Japan’s daily COVID-19 cases rose to a record of more than 2,000, according to local media tallies, as the nation that had previously shown success in containing the virus now faces a rapid spread of the pathogen.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey formally committed itself Wednesday to using offshore wind energy to power 3.2 million homes and will study the best ways to get that electricity from ocean turbines to communities where it is needed. The state Board of Public Utilities voted to adopt the state’s plan to build a […]
It was Jiye Kim’s first BTS concert. A rippling sea of glowing globes formed as the crowd waved light sticks and, in unison, yelled the band’s fan chant—Kim Nam-joon! Kim Seok-jin! Min Yoon-gi! Jung Ho-seok! Park Ji-min! Kim Tae-hyung! Jeon Jung-gook! BTS!
Kim already liked the group’s music, but watching them perform in May 2017 at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena among a crowd of more than 11,000 turned her into a fan—or more precisely, a member of ARMY, the official fandom name of the K-pop juggernaut. “I bought one ticket for myself and sat in the highest corner of the awkwardest position of this small stadium,” says Kim, a high school teacher born and raised in Australia. BTS was in the middle of their worldwide Wings tour. “I expected them to be decent live singers, I expected them to dance well, I expected them to have interesting music,” Kim, 26, says. But what struck her was the message of the concert.
It was a simple declaration of solidarity that resonated powerfully, Kim says. Prior to the tour, the septet had released a compilation album titled You Never Walk Alone, with nearly 20 tracks about the subject. “Spring Day” was filled with sentiments of longing for a friend, and “2! 3!” asked the listener to “erase all sad memories” and “smile holding onto each other’s hands.” Hearing these songs at the concert, Kim was deeply moved. “When I walked outside, I just distinctly remember looking up into the sky, breathing in and thinking, that’s the first time a group has made me not only want to care more about them but care more about the world that I live in,” she recalls.
Who is ARMY?
Already millions strong, ARMY had a new recruit. BTS has been amassing a legion of fans long before it became the first all-South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100 with “Dynamite,” or set the world record for attracting the most viewers for a concert live stream during the coronavirus pandemic. The septet’s fandom captured the attention of international media when it propelled the band to win the fan-voted Top Social Artist, with more than 300 million votes, at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. BTS ended a six-year winning streak in the category by Justin Bieber and beat the likes Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Selena Gomez. At the time, Bieber boasted more than 100 million followers on Twitter, and Grande was the third-most followed account on Instagram. One of the most pressing questions of the day in the music industry was: Who is ARMY?
Though ARMY has always shown up in person—fans lined up for days around Times Square in New York City to ring in 2020 with BTS at Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years’ Eve, not to mention their mighty presence at the group’s sold-out stadium concerts—it is also one of the most active online communities in existence. 40 million members of ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, subscribe to BTS’ YouTube channel, and more than 30 million follow both the member-run Twitter account and Big Hit’s official BTS Instagram account. ARMY stands apart from other fandoms through the ways it has mobilized with an unrivaled level of organization, driven by a desire to see the seven members of BTS leave their mark in territories previously uncharted by any other pop act from South Korea.
Translation accounts deepen ties
Today, from her home in Sydney, Jiye Kim runs one of the largest Twitter fan translation accounts for BTS—@doyou_bangtan, with more than 270,000 followers. Fan translation accounts—which tackle everything from song lyrics and video content to the members’ social media posts—are a primary example of how ARMY both deepens an understanding of the group among existing fans and introduces BTS to new audiences. “The desire to translate always comes from a love of the group and the recognition that there wasn’t much being translated into English,” says Kim, who launched her account in 2017.
The first time Kim translated a BTS interview from Korean to English, it took five hours. These days, the time she spends translating depends on the group’s activities. “In promotional season, about two weeks before an album drops, I would probably clear my schedule as much as possible of non–work related events,” she explains. “My sleep clock would change.” In previous years, Kim set an alarm at 12 a.m. KST (Korea Standard Time)—often when Big Hit drops new content—every day for two months around the time of a new BTS release.
Claire Min, a college student living in New Orleans, also operates on a Korea-centric schedule for her fan translation account. Min, 18, started @btstranslation7—which now has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter—in early 2018. She specializes in translating live video streams from BTS members, which are usually broadcast on the platform V LIVE after midnight U.S. Central Time.
“It’s really gratifying to see that international fans and international ARMY are able to actually learn Korean and actually take an interest in Korean culture,” Min says. Every fan translation account has a unique style, and her approach includes a word-by-word breakdown of BTS members’ social media posts, which she labels #BTSvocab. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say, I actually didn’t want to learn Korean because it was just so difficult,” Min explains. Now, fans tag her in photos of handwritten notes based on #BTSvocab posts.
The power of the hashtag
Data-oriented accounts dedicated to everything from calling for fan votes to tracking the band’s position on music charts have also been an intrinsic part of the fandom. Monica Chahine and Maggie Su, both 21, are university students in Toronto who run one such account. Chahine and Su both became fans of BTS in 2017 and connected with each other on Twitter. Along with another ARMY who has since stepped back due to school responsibilities, they started @BangtanTrends the following year. With more than 130,000 followers, the Twitter account focuses on creating and trending BTS-related hashtags. “The goal is to get either more ARMYs to see it or to get BTS to see it, or to get new fans,” Chahine explains.
In the past, when ARMYs were using too many hashtags at the same time, fewer of them would appear in the Twitter trends chart. “As the fandom got bigger, it was harder to coordinate,” Su says. So for BTS Festa in 2018—the fifth-anniversary celebration of the act’s debut on June 13, 2013—the @BangtanTrends team posted special hashtags. One of them was #5thFlowerPathWithBTS, which references lyrics in the song “2! 3!” in which J-Hope’s rap thanks ARMY “for becoming the flower in the most beautiful moment in life,” as well as the idea of a flower road being one of success and happiness. The hashtag became the No. 1 Worldwide trend on Twitter with more than 800,000 tweets. Its visibility was amplified when UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore used it in a post about the organization’s #EndViolence campaign with BTS. Now, as ARMYs around the world join from all time zones, BTS hashtags dominate the Worldwide trends list for longer periods of time.
Tackling real-world problems
Beyond social media, ARMY’s organization and mobilization extend into offline projects. Many of these are charity-focused, modeled after BTS’ philanthropic efforts—from launching the anti-violence Love Myself campaign with UNICEF to individually making donations on band member’s birthdays. OIAA, short for One In An ARMY, is a group that collaborates with nonprofit organizations around the world and encourages microdonations. Its first campaign, launched in April 2018 in a partnership with the nonprofit Medical Teams International, helped bring medical care to Syrians.
“What I really like is that with some of the organizations that we’ve worked with, we have kept up a relationship with them,” says Erika Overton, 40, a founding member of OIAA who lives in Fairburn, Ga. Overton cites the example of KKOOM, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports orphanages in South Korea. Earlier this year, OIAA raised funds for children in the orphanages that were under mandatory quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. The collaboration between the two organizations started in August 2018, when OIAA mobilized ARMY to raise more than $3,800—enough to fund a handful of scholarships. Less than two years later, in June, BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter—and ARMYs more than matched that pledge within days through a donation site OIAA created.
“The music and the spirit of the guys is at the core and the inspiration for all of it,” Overton says. She references RM’s often-quoted comments from a concert: “If your pain is 100 in a scale of 100, if we can lessen that to 99, 98 or 97,” then “the value of our existence is enough.”
As BTS continues to reach milestones on the charts and across social media, the scale and impact of ARMY’s mobilization also multiplies. Across platforms, fans share the hope for BTS to break even more ground in a music industry where few non-Western artists have risen to the top.
“They were, at one point, from a small company in Korea. They are from a small country in the world,” says Jiye Kim. “There seems to be this continuing expectation from the outside, that BTS and ARMY aren’t going to do well, and I think that makes ARMY work even harder to prove themselves for BTS.”
For Central America, this year’s storm season has been relentless. Already struggling under the economic toll of COVID-19, the developing region was battered by Hurricane Eta in early November and had little time to regroup before Hurricane Iota—the 30th named storm in a record-breaking hurricane season in the Atlantic— made landfall in Nicaragua on Nov. 16.
At a press conference in Tegucigalpa held hours before Iota began to hit, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez said that his country already had 7% of its GDP wiped out by the pandemic, and that the combined impact of COVID-19 and two deadly storms will create a “bomb that will leave the country and the region in a very difficult situation.”
For leaders in the region, the storms have crystallized the injustice that is playing out around the world as extreme weather becomes more common in a destabilized climate. “We in Central America aren’t the ones who caused climate change. But we are among the most affected,” Hernandez said. “The countries that have recognized they are the main drivers of climate change have the money available.”
The region’s presidents said Nov.16 they would work together to pressure richer countries to quickly release aid via regional development banks. Here’s what to know about the impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota, and what is being done to help the countries impacted.
How have Eta and Iota impacted Central America?
Eta killed some 150 people across the region and forced 300,000 to flee their homes as floods and mudslides swallowed up entire towns across Honduras and Guatemala. Extensive flooding was also reported in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Belize and El Salvador.
These devastated communities now face Iota’s strong winds and up to 30 inches of rain, while relief agencies say crowding in emergency shelters, and cuts to water and power supplies, will likely trigger spikes in COVID-19 cases in affected areas over the coming weeks.
Mauricio Paredes, Vice-President of the Honduras Red Cross, says the rapid arrival of Iota just two weeks after Eta is severely complicating disaster response in the country. “We’re used to dealing with flooding. But the magnitude of this is just overwhelming,” he says.
Displaced Hondurans are having to move to new shelters as new areas of the country flood, Paredes says, while some areas that flooded during Eta are now seeing waters rise even faster and higher as flood defenses have been destroyed. A key airport in Honduras’ second city of San Pedro Sula has been flooded during both Iota and Eta. “That’s going to present a huge challenge to us for bringing in aid from outside the country,” Paredes said. Many Red Cross volunteers have themselves lost their homes, he added.
How has climate change contributed to Eta and Iota?
Eta is considered one of the worst weather-related disasters in the region in the last two decades. It has been as devastating as Central America’s Hurricane Mitch, which killed 11,000 people in 1998. But we may now be entering an era where very deadly storms are no longer once-in-a generation events.
Meteorologists tracked more hurricanes in the Atlantic this season than ever before, and though no one storm can be blamed on climate change, scientists agree that a warming planet makes weather patterns more destructive.
In Central America, climate change has increased the intensity of both rains and droughts, according to the U.N.
Is the rest of the world sending aid to Central America?
Relief agencies, including the Red Cross, CARE and U.N. bodies have sent teams in the countries affected by the storms to help communities cope with the immediate impact.
At a meeting with leaders from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras on Monday, Cabei, the region’s development bank, said it had approved a $2.5bn fund “designed to finance projects that address and prevent disasters and calamities in order to adapt to the effects of climate variability and change.”
But regional leaders are also pushing for rapid access to large international funding pots, like the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, which they claim are too slow and too difficult for them to access. “To get access to green funds, we must fulfil a series of tedious procedures, but hunger can’t wait,” Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei said.
Though developed countries have agreed to jointly raise $100bn a year for the U.N.’s “green climate fund” to help developing nations adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change, so far donors have pledged only a fraction of that. (In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would end U.S. contributions to the fund.)
Giammattei argued that the impact of the storms presented an urgent moment for “industrialized nations” to increase long-term development support for Central American nations. He said this would be necessary to prevent large flows of people migrating from the region to other countries because of the impacts of climate change, gang violence and the pandemic’s impact on the economy. “If we don’t want crowds of Central American going to other countries in search of a better life, we have to build walls of prosperity in Central America. Because physical walls are not going to stop people’s needs.”
These rituals can still leave us feeling incomplete, but they can also act as signposts, guiding us from one phase of mourning to another. Soon after attending my mom’s funeral via livestream, I would see ads welcoming tourists back to Disney World in a state where infections were surging.ide class=”right-rail__container right-rail__container–ad”>
This year on my mother’s birthday, in October, I woke up from one of many dreams I’ve had about her since her death. I’d been sitting with family and friends in my grandmother’s backyard, our lawn chairs scattered across a carpet of sun-dappled grass. We were all talking, sharing memories of my mom. I don’t remember the specific stories, but I know there was joy, more laughter than tears—even though, in my dream, my mom was also gone.
Like so many grieving families in 2020, we haven’t been able to gather or mourn together. My mother died of cancer in May, and my husband, kids and I had to watch the small funeral service via livestream from across the country. Until the day before, I wasn’t sure we would be able to do even that—two months into the pandemic, the funeral-home representative told me they had never set up a livestream before. My mom’s priest had privacy concerns about filming, and said it was already difficult to choose who among my mother’s many church friends could attend. An additional person filming would, he said, “take a place that could have gone to another mourner.”
When I heard this, I caught my breath and let the silence stretch. I didn’t want to get angry. I didn’t have the energy. My mom loved her church community, who had been her family too—no doubt one reason she stayed at home instead of coming to live with me when I asked—and I was grateful to them for being there for her when I wasn’t, doing what I couldn’t. But I was her only child.
“You have four spots you wouldn’t if my husband, my kids and I were able to be there,” I pointed out. “Can’t you just think of the person filming as taking my place?”
There was a pause. “Of course,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sure we can work something out.”
The last time I saw my mother in person was in late January, when my 12-year-old and I flew out to visit her. We had seen her just a month earlier at Christmas, and I had also planned trips for March and April.
But by mid-March, visiting felt impossible, especially traveling 3,000 miles from my high-infection area to my mother’s small town, where there were almost no cases. Mask wearing was becoming more common but was far from universal. To even attempt the trip responsibly would mean two weeks of quarantine at either end, in addition to however long I spent with my mom. Our home life just wasn’t set up for one of us to parent alone for weeks or months, particularly while working remotely and dealing with anxious kids and distance learning. And what if I carried the virus to my mom? What if I passed it to her caregivers, her hospice nurse? What if I gave it to my husband or kids, or someone far more vulnerable whose name I would never know, whose illness and death I would never be aware of causing?
So I postponed one trip, then the next. Surely, I kept thinking, enough people would do the right thing—stay home if they could, wear masks when they couldn’t—and we’d all get a reprieve. Instead, state after state began to reopen, even as the virus kept raging. Soon after attending my mom’s funeral via livestream, I would see ads welcoming tourists back to Disney World in a state where infections were surging.
My mother was cared for by her sister and sister-in-law, assisted at night by hired aides. I did my best to handle her finances, help manage home health care, send flowers and letters and gifts. When I called, I knew I was burdening her caregivers with still more tasks: giving me updates, seeing whether my mom could speak with me, bringing her the phone or tablet. I could not stop calling, worrying or apologizing to everyone.
One day, her hospice nurse called me with news that seemed too good to be true. “She had a great day! She’s such a fighter—she has a real chance at more quality time.” My mother called us shortly after, and my husband and kids and I told her we were glad she’d had a good day and we wished we were with her. She spoke slowly, with some effort, and sometimes she would forget to hold the tablet at the best angle, so we could see only the top of her head. But after hearing about her day—sitting up, eating ice cream, even joking with people—I told myself that she was worn out; she could still rally.
“Never, never forget how much I love you,” she said to us. It was the last time we’d hear her voice.
Since she died, many people have asked me if I feel a lack of “closure” because of all the moments missed. My father died 2½ years ago, and I was at his funeral, and I still don’t feel anything like closure. It’s an open wound. It always will be.
In many ways, I know that I am fortunate: I was able to help support my mother financially during her illness, something I would have been unable to do to a meaningful degree two or three years ago. I know that she was cared for at the end by people who loved her. And she and I did have a chance to say goodbye—the last time I saw her in person, I asked her forgiveness, told her I loved her and was lucky to be her daughter. I kept saying those same things, over and over, on all the calls we had before she died. I’ll always wish I could have been there, or that she’d been here, but I’m not holding on to anything I wish I’d told her—in the end, there was nothing broken or left unsaid between us.
What so many of us who’ve lost family members and close friends during the pandemic are facing is not grief or trauma deferred. It’s not a lack of emotion at all, but a swelling tide of it, unchecked by the reassurance, the scant but real comfort, that can and does often accompany the rituals we are usually able to participate in when a loved one dies. These rituals can still leave us feeling incomplete, but they can also act as signposts, guiding us from one phase of mourning to another. When my father died, being at his funeral, seeing his casket lowered into the ground, crying with my mother were all things that helped me to acknowledge and feel the loss, to begin to process and live with it.
I never imagined I would lose my mother without those familiar touchstones. I watched her funeral from my living-room couch, squished between my husband and children, the same couch where we’d all crowded for our last call with her. There was no gathering or reception after, no hugs and fellowship with our family and friends, no stories exchanged in anyone’s yard. When the live feed cut out, I retrieved a vase of garden-grown snapdragons that a kind neighbor had left at our door, and then we ate the lunch my husband had prepared. My 12-year-old and I took a quiet walk together. I didn’t see or talk to anyone outside my household.
The rest of the day proceeded like any other, like most days have since: I do my job, I help my 9-year-old with school, I wear my mother’s rings and take long walks and try to keep alive all the plants I received as sympathy gifts. Our kids have been asking for a dog for a while, and 2020 felt like the year to say yes (“We need a win,” I told a friend), so now we have a new, chaotic but adorable family member to focus on. “I think Grandma knows we’re getting a dog and is excited for us,” one of my kids announced after we made the decision. “I just think that somehow, she still knows about the big, important things.” I told her that made sense to me, and amid the sadness and grief, I felt glad that we all still talk about my mom often.
For so many of us now, the personal traumas of this pandemic are constantly compounding as the crisis stretches on, as we remain cut off from some of our loved ones far longer than we once imagined possible. These losses will represent still more detritus for us to grapple with—individually, within our families and communities, and as a nation—in safer, hopefully healthier days ahead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t feel and find ways to honor our grief now.
On my mother’s birthday, I wrote her a letter, looked through family photos, bought a nice meal to eat with my husband and children—nothing fancy, nothing my mom had ever made for me, just something I knew she would have enjoyed. I couldn’t visit her grave, with the headstone I chose to match my dad’s, but I sent flowers to a relative who agreed to place them there for me. I ordered from the same florist who had designed my mother’s memorial flowers, and they promised to use the same colors. The two arrangements were made in different seasons, with different flowers in bloom, so of course they could not be exactly the same. Nor can a livestreamed funeral provide exactly the same experience, the same companionship or comfort, as one attended in person. But neither the devastating loss nor the depth of gratitude I feel because I had such a parent can be undermined by the unforeseen, by pandemic or by distance. She’ll always be my mom, and I’ll always miss her, and in that sense, her absence and my grief are precisely what I would have expected.
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More than anyone in the Cabinet or elsewhere on the West Wing seating chart, one figure above everyone else will determine the success of the incoming Biden Administration: Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The Republican Leader is a master of Washington’s levers of powers. Whether he remains the Majority Leader by winning one of the two ongoing races in Georgia or whether he retreats to Minority Leader if Democrats can win both Peach State playoffs, McConnell will still have enormous sway over what unfolds in Washington. Obviously, should Republicans hold onto the majority, he alone can set the schedule of the Senate and turn the entire Biden agenda into a morgue of proposals. But if Democrats win the majority — and barring a serious break with Senate rules to scrap the procedural filibuster — McConnell can still gum up action by withholding consent.
That’s why all eyes are on the relationship between McConnell and Biden, two septuagenarians who know their way around the Senate and its arcane rules. Each leads a party whose base is far more animated than he is inclined to be. McConnell is deeply conservative, but not prone to the theatrics of the Donald Trump-era GOP. Likewise, Biden overcame skepticism from his party’s left flank by simply arguing — and proving — he was the most-electable Democrat on the field. Both men will start 2021 on defense: McConnell’s party will be defending 20 Senate seats the following year, and Biden knows first-term Presidents seldom do well in their first midterms.
Even in his victory speech, Biden paid heed to the looming negotiations and warned his most-liberal supporters that they may not get their wish lists. “I believe that this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del. “They want us to cooperate in their interest.”
There are reasons to see the contours of compromise on the horizon. After all, McConnell used Biden as a back-channel to the Obama White House for eight years. When things got tough, President Barack Obama often sent Biden to his ceremonial offices at the Capitol to figure out a deal, especially when it came to government funding. Republicans on the Hill despised Obama but saw Biden as one of them. “There is a reason ‘Get Joe on the phone’ is shorthand for ‘Time to get serious’ in my office,” McConnell said in 2016.
Biden understood when to show deference to McConnell, who knows — as he did then — how to keep his caucus in line. Biden seldom tried to snipe any stray Senators through lobbying, which made negotiations between the pair efficient, if impersonal. In return, McConnell knew the power of gestures. During Biden’s final days as Vice President, McConnell passed a $6.3 billion cancer-research bill and renamed it after Biden’s late son, Beau Biden.
McConnell was upfront about his desire to make Obama a one-term President; there’s little reason to believe he’d like to see Biden be a two-termer. To this point, McConnell has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory, instead paying fealty to Trump’s chase of long-shot legal challenges so as not to poke Trump’s MAGA base. Shame, after all, isn’t really McConnell’s thing. He had no hesitation in denying Obama’s third nominee to the Supreme Court a hearing, let alone a vote. As a result, that nomination passed to Trump in 2017, part of McConnell’s long-standing desire to reshape the federal benches for a generation.
The first test facing the duo will be another round of coronavirus relief. McConnell has dug in so far and refused to budge on negotiations, which he has now taken over from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. House Democrats initially sought $3.5 trillion but came down to $2.4 trillion; McConnell is more comfortable with about $650 billion. Biden has said he likes House Democrats’ plan, although anything is possible.
Further down the line, it’s not too farfetched to imagine some level of compromise on an infrastructure package, a clean-energy proposal, criminal-justice reform and — now that the House is no longer under control of the Freedom Caucus — an immigration overhaul that passed the Senate in 2013 but fell flat on the other side of the Capitol. Any Senate where McConnell holds even a shred of power is likely to reject Biden’s proposed tax increases on corporations and the super-wealthy, but it’s not impossible to imagine some compromise on smaller-ticket changes to the tax code.
But don’t break out the fancy pens for White House signing ceremonies just yet. Obama himself scoffed at the prospect of a Biden-McConnell collaboration. In an interview with The Atlantic to promote the first volume of his presidential memoirs, Obama seemed to mock the optimism about the idea in Washington right now.
“Mitch McConnell is not buddy-buddy with anyone. I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time,” Obama said before making a distinction between friendship and familiarity. “They’ve known each other for a long time.” Biden may not fully appreciate the difference, but McConnell sure does.
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In place of a traditional message of congratulations, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro met Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory with a strange and provocative message. “We saw recently a great candidate to head of state say that if I don’t put out the fires in the Amazon, he will put up commercial barriers against Brazil,” Bolsonaro said at an event a few days after the presidential race was called for Biden. “How do we deal with that? Diplomacy alone is not enough. When words fail, one has to have gunpowder.”
The apparently flippant threat– a reaction to Biden’s call during a debate in September for Brazil to face “economic consequences” for failing to combat deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – underscores what may become a major fault-line in Brazil-U.S. relations under President Biden.
Last year Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research recorded 2.4 million acres deforested in the Amazon –an almost 30% increase on 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office, and 2020 has seen record numbers of forest fires. The president simultaneously rejects any blame for the blazes, and argues that the Amazon is a resource the country can and should make money from in order to develop its economy. His critics say that belief has led to a culture of impunity for farmers and other land grabbers who set fires to clear the trees. Attempts by leaders in Germany, Norway and France to leverage economic muscle to force Brazil to take action have been unsuccessful, eliciting little more than barbs from the president. Last year, Bolsonaro told German Chancellor Angela Merkel to “reforest Germany” rather than obsess over the Amazon.
But environmentalists hope the change of administration in the U.S. may play a role in halting deforestation in the Amazon, right when scientists say it is approaching a tipping point from which it can never recover. The loss of Bolsonaro’s hero and ally Donald Trump – who praised his administration’s handling of the Amazon–, combined with possible economic consequences for Brazil’s business community will add to international pressure and, maybe, move the needle.
“I have no doubt that the change in administration in the U.S. will have an impact on Brazil’s environmental policy,” says Brazilian congressman Alessandro Molon, who leads the opposition Brazilian Socialist Party in the house of deputies. “Until now, Donald Trump served as a support for the Brazilian president to act irresponsibly. Now with the U.S. adding to Europe’s pressure, Brazil is more isolated and the government will find it harder to stay on this foolish path.”
Molon argues that international pressure is key to protecting the Amazon because while Brazil’s pro-environment opposition have prevented Bolsonaro from changing many rules that protect the rainforest, its congress has been unable to force the government to enforce rules or deploy resources to fight fires. “On the level of action, that’s largely dependent on executive power and the presidential pen that is in Bolsonaro’s hand,” he says. “We have not been able to force his hand. U.S. pressure, adding to Europe’s, could.”
What have the international community tried so far?
The E.U. has been the main source of pressure on Brazil’s government., The Amazon question has become a major sticking point in the ratification of a trade deal between the E.U. and Mercosur – the South American trade bloc of which Brazil is by far the largest member – which has been in the works for two decades. After huge protests by climate activists in Europe, leaders in France, Ireland and Austria said in October they would block the parliamentary approval needed in member states for the agreement to enter into force unless Bolsonaro does more to combat deforestation.
The international community has tried carrots, as well as sticks. In August 2019, the G7 offered Brazil $22m worth of aid to pay for firefighting efforts. Bolsonaro swiftly rejected the money, before accepting a smaller pot from the U.K.
International businesses have also attempted to intervene. In July, 29 global investment firms sent a letter to vice president Hamilton Moraou warning that they would be unable to invest in Brazil in future if there was “an unacceptable risk of contributing to serious environmental degradation or human rights violations.”
Brazil’s government has responded to some of those instances of pressure by announcing temporary bans on setting fires in the Amazon and by deploying the army to help fight illegal deforestation activity. But environmental advocates say the efforts are only a small proportion of what is needed. “The Bolsonaro government tries to pretend to other countries that it’s fulfilling the rules, but it’s doing the minimum,” says Fabiana Alves, Climate and Justice Coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil.
Will Biden pull economic levers to force Amazon action?
Though Biden’s climate plan does not mention Brazil by name, it does promise to “impose carbon adjustment fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations”. While it’s too soon to say if the new administration will apply those kinds of penalties to Brazil, there are range of trade levers the U.S. could pull, says Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy, Climate Change and Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on relations between Wasgington and Latin America. “It could, for example, try amending existing trade deals between the two countries,” she says. Viscidi cites the renegotiation of a free trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 2017, which added new environmental condition after pressure from campaign groups.
The U.S. is Brazil’s second largest trade partner, but American trade pressure may not have a significant impact on the industries that drive deforestation. It is not a major buyer of Brazilian beef and soy, which are exported primarily to China.
As a result, André Nassar, president of oilseeds industry group Aboive, which represents the soy industry, says he does not expect the U.S. to try imposing pressure on Brazil through trade as directly as Europe has. “What I do think will change [with the Biden administration] is that there will be a push within Brazil to get control of illegal deforestation,” he says, differentiating between deforestation for agricultural purposes that is sometimes allowed under Brazilian law, and irregular land grabbing. “If Biden’s rhetoric says, “Brazil, you need to get control of illegal deforestation”, we as the private sector would back that.”
For proof that the business community holds sway on environmental matters in Bolsonaro’s administration, you can look to 2018. Then president-elect, Bolsonaro expressed his desire to follow Trump and pull Brazil out of the U.N.’s Paris Agreement on climate change. Brazilian agribusiness loudly voiced their concerns in Brazilian media about what that could do to Brazil’s image in global commerce, and the country stayed in. “When it becomes clear that there’s a threat to investment, or Brazilian products, the government is going to listen to businesses,” Nassar says.
How else could a Biden administration move the needle?
Brazil’s long held aspiration to enter the OECD – a group of 37 economically developed nations – offers another option for a Biden administration to pressure action on deforestation. Membership would offer Brazil prestige and make it more attractive to investors. In October, Bolsonaro’s economy minister Paulo Guedes said Brazil was on track to join the group with a year and that “two thirds” of the preparatory work had already been completed. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported the bid saying “We want this to happen as quickly as we can.” If a Biden administration uses the U.S.’ weight in the OECD to make Brazilian accession contingent on Amazon protections, that would sharply increase pressure from the country’s business community on Bolsonaro, according to Marcio Astrini, executive director of the Sao Paulo-based Climate Observatory.
Astrini says the real impact of the change in government in the U.S. will be a new dynamic in intergovernmental forums. “Trump has served as a kind of “greater evil” on climate. Brazil might have been a problem, but the U.S. – historically the world’s largest emitter and largest economy – was the focus of the international community and at the U.N.’s climate arm.” Now, with Biden pledging to re-enter the Paris Agreement and the West more united on climate ambitions, and even China promising to drastically reduce its emissions at home, Brazil will be “scandalously isolated,” Astrini says.
A test for Brazil’s new status as center of attention will come in the next year, as all Paris agreement countries are due to announce new national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by November 2021, when the next U.N. climate conference is due to take place in Glasgow. Deforestation accounted for 44% of Brazil’s emissions in 2019.
The Biden administration may also try incentives, rather than penalties, to encourage action by the Bolsonaro government. At the presidential debate in September, Biden suggested that the international community gather $20 billion and offer it to Brazil to protect the Amazon. That message met with scorn from environment minister Ricardo Salles, who asked if it would be a yearly payment.
Viscidi says there are more “positive things” the U.S. can do, though. “It can say to Brazil that there are ways you can have economic development and conserve the forest at the same time and we will support you,” Viscidi says. “But whatever the U.S. does, it has to find a strategy that gets around the dynamic where Brazil sees protection of the Amazon purely as a violation of their sovereignty. That’s the key to stopping deforestation.”
Pfizer and BioNTech expect to ask for emergency permission within a matter of days to start distributing their COVID-19 vaccine, the companies said Wednesday—as they released a trove of new data showing the vaccine is about 95% effective.
A request to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which evaluates all new medications brought to market, would be a dramatic milestone. Public health experts view vaccination against COVID-19 as an important part of achieving herd immunity protection to slow and eventually control the pandemic.
It would also be an important scientific milestone. If granted, the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine would be the first shot based on a new mRNA technology to receive FDA authorization. The platform allows scientists to speed up the development of vaccines, since all they need is the virus’ genetic sequence in order to get to work. That efficiency led Pfizer, as well as another biotech, Massachusetts-based Moderna, which reported its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5% effective, to create vaccines and have them ready for human testing in a matter of months. Other vaccine makers, including French company Sanofi, are also pursuing mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and getting close to completing their late-stage human trials.
Once the companies submit their request for emergency use authorization to the FDA, the agency will review the data and could make a decision quickly, based on the quality of data and the urgent need for a vaccine to address the pandemic.
Read more: Inside the Company That’s Hot-wiring Vaccine Research in the Race to Combat the Coronavirus
It’s worth noting that the vaccine was tested for its effectiveness in protecting against symptoms of COVID-19, and not protecting against infection with the coronavirus. All of the COVID-19 cases in the study were confirmed after people reported symptoms of infection; researchers then looked at those who were positive for COVID-19 and compared the vaccinated and placebo groups for whether they developed more symptoms of the disease. Such protection, however, is still important as the pandemic continues to sweep around the world and doctors have little ability to predict who will get more severely ill.
New York-based Pfizer, which partnered with German biotech BioNTech, was the first to report results from its Phase 3 study of a pandemic vaccine. The initial results, released Nov. 9, noted that it was more than 90% effective in protecting people from symptomatic COVID-19 disease. Moderna then reported a week later that its vaccine was 94.5% effective. The newly released data from Pfizer shows similar efficacy.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s initial announcement included data from 94 cases of COVID-19 among both the vaccinated and placebo groups in the Phase 3 study. In the new written release, Pfizer said its full data report involved more than 43,000 study participants and logged 170 cases of COVID-19—162 of which occurred among people receiving the placebo shot. Just eight people who had received the two-dose vaccine got sick with COVID-19. The vaccine was equally effective in older as well as younger people; the shot was 94% effective in protecting against COVID-19 illness among those over age 65. There was encouraging data that the vaccine also protected against severe disease—of the 10 people in the trial who experienced severe COVID-19, only one had received the vaccine; the rest had gotten a placebo.
Read more: Why You May Not Be Able to Get Pfizer’s Frontrunner COVID-19 Vaccine
Most importantly, Pfizer says it fulfilled the FDA’s safety requirement of following most of the study participants for two months to ensure they did not experience serious side effects or adverse events.
If the vaccine is authorized, hospitals, pharmacies and other health centers will have to be ready to handle the doses properly. While mRNA technology allows researchers to more efficiently develop vaccines, the shots are temperature sensitive. Pfizer’s vaccines need to be stored at -70° C (-94° F), much lower than most freezers at health facilities, so the company is planning to ship vials in special thermal containers that can maintain such ultra-cold temperatures for up to 15 days with dry ice.
Pfizer plans to produce 50 million doses of its vaccine by the end of 2020, and up to 1.3 billion doses through 2021 at its four manufacturing plants in Andover, Mass.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Puurs, Belgium.
That means that initially, doses will be limited and until researchers learn more about how long the vaccine-induced protection against the COVID-19 virus lasts, we will still be wearing masks, washing our hands frequently, and social distancing to curb spread of the virus.
(MEXICO CITY) — The U.S. Justice Department is dropping its drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday.
Barr said the department would drop its case so Cienfuegos “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.” Cienfuegos, who was charged in federal court in Brooklyn, was arrested in Los Angeles last month.
Cienfuegos, a general who led Mexico’s army department for six years under then President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican Cabinet official arrested since top security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.
Cienfuegos was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019 and accused of conspiring to participate in an international drug distribution and money laundering scheme. Prosecutors alleged he helped the H-2 cartel smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary in 2012-2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that in exchange for bribes, Cienfuegos worked to ensure that the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said later at a news conference that Mexico had expressed its displeasure with not being advised of the investigation against Cienfuegos and requested, then received, the evidence against him.
“We don’t see it as a path to impunity but rather as an act of respect toward Mexico and Mexico’s armed forces,” Ebrard said.
Ebrard denied the decision was related to the U.S. elections or the decision not to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, noting he spoke with Barr on Oct. 26, a week before the U.S. elections.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with it. They are two different processes,” Ebrard said.
He said it still depended on the U.S. judge in the case. “Why are we talking about it? Because the judge ordered it be made public.”
Cienfuegos would not necessarily be placed in custody in Mexico. “In Mexico, he will be received by the Attorney General’s Office,” Ebrard said. “In what status will he come? That of a Mexican citizen who does not face charges in the United States at this moment.”
In a court filing, acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said dismissing the case would be “in the public interest of the United States.”
“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant …,” he wrote. The filing added that “the evidence in this case is strong.”
In court papers last month, U.S. prosecutors argued Cienfuegos was a significant flight risk and said he would “likely seek to leverage his connections to high level H-2 Cartel members in Mexico, as well as former high-level corrupt government officials, to assist him in fleeing from U.S. law enforcement and shelter him in Mexico.”
Had he been convicted of the charges in the U.S., he would’ve faced at least 10 years in federal prison.
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said the decision “is nothing more than a gift, a huge gift” from President Donald Trump to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and may be the first in a series of politically motivated pardons or case closures in the closing days of the Trump administration.
Vigil called the decision “absolutely discouraging and disappointing,” predicting that “there is more coming down the road” in terms of pardons or case closings.
“No matter how you slice the pie, this is nothing more than a last ditch favor to López Obrador,” Vigil said, noting that “López Obrador has been very subservient to Donald Trump on immigration issues and has hesitated in congratulating Joe Biden.”
“The chances of Cienfuegos being convicted in Mexico are slim to none,” Vigil said, citing the former defense secretary’s political connections in Mexico and the country’s idolization of the military.
“This sends a very negative message to U.S. law enforcement agencies, that Donald Trump is willing to politically manipulate judicial proceedings,” he said.
Under Cienfuegos, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses, but that was true of both his predecessors and his successor in the post. The worst scandal in Cienfuegos’ tenure involved the 2014 army killings of suspects in a grain warehouse.
The June 2014 massacre involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at the warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya. While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol — in which one soldier was wounded — a human rights investigation later showed that at least eight and perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were executed after they surrendered.
Barr said in a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. Justice Department had made the decision to drop the U.S. case in recognition “of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality.”
The Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.
Associated Press writer Maria Verza reported this story in Mexico City and AP writer Michael Balsamo reported from Washington. AP writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.
President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to reduce U.S. troops numbers to a mere 2,500 each in Afghanistan and Iraq has triggered howls from senior Republicans on Capitol Hill. But it has also elicited sighs of relief in some military quarters, from those who feared the embittered incumbent would vent his rage over losing his re-election bid by ordering all U.S. troops home.
Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret and combat veteran of both conflicts, confirmed on Tuesday that Trump had ordered troops to reduce from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan, and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. The departing troops are set to be gradually withdrawn in the coming weeks and out completely by Jan. 15, 2021, a mere five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House.
In his first public comments since his predecessor Mark Esper was fired by tweet on Nov. 9, Miller hailed what he called “President Trump’s plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion, and to bring our brave service members home.” He acknowledged the loss of the “6,900 American troops who gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq” as well as the “more than 52,000 who bear the wounds of war and all those who still carry its scars—visible and invisible.”
It’s highly irregular for an outgoing commander-in chief to make such a potentially destabilizing foreign policy decision in the waning days of an Administration—but then again, Trump isn’t a normal President. This was evident when his decision drew fire from his own party and plaudits from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who either condemned the move as abandoning U.S. allies in the region or praised Trump for calling time on an endless war.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the move on the Senate floor, likening it to the ignominious U.S. scramble to escape Saigon, leaving local American allies to the advancing North Vietnamese. “A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision.” In recent years, a growing number of Democrats have argued against continued U.S. involvement in endless overseas conflicts and supported former President Barack Obama’s earlier efforts to wind down the wars in both countries.
The divergent political opinions may draw television cameras but they distract from the uncomfortable fact that Trump did not succeed in ending conflict in either nation as he’d promised in his 2016 campaign. At best, he may have succeeded into putting both conflicts on the back burner for the American people. With a nothing-to-see-here flourish, he is turning the two blood-soaked battlegrounds into the equivalent of Kosovo: a place where a small U.S. military presence has endured since 1999 to forestall chaos between Kosovars and Serbs, but too few know, or care.
Despite signing a much-lauded peace deal with Trump earlier this year, the Taliban’s stepped-up violence against the Afghan government has stalled peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison told reporters in October that Taliban is “in violation of the spirit of the agreement they made with the U.S., if not the letter of that agreement.” The top U.S. general in Afghanistan told the BBC that the U.S. was holding back, for now. “We’ve shown a great deal of restraint because we’re trying to make this peace process work,” Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller said.
The announcement Tuesday was a culmination of a week of wild speculation that began after Trump fired Esper, forced the resignations of several senior officials and promoted three loyalists—Anthony Tata, Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Kash Patel—to key roles at the Pentagon. The purge of civilian leadership raised eyebrows as to what Trump’s true intentions were after being handed a decisive loss in the 2020 election: Was he trying to launch a coup? A personal vendetta?
The message became clear Monday when Miller, Trump’s fifth Pentagon chief in four years, wrote a Defense Department-wide letter outlining his foremost goals in the remaining nine weeks of the Administration. His first task, he said, was to “bring the current war (in Afghanistan) to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
That war, of course, is not ending. With 2,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will have to focus more on counterterrorism, and less on providing direct advising, logistics and air support to Afghan national forces, which are taking a beating from rising Taliban violence. To a large extent, U.S. troops had already moved their mission in that direction.
By keeping a modest presence there, the Trump Administration has preserved not only a hunter-killer presence of elite U.S. forces within striking distance of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State, but a corps that can facilitate continued U.S. intelligence operations against Iran to the west and the frontier regions of Pakistan to the east, where militants still retreat when Afghanistan gets dangerous for them.
The small force could also serve as a foundation for a Biden Administration to build upon, should the Taliban not keep up their end of Trump’s peace deal that requires them to distance themselves from and repudiate Al-Qaeda, something the U.N says they haven’t yet done.
Seth G. Jones, a former advisor to U.S. special operations in Afghanistan, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this is probably enough troops to hunt Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but he believes it would take at least 5,000 troops — slightly higher than the current 4,500 — or more to prevent a Taliban overthrow of the Afghan government. “I start to get nervous with going down to these levels,” he says.
A senior Afghan official tells TIME their forces will be able to keep up the fight, as long as they have air cover from U.S. fighter and bomber jets, which Miller has assured them will be there when needed.
Meanwhile, keeping only 2,500 troops in Iraq means a reduction of a mere 500 soldiers. That means enough will stay to continue advising Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, and to provide some protection for the U.S. diplomatic mission.
The reduction in numbers does, however, help the Iraqi government resist persistent calls by both nationalist and Iranian-backed Iraqi politicians for the American troops to depart. On Tuesday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said he’d talked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about “the future of cooperation between Iraq and the international coalition led by the United States of America, in light of the growing Iraqi capabilities in combating terrorism.” In other words: We’re fine with the drawdown, because we’re increasingly able to take care of ourselves.
Kenneth Pollack, a former NSC staffer and CIA analyst now with the American Enterprise Institute, says the Iraqis are making the best of it. “They know Trump wanted to walk away from Iraq altogether,” and is making the move for politics’ sake. “It will be harder for our forces to do what they are trying to do in terms of fighting bad guys and helping good guys with so few troops—and defend themselves. So it was another gratuitous self-inflicted blow to U.S. interests—and burden on the U.S. military—inflicted by Trump,” he says, adding, “But it could have been worse.”
When Obama ordered a swift pullout of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 after failing to reach a troop agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. military and intelligence officers had no time to help their Iraqi counterparts figure out how to keep operating without U.S. logistical support, or without the data gathered from U.S. spy drones and other technical surveillance. The Iraqis were left blind, current and former Iraqi officials, as well as U.S. intelligence and special operators say. That helped lead to the rise of ISIS from the burning ashes of al-Qaeda of Iraq combined with Baathist military elements, producing a terrorist group that grew to tens of thousands of fighters, operated with military precision and captured large swathes of eastern Syria and Iraq.
Acting Defense Secretary Miller said the new drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was a step toward fulfilling three U.S. goals in 2001, after al-Qaeda had carried out the 9/11 attacks: destroying terrorist organizations and sanctuaries; strengthening U.S. defenses against future attack; and preventing the growth of Islamist terrorists. But Miller was careful not to offer a judgement on whether the U.S. had met any of those goals, nor did he acknowledge that Trump’s time as Commander in Chief is coming to an end, simply wishing that “in the coming year, we will finish this generational war.”
The rump U.S. troop presence that Trump is leaving his successor will provide a framework that future U.S. troops could plug into, and not a complete vacuum, especially if the military takes its time in packing up those troops to come home. And when Biden does take office in January, he’ll find the troop numbers already cut to the “few thousand” in each theater he’d said he’d intended to keep there.
But if the conflict worsens in either country, Biden will almost inevitably bear the political cost of either decision he’ll be forced to make: abandoning key U.S. allies, or sending U.S. troops back into harm’s way.