The World Moves Pretty Fast. If We Don’t Stop and Look Around Once in a While, We Could Miss It

Life goes on each day with current events that happen to miss the front pages of any major news company. Regions around the world are marginalized or forgotten such as Oceania and Central Asia primarily in Western-based media and that probably won’t change. What can change is the news we prioritize and lay importance to; it’s time to open our eyes to a world larger than the UN Security Council chair holders.

Legendary filmmaker John Hughes captured the essence of 1980’s American adolescent angst in high school teenagers through iconic films such as Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. Hughes’ characters symbolize different groups or “cliques” in high school-often distinguished by socioeconomic status-such as in The Breakfast Club. The brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal of society find similarities in each other and realize that the boxes society places them under aren’t true to who they are. If even one of them was missing from the movie, would the audience weigh its importance as equally? Could we still consider it The Breakfast Club?

The digital world that drove globalization to be the world as we know it must consider how we consider the term “globalized.” Regardless of the context we use “globalized” in, the fact of the matter is that we fail to acknowledge that it entails the entire world and not specific countries or regions. Westernized globalization has penetrated into the daily lives of non-Western people across the world from smartphone usage and fashion to the domination of the English language. Media companies worldwide exhibit China as the princess while the United States renders itself the criminal (with context to the aforementioned movie). Both are consistently popular in modern political discourse and media companies (e.g. CNN, BBC, Portafolio, Haaretz, etc.) will follow suit by publishing article upon article about either nation. At the end of the day, media companies are businesses that gain profit by the volume of their readership. CNN’s “White House cherry-picking data on US Covid-19 death toll” and AP’s “Fear of China’s courts drives Hong Kong extradition concerns” both cater to favoring audiences just from their titles, for example. They will publish whatever encourages you to click or watch it; the rest of the world, then, takes the backseat.

The following events I’ve chosen are merely one tiny star in a galaxy ripe with others; one does not stargaze fixating only on the star that twinkles. These events are happening around the world that the majority of us may never learn about if we don’t put in the effort now to understand them. Regions around the world that media companies neglect to include but are not limited to Eastern Europe (Baltics, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, etc.); the Carribean (Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados, etc.); Oceania (Kiribati, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Fiji, etc.); and Central Asia (former Soviet republics, Caucasus). Below I am going to walk you through current events affecting each of these regions and emphasize their importance to each of us. I will also provide some resources I have acquired over the years to make finding information about these regions easier.

Because what follows will be a lot of information at once, I advise you to choose a region that speaks to you and come back to this article and read the rest when the time is right. I provided two presidential races to foster comparative analysis and a birds eye view on future governments. In contrast, C and D are elective options with equal importance. Here is a basic outline of the contents:

A. Eastern Europe (Poland) – Presidential Race

B. Caribbean (Dominican Republic) – Presidential Race

C. Oceania (Kiribati) – Chinese Foreign Policy

D. Central Asia – COVID-19 Response

Exhibit A: The Polish 2020 Presidential Race

The current mayor of Warsaw, Poland, Rafał Trzaskowski, is representing the liberal Platforma Obywatelska (PO) party against the conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party candidate Andrzej Duda in the upcoming presidential election. The election represents a classic bipartisan approach towards the nation’s political climate: a liberal, societal-issue based candidate with urban support against his conservative, economic-focused, rural antithesis. Such a rivalry is a tale already told many times over; however, the history of political skirmish between both parties has recently boosted Trzaskowski over Duda in the polls. Despite Duda and his PiS party holding over the current administration, members of both Po and PiS are paying special attention to Trzaskowski and his mission to build alliances in Polish society by breaking down social barriers (i.e. rural/urban, socioeconomic divides).

Poland, as we will see in the next example, is one of a handful of nations worldwide choosing a new president and (in some cases) undergoing a complete administrative overhaul. The current Polish administration is led by the PiS party with Duda as acting president. The verb “acting” was chosen intentionally: Duda has been seen as a puppet for the PiS and the party’s president, Jarosław Kaczyński, by passing PiS-sponsored legislation versus taking an independent initiative. Additionally, the PO/PiS rivalry entered mainstream Polish society through Duda’s conservative campaign in rural Poland. Trzaskowski aims to shift this issue of PO influence and support outside the realm of Poland’s urban regions; he is youthful, progressive, and “promising to unite the nation” amid the coronavirus pandemic. Members of the PiS are even praising his mature attitude (surprising, assuming there is a similar American bipartisan culture i.e. “he is a member of the opposing party, therefore I will never support him”).

Understanding just one issue from one country can spark newfound thinking and analysis as well. Reading just one article on the presidential race is a start but should not be the end. Taking Polish history into context, the political atmosphere is somewhat unique to Poland itself, but it resonates with the post-Soviet occupation movement that echoes from the 80s and 90s in Eastern Europe. The Solidarity movement, originally in response to Soviet occupation, may continue in a better direction for the country — in contrast to its radical, populist foundation. A strong populist sentiment emanates from Duda’s administration as the EU tackles issues of immigration and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis as well. Administrations across the world are changing as we speak, with Poland combining coronavirus struggles with populist influence and strong nationalist tension.

Here is a good place to start if you’re interested in a similar process happening in Serbia.

Exhibit B: The Dominican Republic 2020 Presidential Result

Luis Abinader and his Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) has come out as the president-elect over the 16 year reigning Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). Critics argue in this BBC article that Abinader, with possible correlation to other presidential/prime minister candidates now, came out in this election as a result of the current administration’s handling of the coronavirus. The Dominican Republic (DR) tallies with one of the highest number of recorded COVID-19 cases in the Caribbean at 37,000 as of July 6, 2020 (refer to above BBC article). Abinader’s family operates hotels in the country and is speculated to take advantage of the family industry to revitalize tourism and thus help the DR’s already suffering economy. Other future plans to jumpstart the economy are the building of a convention center in the capital, Santo Domingo, in addition to two theme parks mimicking Disney or Universal Studios.

At first glance, Abinader’s plans have positive ambitions for an economy with a strong tourist presence in the past and an already extensive investment in hotels and resorts. However, further research led me to believe quite the opposite. The article titled Tropical Blues: Tourism and Social Exclusion in the Dominican Republic, written by Amalia L Cabezas, describes the inherent xenophobia and class difference in the DR based on race and how that carries over to the tourism industry. Cabezas describes the growth of the industry as a “peaceful method of attaining long-lasting political power and financial control” by the country’s administration.

Employees of the industry have extremely low wages, are ostracized and isolated from these resorts in their own country, and create gender gaps based on available low-income roles. The Disney Corporation is one of the leading culprits abusing the system and enforcing the aforementioned lifestyle of DR citizens. Because cruises are a “deterritorialized industry”, they evade national laws that regulate minimum wage and other labor standards. The result is workers earning as low as US $1.55 per hour (⅕ the US average). Cabeza concludes that the DR and other Caribbean island nations have invested so many resources into this industry that a dramatic shift in policy is unimaginable.

Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the coronavirus “is likely just the start of a raft of public schemes to shape the production of goods and services deemed essential.” O’Neil states that this is the return of industrial policy in “developed countries and emerging markets,” specifically the management of exports, tariffs, and transnational trade licensure. Abinader, therefore, needs to take a selfish approach to economic policy that many presidential incumbents will be spearheading even after the virus subsides. The concept of travel bubbles and regional connections may not be the best solution for the nation’s economy, but it might be the necessity if the virus escalates and/or mutates.

The Caribbean thrives off of foriegn consumerism in the form of tourism catered towards vacations and getaways. It is easy to disregard the citizens of these small island countries which, in some cases, have populations numbering in the thousands. It will be difficult to find current events in the region outside of the DR, Haiti, and Jamaica; you will often find Caribbean news from “Latin America” sections on major media sites. Countries that thrive off of consumerism and/or tourism have lost the majority of their Western audience this summer. To the average news consumer, the economic aftermath of COVID-19 is not yet apparent in areas like the Carribean where tourism peaks during these months. Perhaps world powers may take advantage of the situation after all.

Exhibit C: Kiribati’s Chinese Influence on Christmas Island

Oceania is a region surrounded by world powers attempting to spread their influence: Australia, Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, etc. Kiribati, a nation in the far western reaches of the Pacific, elected their pro-Beijing presidential candidate Taneti Maamau in June of this year. Maamau had announced his decision to switch his allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing last September, which shocked both the opposition and his own party. As prior administrations favored Taiwan, demonstrations arose with protestors shaming Maamau’s decision. The entire country wished to address the elephant in the room: Maamau’s party suddenly switched allegiances and he never indicated as to why.

Kiribati sources argue several reasons for the sudden switch. Maamau’s administration investigated scientific studies that indicated a dramatic sea level rise in the nation’s islands. After proving these false, he organized a program to increase tourism and the fishing industry which required transportation between the islands. Maamau asked Taiwan for upwards of US $60 million to fund a commercial aircraft for this purpose, for which the Taiwanese administration denied at the time. The other reasons for switching include Taiwan supporting the opposing Kiribati party and Beijing bribing Maamau’s administration.

This bribery is all but unknown in Oceania in countries like the Solomon Islands, where Beijing offered the nation’s premier a bribe just four days before Maamau. Although Kiribati has never revealed precise numbers, these bribes consist of grants rather than loans. Oceania island nations are unable to accumulate enough revenue to pay off loans that are speculated to be “in the hundreds of millions of [US] dollars” (according to the previous Foreign Policy source).

Beijing has stretched its wings in other regions of the world in light of the Belt and Road Initiative hoping to reignite a modern version of the Silk Road (a “Silk Road with Chinese Characteristics” if you will). As a result, Beijing has been receiving backfire from nations primarily in Southeast Asia including Vietnam and the Philippines. Islands in the South China Sea are being contested by Beijing based on a UN law dictating the claims a country has over water based on a certain distance from the island’s mainland. The negotiations are so chaotic that Beijing is arguing with Vietnam over bedrock claims that would extend their grasps of land using the same UN law.

A Chinese embassy is also in talks with Maamau and Beijing to be placed on Christmas Island, just south of Hawaii in the United States. This would provide Beijing an opportunity to place naval vessels from their military on the island. The United States fears military tensions between the two countries as it would become the Chinese embassy in closest proximity to the American mainland.

Oftentimes, Oceania news will be coupled within other regions’ categories (usually excluding Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America) to highlight the subject’s importance. Oceania categories are most often under “Australia”, “Pacific”, or sometimes “Asia”. As current events in the region are sparse at any given time, media outlets resort to coupling the region under miscellaneous headings. Give “Oceania” a try on your favorite search engine or use the website PINA as a last resort.

Exhibit D: Central Asia’s Battle Against COVID-19

“Central Asia” is an objective term to many of the countries who lie within it. The Caucasus region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) can be categorized as European depending on the news source. “Central Asia” is a common category found in news publications that emphasize foreign policy and international relations (e.x. AP, Foreign Policy, the Economist). Mongolia is also thrown in the mix due to its Soviet history if you are unable to find its news under “East Asia”.

After the Soviet Union fell in 1989, areas once under the Soviet umbrella are home to numerous bioweapon laboratories created during the Cold War. The United States saw an opportunity to place its influence in the region by enacting the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The initiative aimed to reverse the original purposes of these labs by eliminating nuclear weapons and biowarfare mechanisms.

Today, these facilities have evolved to monitor diseases, execute public health initiatives, and train biosecurity experts during the time of the coronavirus. Georgia and Kazakhstan in particular have had successful uses of their facilities for COVID-19 prevention, as many of these facilities are now run by each respective government’s state department/health department.

However, Russia has shown to not be in favor of the remodeling of these former Soviet facilities. Disinformation and threats have been called by Russian media against specific facilities in each of the initiative countries. In January, Russian television claimed the Georgian and Kazakh labs created the coronavirus and even claimed the Uzbek lab leaked a different disease into the population with American and British assistance (reference source above). With an already strained relationship between the US and Russian Federation, these labs will be a constant reminder of how the US wishes to not only exert its influence but also desensitize ex-Soviet republics from Russian influence as well.

Concluding Remarks

It is vital that we as up and coming adults understand that these regions of the world do not wait for us to recognize their existence and place them on a corporate pedestal. Media companies will not change their philosophy if they wish to continue functioning successfully, and we can’t blame them as long as the information is still available elsewhere. Brains, athletes, and basket cases are going about their lives each day in hopes of being successful and recognized by those who find them important. Let’s make it our mission to do a little extra internet digging for them; all it takes is a leap of faith.

NYU Resources (with VPN):

Personal Favorites:

This article was written by Declan Mazur currently based in The Berkshires, United States. Please send an email to djm752@nyu.edu to get in touch.
Photo Credit
: @MCA/Courtesy Everett Collection, Flags via worldometer.com

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