Curtain Raiser

They Were Not Afraid of Tanks, Colltalers

The lives and miserable times of almost a million people living in Bangladesh’s Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp, go on ignored by even the most truly compassionate. But now the U.S. offers a sample of just how miserable such lives really are.
On another front, the massacre of an estimated more than a thousand unarmed civilians in China’s Tiananmen Square, 30 years ago tomorrow, also went on largely ignored. Despite wider awareness of both scourges, they’ve become now painful routines.
We’ll get back to these, but let’s update the news first. Consider the Scott Warren trial, for instance, a humanitarian activist facing up to 20 years in prison for aiding migrants crossing the Arizona desert. His case, as ludicrous and draconian as a Kafkian tale, shows how xenophobia and prejudice can turn any society’s institutions into weapons of oppression against its own citizens.
We’re talking about the U.S. government asking the courts to prosecute a volunteer whose crime was to provide people in dire need with food, water, clean clothes, and beds, even rescuing their bodies for identification, instead of leaving them there to rot.
That’s not too far from prosecuting whistleblower Chelsea Manning, for showing the American people what’s been done on their behalf, or for demanding life in jail for Julian Assange, the journalist who created an online media outlet to publish her findings.
Two more Latin America-related news developments this week were, first, the ever too often heartbreaking prison riots in Brazil, which this time left 55 dead. And the metastatic growth of Trump’s ‘war on tariff,’ still staggeringly out of whack with reality.
Prison overcrowding is obviously not a Brazilian monopoly, as only a dozen or so nations around the world have an effective system for crime and rehabilitation. The majority would rather focus on crime and punishment. But Brazil may be stretching it.
Nothing unusual about its average inmate population, either. The overwhelming majority are, well, minorities, even if the term is not accurate. For in a country where over 50% of the people are of mixed-race, it’s almost an oxymoron to say most Brazilian jailbirds are black. Apart from that, the country shares a common denominator with the U.S. and many others: inmates are poor.
There are many likely reasons for the frequency

and particular cruelty of prison riots in Brazil, and following massacres as result of ill-prepared law enforcement. Institutional factors, such as brutal conditions, lack of enough space to accommodate inmates, a flawed parole system, and absence of rehab programs, are some. And so is apathy to prisoners’ fate by Brazilian upper classes.
There were four prisons involved this time, and the spark for the latest tragedy is, like others, attributed to war among criminal factions. But it may be also because the customary laundry list of demands, common to every riot in Brazil, and including some basic, humane needs, are hardly ever considered with the appropriate urgency by prison officials. Hence, the recurrent revolts.
As for tariffs, let’s get out of the way a fact, pointed out by well regarded economists: Trump has no clear idea of how they work. Specially, how they can wind up hitting back, and much harder, the domestic economy, rather than that of the targeted country.
There’s a general consensus that China’s ability to hurt the American consumer may take a while but sooner or later, it’ll impact first those lower on the social ladder. But with the president’s plans to extend this so-called war to Mexico, to punish it for its immigration policies, the impact will be faster, harsher, and long-lasting. It’ll increase prices of goods and services charged to Americans, with again, the poor shouldering the biggest blunt. But that, of course, is the least of this administration’s concerns.
There are nearly 2,000 unaccompanied immigrant children, detained in U.S. border facilities now, hundreds of which illegally held on much longer than they should. Reports of kids dying in patrol custody have been increasing, as have makeshift ‘tent cities’ to accommodate the overflow of immigrants the administration is doing everything it can to prevent from legally requesting a stay.
Dozens are being held in open-air grounds, under bridges, behind fences, in appalling conditions. Worse, there’s been disturbing reports of child sexual abuse in these camps, and as the victims remain in a legal limbo, there’s no hope for justice to them. Like toddlers seen in cages, or testifying as adults in court, these crimes will just add to this White House’s long list of immoral acts.
What’s shocking is that this is not Bangladesh, with its 164 million struggling with social, political, and infrastructural needs, but the twice-as-populous America, which is betraying its own principles of equanimity, freedom of speech, and the rule of law.
Freedom to express one’s own opinion was at the core of what happened on that tragic Sunday in Beijing, three decades ago. As tensions between students demanding reforms, and the Deng Xiaoping government, reached a head with the occupation of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, what followed it was a tragic, one-sided confrontation. Even now, few Chinese know anything about it.
As the world began to understand the enormity of what had happened, despite officials efforts to conceal it, another sobering realization also occurred: China was and still is a brutal dictatorship, that won’t hesitate to exterminate its political enemies.
Many say that much of the Chinese anxiously-hoped for new leadership perished that night, assassinated by troops of their own country. And that despite of all its might, the Red Dragon still has a long way to go before calling itself a modern, open society.
With economic growth, comes greater scrutiny, moral accountability, and the need for respect to civil rights. As China takes its due place among the elite of nations, it won’t be without growing pains, and must certainly can’t be about erasing its own past.
‘Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning god.’ The excerpt is from Leaves of Grass, by the American poet Walt Whitman, born 200 years ago last Friday. Cherish June, LBGTQ Pride month, and its full and healthy legality. See ya. WC


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