewalled those hoping to return it to the Libyan people. As Mohamed Shaban summarizes: "the ironic, if depressing, result is that it is easier for a kleptocrat to funnel suspicious funds through the City of London than it is for the State of Libya to freeze those assets and repatriate them to their legitimate owners."

Shaban would know, as he is the first Libyan national to be admitted to the roll of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, and as he is been one of the people leading the asset recovery charge. His article, cited above, details a number of rather remarkable stories, including efforts to reclaim artifacts of incalculable value and struggles in international investor arbitration disputes (discussed last week). In the latter case, Shaban has been tasked with defending the current Libyan government against foreign corporations seeking millions in damages after contracts agreed to with the bygone regime did not yield the profits they expected.

Shaban's final takeaway: absent an actual breakthrough in the ongoing political transition back home and the emergence of a government willing to train and finance the legal teams needed to fight these fights, Libya stands no chance of getting its pilfered wealth back.

(3) Gabrielle Gurley has published a wonderful piece on the racial geography of Washington, tracing how infrastructure and public policy more broadly came to invest the city with such profound inequality.

For anyone who has spent time in DC, the sequestering of the southeast--Anacostia most especially--is one of the starkest and most unmissable features of the city. Tis important to know how this came about.

(4) Domenico Lucano, former mayor of a small town in southern Italy, was sentenced to more than thirteen years imprisonment by a court in Calabria after being convicted of fraud, embezzlement, criminal association, and abuse of office.  

With the exception of the embezzlement charge, the rest stem from the diversity of initiatives Lucano oversaw to help immigrants who had come to Italy's shores after a harrowing passage across the Mediterranean. Amongst other things, Lucano had the audacity to allow these desperate people to take up residence in the thousands of empty homes that filled his municipality, and even went so far as to create public works projects so they might have employment and income.

(5) Venezuela has had a vaccine and medical supplies order held up for two months as an indirect result of the sanctions the United States continues to impose on the country.

This worrisome development constitutes a rather tactile refutation of Treasury Department claims, which have asserted that sanctions no longer imperil the health of populations by dint of the installation of humanitarian exemptions. In practice, regardless of Treasury's intentions, its exemptions unfortunately appear to affect little the decision making of financial institutions, whose fear of penalty and legal consequence ultimately pushes them to err on the side of extreme caution when it comes to dealing with those on the US' shitlist. In this instance, such fears led Portugal's Novo Banco to refuse to authorize the transactions the Venezeulan state and its suppliers had agreed to, imperiling the health of children unable to get their shots for measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, and diphtheria in the process.

(6) Friend of the show Henry Tugendhat and co-writer Sergio Chichava have written an insightful piece on the nexus of China's insatiable desire for commodities, the profit incentive of local compradores, and civil conflict in Africa.

Centering their analysis on the illegal logging activities that operate out of Cabo Delgado--the northernmost province of Mozambique--the authors demonstrate how Chinese demand for timber and Chinese traders' willingness to engage with buyers of all types has wound up redounding to the benefit of an Islamist insurgency in the region (uncreatively named al-Shabaab). Selling to these unscrupulous buyers has not only furnished al-Shabaab with the liquidity it needs to sustain operations: these arrangements have also engendered a perverse externality. By closing down one of the ways through which people in the area had once secured livelihoods, the rapid deforestation that is resulting from the timber trade also boosts al-Shabaab's recruitment efforts, as they have been left the only employer in town.

Mad Craic

(7) CNN has run 106 articles in less than a year under a travel vertical called "Dubai Now". These pieces are almost certainly sponsored content: purchased outputs meant to look like everyday self-directed new coverage.

Functionally speaking, CNN looks to be leveraging the imprimatur of its institutional standing to launder the propaganda of Dubai, and doing so without making even cursory disclosures so to inform its readers of conflicts of interest. This may appear harmless in some instances--see titles "Making water in a desert, from sunlight and air", "Doing yoga in Dubai's 'rainforest'", "Scientists are zapping clouds with electricity to make rain." Regardless, it is a rather gross practice for American media to be engaging in.

(8) Israeli Consul General to the Southeastern United States Anat Sultan-Dadon had meetings with a dean at UNC-Chapel Hill in August.

What prompted the get together?

Prompted by generously funded pro-Israel student watchdog groups, it appears the Consul General was angling to have a PhD student in the History department fired from her post as teacher of the course "The Conflict over Israel/Palestine." According to reporting, without presenting any evidence, Sultan-Dadon accused the PhD student in question of anti-semitism and demanded immediate redress.

That Israeli state officials deem it appropriate to intervene in such matters--and that they are allowed to without facing consequences or public backlash--ought tell you just about everything you need to know about the current state of affairs.

Apropos of nothing, here I feel it appropriate to add that according to Haaretz, Afrikaaners are converting to orthodox Judaism in sizable numbers. Nostalgic for the good old days it seems, these converts are using the Israeli citizenship rights thereby won to set up new lives for themselves far from South Africa: in the settlements of the West Bank.    

Great Craic

(9) Though the referendum is non-binding, the fine people of Berlin nevertheless scored a great victory last weekend: they voted overwhelmingly to expropriate the housing units that are controlled by large private developers within the capital city.

Like so many other cities, Berlin is experiencing a profound housing crisis. While still a long way to go, growing the stock under public control would certainly help resolve it.

(10) Here you can see a goat bullying a golden retriever puppy until the golden retriever puppy's friend, a bulldog, shows up to set things right.

Have a great weekend.


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.