By Lucas Canteros-Paz
Around the globe, authorities and experts are preparing for the second wave of COVID-19 infections, yet in the Americas, there’s still no end in sight to the first.
Currently, most countries in Latin America are seeing their daily cases and deaths increase, and in the past two weeks, this region accounted for over half of coronavirus-related deaths worldwide. Brazil, the most populous nation in the region, has reported more than 1.2 million cases, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru are forecasted to have more than 10,000 deaths each, according to Reuters. Worryingly, researchers say these numbers could be even higher due to low testing rates. Although the situation in Latin America seems to get worse every day, efforts to contain and treat the virus have been marred by corruption scandals and profiteers who seek to use the pandemic for their own economic gain.
According to various experts, the pandemic has actually facilitated attempts of corruption for public officials in Latin America. By declaring a state of emergency, several countries have suspended regulations governing public contracts, adjourned in-person congressional meetings, or abolished rules requiring them to respond to media requests for information. These actions have resulted in reduced transparency and have left thousands across the region without the necessary resources to treat the deadly virus.
For instance, Bolivia’s former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, is awaiting trial for corruption charges after the ministry over-paid for 179 ventilators that did not even work properly. According to Al Jazeera, Bolivia initially paid $27,683 for each ventilator from a manufacturer in Spain when the actual price was estimated to be about $11,000. Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest nations and is currently experiencing political turmoil after the controversial resignation of Evo Morales. Due to the nation's current economic state and the governments failed policies, many patients have been turned away from hospitals.
Also, in heavily impacted Ecuador, prosecutors revealed that they identified a criminal ring that colluded with health officials. One of their leaders, Daniel Salcedo, was detained after reportedly selling body bags to hospitals for 13 times the actual price. As a result, many hospitals in the Guayaquil area were forced to dispose of bodies on the streets.
Most notably, Peru’s police chief and interior minister were forced to resign after their deputies were caught purchasing diluted hand sanitizer and useless face masks for their officers. Thus, more than 11,000 police officers have been infected and at least 200 have died of the virus. Due to the lack of law enforcement, the government has failed to enforce lockdown orders, and currently, Peru has the 6th most cases in the world.
Although scandals in Latin American countries are not very surprising given that they consistently rank amongst the most corrupt in the world, it is clear that many government officials and members of law enforcement have abused their power during the pandemic. A recent survey by Transparency International revealed that more than half of the region’s residents believe the problem of corruption to be getting worse. They also found that a fifth of survey takers admitted to paying a bribe in the past year.
But, many still remain optimistic that social pressure against corruption could bring massive change to Latin America. In the same report, it was found that 77% of survey takers believed that ordinary people could make a difference in the fight against corruption despite fears of retaliation.
Before the pandemic, massive protests against corruption and economic inequality erupted in several countries. For instance, protesters in Ecuador blocked highways and fought with security forces when the government decided to remove fuel subsidies in 2019. After the mass protests, the government backed down from their decision. Similarly, many people in Chile took to the streets after the government raised the price of public transportation. Although prices have only increased a mere 4%, these protests are representative of a greater economic divide between the top 1% and the rest of the nation.
Also, the use of social media has made it easier for people to publicly denounce corruption. For example, in 2016, Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht admitted to paying over $788 million in bribes for over a decade after public pressure. This led to the jailing of several former company presidents. Optimists also point to Paraguay’s successful implementation of a platform that allowed users to track the status of 110 emergency accounts worth over $26 million. This will allow citizen groups to monitor how resources are being spent to address the pandemic.
In Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Countless lives are still being lost each and every day. It is up to the authorities of each nation to do what's necessary to protect their citizens, but it is clear that many are using the virus for their own economic benefit. Only time will tell whether this trend will continue.
By Julia Roos
This month, LGBTQ+ community members and allies have come together to celebrate their identities and increased visibility. Over the past decade, monumental strides have been made towards equality for all Americans regardless of their identity. In 2015, the landmark civil rights case, Obergefell v. Hodges, legalized same-sex couples’ rights to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court interpreted a statute that will transform the lives of millions of LGBTQ+ Americans.
In an unanticipated 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Court heard a series of three cases: Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude v. Zarda concerned lawsuits from gay men who asserted that they were fired because of their sexual orientation, and the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case was brought by a transgender woman who was fired after she revealed that she is a transgender woman and will come to work in women’s clothing. Title VII prohibits employers’ discrimination against an employee “because of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” The Court questioned if employment discrimination “because of … sex” encompasses homosexual and transgender individuals. Since the present Supreme Court is fundamentally conservative, this ruling surprised communities and allies, while it disappointed many Republicans. Trump’s first appointee to the court, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, authored the majority opinion that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.” He furthers his rationale by explaining, “an employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.” Imagine this scene: if an employer fires a man for having a husband but not a woman, they are firing that man for an action that they would not question in a female worker, which is discriminating based on sex. Sex undeniably plays a role in the concept of homosexuality and gender identities.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas wrote the leading dissent, which criticized the majority and accused them of sailing under a “textualist flag,” essentially pretending to make decisions strictly based off of the text but instead updating it to better reflect the values of modern society. Gorsuch acknowledged that the drafters of the Civil Rights Act did not likely have LGBTQ+ groups in mind when creating Title VII. However, he pointed out several major court rulings that have read the law expansively, for example, barring discrimination in the workplace against women because they have children, and prohibiting sexual harassment of both men and women.
Before this ruling, 29 states lacked full protection for citizens against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. These states substantially fell along the partisan divide as red states in the south and the midwest did not uphold statutory protection. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, this ruling will protect 4 million LGBTQ+ workers in those 29 states that lacked protection under federal law. The Court’s order is the most influential in the American LGBTQ+ movement’s decades-long history. Earlier successes included the implementation of anti-discrimination laws by states in 2013 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. Not everyone gets or wants to be married, but most American adults do work, and need to work, to provide for themselves or their families.
Although this landmark case indicates an enormous stride for the LGBTQ+ community, Gorsuch addressed several possible stipulations that will form after this ruling, like employers having religious objections to hiring gay or transgender workers. Freedom of religion, stated in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is a fundamental aspect of the United States government. The free exercise clause is an important regulation to follow, especially when it comes to minority religious groups whose practices are easily infringed upon by laws and policies enacted by the majority. Although, when exemptions from laws and statutes to satisfy religious beliefs or practices trample on the rights of others or essential societal values like nondiscrimination, policymakers should not blindly support freedom of religion. Proponents of laws that make exceptions for religious groups argue that they effectively balance religious freedom with LGBTQ+ rights, when in reality, these laws create exemptions for religious groups with no consideration for the burden and harm on others. These exceptions take the form of refusing to provide services to a same-sex wedding, permitting religious adoption agencies to not place a child in a same-sex family, healthcare providers turning away LGBTQ+ patients, and countless other injustices. By encouraging people to place their biases against LGBTQ+ people above fairness and equality, it challenges the broader principle that people should not be discriminated against because of who they are. The recent Supreme Court ruling does not directly combat this complication, but for LGBTQ+ groups to make this much progress in the judicial system, and in society, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination laws should be enforced on every individual, and not be disregarded by people with “religious” or “moral” standards.
President Trump has been actively pursuing the Evangelist constituency, as they made up a large percentage of his voters in the 2016 election. According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelical groups’ confidence in Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased since March. As a response, Trump pushed for churches to reopen, visited religious sites, and continued to advance conservative social policies. Although the statute only refers to employment discrimination, the other prohibitions of education, housing, and public accommodation should likely follow this decision. The outcome of the ruling directly reprimands the Trump Administration, who use its rule-making power to take protections away from transgender individuals. Their attempt to roll back transgender healthcare rights from Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act may bring this case back into question, since this rule would remove nondiscrimination protections from people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Supporters of this rule believe that the reversal of Obama-era regulations is necessary to define the meaning of “sex discrimination,” so healthcare providers can legally harm this already vulnerable group, even amid a pandemic. The original law stated that protections of sex discrimination include males, females, a combination of both, or individuals that identify as neither. The United States Department of Health and Human Services finalized the rule in June 2019 that will reverse the former definition of sex discrimination to be again based on biological sex exclusively. They claim that this regulation will save doctors and hospitals billions of dollars over five years, which makes sense considering these institutions can legally turn away the one million transgender people that live in America and seek healthcare. The implementation of this new rule will lead to dangerous refusals for transgender citizens in the healthcare system: a checkup at a doctor’s office, a transgender man who needs treatment for ovarian cancer, a hysterectomy not being covered by an insurer because it relates to someone’s gender transition. Fortunately, various LBGTQ advocacy groups, clinics, and organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign, will sue the Trump Administration for rolling back LGBTQ+ healthcare protections.
No American should be refused care because of a provider’s beliefs or morals against the individual’s existence. Hopefully, the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision will outlaw the Trump Administration’s war on LGBTQ+ rights. The definition of “sex discrimination” should apply to gender identity or sexual orientation on every account to every person and in America regardless of religious affiliation. Since when did the value of equality in America be prioritized for certain groups over others? Why can people stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religious freedom? Nobody should be turned away from healthcare providers, employment, or any other accommodations because of who they are.
By Benny Sun
In a region marred by poverty, death, and disease, Yemen hopelessly sinks further and further into chaos as both the Coronavirus and the deep-seated violence of war continue to fester within the country. Now in its sixth year of the war, Yemen’s crisis has been dubbed the “Worst Humanitarian Crisis” by the United Nations with reports indicating over 14 million Yemenis in deep poverty and 20 million civilians on the brink of starvation. Under this brutal conflict, in 2015, Saudi Arabia launched its air campaign over Yemen to protect the Sunni-backed Yemen government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. What started as a few skirmishes quickly escalated into an all-out war and now an all-out human catastrophe. However, as civilian casualty rates continue to increase and the economic effects take its toll on Saudi Arabia, the Yemen conflict is entering into a new chapter, one whose fate could be entirely decided by the United States.
Announced in April of 2020, Saudi Arabia declared a ceasefire in the Yemen region in order for the alliance to recoup their losses from the coronavirus. Soon after, in May of 2020, the United Nations declared comments on the success of the ceasefire, finding that recent attempts “significant progress on negotiations”. However, despite this progress, there are still extreme tensions between the Saudi air force and Houthi rebels. For instance, the port of Hodeida, the country’s main access to aid and food from other countries, was attacked despite the ongoing ceasefire. Even on April 24th, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of violating the ceasefire 241 times in 48 hours, demonstrating that the existing hostilities could easily boil back into an all-out war. Unfortunately, while tensions are near the boiling point, recent actions by the United States could intensify conflict in Yemen and re-ignite the fighting, destroying all progress seen in the last few months. Against the behest of Congress, Trump officials are planning again to sell billions of dollars more into Saudi Arabia in munitions, arms sales, and weaponry so that Saudi Arabia can continue its fight in Yemen. This is especially significant, as against the backdrop of 2019, where Trump vetoed a resolution to end arms sales which were supported by both the House and the Senate, existing defiances by the executive branch again could set more clashes between Trump and Congress. Specifically, Trump plans to add 478 million dollars in existing deals which would add more than 7,500 more precision-guided missiles and expand Saudi Arabia’s access to advanced weaponry. Overall, to better understand the geopolitical implications of recent actions, one must first understand the arguments on both sides.
Congress has drawn the human toll attributed to American weaponry by Saudi Arabian fighter jets over Yemen. Currently, 60% of Saudi Arabia’s arms deliveries originate from the United States. Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on external weapons, but America even provides a daily supply for maintenance, refueling, and logistical training. Therefore, many would argue that if the United States ended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, they would be left unable to fly their planes and continue these campaigns. Essentially, on every level, current Saudi Arabian military equipment relies on American training and technology. Moreover, mere backing Saudi Arabia could push them towards fighting rather than strong diplomacy, as Foreign Policy Expert Trita Parsi explains that when the United States militarily backs Saudi Arabia up, they become emboldened to expand in conflict violence in the first place. This is because when a major world power like the United States backs up Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia perceives this support as greenlight for further action. And with Trump continuing to ignore many human rights violations done by Saudi Arabia, it definitely could be the case. On the other hand, in November 2019, when Saudi Arabia recognized that the US military was no longer at their disposal, Parsi concluded that Saudi Arabia “began exercising diplomatic talks”. Consequently, there was a miraculous 80% drop in airstrikes with little casualties two weeks after this incident. It is therefore understandable why Congress is so uneasy about Trump’s recent actions: if the United States continues to fund the war effort, the Yemen situation would quickly boil over. Problematically,, Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes have become synonymous with terror in Yemen repented by both the civilians and the international public. In fact, according to a report from the New York Times, nearly 4,600 civilians have been killed in the crossfire as a result of inaccurate bombing from Saudi Arabia. An especially tragic incident occurred when Saudi officers subverted their chain of command and struck a funeral hall mourning the deaths of Houthi rebels which killed over 155 people. To conclude this chapter simply, NJ Senator Bob Menendez finds that “since 2015, we have seen Saudi Arabia utilize American-made weapons in what started as a campaign to restore the legitimate Yemeni government but has degenerated into one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world and a wholly destabilizing campaign”.
Conversely, Trump’s decision to continue supporting Saudi Arabia only furthers America’s long track record with the United States. As early as the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared oil as a strategic resource, the federal government established a strong connection with Saudi Arabia. Since then, even with its bumpy relations including the oil embargo 1970s or later events of 9/11, America established strong economic ties which later flourished into a military alliance as well. To address existing concerns, many experts such as writer Tom Rogan predict that Trump is utilizing its leverage as a trusted ally to push Saudi Arabia towards ceasefires and better targeting practices. For example, in 2017, the Trump administration required Saudi Arabia to buy 750 million dollars worth of US training to further mitigate civilian casualties. Although the results have been mixed, these efforts could demonstrate the leverage the United States could have over Saudi Arabia's relationship. Therefore, if Trump ended the relationship with Saudi Arabia by cutting off these arms sales, they could lose this important leverage to control Saudi Arabia’s action, prompting Saudi Arabia to continue aggressively pushing in the area. This is especially important as the main reason why Saudi Arabia decided to launch its air campaign has always been to reduce Iranian or Shia influence in the Middle Eastern region. Thus, even without Trump’s arms sales, the war in Yemen could still theoretically continue. This is because as the Economist reports, the United States is competing with other major rivals in arms sales including Russia or China. Rostec, a state-owned Russian firm, sold over 13 billion dollars of weapons to the region of the Middle East with Chinese firms closely following behind. Thus, a common claim by the Trump administration has been that if they ended their relationship, Saudi Arabia could simply buy weapons from other countries like Russia or China.
Overall, despite popular protests from both Congress and most Americans, Trump will continue to aid Saudi Arabia in fighting the war in Yemen. While current negotiations are taking place, it is important to understand that America’s actions in the next few months will become vital in the outcomes of these events. Thus, Trump’s recent decision to expand arms sales could either become a curse for the people of Yemen or a signal of restraint for Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell.