Germany: Angela Merkel - farewells and floods

It’s common knowledge that there’s no love lost between former US president Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

Indeed, according to an excerpt from a new book, “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” written by Washington Post journalists Carol D Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Trump made his views on the German leader unequivocally clear during an Oval Office meeting about NATO and America’s relationship with Germany.  

“That b**** Merkel,” Trump reportedly said to his advisers during the meeting according to the book’s account.  

The testy Trump-Merkel relationship was an unusual moment for the German Chancellor who in her nearly16 years in office has worked with four American presidents during which time even with its ups and downs there has been much affection for Merkel at the White House.  

Some of that affection was evident again these past few days when Merkel met current US president Joe Biden in what is likely to be her last visit as Chancellor before she leaves office in September and Germany faces federal elections. Even before her arrival in Washington on Thursday there were overtures of approval emanating from the Biden administration. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany,” said Antony Blinken, US secretary of state last month while in Berlin. If nothing else this was certainly a slap in the teeth for Boris Johnson’s UK government and put into stark perspective how the so called “special relationship” between Britain and the US has shifted of late.  

But despite all this apparent US-German cosiness, Merkel would have been in no doubt of those pressing issues between the two countries that remain outstanding.  

That her farewell Washington visit came too in a week when back home in Germany and neighbouring Belgium devastating floods resulted in the worst mass loss of life in years, only served to further overshadow her meeting with Biden and test Merkel’s resolve. 

For as good as US- German relations might be right now, real differences prevail over the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe.  

Washington has long argued that the NS2 project will threaten European energy security by increasing the continent’s reliance on Russian gas and allowing Moscow to exert political pressure on vulnerable Eastern and Central European nations.  

Some US Republican politicians along with their allies and counterparts in Ukraine are particularly unhappy about NS2 convinced that the German-backed pipeline, which is near completion, would bypass Ukraine, leaving it more vulnerable to Kremlin pressure. 

Then there is the thorny issue of China, where Berlin has shown far less interest in “decoupling” the West from China than US partners would have hoped.  

While Biden wants European support for a tougher approach towards Beijing, the German political establishment fears being dragged into a new Cold War with Merkel consistently stressing the need for partnership with China.  

The negotiations are further complicated by the fact that officials in Washington and elsewhere are wondering what course Germany might take after its elections in a few months’ time. In other words, would any done deal between Washington and Berlin last after September’s ballot?  

The short answer is that most likely it would, but a lot would still depend on Merkel’s successor. Already two of those would-be successors Christian Democrat Armin Laschet and the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, have suggested that the pipeline could be turned off if Russian President Vladimir Putin bullies Ukraine. 

As recent polls in Germany have shown, these tensions between Washington and Berlin will not end with Merkel’s chancellorship. While data today suggests Germans hold a much more favourable opinion of Biden than Trump, their wider perception of relations with the US has shifted. Many Germans it seems are wary of Washington after Trump and more sceptical of the US role in global affairs than they were when Merkel took power back in 2005.  

Against a backdrop of floods ravaging her country Merkel, the western world’s longest serving leader now counts down to her final farewell. The world is a very different place from when she came into office and future relations with the US will certainly have to reflect that. 

Cuba: A time for soul searching and fresh thinking

I read somewhere recently that two years ago, the band Blondie fulfilled a long-term ambition by playing two gigs in the Cuban capital Havana.  

Apparently in a short documentary film about those concerts, lead singer Debbie Harry talks about the similarities between the Cuban capital’s decaying buildings and America’s “Big Apple,” the city where she and the band first hit the big time. 

“In the 70s, New York was crumbling,” Harry observed. "I think there's a kind of beauty in that decay and I think that was one of the similarities.” 

I’m inclined to agree with Harry on the notion of there being a degree of beauty in decay, but I’m not sure that’s how an increasing number of Cubans view Havana or what some see as the tired politics and ossified system they believe have kept their country in limbo for so long.  

Last week’s protests, the biggest wave in decades point again to a growing impatience in a country that viewed from afar has always evoked strong feelings among people of differing political stripe.  

For those of a right wing or anti- communist disposition, Cuba was the devil incarnate a sort of Kremlin in the Caribbean, while for others it was a place born out of a revolutionary ideal that represented a new more just and equal society. I’m part of a generation that grew up with what some derisorily call a ‘romanticised’ view of the country. But even when I made my first ever visit there back in the early 1980’s I was under no illusions about the challenges Cuba faced, some as a result of outside interference and some of the Cuban leadership’s own making.  

More than once the Cuban government has described those that oppose it as US-backed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by American sanctions. I’ve no doubt that there are those who would like to see a very different Cuba albeit for very cynical reasons.  

But it’s wrong to ignore those among a younger generation of Cubans for whom the allure of the past revolutionary times and the politics it espoused have a hollow ring.  

Evidence of Cubans dying for lack of vaccines and medicine during the pandemic have been a hard blow in a country, whose health system has been revered.  

But there are other blows too with income from tourism having collapsed by 90 per cent, a near bankrupt state, chronic lack of dollars and an inefficient command economy incapable of producing food and basic goods.  

It need not be like this of course and Cuba with its natural resources could be a rich and successful country. It would help to begin with had foreign investment not been crippled by the tightening of the US embargo from 2019. But it would help too if the government of President Miguel Diaz- Canal faced up to the fact that the old way of doing things is no longer enough and fresh thinking and action is required. It speaks volumes I think that the new protest movement is reported to have inverted the old Castro slogan “Patria o Muerte”, homeland or death, and turned it into “Patria y Vida”, homeland and life. 

South Africa: What really lies behind the looting? 

It’s been the worst violence since apartheid. South Africans these past few days have been counting the cost of arson and looting that has destroyed hundreds of businesses and killed at least 117 people. The rioting broke out in response to last week’s jailing of ex-President Jacob Zuma for his failure to appear at a corruption inquiry.  

But does Zuma’s imprisonment for so called “state capture” plundering of the country’s coffers really fully explain away the levels of violence that have gripped South Africa last week? Researchers have been asking that question and also whether what we have witnessed is simply a spontaneous outbreak or indicative of some kind of insurrection?   

Writing on the online portal The Conversation, global academics and specialists have been offering many explanations for the violence. 

These range from the high level of criminality in South Africa to the pent-up frustration of a disenfranchised people facing few prospects for socio-economic improvement. In other words, the inequality and gulf between the conspicuous consumption of the “made it” compared to others who have next to nothing.  

Then we have those who believe the answer or part of it might lie in more overtly political motives such as ethnic or factional tensions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. Some even suggest that what we have seen is yet more “good old stereotypical Zulu nationalist violence” like that of the early 1990’s motivated in part because Zuma is a Zulu.  

All of these factors might have a degree of truth in them but what they lack is a narrative thread that pulls together these disparate issues. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s own explanation of the scale and intensity of the recent violence is that it was “co-ordinated.”  Many security analysts say that it would come as no surprise if they were elements within the ANC seeking to undermine Ramaphosa’s rule.  

But another narrative thread more clear-cut and obvious say some has been South Africa’s failure to build a proper democracy in post-apartheid society. As the online magazine The Africa Report highlighted this time last year, almost 27 years after the end of apartheid South Africa remains the world’s most unequal country. 

According to the World Bank, on the scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing total equality, South Africa scores 63. Perhaps until this issue is addressed by the country’s politician then more violence like that witnessed last week is almost inevitable. 

Afghanistan: So much for a ‘changed’ Taliban. 

Afghan women are already referring to it as “back to the darkness.” There is a grim familiarity to the restrictions the Taliban are imposing as they continue their rapid advance across the country and more villages, towns, cities and provinces fall under their rule again. It’s all a far cry from the promise some of the Taliban leadership made during peace talks in the city of Doha in Qatar these past months. There they promised the world that they were a “different” Taliban. Gone they claimed was the jihadist group’s thinking prevalent since the late 1990s when their version of Islamist rule was marked by violence and strict enforcement of bans on girls’ education, women working outside the home, and even men shaving their beards. 

If reports coming out of Afghanistan right now are anything to go by and there is no shortage of corroborated accounts, then women especially are experiencing a return to past times with the Taliban banning them from going outside without the burqa and without male companions. This, many fear is only the start.  

One woman cited by The Times newspaper last week told of how in the northern Kunduz province many families are moving away in an effort to protect their daughters. The same is being repeated elsewhere. 

“The working women in northern and central provinces are terrified. The Taliban are demanding girls and widows for their fighters to marry them off. This is really scary for young girls,” the women told The Times but not wanting to be named. She told too as others have done recently how the Taliban are barring girls from education above 12 years old. 

Many Afghanistan watchers - me included - while always wary of the early promises made by the Taliban leadership also believe that in many instances these leaders are losing control over their cadres on the ground with local commanders taking the law into their own hands. This of course would have profound implication for the rights of women and others who largely reject their strict interpretation of Islam. 

Newly published research by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) this month has challenged the often-cited claim “that women in rural areas are satisfied by what is often portrayed as ‘normal’ by the Taliban or other Afghan conservatives.” 

“Almost every woman we spoke to, regardless of the political stance and level of conservatism ... expressed a longing for greater freedom of movement, education for their children (and sometimes themselves),” the Kabul-based think tank said.  

Well, right now those freedoms are disappearing before the eyes of such women and it will only get worse, of that you can be certain.