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United States: The Wells Are Poisoned

Donald Trump may not win the election next week – although he is at least going to come close – but even if he loses, the wells are poisoned. Either “Crooked Hillary” becomes president, and spends the next four years fighting off legal challenges and fearing assassination by some of Trump’s more deranged admirers. Or Trump becomes the 45th US president, and the United States becomes the world’s biggest and most dangerous loose cannon.

The race was probably always closer than the opinion polls suggested. The last-minute decision of FBI director James Comey to hint publicly that he MIGHT reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” (his words) use of a private email server when she was secretary of state has undoubtedly made it closer.

Inevitably, the media took this to mean that he HAD reopened the case, and it is hard to believe that he did not act with malice aforethought. As John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, said: “Director Comey’s letter (to Congress) refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are, and director himself notes they may not even be significant.”

So what did Comey think he was doing when he sent Congress a letter stating that maybe, when he had the time to look into these emails, and if they turned out to be from or about Mrs Clinton, and if there was new information in them that changed his previous conclusions, then he might consider reopening an investigation against her?

It was contrary to FBI policy to publicly trail a possible investigation like that, and both Comey’s own staff and the US attorney-general advised against it. But Comey was a lifelong Republican until he let his registration lapse some time after he was appointed to the FBI job three years ago by President Obama.

Trump was already claiming that the election was “rigged” against him, and that he might not accept a Clinton victory. Comey has created an equal and opposite likelihood that Democrats will regard a Trump victory as illegitimate, and refuse to accept him as president. Either way, it will be the “birther” conspiracy all over again, but this time in seven-league boots.

This is almost entirely Trump’s fault. With constant lies and threats and personal abuse, he has brought the entire electoral process into disrepute, and the American media have let him get away with it because he was “entertaining”. As Les Moonves, chairman of the CBS television network, admitted eight months ago, when Trump was just starting out: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Many billions of dollars of free publicity later, this ignorant and bombastic “sociopath” – the word that Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s premature autobiography “The Art of the Deal”, uses to describe him – stands on the threshold of great power. And Schwartz, in an interview with The Observer last weekend, was very frightened about the possibility that he would become president.

“Staggeringly dangerous. Worse than I imagined when he began to run….He’s way more out of control in the last couple of months than I’ve ever seen him. He doesn’t have any core beliefs beyond his own aggrandisement and power.” Schwartz didn’t even find it over the top to talk about a Trump presidency in terms of martial law, an end of press freedom, and nuclear war.

We must hope that really is over the top, but we should also bear in mind that Tony Schwartz has probably spent more time actually talking to Donald Trump (while writing the book that launched him as a celebrity) than any other non-family adult has done in the past thirty years.

But the omens are not good if Trump loses the election either, because that doesn’t mean that Clinton wins it. At least not for the very large chunk of the American population who will have voted for The Donald.

Hillary Clinton would have to preside over a bitterly divided country in which almost half the population believe she has stolen the presidency – and there is a strong possibility that Trump would start sending out coded calls for violence.

He already did this once, in August, when he was whipping up a crowd with accusations that Clinton would override the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which most gun-owners believe enshrines the right of American citizens to own weapons.

If Clinton created a majority in favour of gun control on the US Supreme Court, Trump warned the audience, then that’s it: “Nothing you can do, folks.” The pro-gun crowd started to boo, and after a little hesitation Trump added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Like most public incitements to violence, it was veiled and oblique, but it was also unmistakable. It would be heroically optimistic to believe that Trump would not serve up more of the same if he loses the election. One way or another, it is going to be an ugly and frightening time in the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“So…Obama”)

AIDS Is Not Over

Four years ago optimism was high that AIDS was in retreat, and could ultimately be eradicated. Back then the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) was boldly predicting “the end of AIDS by 2030.” Nobody is feeling that optimistic now.

New HIV infections, after dropping steadily for the ten years to 2005, more or less stabilised at 2 million a year in the last decade, and the annual death toll from AIDS has also stabilised, at about 1.5 million a year. But the future looks grimmer than the present.

Two-thirds of all HIV-positive people (24 out of 36 million) are in Africa, and an even higher proportion of the AIDS deaths happen there. If it were not for Africa, the predictions of four years ago would still sound plausible. So what’s wrong with Africa? Two things: it’s poor, and there are “cultural practices” that facilitate the spread of the HIV virus.

The great achievement of the International AIDS Conference that was held in Durban sixteen years ago was to break the grip of the big pharmaceutical companies on the key drugs that were already making HIV-positive status a lifelong nuisance rather than a death sentence in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, the drugs were so expensive that the vast majority of Africans simply could not afford them – so they died instead.

In a diplomatic and media battle that lasted for almost a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s, African countries managed to shame the big pharmaceutical countries into accepting the importation of much cheaper “generic” versions of the main anti-retroviral drugs, mainly from Brazil, India and Thailand, for use in poor African countries.

The Western drug companies not only dropped their collective lawsuit against the South African government in defence of their patents. Some of them even began providing their own patent drugs to the African market at one-tenth or even one-twentieth of the price they charged elsewhere. A widely used course of treatment that cost $10,000 a year in the US at the time became available to Africans at a price of about $100 a year.

Many HIV-positive Africans could not even afford that amount, but Western governments and private foundations also began providing major funding for anti-HIV programmes in Africa: $8.6 billion in 2014. (80 percent of the money comes from the United States and the United Kingdom)

Even today half of Africa’s HIV-positive population is not using the basic cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs on a regular basis. There is still a stigma attached to having the virus, and many of the non-users who have been diagnosed as positive don’t go the clinics to collect their drugs because it involves standing in line and being seen by people they know.

The continent’s death rate from AIDS went into a temporary steep decline, but it is now heading back up for a number of reasons. The main one is that resistance to the standard mix of drugs has grown into a major problem.

The second-line treatment, using newer drugs that are still available at the “African discount”, costs $300 per person per year – and resistance is also apparent in 30 percent of those cases. The third-line or “salvage” treatment costs $1,900 a year even in Africa. The governments can’t afford it, and very few Africans have medical insurance.

Drug resistance has been growing in the developed world too, of course, but the solution there is to move HIV-positive people onto newer combinations of drugs that are far more expensive. The cost of treatment in the US today can be higher than $20,000 a year, and not one African in a thousand can afford that.

African governments will probably have to wage another long diplomatic and media battle to access generic or cut-rate versions of the best new drugs. In the meantime, a great many people will die. And this is happening just as the amount of funding from Western sources for anti-HIV programmes in Africa has gone into decline: donations last year were down by almost one billion dollars.

The other specific reason for sub-Saharan Africa’s much higher rate of HIV infections is “cultural”. What that means, in plain English, is that sexual traditions are different there: pre-marital and extra-marital sex is commonplace. Moreover, older men often exploit their relative wealth and power to have unprotected sex with many young women and girls.

This may explain why in southern Africa, uniquely in the world, 60 percent of new HIV infections are among young women. And it is striking that HIV infection rates are far lower in those parts of the continent that have been Muslim for many centuries – or Christian for many centuries, like Ethiopia – and where the sexual rules of engagement are therefore much stricter.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is almost bound to get worse, not better, because the 15-24 age group, the most likely to become infected, is growing explosively fast. They number about 200 million now, but that will double to 400 million by 2040. Africa has long been the world capital of HIV and AIDS, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“Even…know”; and “This…stricter”)

South China Sea Showdown?

Next Wednesday (12 July) the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will issue its ruling on China’s claim to practically all of the South China Sea. And already the main military contenders are moving more forces into the region.

China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced that Chinese naval and air forces will carry out seven days of exercises in an area extending from Hainan to the Paracel Islands off the Vietnamese coast. The exercises will end on 11 July, just one day before the tribunal’s ruling is released, so they will still be around if things get more exciting after that.

They might well get more exciting, because the US Navy’s Task Force 70, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, has now moved into the South China Sea. Its task, according to its commander, Rear-Admiral John D. Alexander, is “to maintain the seas open for all to use.”

The Chinese Defence Ministry’s spokesman, Col. Wu Qian, warned last Thursday that this is “an act of militarisation in the South China Sea and it endangers regional peace and stability. But I’d like to say that the US side is making the wrong calculation. The Chinese armed forces never give in to outside forces.” And on Friday President Xi Jinping declared that China will never compromise on sovereignty and is “not afraid of trouble.”

So the stage may be set for a serious US-Chinese military confrontation if the Hague tribunal rules against China’s claim next week as expected. The US military fear that China may respond by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone over the whole of the South China Sea, like the ADIZ it declared in the East China Sea in 2013 in its quarrel with Japan over disputed islands there.

Both the US and Japan refused to recognise that ADIZ and sent their own military aircraft to fly through it. The US Navy would unquestionably respond in the same way to a Chinese-declared ADIZ in the South China Sea – and last February China installed two batteries of anti-aircraft missiles with a range of 200 km. on Woody Island in the Paracels.

In a worst-case analysis, therefore, we could be only a week away from a major military clash between the United States and China in the South China Sea. But it really shouldn’t go that far, because the Hague tribunal’s ruling will have no practical effect.

China’s “nine-dash line” claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea looks preposterous on a map – it extends more than a thousand km. from the southern-most point of China while coming within less than a hundred km. of the Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts – but it is taken very seriously in China.

The historical justifications for Beijing’s claim are flimsy, but beginning with the seizure by force of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, China has extended its control to most of tiny islands and reefs in the entire area.

In the past three years it has expanded seven of these tiny footholds with concrete and landfill, building airstrips, port facilities and other potential military assets on them. In February, for the first time, it put actual weapons on them. Whether or not this was directly in response to the case brought against it in The Hague by the Philippines in 2013, it certainly had the effect of making a military confrontation more likely.

But China stated in advance that it would not recognise any ruling on the validity of its claim by the UN-backed Hague tribunal, which has no way to enforce its decision. So it should not feel obliged to resort to military force to defend its claim, any more than the US should feel any need to use force to challenge it. In theory.

Behind the sometimes belligerent thetoric from Beijing, there has been a long-standing policy that China should avoid military confrontations with other great powers until it has grown strong enough economically to stand a good chance of winning. It’s not there yet, so it should still be gun-shy. But there may now be another consideration at work.

The social contract that keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power is simple: so long as the Party delivers steadily rising living standards, the population will accept its dictatorial rule. For almost thirty years it has kept its side of the bargain, with economic growth rates of between 8 and 10 percent per year.

But even the Party admits that the growth rate is now down to 6 percent, and hardly anybody else believes it is even four percent. Some observers think the economy may not be growing at all this year. If that is the case, then the regime is drifting into dangerous waters, and it will need a foreign distraction to divert public attention from its failure.

An exciting but carefully contained confrontation over the South China Sea with the United States and its Southeast Asian allies could be the solution, igniting nationalist passions in China and generating support for the regime, but the tricky bit is keeping it “carefully contained”. Once you start down that road, you cannot be sure where it will take you.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“So…Paracels”)

Obama in Havana

A British journalist compared the huge American delegation (800-1,200 people) that is accompanying President Barack Obama on his first visit to Havana to Japanese soldiers stumbling out of the jungle to discover that the war ended a generation ago. And the Rolling Stones, who are staging a free concert for half a million people in the Cuban capital on Friday, explained that Obama was their opening act.

The US embassy in Havana has already reopened, but only the US Congress can end the 55-year-old American trade embargo against Cuba. Under Republican control Congress is not going to do that, so this visit is really just a social call. Indeed, it was scheduled to coincide with spring break in US schools so the Obamas could bring their daughters along.

Yet no journalist watching all this can resist speculating about whether this opening portends great political changes in Cuba, maybe even the eventual end of the long dictatorship of the Castro brothers and the Cuban Communist Party. Least of all me, as I have been speculating about that in public, at intervals, for most of my adult life.

I never went to Cuba during the “heroic” years when the leadership lived in permanent fear of American invasion or subversion, and most Cubans really were ready to fight to defend the revolution. My first visit was in the mid-1980s, when the bloom was already off the revolutionary rose.

Most of Latin America was living under brutal US-backed military dictatorships at the time, and the Cuban dictatorship seemed to me almost gentle by comparison. It didn’t even kill people much. But Cubans, unable to travel and aware that the regime’s propaganda usually lied, were in a stroppy mood. If you spoke even a little Spanish, they unloaded their discontent on you.

So I went home and predicted that the regime, if not on its last legs, was at least in its last decade. This did not come to pass on schedule, but when I next went to Cuba, in 1994, it certainly looked imminent. The collapse of the old Soviet Union had cut off all the subsidies that had kept the Cuban economy afloat despite the American embargo and its own huge inefficiencies.

During the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” which lasted through most of the 1990s, nobody starved, but almost everybody went hungry and the average Cuban lost 9 kg (20 lbs) in body weight. Social order broke down, with crime rampant and desperate young people openly selling their bodies in the streets.

I brought my wife’s parents with me on one of these visits, and my mother-in-law was mugged in central Havana twice in a week. On the second occasion my father-in-law was injured while resisting the muggers, and I had to bribe a police inspector US $100 to free him from the police station where he was being held – technically as a witness, but really for ransom – so that I could get him proper medical attention.

So I went home and predicted the imminent collapse of the regime again. Communist regimes in Europe whose people were quite well-fed had been falling to non-violent democratic revolutions with scarcely any resistance in the past few years, so it seemed
implausible that this ageing, ramshackle dictatorship would last much longer either.

Wrong again. But when Fidel Castro retired after 42 years and handed power to his brother Raul in 2008, Western embassies in Havana (minus the United States, of course) arranged for various “experts” from their countries to visit Cuba and explain how things were done in a real democracy – which they fully expected that Cuba would shortly become.

I was asked to go along as an alleged expert in media and civil-military affairs, to tell Cuban journalists and military officers how they should operate in a democracy. It was a well-meant but ridiculous initiative, but I went anyway because it gave me unprecedented access at a very interesting time.

And I came back convinced once again that a democratic transformation was really imminent, because most of those I was speaking to expected it themselves. Few of them, even in the armed forces, feared for their jobs, and most of them thought that change would be for the better.

But fast forward another eight years, and very little has changed. Raul Castro says he will retire in 2018 (when he will be only 86), but a new generation of Communist leaders is already being promoted into key positions.

Up to three million American visitors a year are expected now that the US ban on travel to Cuba has been lifted, which will widen the economic gulf between Cubans with access to dollars and those without, but it is unlikely to trigger a revolution. The surge of incoming money will magnify corruption at every level of the regime, but that won’t cause its overthrow either.

In fact, I now think that the regime will probably survive until and unless the US Congress finally ends the embargo and exposes Cuba to the full force of international capitalism. Of course, I have been wrong in the past.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“I brought…attention”; and “Up to…either”)