Not So White, Not So Merry Christmas

Original Article: No tan blanca, no tan feliz Navidad
Source: El País
Published: 29 Dec 2018

An analysis of international news via articles published in global media, selected and commented on by Context magazine

Oh, white Christmas. Not exactly. And even less so in 2018. For the time being, this Christmas is the least white across the Northern Hemisphere due to global warming. “From Alaska to Finland, half a dozen Arctic cities claim to be the home of Santa Claus,” wrote The Guardian on Christmas Eve, and all of them, “without exception,” are experiencing climate change.

In Sweden, the Sami complain that “reindeer are confused by the unusual temperatures,” and that, while in spring “there were floods,” in summer some “nearby forests were razed by fires.” In Rovaniemi, capital of the Finnish Lapland region, “summer was strangely hot and dry, with temperatures of over thirty degrees for several consecutive weeks,” and winter “has come so late this year that tour operators have to improvise new activities for tourists, including excursions across the lakes, where the ice is so transparent that you can see the fish below.”

Sanna Kärkkäinen, director of Visit Rovaniemi, explained, “The lakes are normally covered with snow,” and stressed that “the climate has changed in the last three to five years” and that “it used to be more stable, but now it ranges from long periods of mild temperatures to sudden extreme cold.” At the North Pole (Alaska, USA), temperatures only started to fall last week. The first snowflakes, they point out, used to fall in October, but now the inhabitants of nearby Fairbanks have become accustomed to cold rain during this period.

New Right, Same Neoliberalism

Usually at this time it is customary to take stock of the year that will soon leave us, and make forecasts for the one around the corner. Franz Schellhorn does his own at Der Standard with the first year of the coalition between conservatives and national populists in Austria. “If for years complaints were heard (especially from the media) about the paralysis of large coalition governments, now many (especially in the media) seem to think that the transformation of the country is going too fast and, furthermore, in the wrong direction,” the author ironically notes.

Among the measures taken by the coalition government between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Schellhorn highlights some that have gone unnoticed by the international press, such as the easing of working hours, which will now allow daily shifts of up to 12 hours — as long as it does not exceed 48 working hours a week, or the reform of the pension system.

Germany’s Die Zeit sums up the Austrian government’s program in one line: “Faced with the threats of asylum and Islam, the welfare state is being cut back.” The ÖVP of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz continues to rise in the polls while “at the same time the opposition seems unable to gain ground, and hits a wall again and again due to unity and mutual blind loyalty.” Joachim Riedl, the article’s author, attributes this situation to the capacity of the executive branch to build a media apparatus “constantly occupied with political performances.” And how does this work? “When a government error is revealed,” for example, “the coalition parties react with an offensive to ease the burden, in which, typically, they announce a tightening of immigration,” Riedl replies.

It is a neoliberal background that, incidentally, is shared with the new government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. As Wouter Hoenderdaal explains in Counterpunch, Paulo Guedes, a supporter of privatization and deregulation, will lead a new “superministry” that will combine finance, industry, trade and planning. Two other “Chicago Boys” will be in charge of key departments: Joaquim Levy will head the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), while Roberto Castello Branco will be executive director of Petrobras. “International investors and media like Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are not trying to hide their enthusiasm: they know what is going to happen,” says Hoenderdaal wryly.

The Twisted Franco-German Axis

North of Austria, the German locomotive has ceased to operate with its proverbial effectiveness. This is not — or not only — an economic metaphor. According to Der Spiegel, up to 30% of Deutsche Bahn (DB) trains did not arrive on time in November. In addition, the unions warn that insufficient resources are being allocated to infrastructure, the trains themselves, and staff.

“Not a few people think that things will not improve; many colleagues have lost hope,” laments Alexander Kirchner, president of the Railway and Transport Union (EVG). “Our colleagues on trains and in stations directly face travelers’ anger over delays. They constantly have to explain the problems they have neither caused nor can they avoid,” he adds.

In 1994, DB was converted into a public limited company, with the shares belonging exclusively to the federal government. Like the Labour Party in the UK, the left in Germany is calling for the service to be renationalized. “What the generously paid board of directors, managers, and management board do, state administrators could do for a long time, and they wouldn’t get multimillion-dollar salaries to do it,” argues Jan Korte, member of The Left in the Bundestag. Marco Buschmann, of the liberal FDP, considers the proposal “grotesque”: “The origins of the problems are poor management and insufficient supervision,” he argues.

In France, ministers in the Macron government continue to rack their brains over what to do about the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests, that continue, even if attendance at demonstrations is falling. The regional daily Sud Ouest described how a group of gilets jaunes simulated a trial of the French president last Saturday that resulted in his condemnation and symbolic beheading. John Lichfield wondered in the French edition of The Local whether events like this or the open sympathies of some of the movement’s members towards the National Rally of Marine Le Pen do not expose “its dark side.” “The Macron government would love to be able to label the entire gilets jaunes movement as extremist and undemocratic,” wrote Lichfield, who acknowledged that the protest “presents genuine grounds for complaints about the unfair treatment of people on the regional and social periphery of France.”

China and the Crucial Year of 2019

Meanwhile, the South Morning China Post reported how China, the main opponent of Donald Trump’s trade wars, has announced “progress” in its negotiations with Washington after making various concessions, to avoid depreciation of the yuan against the dollar,” which would favor Chinese exports.

Peter Navarro, Trump’s economic advisor, continues to insist on tightening the screws. In a recent interview with the Japanese newspaper Nikkei, in which he went on to say that “China is trying to steal the future of Japan, the US and Europe,” Navarro said that Beijing has to be prepared “for a complete review of its commercial and industrial practices” if it wants to avoid the approval of 25% tariffs on its goods. The deadline is March 1, 2019.

In parallel, a note from Xinhua detailed the economic measures that China is preparing for next year, which will be key, as the country celebrates the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It is also the year that immediately precedes 2020, the goal that the government set itself for the establishment of a “moderately prosperous society.” For the moment, it has the support of Russia, which, under the pressure of Western sanctions, sees China as a preferred partner.

In Jacobin magazine, Richard Lachmann addresses a basic issue that rarely appears in the media, especially from an anti-imperialist position: why the US continues to lose wars despite its colossal investment in defense, the largest in the world and considerably more than other countries, year after year, according to the statistics of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“If Only the Elderly Could…”

Every December 25, the historic lowering of the Soviet flag from the Kremlin in 1991 is remembered. This year, the English edition of Meduza dedicated an article to the occasion of the anniversary. The subject: the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. In his last speech as President of the USSR, on December 26, 1991, Gorbachev said: “The line of argument that favors the dismemberment of this country and the dispersion of its governments has prevailed, and I cannot agree with it.” Since then, Gorbachev has been a first-hand witness to Russia’s haphazard evolution.

The article reviews the Russian politician since 1991, when he created the foundation that bears his name, to the present day, through the founding in 1993 of the Novaya Gazetao newspaper and Green Cross International, dedicated to the disarmament of chemical weapons. The article does so without ignoring Gorbachev’s bitter differences with Yeltsin, his failed attempts to return to politics — with the hostility of the Communists, who accused him and continue to accuse him of having destroyed the USSR — and his controversial appearances in advertisements for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton, which Gorbachev always justified as a means of raising funds for his foundations.

Today, the former president, 87 years old, lives alone in a modest residence on the outskirts of Moscow, accompanied by a small team of assistants and security personnel. Gorbachev “makes the commute almost every weekday from his longtime home in the former dacha of the Soviet Minister of Agriculture on Rublyovskoye Highway to his foundation’s office on Leningradskoye Highway.” Gorbachev confesses to the article’s author: “I am of such an age now that I can only repeat the old saying: If only the elderly could; if only the young understood.”