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THE WRAP-UP: 27 July 2021

Joshua and Hugh’s fortnightly chat about news from around the world is here! Join us as we discuss:

  • The battle between Haiti’s rival PMs, following President Moise’s assassination.

  • Why the Sinovac vaccine is causing headaches for China and the world.

  • The fallout from the biggest Cuban protests in 27 years.

  • How a gas pipeline could help Russia cripple Eastern Europe.

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Topic #1 Prime Minister battle in Haiti

Josh: Hugh, we’re going to go first to Haiti. As I’m sure most of our listeners would know, the country has been in a state of extreme chaos since its President, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated 3 weeks ago.

Moise’s brutal murder -- he was shot in his bedroom by multiple assassins -- triggered violence throughout Haiti and a power-struggle between three rival Prime-Ministers.

But, in a piece of good news, it looks like that rivalry may have been resolved.

Last week, two of the rivals abandoned their claims, allowing Ariel On-ri, a neurosurgeon, to become the country’s prime minister and acting President.

Hugh: Three rival Prime Ministers? That’s pretty crazy.  Why wasn’t there a clear successor to Moise?

Josh: Well, as we’ve talked about on The Wrap Up before, Haiti’s government has been in a bad state for some time. First of all, the country has two Constitutions, and no one knows which one to follow. Each Constitution has different rules for what happens when a President dies. For example, the most recent Constitution says the Prime Minister should take charge.

But, that leads to the second problem: Haiti hasn’t had an elected Prime Minister for 18 months. There was supposed to be a parliamentary election in January 2020, but it was never held and a government was never elected.

To resolve that crisis, Moise had been using his presidential powers to appoint interim Prime Ministers -- and he went through them pretty fast. In April this year, he appointed a guy named Claude Joseph as PM. But, after 3 months, Moise said he’d lost faith in Joseph and was going to fire him, appointing Ariel Henry as PM instead .

However, two days after Moise made that announcement, he was assassinated -- and Henry was never sworn in. That left two duelling Prime Ministers -- one who had just been sacked, and another who hadn’t been sworn in -- both arguing they were the rightful PM and acting President.

Then to make it all the more complicated, the President of Haiti’s Senate also started to claim he was the rightful leader.

Hugh: So how did Henry emerge victorious?

Josh:He had some powerful friends in the US and other western nations.  Because these countries give a lot of aid to Haiti, they have a huge say in Haiti’s politics. The US lobbied the other two contenders to make way for On-ri -- and they eventually did.

Hugh: So now Haiti has a Prime Minister, will that help calm the chaotic situation?

Sadly, I think it’s unlikely. The country’s opposition has refused to recognise Henry. And Henry also has a track record of authoritarian views, so there are fears his rule could further destabilize Haiti.

What’s more, his appointment has done little to calm tensions among Moise’s supporters. And that became really clear during Moise’s funeral over the weekend.

The service was attended by people from across Haiti and the world -- including US and UN ambassadors. While it was supposed to be a solemn event, it was anything but. Gunshots were fired, forcing the US and UN delegations to flee the ceremony.

Moise’s supporters gathered en masse, demanding justice for the murdered President.

And then Moise’s widow took to the podium and gave a fiery speech, telling the crowd that the people who’d arranged her husband’s killing were at the funeral, declaring that a war for Haiti was underway. That only escalated the tension.  After the service finished, protestors barricaded the streets, set tyres alight and gangs rampaged throughout Haiti.

HUGH: Are we any closer to knowing who was behind Moise’s killing?

Josh: Yes and no.  We know who actually shot Moise -- it was a group of Columbian mercenaries. BUT, we don’t know who hired them.  There’s evidence tying a range of people to the assassination, including powerful Haitian businessmen, ex-politicans and rebel leaders.

But, this is where it gets really weird: last week, a Christian pastor in the United States was also arrested for helping arrange the killing!

HUGH: And in the midst of all of this, ordinary Haitians continue to endure horrific conditions.

Josh: Exactly.  Poverty levels are at an all time high;

Haiti’s powerful gangs have seized control of some parts of the country; and Kidnapping rates have increased.  There’s been stories of school children being abducted and even pastors being snatched in the middle of church services. 

And in that context, Moise’s death is really symbolic for many Haitians.  If the President can be assassinated in his own home, then what hope do ordinary Haitians have for justice? And it’s hard to see how this problem is going to be resolved any time soon.

Topic #2 - Sinovac controversy 

Hugh: Joshua, that was the voice of an Indonesian health expert, and as you would have just heard, he was raising concerns about one of China’s leading Covid-19 vaccines, exSinovac.

You see, Sinovac has been at the centre of national strategies to deal with Covid across the world. But in the last month, a large number of health experts have begun questioning the vaccine's efficacy in the face of new viral strains.

In Indonesia, more than a hundred healthcare workers have died from Covid despite having received the Sinovac vaccine. That number has even included the doctor who was leading the nation’s Sinovac trial.

Understandably, the situation is drawing a lot of attention around the world, especially as countries such as Mongolia, the Seychelles and Bahrain also experience virus flare-ups despite using Sinovac.

Josh: Yeah that’s staggering. Is this problem isolated to just 


Hugh: Unfortunately not. Many countries are using Sinovac with others still using a second Chinese vaccine known as Sinopharm. And a lot of governments who have relied on the Chinese vaccines are now issuing recommendations for their healthcare professionals and other key workers to receive booster shots using other vaccines such as Moderna.

And that’s because, as Covid-19 grows more potent with new strains, the Chinese vaccines are failing to provide the same levels of protection that they did at the start of the rollout.

Thailand, Bahrain and the UAE are all recommending booster shots, while in Singapore, the Government has removed the vaccine from its official vaccination statistics, citing a lack of data about its effectiveness.

Josh: It’s interesting that you mention a lack of data - could you speak more to that?

Hugh: Yeah for sure. I mean, this has been an issue from the outset of the pandemic when it comes to transparency. Obviously, since the vaccines are manufactured by China, it’s unlikely that Beijing would be quick to sound the alarm bells if something was wrong.

We already know that the Chinese vaccine manufacturers have disclosed less safety and testing information than their western competitors.

And this has created a situation where at one stage, there were four wildly different estimates of the vaccine’s effectiveness running at the same time.

However, at this point there seems to be consensus that the Sinovac shot only offers 51% efficacy against the base virus.

That figure is actually just one point above the World Health Organisation’s minimum rate of 50%.

Josh: So does that mean countries aren’t using it?

Hugh: It really depends. Costa Rica recently rejected the vaccine, citing a lack of effectiveness, but generally, epidemiologists are still recommending the shot, as 50% efficacy is of course better than nothing.

Plus, with its huge manufacturing base, China has been able to distribute enormous numbers of vaccines overseas, especially to developing countries which initially were missing out due to vaccine hoarding in the West. So many countries will still be eager to tap into that vast supply.

But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been controversy. In Peru, which like many Latin American countries has relied heavily on Sinovac, healthcare workers are protesting, demanding a Pfizer booster shot after receiving the Chinese vaccine.

And it gets trickier when we consider variants such as Delta, which are more potent than the original virus strain that the Chinese vaccines were designed to beat.

Again, we don’t have enough data on the Chinese shots to be sure, but preliminary studies are suggesting that they’re 20% less effective against the new strains.

Josh: That would mean that Sinovac might only have a 30% effectiveness against the Delta strain. How is China responding?

Hugh: Well, this is going to have a very obvious impact on Chinese vaccine diplomacy. As we’ve seen with Costa Rica, it’s going to be harder to convince new countries to use the shots, but perhaps the biggest risk internationally for China is with the countries that are already using its vaccines.

A failure of Chinese vaccination programs in other countries would be profoundly damaging to Chinese prestige and would undermine what had essentially been a quiet victory for Chinese diplomacy at the start of the pandemic.

And to finish, the other concern is going to be domestic. As the world begins opening up again, China will now need to address the fact that it has vaccinated its own population with vaccines that are not particularly effective against the new strains. So in one sense, China has as much riding on its vaccines at home as it does abroad.

Topic #3 - Cuban protests 

Josh: The woman you just heard there was the mother of Anjelo Troya, a 25-year-old Cuban who was sentenced to jail in a secret trial last week.

And he wasn’t the only one. Over the last fortnight, the Cuban Government has rounded u p more than 500 Cubans and detained them in blacksite prisons.

These people are being sentenced in secretive mass trials of up to 30 people at a time, with court hearings taking little more than an hour.

In the case of Anjelo Troya, his mother says she was notified of her son’s trial just before it was beginning -- and by the time she arrived at the court -- it was already over -- and Anjelo had already been sentenced to a year in prison.

Hugh:  What was his crime?

Josh: Officially, Troya was jailed for promoting ‘public disorder’. He was charged with that offence -- along with hundreds of others -- after participating in anti-government protests that have rocked Cuba. Thousands of people, across 40 cities, took to the streets earlier this month, calling for the government’s resignation.

And I know we talk about prote sts a fair bit on Global Questions -- but what we’ve seen in Cuba in the last few weeks is actually really unique. You’ve got to remember that the country is controlled by a highly repressive communist government.  People who speak out are jailed or exiled. Protests rarely occur. In fact, the last time we saw massive anti-government protests in Cuba was in 1994 -- more than two decades ago.

Hugh: So why are people protesting now?

Josh: There’s a range of reasons. First, Cuba has been experiencing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Government mismanagement, the US ban on trading with Cuba and Covid-19 have made the economy shrink by more than 11% in the past year. That’s led to high unemployment rates and inflation.  In fact, inflation is so bad that it’s prices are predicted to rise between 500-900%.

On top of that, the country is also experiencing food and medicine shortages.  People are being forced to wait up to 8 hours in line for bread.

Add into the mix Covid-19, which has overwhelmed Cuba’s hospitals, and frequent power outages -- and you can understand why most Cubans have had enough.

As for the protests themselves, they kicked off after footage emerged of residents in a tiny Cuban town holding a mini-demonstration against the government.

It appears they were saying what many other Cubans were thinking, and within a few days, demonstrations and protests had erupted across the country

And I think that’s part of what makes them so significant -- there’s no one person or group organising these protests -- they’ve happened organically.

Hugh:  I imagine the Cuban government responded pretty quickly.

Josh: Yeah, it did. It sent out special forces, police and plain-clothed officers to quash the protests. Protestors were beaten and arrested, and taken to secret prisons. Even now, two weeks after the protests, hundreds of Cubans are still missing.  Families have posted pictures of their loved ones on social media, pleading for information from anyone who may have seen them. But despite the crackdown, the scale of the protests signals that something may have shifted in Cuba. 

In an extremely rare admission, Cuba’s President issued a quasi-apology for the economic crisis. That’s led to hope that the protests may prompt the government to liberalise both the economy and political system. In fact, some analysts have gone as far as to say that they could mark the beginning of the end of the Cuban regime.

Hugh: And how’s the international community responded to all of this?

Josh: Well, unsurprisingly, the UN has condemned the crackdown and the mass trials. In the US, Joe Biden has also pledged support for the protestors: Biden has also imposed new sanctions on senior Cuban politicians -- which is interesting, because he promised last year to reverse some of the hardline sanctions put in place by Donald Trump.

However, given current events, I think that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. But really worthwhile, I think, watching Cuba more closely in the coming months, as we may see signs of just how much these protests have damaged the Cuban regime.

Topic #4 - Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline

Hugh:  Well Josh, what you would have just heard there might have sounded very boring. You see, the US and Germany have come to an agreement on a major gas pipeline in Northern Europe known as Nord Stream 2.

And while this might sound like something pretty mundane, there’s actually a lot going on under the surface, with the US now lending its support to what is one of the most significant European infrastructure projects to date.

Josh: Wow okay. What makes this event so significant then?

Hugh: Well, natural gas happens to be very, very important to Europe because with our current technology, it’s an essential supply for home heating.

Obviously, Europe is a very cold continent so there’s a lot of demand for natural gas over the winter and autumn months. This means that natural gas can often make the difference between being able to survive in a warm apartment over winter, or being forced to sleep in below freezing temperatures.

So this question of energy supply is actually life and death, especially for older and more vulnerable Europeans, who can be at risk of passing away if they’re unable to access heating over winter.

Josh: It sounds like natural gas is a very important resource then. So why would it be controversial enough to require high-level international diplomacy?

Hugh: That’s a good question. Crucially, Europe itself has very little in the way of natural gas supplies. So that means that the vast majority of European countries have to import gas from abroad - and nine times out of ten, their provider is Russia.

Russia is actually the world’s biggest producer of natural gas, generating more than the next two biggest providers, Qatar and the US, combined.

So given that this is a resource which literally keeps people alive and of course keeps governments popular, Russia’s near monopolistic control over Europe’s gas supply gives Moscow enormous leverage.

Josh: And how does Moscow use its leverage?

Hugh: Well, Russia has been known to either shut off or slow down the supply of gas when it's having a dispute with one of its European neighbours.

And as we’ve learnt, this can literally kill people and of course places a lot of political pressure on the downstream governments.

Russia can do this because the company controlling its gas exports, Gazprom, is state-owned and is run by a number of close allies to Vladimir Putin.

But there’s a catch, because at the moment, Russian natural gas is transferred to Europe via giant pipelines that run on land. So this means that in order for Russian gas to get to a major customer such as Germany, it has to travel across the territory of countries such as Poland and Ukraine. And of course, many of these Eastern European countries are enemies of Moscow.

So for example, if Russia ever gets into a dispute with Poland and wants to shut down its gas supply over winter, it’ll also have to turn off gas supplies to Germany. So the very act of putting pressure on Poland also ends up hurting a major Russian industry.

Josh: How does Nord Stream 2 change that?

Hugh: The trick with Nord Stream 2 is that it runs under the Baltic Sea, directly from Russia to Germany. So now, Russia can get huge amounts of gas to its major customers without needing Eastern Europe.

And that’s the reason why this project has been so controversial. While countries like Germany want the pipeline to go ahead in order to secure cheaper gas supplies, the US and Eastern Europe have condemned the project as a blatant attempt at making it easier for Moscow to place pressure on its small neighbours.

Or at least up until recently. Earlier this year, the US actually placed sanctions on companies involved in the project, but it now sees the pipeline as inevitable, and has given Germany its tacit approval in return for Berlin investing over 200 million euros in energy security in Ukraine as well as sustainable energy across Europe.

Josh: What are the impacts of that agreement?

Hugh: Put simply, although the US has forced Germany into investing in increased European energy security, the project’s approval is a win for Russia. It will now be a lot easier for Moscow to pressure its close neighbours and that’s why the Washington-Berlin deal has attracted fierce criticism in Poland and Ukraine especially.

We’ve seen it throughout our season on climate change. Energy matters. And while natural gas sounds mundane, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more major crises being triggered going forward thanks to this deal.

Joshua:  And that brings to a close the final Wrap Up for this season!

Stay tuned for next week’s In-Depth episode -- it’s a really interesting one on the way young people like us are suing governments and businesses to force them to act on climate change.  I’ll be chatting with Paul Govind, an expert in the area, and Mark McVee, who at the 23, took on his super company and WON.

Hugh: In the meantime, follow us, Global Questions, on Instagram or check us out on the Young Diplomats Society’s website. You can leave us feedback or suggest an episode topic. Links are in the episode description.

Joshua: We will see you next time! Bye.

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