Category Archives: national borders

Get Me Out of Here, Fast: Escape from D.C.?

The scary monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the recent State of the Nation. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, Trump seemed to have been forced to address a nation of which he knew he was not in charge. Four days after assuring that “The risk is low for the average American,” separating the nation from the world, as the Dow tumbled over 2,000 points in a day, Trump had to do a real 360–to assume a sense of gravity for a situation he earlier accused Democrats of having self-servingly fabricated “far beyond what the facts would warrant.” If it seemed poll-tested that Democrats were far more concerned than the Republicans, perhaps the fault line was yet another to divide the United States, more than an object of national concern–although the most recent polls of mid-March showed a dangerous convergence and narrowing of a gap.

When President assured viewers with no basis that the crisis was merely “a moment in time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.” And at get over it, he offered a by now regular cocktail that mounted to bread and circuses, and the redrawing of boundary lines: Trump ensured the nation of low-interest loans and deferred tax payments in the offing, as he boasted of having quickly closed borders to all but essential travel, Trump tried to insist there was no financial crisis, as if the borders were now sealed. He argued that the pandemic was being fully addressed in national terms and would wash through, two days after the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic. The President did not look that confident as he addressed the nation, however, despite the assembled accoutrements of authority at the resolute desk for the public address, almost out of place–offering little security to the nation or the world–

–as if he were having difficulty to control his delivery during an actual emergency that was not in his control, and he had let spin out of control.

As tried to calm growing panic from his padded seat, as all that was clear was that, during a multiple lies, half-truths and disconnects of his address, Trump sought to assert his ability to dominate the national news.

By heralding victories, even as no proven treatment for the new coronavirus existed, he conveyed an illusion of progress–or tried to do so–by tired promises. He stumbled clumsily across multi-syllabic drugs an ever-ready teleprompter, as if were a magic bullet that would soon be in peoples’ hands, sustaining the fiction of “exciting” nature of cures “I’ve heard even better about,” from antimalarials like choloroquine, often used as an anti-anxiety or the experimental antiviral Remdesivir, first developed as a treatment for Ebola, hocking remedies of questionable efficacy. The drugs produced by American biotech companies might have been attempts to get their stock to spike, more than to help the nation. Trump rather comically stumbled over their syllables from a teleprompter. But both clinically untested drugs have been hoarded as game changers late in the game, forcing companies to halt distribution or more responsible folk plead people not to hoard a crucial component of flu medicines and retrovirals, lest panicked desperation lead to hoarding an effective drug, and his own ability to cut red tape that would deliver “anti-viral therapies” that did not exist. Some of believers in the utility of the chloroquine drug ingested enough of the non-pharmaceutical form of the antimalarial intended for aquariums to die. Much of the nation was turinng to Wikipedia to get a handle on COVID-19, on which a good share of Americans already rely to diagnose their illness–over a third, or 35%–it was not surprising that Wikipedia page views boomed, with the English article receiving 1.1 million views, a jump of 30% from the previous day, and Trump offered no clearer guidance, save that his restrictions on travel to and from China demand recognition as a “life-saving move.”

In short, the nation should understand it was lucky. But here was already a deepening sense that our circumstances had all changed, but our President’s seems as if it hadn’t. The nation’s relation to the virus was destabilized, but Trump fell back on mapping coronavirus in terrifyingly familiar terms as a national plot. He persisted to call the Coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” as if to keep it at bay, and promised remedies soon available, before any clinical testing was begun, vaunting the “boldest step of all” in closing the national border to some travel from China. This narrative of border-closure was huantingly familiar, and scarily similar to how he has boasted of having solved other national “crises.”

For in casting the coronavirus’ spread in national terms, Trump seems oddly keen to offer disinformation to the nation by falsely mapping its contagious spread, parsing a global pandemic as a national triumph even as we can map confirmed cases of its spread across all fifty states, and the numbers where the coronavirus was incubating were untold factors more. Indeed, the chlorpoleths like the below were misleading, suggesting dots of concentration, for cases dispersed over space–but resembled a rubella rash of pink or red spots, presenting themselves as a national annoyance. But there were no approved antivirals on offer, if testing by the National Institute of health recently began on Remdevisir, the drug used in Ebola, MERS and SARS, caused by related coronaviruse, of unproven efficacy for COVID-19, with results to be known only in April, with treatments made available as treatments by the end of the summer.

March 18, 2020

By that point, the contagion’s scope would have spread so far, based on the predictions of the Imperial War College COVID-19 Response Team, who predicted an estimated 510,000 deaths in England and 2.2 million in the United States infections would kill up to two million Americans, without pharmaceutical intervetion–a number that would peak later in the United States and affecting a far broader number, four times as large.

March 16, 2020

Trump was quite canny at rebranding, long before becoming President, but irresponsibly and sloppily rebranded the deadly coronavirus as “kung flu”–“I wonder who said that [first] . . . they would probably agree that it came from China”–he has masked the greater deaths and cases of infection that lie far outside Chinese territory and blithely normalized lack of health leadership in the United States. “It comes from China,” and will stay that way “as long as I’m president,” insisting on the truth-value of weaponizing rhetoric as if welcoming us to his latest, deadliest Reality TV show, as misleading choropleths aggregated cases to portray the national body in the earliest stages of complete infection, to late for any cure, and already incubating for twelve days before further infections would soon be manifested on future maps in better, if far more terrifying, detail. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” he announced, offering to adjust restrictions, as if the nation had been kept safe. He corrected many of his slew of misstatements–on Twitter–but expanded a promise for free testing to free full treatment, and the tests have still not arrived. (Pence was clearly complicit with this disinformation; neither admitted that no treatments for the disease exist.)

National news agencies already suggested that we were at a potential medical crisis not in the sense of a break-down, but in a potential turning point in the disease’s progress–the ancient Hippocratic sense that is still retained for a turning point in a fever or acute disease, a point of κρίςις where the expert physician would recognize “the determination of the disease as it were by a judicial verdict” that would lead to recovery, partial recovery, or death (Affections VIII), or when morbid residues of humoral imbalance remaining in the body could be eliminated, or fail to be eliminated, but the progress of the disease as it works its way in the body must be monitored with care, to judge the nature and acuteness of the disease’s course..

We were most overwhelmed as a nation by an acute imbalance in our relation to the world. Never mind the fact that China had alerted the World Health Organization about an unknown new virus with pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory–as if they judged WHO a shadowy, global organization. Chinese scientists quickly realized the danger of the virus ravaging Wuhan and the surrounding rural areas around Wuhan the unknown pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory, jumping species as it evolved into forms that can be infectious to humans. But was hard to buy for groups who questioned evolution, and doubted the data given the WHO–as if anything originating at WHO to be tainted at its root. Trump persisted, as if trying out a new persona for the occasion, to reassure the nation that the problem would “wash through” and we would be stronger for it.

Addressing the union solemnly in unemotive, grave tones, his thumbs shooting up in a weird pantomime of tweeting, perhaps stimulated by Aderol or other medications, as if flames flickering beneath his calm, as flames must have been flickering beneath his plush leather seat, his corpulence unable to conceal cresting COVID-19 cases over a thousand, in a terrifying asymptotic rise, conforming it as unable to be contained–while Trump seemed to treat it as nationally under control, the world be damned, the global nature of the pandemic only evident for those outside the nation and assuring the nation they would have “the best healthcare and health insurance of anywhere on the planet.” He had recently placed Vice President Pence, stalwart implacable opponent of the Affordable Care Act, who crowed before audiences of conservatives, “Obamacare must go” as “we’re going to make the best healthcare system in the world even better” in rural corners of Indiana, without having any other model.

As “best healthcare system in the world” became something of a meme, if not a macro, of President Trump and his surrogates, and he tried to upstage the WHO declaration of a global pandemic. He promised incorrectly that the insurance industry would “waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments,” to an audience of many without health insurance, echoing a mantra Trump long promoted of “better healthcare.”

Trump combined assurances of calm with a disheartening abdication of responsibility, as the President left the nation hanging by repeating tired macros of tax cuts and travel bans, cure-alls predictably invoked, as if the virus were not our problem. Would the Make America Great Again agenda survive in an age of global pandemic? Ever more than in the past, this seemed so much snake oil.

The stage props of the resolute desk, American flag, closed binder, flag pin, and those clenched, flickering thumbs, seemed to suggest that he was in control, as control was slipping from his, and everyone’s, hands. He seemed suddenly very small, as the words from his mouth seems to have little bearing on the anxieties that gripped the nation. Did the binder even contain anything?

Trump may well have begun to reflect on his own prospects of infection before addressing the nation. But his address–if concerning the state of the nation more than most of his State of the Nation addresses–veered little from his recent pooh-poohing of concern for the domestic spread of the coronavirus as just yet another meme of the latest Fake News and Democratic Party he had to swat. Dismissing social distancing as a tactic to deprive him of his beloved rallies, Trump had truly seemed stunned by the event’s dominance of the national news that he could not direct or massage in his direction.

Perhaps only after a number ofRepublican lawmakers tested positive for the virus after being exposed to it a conservative networking conference, and other with whom he had partied with Bolsonaro at his private resort Mar-a-Lago began to self-quarantine, festive partying with the entourage of Brazil’s right wing Prime Minister Javier Bolsonaro, sporting caps emblazoned “Make Brazil Great Again” as party favors assumed tones of rosy memories as news of their self-quarantining were processed.

Fabio Wajngarten‘s Twitterfeed

Trump insisted he “did nothing unusual [but] sat next to each other for a period of time,’ as if it was a Sexually Transmitted Disease. But in his address he suddenly seemed forced to recalibrate. Whether on not the exclusive club was a Petri dish by which the virus jumped continents to infect his inner circle, several celebrants tested positive the day before Trump’s address. The cognitive dissonance was astounding for a President whose public statement was to congratulate his friend Xi, in late January, for “working very hard” for the nation’s benefit, adopting a lens of national identity for a global crisis.

The sense of emulating a top-down policy with similar “transparency” seems designed in retrospect to conceal the critical lack of transparency in Trump’s response to the health care crisis, which seemed terrifyingly to be another chapter of disaster capitalism of the sort Naomi Klein described, Perhaps members of Trump’s cabinet–from Vice President Mike Pence, poster boy for allowing the oligarchy to capitalize off of crisis, instead of public aid, to Steve Mnuchin, foreclosure king–took time to school President Trump in its doctrine: to ignore those living in poverty, the uninsured, or homeless, but bolster the national economy.

Trump’s assumption of removed gravitas in the Oval Office, if forced by circumstances, broke from character, but served to keep his Presidency and US markets afloat. After pooh-poohing coronavirus concerns as the latest partisan plot to tank his Presidency, Trump sat rigidly before the teleprompter, channeling a military demeanor or just immobilized by events, clasped hands only parted once in ten minutes to assuring national viewers–and markets–trying with as much confidence as he could to plead his audience beleive that “The virus will not have a chance against us.” If this was a modulation of the assurance on January 22 that “We have it totally under control,” the passive assertion a month later of a conviction that “It will disappear” seemed not to hold much water, and he intensified the self-congratulatory backslapping of March 6 that “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down” or the boast of a “perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan for keeping it under control.”

Doug Mills/AP

Exactly who was “us” was never made more clear in the short address, but he seemed to be pleading that this was really not a big deal in providing the most statesman like address he attempted in memory, summoning the accouterments of his office to speak from behind the Resolute Desk to conceal the evidence of his mismanagement of a true national emergency, after the manufacturing of several false ones. Sounding grave, he tried to spin as best possible, but looked particularly pained in telling us that this, too, would pass, or “wash through,” as he put it, suggesting an awareness of its rootedness in the GI tract, but using a disturbing image he professed not to see why folks disliked to express how we’d be all the better for having had it in the first place.

Trump tried his best to sustain that the average American was not at risk,– although the different demeanor with which he addressed the nation disconcerted at the virus’ rapid spread beyond China. He continued to stoke more than quell anxiety–not giving any advice that was reassuring or accurate as a guide to stave off the virus’ spread, and celebrating “our nation’s unprecedented response to the . . . outbreak that started in China, and is now spreading across the world,” but from which we would be kept safe–even if it was a global pandemic after all. Was Trump stalling as the new model of disaster capitalism that would take advantage of the Coronavirus spread in the most rapacious manner were being perfected?

Reminding Americans that his best decisions originated in his gut, Trump later bragged to the media that long before the declaration form the World Health Organization whose declaration had prompted his speech, “I felt it was a pandemic,”–he expressed confidence for our nation, for whom “our top government health professionals” were working to protect America, without the need for any outside help–continuing the narrative of America going it alone in a global crisis, without realizing the deep dangers of further eruptions, inflammations, and morbid residues that would spread across the national body, oblivious to the executive, even as that global spread was being mapped in terrifying real time. Trump’s responses privileged travel restrictions, selective screening for national reentry, tax deferrals, and small- change economic “stimuli,” but ommited change in the status quo save an advisory to “ignore non-essential travel.” But what was essential was left unclear, even as the NBA announced its season suspended. We were encouraged not to be concerned about an economic downturn, rather than given a plan to deal with public health emergency for which the nation was unprepared and had no intention to change its essential infrastructure of health care.

Perhaps the illusion of a choropleth’s buckets suggested only one red dot in the United States existed of less than five hundred confirmed COVID-19 cases showed the panic was overly elevated, and lay outside our borders.

WHO COVID-19/Confirmed Cases March 12, 2020

The gravity of address appeared designed to mask the folly of declaring an obstruction of all travel from continental Europe, or more specifically the Schengen area of the European Union, in a unilateral manner. After having self-contentedly patted himself on the back for having suspended travel from China, as if to stave off the spread of Coronavirus to the United States, he touted a logic of national exclusion, the one size fits all remedy, least suited to a global pandemic.

Unlike earlier alleged national emergencies, as building the wall, he was less belligerent. This time, his voice was more monotone, sounding as if he had been forced to give a statement. Even if we had watched the number of cases of COVID-19 grow across the nation, from March 2-9 over the previous week, Trump fell back on inveighing to his audience about staunching the danger at ports of entry to the nation, as if we had not all be watching infographics prepared by statistics offered by government agencies, even as he knew that he had been sitting on evidence of the virus’ spread since December.

And it seemed that the transmission of the pandemic across borders, and of two-week incubation. was evidence of the rise of a new way Coronavirus inhabited global space, and indeed a new kind of globalism, akin to those that Bill Rankin analyzed in global grided maps as new ways of experiencing geographic space that President Trump was unable to process. Even as the curve of Coronavirus cases had finally flattened far more in China than elsewhere, the continued assurances that “we” were fine, in good medical care, and had nothing to panic about were made as if under strain. Declaring his fourth national emergency the following day, the goal was, similarly, to free up funds for disaster response, but now he wanted to insist that we were all ok, even if we knew that we weren’t, and publicly available data clearly showed otherwise.

Although not indulging rhetorical demonization the virus after a locality outside the nation–“the Wuhan virus” seemed perhaps too scary as it evoked the “Spanish flu”–in describing a “foreign virus” he suggested travel policies could provide protection, inviting us to be ostriches and immerse our heads in the cold, reassuring sands. Given the level of disconcertedness of his audience, the address’s utter absence of empathy was not so much surprising as disconcertingly unreal, given the difficulty of demonizing anyone in a health crisis and pandemic was so visibly globally expanding on unprecedentedly rapid scale.

The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases outside of China, despite the small relative number of attributable deaths, was unreal. This was a scenario quite different from anything we had encountered before; it was hard to map the graphs onto displayed Trump’s alarming unbalance as he tried to explain a set of statistics we grasped, it seems, more fully than he had: as he had tried to tell us to keep things in perspective, equating the still- incomplete data of deaths because of influenza and COVID-19, suggesting the transient nature of the panic of world health organizations in declaring a global pandemic, and assure us that this too would pass, he seemed more willfully out of touch than we were accustomed to see him.

Was this speech an entry to a recognition of the behind the scenes reality, a place we were not usually allowed to go as observers? It was surging how President Trump seemed to balk or blanch at the very word “global”–as if it were a sure sign something was wrong, rigged, and exaggerated. The plateauing of Chinese cases seemed trotted out as if this were somehow meant to suggest that the national emergency had been contained, rather than was about to expand. Even as he told the nation that the the United States was the “most prepared” nation when it came to Coronavirus policies, he seems to have revealed little interest or awareness of how it spread, or of the health concerns of the American people, as they looked to the rise of COVID-19 cases abroad, and heard of the blossoming of increased but still improperly tallied cases in the United States, and seemed unconcerned about the need to tally them–as if this was not the bare minimum of preparation.

As Trump continued to offer empty assurances, thumbs flickering as if to undercut his monotone, he seemed to think there was still a chance to blanket out the maps of dots of infection of the body politic, at multiple sites, as if there was still a chance that the uninfected as of yet heartland would listen, and be reassured if he could transcend the moment and trasnsfix the nation for ten minutes–

March 2, 2020

And it soon became clear, as we were making and watching these maps, that they were incomplete in their data counts: the poor data of positive testing that was being compiled by the CDC will perhaps provide a further tragedy within the mapping of COVID-19 and the absence of public education, as the Trump administration seems to persist in desiring an absence of open data, understanding the spread in the optic of power, and in terms of his ability to impose controls–but has revealed far less interest in getting data to the nation in ways that might be helpful, in ways that were already clear in his address on March 12, 20200, but only became clearer as the terrible risks of a lag in the release of valuable public information and the scope of official undercounts was revealed in the comparison between the independent data counts harvested by the Covid Tracking Project (see previous link!) and CDC data on public tests for the virus revealed a week after Trump’s duplicitous national address–an undercount that revealed the asymptotic rise of tests administered since the project began in March, and tests were first broadly offered.

Covid Tracking/March 22, 2020

The hope is to rectify huge undercounts of people tested, positive results of infection, negative results, and cases still pending based on aggregating public statements of local health authorities, local trusted tabulations or counts, official websites with double controls, tabulating distributed data with regular timestamps, otherwise unavailable from CDC. Often, the rules of testing are so tied to manifestations of physical signs of illness or exposure, and the paucity of promised test kits. Many states where CDC counts are low because of the absence of infection tallies in many stats, and low counts in others.

The problem is in large part about a massive failure of tabulation and of transparency. Due to budget cuts in the Trump Era, the CDC seems in itself no longer able to engage in the regular tabulation of tests given or confirmed, and has withdrawn any hope to provide accurate data, relying on local undercounts, resulting in a huge abdication of its responsibility of ensuring public health. Despite an eventual concentration of those afflicted in the United States, the huge under testing relative to other nations where the virus spread terrifies. And promises before Trump’s address of administering “roughly 1.5 million tests” never materialized, despite past success in distribution of H1N1 kits in the other world of 2009. With CDC counts being potentially wildly inaccurate, policies of testing diverge in states and lag far behind abilities to react to viral transmission that is often unclear until the incubation period passes–and fail to be tested for treatment even if they are carrying COVID-19.

The limited preventive measures that would be placed into effect would prevent the entrance of the virus that had already broadly spread for months–the absurd allowance flights to and from Britain would not be affected served to register his pleasure in Brexit, perhaps, while wreaking revenge at the European Union he has long disdained for not pulling its share of weight –as far back as 1995, when first voicing his public political pronouncements began–acting’s if the viral outbreaks that were Eruope’s problems were not the world’s, but in fact came from the Schengen group, but had still not arrived here, as if transmission could be contained by sideswiping allies to disrupt the possibility of coordinated response.

European Commission/Coronovirus Response

To be sure, Trump may have been watching data visualizations and charts that gave him a poor sense of the disease–Maggie Haberman left it open whether his COVID-19 policy reflected his dependence on FOX as his prime information source.

The maps of infections of Europe were concentrated as choropleths, but many have a disproportionate relation of map to bubble that make it seem as if the entire continent was infected, without letting us know what percentage of the population of each nation–but building buffers that count “total cases”–which only mean total reported cases. The irresponsibility of such a use of GIS has been discussed by Kenneth Field in his to-the-point blog, but the cat seems out of the bag, for many who prefer to “consume” information by charts. The total “cases” provide a poor sense of actual levels of concentration, but could profit from resizing map symbols, or a reduced geographic scope–or being sized to cases per millions, or dot density plot of greater sophistication, rather than rely on a choropleth that is a case study for poor visualization practices, showing little sense of geographic distribution, of population differences, normalization by time of identifying cases of the coronovirus, or numbers of test given over space that would make the sheer numbers legible, rather than merely waving what is effectively a red flag.

As Trump spoke in the Oval Office, atavistic echoes of his past history of outraged pronouncements seemed to still echo in his head in the hope of resurrecting rallying cries that fell suddenly on increasingly unreceptive ears. The language of crisis was however muted, but cast in a national optic that strained credulity. at last, given the national lenses in which he viewed what it was hard to deny was a global problem, beyond the confines of state territory. This was the problem of being forced to think globally when the American President had not only deep reluctance but a deeply tragic cognitive impossibility to do so. He had been elected President in some part by virtue of this appeal of this very inability.

Trump seemed to be shoring up these figments, in falling back on a language of opposition; the basic syntax of Make America Great Again, imbued with the hard edges of local insularity, jarringly incommensurate with a global pandemic that we still map by jurisdictions and frontiers of territorial administration, even as its spread clearly renders these notions of territory obsolete. But the point of the lecture seemed to be to contain the fears by which the President seemed possessed of the distance for the ballooning infection rates abroad as if similar asymptotic expansions of illness could be forestalled, as if by an act of willed imaginary, and fear staved off that a certified global pandemic was indeed truly global. Trump espoused a comparative tally among nations, showing little or no concern with the problem of preparation for something that was undeniably “really big.”

No injections on quarantine seemed of need, indeed, for Trump claimed himself able to excise the roots of the evil with a comic level of surgical precision by declaring an outright travel ban from the European Union, which left the world wondering if this was only economic retribution.

Global seemed bracketed in the speech as if it were a bad word. President Trump seemed oddly unawares that he did so on a global stage–more than a national one–by playing to a national audience, in ways that seemed to sadly abdicate the responsibility of public health to authoritarian regimes as China and North Korea who had far more effectively contained the virus’ virulent spread, while we were made to suffer the pablum of pronouncements of continued public safety that seemed an invitation to denial. What was the future seemed unclear, as the idea of how to prepare for the coming illness seemed anyone’s best guess, totally up in the air, and something we could not imagine the federal government had a sense of how to implement further tests, secure hospital beds, or coordinate a medical strategy.

We were all guinea pigs. Markets swung, reacted positively later to assurances of available testing, although whether these would materialize in an efficient manner remains unclear, as what was a China story became a global story that couldn’t be parsed in national terms, even as infections were tracked in national buckets, constrained by local abilities to provide accurate testing to local populations.

Getty Images

For it hardly made sense to try to convince the nation of its continued security in an emergency that was broadly recognized as global, and was almost impossible to understand in other terms: he seemed all of a sudden a messenger of the past, arrived by time-travel from an obsolescent world of national security and the homeland, a category truly incommensurate with current events. The disconnect was grave.

Other than the world falling apart, the outlook seemed good, Trump insisted. Perhaps the role of processes of globalization that are so clearly revealed by the trajectory of the epidemic stick in the throat or mind of Donald Trump. This is a deep cognitive problem, that would mean, that we cannot expect the President to process, as he continues to believe we can draw lines around the transmission of disease before the American people; but his mindset only echoes how we map by the misleading if not false buckets of jurisdictions and borders–although these are the closest we have to a health authorities, to be sure–and must rely on the datasets that nations release, with little global accords for transparency. The reverse has become true, as news media are frustrated in getting access to local numbers, and the danger grows that manny vital local news organizations simply won’t make it through the economic crisis that the health crisis has provoked.

How did it become so bad? The continued charisma of data led us to trust the best maps we can draw by the data that is available and on hand, even if we know it may not present a picture of viral transmission, carriers, or even deaths. We are left, as the best new source we might rely on, to plot the virulence of the spread of the coronavirus in ways that affirm its global proportions and scale, although we leave off the map those areas where no public health records are available–Mexico; much of Africa; Afghanistan and Turkmenistan–for which there is no data, and imagine South Africa as if it was a hotspot of the African continent, even if this is a distortion of datasets. But the designation of Europe as a central site of the virus’ spread, as China’s outbreak appeared contained, after drastic measures were taken, seemed to call for taking drastic, unilateral measures of our own, without even needing to consult other nations.

We were left to stare at the asymptotic curves of numbers of infections that had grown over three months in our interconnected globe the knows no real borders, moving from the exponential rise in cases of infection to the map and ask if any tie to a map made real sense, save, at this point, to grasp the very global nature of the viral outbreak, and the problem of whether we were only days or weeks before the uptick, facing an inevitably rising curve we as individuals might only hope to contain–as more people were infected outside China than within it by late February.

Coronavirus Pandemic/March 12, 2020 (Bloomberg)

The charisma of statistics already painted a grim picture that seemed as if it could not be understood outside the logic of globalization that Trump had long resisted and tilted against. He must not be able to stomach it. Luckily, marijuana legalization might get us through things, though the disconnect seemed so grave that the speech of what was a true state of the union was a disruption of proportions we could barely wrap our heads around, and were inevitably diminished by or faced to deny.

The truly pained President, seeming to struggle to get his mind around anything of global scope, but hoping he was able to stave off a massive selling off of stocks as equity futures declined without finding any vision of economic stimulus–as if the terms that President Obama had tried to champion as a means for securing a national recover might never be spoken from the resolute desk during his Presidency–led him only to assure the nation of paid sick leave for hourly workers, who must have only been wondering about their medical bills. While he may have been tempted to argue that luckily, global warming provided a sense of safety as the warming atmosphere would free the world from Coronavirus, he never went there, thankfully, but limited himself to paltry payroll tax exemptions, as if having the IRS take less out of paychecks was what the nation most of all wanted, as they saw the scope of their medical bills only rise–and not only for their elders–as we lacked any narrative or story map for the spread of infections on such terrifying asymptotic rise.

The poor practice of plotting raw data, without trying to craft anything like a story or narrative, even within the CDC, acting as if to defuse any epidemiological meaning in the below choropleth, converting CDC data into a visualization plot, without offering a handle to process total cases.

Yet the pace of the identification of confirmed cases over time seemed most crucial in many ways, as, even if we have no sense of incubation periods, choropleths provide poor senses of grasping the spread of the disease in ways that might help grasp the importance of social distancing, rather than shoveling sheer data at us that reflects the morass in which governments find themselves and project it onto the general public in quite disorienting ways.

Tableau/Mapbox

Trump tried, by the force of what seemed medication, to summon the needed gravitas to assuage worries. But the mental gears seems not to work before a pandemic that World Health Officials had declared global, of which his own health officials declared we had not yet seen the worst. All left to do was state in an unemotive–if not robotic–monotone displaying a lack of empathy or understanding. He seemed as if he was perhaps paralyzed by his own fears, that everything was under control and that we had the best doctors possible. We would get through this, he intoned, together, as we always did, turning to preaching a gospel of social solidarity curiously foreign to the Trump era; hardly believing the assertion he hoped would get him through the long night ahead, he spoke stonily as stock markets plummeted in Frankfurt as he said markets “are going to be just fine” as if repeating an incantation that seemed suddenly meaningless in a logic of magical thinking or forced optimism, while the virus spread more quickly outside China than within it.

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

And with American workers without paid sick leave or health coverage, the virus’ virulence would perhaps threaten the domestic economy more than China’s in our far denser cities, and the blow to our leisure economy, long nourished by our so-called “creative class.” But unemployment insurance was not to be touched, even as millions were quickly out of work, and the stimulus package produced in Congress got rid of the need for employers to retain workers and provide them with health care at large companies–Amazon; Walmart; Target; Walgreen–as millions were laid off without resources to care for themselves or receive medical care.

The prospect of no test kits, no cure, no therapeutic procedures, no basic tools to address the situation or sense of how to prevent communication of a virus that had already gotten out of the bag globally left it unclear what a President could do–especially one who trafficked exclusively in tired tropes of national boundaries. After all, after decades of repeating that things weren’t fine, and reciting a narrative that we were going to hell in a hand basket, the doom whose imminence he had been predicting to mass approval seems to have arrived. Indeed, the sense of an utter emergency that Trump had been decrying as imminent seemed to have arrived, only it wasn’t in national terms that it was best managed or even understood–and being ripped off wasn’t the issue; being inadequately protected was suddenly evident.

It might be the case that if one could stop time the night that he spoke, and sought to address the nation to calm the markets that incredibly seemed to be a more important audience than the health of the nation’s inhabitants, the spread was not that significant in a current visualization–if one discounted that these confirmed cases didn’t include any of those within whose body the virus was incubating, in whom symptoms of coughing, chills, and exhaustion had not yet presented themselves, even if they were already infected.

But if that was the situation in late January 2020, when the United States seemed far removed from the disproportionate numbers of confirmed sufferers of the coronavirus on a global scale, the notion that we could isolate and preserve ourselves from a virulent infection that had already arrived by closing borders was clearly preposterous, even if one had little expertise in epidemiology.

And even if the general numbers seemed distant, nothing lies overseas in a globe today that lacks edges, and whose networks were already delivering the virus not only to Italy, a chronically swollen boot in this cartogram by the master of the genre, Benjamin Hennig, based on WHO Coronavirus infections form COVID-19, but the global ballooning of infections was clearly impending, as all who have the heart to watch Hennig’s map animation of reported confirmed cases can attest.

For all of Trump’s aim to sound decisive, he was posturing by announcing immediate suspension of flights from or to Europe. The sudden and totally unexpected announcement revealed utter inexperience at governing, made even more terrifying by the fact that he seemed to take pleasure in spurring a panicked booking of return flights in massive numbers, creating an onrush of returning passengers that airports had little preparation to process: the unclear nature of travel suspension policy declared to be immediate created panic among Americans who returned to face crowded lines for eight hours flooded cavernous airports from O’Hare to Dallas Ft. Worth, without plans or training to process their re-entry, a level of crowding that was the reverse of social distancing experts advised–without a clear protocol for containing the virus’ spread.

If Trump liked national emergencies as a constitutional workaround, the logic of us v. them wasn’t so compelling before Coronavirus, even if it was billed as a “foreign virus,” as if viruses also possessed nationalities. Would the disjuncture between the economy and his assertions prove problematic, or would concern with the absence of the arrival of something “better” than Obamacare that had not yet materialized? National emergencies recast the global pandemic in border-based terms, in keeping with an authoritarian tendencies familiar from the Trump Presidency. We wished we had the emergency on the scale of that he had declared as a workaround to accelerate construction of a border wall.

There was a sticky dissonance in looking at the stock market as a totem and god, whose health was equivalent to that of the nation–rather than the health of the nation’s residents. As stock futures and financial markets plunged globally, Trump rather preposterously suggested travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, with additional payroll tax cuts, he failed to address the lack of the availability of tests of infection by the Coronavirus that he had promised as forthcoming to anyone desiring them, just the previous Friday at his visit to the CDC, urging calm as stocks tried to absorb a global plunge he tried to forestall or block out by sticking to the teleprompter.

Traders overseas who watched Trump talk as the market was functioning saw the address create a sudden plunge in international markets. The scene created in Frankfurt was desparate, and the disappointment in the absence of any clear measures profound. Perhaps the only question was really whether in the face of such massive unpreparedness to coordinate a global effort, the markets would suck the global economy under, and if global markets would soon flatline, as Goldman Sachs had already warned as the virus spread to fifty countries in late February, based on examining the decline of economic productivity in China–with the virus having claimed 2,800 lives, but the virus had begun spreading more quickly outside China than within it.

Reuters

Even if we all knew, for the most part, that the limited statistics of infection and death in the United States on offer in the national maps of Coronavirus incidence were themselves undercounts as it was only based on positive tests administered by the CDC, whose downsizing both delayed and fail to accelerate enough testing to contain the virus. He tried to assure us that things were fine, as if to replace the image of these maps seared into our minds, by the gravitas of the monotone of his voice, perhaps; patience cracked at the very absurdity of his pronouncements as financial markets plunged globally as he preposterously suggested that travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, as well as more tax cuts, and injections of the sort he had never made before, in common memory, to keep calm–as if that was possible.

There was a problem in central casting before the inescapable fear of a great equalizer of something more close to biblical proportions than anything a nation-state could respond. But as images involuntarily returned of the Athenian plague, Black Death, or film scenarios of Bong Joon-ho that were not yet produced, the scope of the pandemic seems to push Trump off the stage. A suddenly miscast President tried to assure the markets, ham-fistedly, by projecting calm, so oddly unlike than emotive engagement and energy honed on Reality TV, as if to be jarringly dissonant, he seemed to seek to assume the adulthood for the nation he had long delayed to a late age, sitting behind a teleprompter. This was Nixon telling the country he was not a crook,–after all warnings of Nixonian comportment in Trump’s disdain of Congress aired in the Impeachment Hearings were ridiculed.

The pathos of the Trump moment seemed, however, far worse, and filled with tragedy. Bluster wasn’t appropriate here, and made no sense–gravitas was lacking, and he seemed tragically unable to sound reassuring as much as he spoke. And his jumping fingers seemed to know it, suggesting a seismograph that was underlying the empty injunctions of his words that had no bearing at all on the actuality of the unpreparedness of public hospitals, ventilators, or even isolation chambers, and the far off nature of hopes for any vaccine to arrive. The lack of availability of testing seemed incredible. The only possibilities of their provision by select businesses as if these constituted the only functioning parts of the nation suggested a return to local fiefdoms, as Amazon and the Gates Foundation stepped in in Seattle, given the utter lack of national coordination of a health policy, and Google later offered a functional health website to be pioneered in the Bay Area. But the costs of treatment for those with this coronavirus in the United States is estimated for someone with employer insurance—and are from any complications–as just under $10,000, and for those with complications could find that their bills more than double to $20,292. (Having a heart or lung disease, diabetes, or a suppressed immune system would create health care costs far more dangerous and prohibitive.)

And so the questions on everyone’s mind seemed pressing as they sought to protect themselves from the coronavirus’s spread.

We were all looking for feudal lords for protection, as the government wasn’t there. The disconnect between datasets and vectors of Coronavirus transmission, or between the growth of verifiably confirmed COVID-19 casts and geography, exposed the problems of a lack of leadership deeper than providing health care, if fundamental to doing so, as we were told the national health crisis had not yet reached its peak, as it would over time.

March 20, 2020/Benjamin Hennig/WHO COVID-19 statistics

And the nation–and world–clearly knew it, even if there are no animated maps of the future. Trump’s laboriously read and oddly detached call for calm stood at odds with the disruption of global travel that he seemed to think himself entitled: the declaration was issued on prime time, to a global audience, looking for leadership, with assurances of the availability of tests for all who wanted them, when all knew that there were none on available or on offer at local hospitals, and had taken to hoard groceries, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and even toilet paper, as they got ready to hunker down for The Big One that seemed to have arrived. The lack of response–no discussion of the production of ventilators; no sense of publicly accessible stations of diagnosis; no sense of a timeline for expanding hospital facilities–was made more evident by the recourse to policing national frontiers as we all new Coronavirus had arrived and was undercounted.

Was this the voice of death, or the death of Trump, or the final end of a national health policy, from the top down? Only the distortions of the Mercator Projection allowed us to imagine areas of the world that were free from confirmed COVID-19 cases by late March, as the confirmed cases had in fact spread globally, and multiple popup ads reminded us to reconsider the immediate reaction of taking our IRA portfolios out of the stock market.

Accumulated Confirmed COVId-19 Cases, March 19, 2020 in Mercator Distortion

We could only see the abiding fiction of the overly frayed relation of government to nation, a relation at which Trump had assiduously hacked at for years with abandon, now suddenly seemed like something that we missed desparately and wondered where it had gone. Afraid to mention restrictive actions or quarantines to his base, he merely implored the nation to follow local authorities, knowing that there was no way that a reduced hamstrung government and public heath agency could confront a viral outbreak of this scale, occasioning numerous administration officials qualify and correct the policies that he had announced soon after he had finished speaking, trying to remap, or better shoehorn, the global pandemic into purely local terms, by asking his audience to listen to local authorities–presumably because there was no longer a national one.

What was most striking in the address to the nation was what wasn’t present in it, rather than what was–an emphasis on traveling less; social distancing; immediate travel bans; washing hands; self-quarantining; and a healthy does of grim steadfast resolve. There was no mention or explanation of the critical  national shortage of coronavirus test kits, the homeless communities without medical care, all taboo topics for a President desperate to be seen as a leader, with little appetite for planning policy. It felIt taboo to mention health insurance, health facilities, or cautionary statements about false rumors on twitter–a topic of sensitivity!–or the coming changes to our imagined abundance, its lid already being ripped off by frenzied mass-purchases of food and household supplies, or the inevitable stresses on local water systems as a result of requisite repeated hand washing, and an overload of capacities for storing waste.

We were left with dizzying anxiety at the utter inability to conceive of what the future might bring, and little sense of guidelines to move ahead with calm save from being directed to dismiss our concerns. President Trump may have aspire to calm, but he was challenged in trying to occupy a stage persona he had never really inhabited or valued. While he became U.S. President by reveling based on his gut over more than seven years, it became evident that there was no ship of state, as we were all passengers, strapped in on the same pilotless rudderless voyage he was, into entirely unknown water, without any necessary resources to cope. His imperial declaration of a restoration of peace in the face of the virus seemed preposterous, an echo of social media declarations of the need to insulate the United States from Ebola, on Twitter, in ways that led to his apoplectic abundance of all caps–“STOP THE FLIGHTS!” in 2014–to unseat President Obama’s public authority as if to unsteady Obama’s projection of calm and resolve–

–his habitual recourse to alarmism tinged with indignation to conceal minimal knowledge of infectious disease beyond his own deep sense of fears. Even if the so many more Americans were already infected with Coronavirus than Ebola, its viral transmission was entirely different, and, despite assuring Americans that the folks at the CDC were amazed how quickly he “got it” by his preternaturally precocious adeptness at statistics and epidemiology, his twitter fingers could assure the nation and get the markets to once more rise.

The vain hope seems to be repeated, in increasingly abacadabric fashion, before the graph of economic-freefall on a truly terrifying scale that he had never imagined was even possible, but which China, his economic competitor, had succumbed, in ways that planted clear doubts in anyone who tried to argue that the virus was willed or manufactured but he Chinese government to inflict global chaos on America: this chart was our future, not only as a spillover, or a shift in markets and production, but as a blow to household wealth and economy o fthe sort that would put his own continued residency in the Oval Office into question–perhaps the only thing that Trump really cares about, anyways.

Was he just having a hard time containing his fear? Was that why the hands were grasped so tightly, the voice seemed reduced to a drugged somnolence? The backstory was one of clear cause and effect. Having relentlessly cut the CDC budget, dismantled the pandemic task force assembled by his nemesis, his predecessor Barack Obama, he wanted to demonstrate that it was, in fact, useless, and all we need is common sense–not experts! It was truly unclear who the declaration of ceasing flights from Europe was aimed at, especially as no control over visiting European travelers had been at all in place for months, save perhaps taking temperatures of some arrivals at JFK. Echoing the bans on travel that he had enacted in the names of national safety–using nations as the basis to parse non-national groups of terror, as if this made sense–

As if he reacted to being informed told that “Europe” had displaced China as the site of the contagion’s transmission, he had addressed the nation by introducing the very sort of cordon sanitaire of the sort that he imagined would inspire assurance. Restricting airplane flights out of Europe, as if this was the same situation as restricting flights from Africa to protect the nation against Ebola, seemed sufficient to restore balance and tranquility ended the grim task of delivering a pubic address before he got back to bed or to twitter–as he soon did, issuing a set of delayed corrections–or whatever it is he does, or maybe just wash his hands and get ready to hunker down, after checking on his personal supply of hand sanitizer that is being probably stockaded in the White House basement in bulk.

How did he even gain his bearings? Was he bemoaning the fact that he had gutted the CDC and the staff he needs to ascertain the scale of the virus’ impact and presence, or did he just want to affirm that he could control it all, single handedly? As there is no Chief Data Officer or Data Scientist any more in the United States, able to help coordinate the Precision Medical Initiative, since Obama’s team of cybersecurity advisors resigned en masse; Donald Trump has shown an easier way to guide the nation, more akin to building a wall, rooted in the nerve endings in his gut, free from being laden by claims to expertise, even this time it was with our allies, and was performed without advance notice. By running the gamut on inaccuracies, mistakes, and deceptive statements that bordered on lies–“we have been in frequent contact with our allies” while foreign leaders were so cut off guard that they expressed disapproval at a move Trump took so “unilaterally and without consultation.” To be sure, we saw a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases in Europe, but isn’t the problem containing its spread at home?

Trump’s address looked over the utter absence of any infrastructure or preparation that would facilitate ending of international flights, and stocks cratered as most all health officials noted that banning flights was not only useless but the worst possible response at at time when attention should focus on testing and making tests available throughout the nation, and ensuring their distribution to vulnerable populations, even as we returned to mantras of social distancing that appeal to self-preservation and individual survival, even if they are cast as a collective need. It overlooked the long suspicion of funding pandemic preparedeness for infectious diseases like the Swine Flu or SARS, given the pressing fears of pandemic infections. In cutting pandemic funding by almost a billion and calling it “pork” just before the H1N1 outbreak, Republicans effectively hamstrung national response–even as Canadian Health authorities sensibly created a reserve of 55 million N95 masks, at little cost, in a bid for preparedness, while the United States faces a worrisome shortage of masks, ventilators, or medical readiness. If H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans, and 150,000 worldwide, the declaration of that global pandemic for which few had immunity posed questions of vaccine distribution and preparation, creating a basis for coordinating national responses to viral outbreaks of global scale as international emergencies, demanding that all nations heighten readiness and surveillance for influenza-like viral outbreaks never before observed in human subjects, and to which resistance is weak.

World Health Organization (April 2009)

If WHO sought to map national focal points in a web of viral transmission across borders, emphasizing that its design did not imply any confirmation of “the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area of its authorities,” the expression of national authority was the main typos of Trump’s address. The stunning absence of any update on epidemiological investigation of transmission, human to human or human to surface, and indeed periods of incubation, and best practices, was as dizzyingly disorienting as the lack of a coordinated response to the virus, as the sense it was commensurate only with authoritarian measures of closing borders, eliminating pathways, and dangers was clouded in an absence of a more medically expert briefing. It is striking that Washington opened discussion about “secuirng” the longest unmilitarized border between the United States and Canada–hardly an enemy–with troops, to flag folks crossing at unofficial points of entry–to considerable and understandable Canadian consternation.

The rhetoric of border building had escalated, indeed, as the number of reported cases of infection crested above a thousand, confirming the home-grown nature of the “Chinese virus” that had begun to plant local seeds.

By only revealing the extent to which Trump has consistently intimidated his own advisors from ever speaking to him, and refused obstinately to process their advice, we had a clear sense that the image of stern-faced gravity was worse than an Emperor Has No Clothes moment; as it showed him a Chief Executive more out of touch than ever imagined, cut off from the world behind walls of his own making behind which he had long lived. Newspapers tried to act responsibly, by reminding readers that we were at a critical stage in the course of the virus’ spread, in a truly Hippocratic manner, by suggesting the possible scenarionas for the Coronavirus outbreak and spread; the contrast between the nation among leaving the outbreak to spread across the nation, introducing some social distancing as a control measure, and instituting nation-wide curbs on social contact was eloquently offered as three roads in a wood in a front-page data vis, as the chief executive itched markets to reopen by Easter, adhering to an unchanged calendar of religious celebration.

The alternative images for the social controls enacted by national policies suggest the crucial points of coronavirus infection as a national problem.

Three Alternative Models of Coronavirus Infection, March 21 2020 :
No Restrictions; Some Control Measures; Strict Curbs

The declaration that Sunday would be a National Day of Prayer seemed the best that we could hope for, as Trump seemed to regain his stride, or his sense of his true audience, in beseeching Americans to continue, to look, as we have “throughout our history . . . to God for protection and strength in times like these . . . . to turn towards prayer in an act of faith,” in the belief that “Together, we will easily PREVAIL!” The call that cast Trump as the head of a mass church occurred as worship at churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques were went online, or, for parishioners near my house, found them to be simply closed.

Schengen, for what that call to togetherness was worth, was hardly Schengen anymore, closing borders to non-residents for thirty days in hopes to stop the virus’ spread, on March 17, ending the border-free status of the twenty-nine countries, blocking all but essential travel. The moves were a temporary reintroduction of border control, after Austria and Hungary had first closed their borders, as Austria closed its border to Italy on March 11 and Hungary followed by closing borders to Austria and Slovenia on March 12, setting up a domino effect in the Czech Republic, Lithuania (March 14), and Poland (March 15) after which Schengen was no longer Schengen at all–leading Trump to invoke the southern border to all asylum seekers–even at the risk of turning away people without clean living conditions, healthcare, or shelter as if to send the most vulnerable to the coronavirus into global circulation, increasing transmission risks–while blaming them for the virus’ spread.

Such an authoritarian militarization of a national response to the virus rests a misguided policy of “voluntary return” to shoot displaced into transborder limbo to nominally forestall viral communication, boasting of plans for “invoking a certain provision that will allow us great latitude as to what we do,” in blocking communicable disease to enter the borders of the United States, as if the domestic emergency was due to needy migrants. The emergency decision to close immigration courts across the nation as the coronavirus spread by executive order leaves than a million cases in limbo.

Refugee during awareness workshop on Covid-19 at camp for displaced in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. Photo: AAREF WATAD / AFP / NTB Scanpix

Travel bans became a way to process the global pandemic by containing the national units, and introducing the very national borders that had weakened considerably over time that came back with a vengeance–even if the analogy to a military response was less than clear.

Collective practices of social distancing were literalized as bulwarks against fears of the coronavirus crossing borders, as governments tried to enact policies to assuage growing fears by suspending land, sea, and air travel, as fears of the virus migrating spread globally, even as clear data of rates of infection, periods of incubation, and health policies were not understood.

NumberGuy6

But border closures created security–and a sense of progress, as if to compensate for an absence of data, or good health policy, if the logical reaction of fear based on the ballooning rates of confirmed infections–even if Trump seemed, almost pathologically, to not want statistics to be revealed, less the sacred cow of the markets be disturbed, and the need to expand unemployment insurance and health care in this emergency be apparent. Warned by big corporations that any government outlay would be disastrous fo the nation’s markets, we seemed to have entered an acute grotesque schizoid phase of reaction, where the nation’s inhabitants were being asked to take a hit for the sake of the economy, and the agility of the free market was trumpeted as the best reaction to a global health crisis.

March 25, 2020/cartogram by Ben Hennig/WHO COVID-19 infections

The call to prevail provided little sense of guidance, again, as Trump would instruct governors to fend for their own in locating ventilators, ramping up hospital beds, or guaranteeing health care, as he insisted this was not his responsibility, local counties turned to their own policies of “shelter-in-place” orders, to remedy growing fears of the absence of any vision for a national health policy–a state of siege that recalls the construction of the first fallout shelters that sprouted in American cities in the early 1960s seamless with Cold War fears, fully equipped by FEMA with bottles of water, Civil Defense crackers, and radiation meters.

We seem to be told such border closures will help, even as the global spread advances internally in most countries, but borders are focussed on as if to mask needed medical resources and anti-contagion policies.

March 20, 2020 Partial or Complete Border Closures due Spread of COVID-19/Al Jazeera

By ordering folks to remain at home and shuttering all businesses, California public health administrators in Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, and Contra Costa counties, the instruction to do our part to keep everyone healthy expanded the sort of work-from-home policies that Silicon Valley–those policies, which began in tech, with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, may well have encouraged Washington state policies, and surely set a sensible model in place for collective containment of coronavirus’ spread.

By the time that Jay Inslee ordered a two-week shut down of restaurants, entertainment, and recreation, numerous states had, to be sure, in response to the danger of overwhelming public health systems and undersupplied hospitals, as states and localities issued different orders to shelter-at-home and self-quarantine, in preparation for a trying time for public trust.

States Implimenting Coronavirus Stay-at-Home Order/New York Times, March 25

There was a clear echo of the regional resistance of the Western Climate Initiative, a collective of states electing to self-regulate carbon emissions as Trump rolled back Obama-era regulations and the U.S. Climate Alliance, going it on their own way with a carbon-pricing network. Indeed, the nucleus of that very group seemed to be the basis for statewide orders, with the addition of the northeastern and midwest states where public services stood to come under increased stress.

As infections are communicated, such policies may be band-aids–or depend on regional affiliations to make up for the absence of a unified national policy, turning states into effective “petri dishes” for the coronavirus, depending or relying on local alerts along all media possible, even as our leader issued continued demands and considerations on social media that seemed to not be looking at the map.

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Filed under borders, Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, national borders

Venezuela’s Terribly Slippery Sovereignty

Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground offshore sovereignty, lying deep in oil deposits located in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.

The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.

The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.

The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.

 Red dots are oil rigs in interactive map, courtesy UCL Energy Institute/Map: KILN

For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–

–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.

USGS, 2010

Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–

–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.

Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–

Libarary of Congress, Map of the Province and Missions of the Company of Jesus in the New Kingdom of Granada

–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.

Indeed, as we consider

Virginia Behm, ESRI Story Map: The Orinoco Mineral Arc and Mega-Mining in the Amazon

In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.

While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.

Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.

The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.

The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?  who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.

Tankers Holding Venezuelan Oil off Venezuela’s shoreline

As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.

Of public sector debt above $184.5 billion, $60 billion is foreign debt, though smaller numbers are claimed by the Venezuelan Central Bank 

–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.

The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.

For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.

“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–

–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map

The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–

–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,

as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.

The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–

–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.

As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.

In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.

The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”

Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.

Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.

The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.


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But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.

Oil Rig Reclaimed by Conoco in Curacao
6.6 Million Acres offshore Guyana being Explored by ExxonMobil/Hess Guyana/CNOOC in 2017/ ExxonMobil

Claims of Shell, Canadian Oil Company CGX and ExxonMobil Claims off Venezuelan Coast (April, 2017)

CGX Energy INterative Map

If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.


Based on A. Escalona and P Mann, Marine and Sedimentary Geology, v 28, 1 (2011)

And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.

ExxonMobil Oil Platform offshore of Guayana/Reuters

The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.

National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–



BODI

–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–

–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.

How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?

Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.

The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.

Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.

Map of Orinoco Belt Owned by PdVSA and Venezuelan Central Bank

Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.

A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.

As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–

Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–

Continental Shelf of Venezuela (in blue-green cyan hue)

–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.

Gas Exports Planned by PdVSA, 2018

–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,


Synthesis of varied sources on pipless connecting Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, planned oil pipelines in dotted green and gas pipelines in dotted red

The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.

The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–

April 2018

–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.

In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.

Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.

Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.

As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.

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Fenced In/Forced Out: On the Uncertain Fate of the Refugees Kept Outside of Hungary’s Borders

 

The coils of razor-wire lain by a rag-tag group of workforce workers atop the thirteen-and-a-half meter high fences seek to define Hungary’s southern border by mapping a visible barrier against refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war.  It is low tech.  As much as blocking attempted passage across the border, the project has been a crusade of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, in an attempt to inject vigor into the Hungarian strongman’s flagging political career, as much as to create fear among border-crossers.  Since Orbán’s public promise in mid-June to construct a fence that defined Hungary as Europe’s frontier to mid-September, made mostly by state-paid workers, created a sufficiently imposing fence to close the country’s border with Serbia.  This is border building as performance–introducing the sort of fencing that reveals his own strength to his nation, and to the European Union, staged by thousands of uniformed soldiers and with military vehicles and designed to illustrate the integrity of Hungarian border policy before the world media, as much as to demarcate Hungarian territory.  The spectacle of the border has made a lasting impression on Europeans and the global media, creating a visual representation of a border for entry into Europe, even if it has not helped process refugees.

The fence has come to symbolize the tragic plight and obstruction faced by refugees who took a humanitarian corridor across the Balkans on foot or by car to enter Schengen countries, and present them face-to-face with an unexpected obstruction that would define Hungary’s integrity.  The fence topped with razor wire and manned by improvised forces of military policing has become a notorious national symbol reveals the blatant disregard for human rights in a time of increased humanitarian crisis.  It rests on a deeply misguided mapping of the bounds of the Europe Union, an entity under increasing pressure, now understood more as an employment zone than a geographic entity.  The state police who ask refugees to apply for asylum at the newly prominent border as they wait in “transit zone” create a spectacle for Hungarians as much as for the global news.  The liberal use of concertina wire along one hundred and ten miles (one hundred and seventy-five km), topped by security cameras and surrounded by border guards, created a newly militarized space–whose relation to an earlier iron curtain, by no means lost on bloggers, clearly evoked an earlier sense of a work-camp.

The eagerness with which Orbán promoted and adopted the project of border boundary building may originate in the somewhat liminal geographic situation of Hungary in Europe, but the viciousness of the enterprise reflects Orbán’s increasing desperation–and that of his nationalist anti-immigrant FIDESZ party–makes due on his promise to Hungarian voters to act as defenders against the imagined enemy of “migrants” entering the country, to inflate its power by bolstering its own borders in increasingly militaristic terms.  For while the construction of the wall is indeed part of an increasing construction of fences, border barriers and border controls that have emerged across central Europe to repel an increasingly desperate attempt of refugees to enter Europe, and find employment and safety in the Schengen region, the decision to construct such a brutal wall complete with “transit zones” to process refugees may be understood as having its origins in the grotesque theater of Hungarian politics:  although the decision to erect the wall along Serbia’s frontier may precipitate a crisis in refugee flows, it has origins in the willingness of the current Hungarian government to act as the defender of an imagined “European” identity–as evidenced in its blame of the European Union itself for not clearly formulating a plan or policy to deal with refugees, and to assign soldiers along European borders to process human rights migrants.  And as winter descends along a well trodden “West Balkan route” of travel, migrants face new dangers that demand a humanitarian response.  For the dramatic expansion of an even larger two-hundred-and-sixteen-mile long fence topped with razor wire along Hungary’s border with Croatian frontier in mid-October promises to interrupt refugees’ movement on an established West Balkan route, but create a backup that would constitute and even more shameless affront to global human rights and an affront to their actual plight.  Orbán has portrayed the entrance of migrants as an offense against Hungary’s frontiers in manipulative ways–but also wanted to strengthen border boundary to illustrateHungary’s ability to guard the border of “Europe,” after an unprecedented number of 20,000 refugees illegally crossed the border to enter the European Union by crossing the Hungarian border in the Balkans during 2013, a number which had doubled during 2014, increasing alarm of poor border management and giving rise to an unprecedented wave of xenophobic violence.

 

West Balkan Migrations, 2009-2015.pngFrontex Risk Analysis reports

 

In ways which will have quite steep consequences for the actual fates of many refugees in Europe, constructing so prominent a wall is a bizarre exercise both in Hungarian historical memory, and a posturing of a a local strongman who seeks to represent a global crisis through the distorted lens of purely local terms to Hungarians, in what he paints on a global stage as a crisis in European identity.  Orbán has quite outrageously called for “defending the common borders of the European Union with European forces,” but blocking the transit of refugees–or quarantining the newly arrived in euphemistically dubbed “transit zones”–will not intimidate them or prevent their arrival in Europe, but only reroute them, and delay or divert any successful humanitarian strategy from being effectively framed.

 

MIGRANTS2-articleLarge

This makes the pretense of acting as a defender of Europe all the more outrageous.

1. Although the wall was ostensibly built to protect Hungarians from the arrival of refugees, the symbolically powerful wall across the Hungarian border has become an attempt to preserve the strength of Hungary’s government against a largely imaginary enemy.  While few refugees hope to settle in the country permanently, the border-fence is a particularly tragic rewriting for the start of the twenty-first century of Marx’s bold statement at the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire that figures and personages of history not only often repeat, as Hegel believed, but do so first as tragedy and then as farce–if the farce is poised to precipitate an international human rights tragedy of its own.  For the walls evokes historical memories for Hungarians and for Europeans as an assertion of the right of state, even as it seems staged a spectacle to illustrate the strength of the Hungarian state to ward off an entirely imagined enemy, and aggressively grandstand on an international stage in myopic ways.

For if the actual iron curtain was dauntingly divisive, the rather hastily erected fence nominally sought to prevent the arrival of refugees, far less impermeable for desperate refugees than an illustration of the Hungarian government’s resistance to allow progress across a Balkan passage, than notice of the government’s open disregard for their rights.  Refugees are penned like animals along the fences congruent with national borders, rather being than extended asylum or offered any needed humanitarian assistance or refuge.  The building of the border barrier by conscripted labor–as much a police–the border boundary is more of a declaration, and a site for exhuming memories–both of the electric wire fences taken down along the Hungarian-Czech border in 1989-90, pictured below, retained when the fall of an “iron curtain” was celebrated–with far more violence than that longstanding boundary barrier.  Indeed, the sole surviving fragment of that border is far less  threatening than the new barbed wire barrier that was ostensibly built to block entry of the destitute into Hungarian lands.

 

Čížov_(Zaisa)_-_preserved_part_of_Iron_curtain

Bulgaria.border-1024x660

Along Bulgarian-Turkish Border, July 17, 2015 (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

 

The fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border was allegedly constructed only after Orbán declared himself open to consider all options which could stop the flow of refugees into Hungary short of physical closure of the border, after discussions with Serbia.  Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó mustered the declaration that he  believed that its planned construction would not violate international accords or laws–yet it is truly hard to even imagine how he thought it did not, and was quickly recognized in Budapest to be a somewhat ghastly public unthinkable refashioning of the Hungarian state.

 

barbed

Budapest Beacon (June, 2015)

Beyond obstructing or refusing entrance of those who have travelled from former homes through crowded refugee camps in Turkey and Greece, recast refugees fleeing destruction in Syria and Iran as criminals.  For as well as a means of preventing passage across borders, the notorious construction of the border fence is particularly opportunistic move of Prime Minister Orbán:  constructing such imposing border fences cynically re-regulates the very legal procedures to which asylum-seekers are forced to submit.  Is the recent rehabilitation of this oldest and most authoritarian of fictions of national identity not the most reactionary of performances of national exclusion?

Kelebia FenceTriple Concertina-Wire Fence at Hungary’s Serbian Border near Kelebia (Photo: Freedom House)


The geographical location and situation of the imposing border fence have been mapped multiple times in the news as an obstacle to the northward progress of “thousands of migrants and refugees”, and portrayed as a crisis in European unity as Germany and other countries ordered temporary border restrictions.  But the fences that run across Hungary’s borders are less often examined as a dangerous psychological projection of the Orbán government’s loose understanding of legality and manipulation of national identity.  For the increasingly militarized boundary fence not only traces the border barrier around Hungary.  It translates the mapped boundary line into an impassible frontier, surrounded by resettlement camps, which effectively places refugees outside both the status quo and apart from the state.

Has the marginalization of refugees along Hungary’s borders also become an occasion for recovering memories of the marginalization of populations in Hungarian politics, most recently the Roma people and other immigrants?  The patrolled barrier on Hungary’s southern border ostensibly responds to fears of an “endless flow” of illegal immigration which Prime Minister Orbán warns would threaten to “overrun” Europe.  By militarizing the border barrier on its southern border, the Hungarian government ostensibly seeks to defend its protection of its citizens, but also allows itself to charge refugees with violating local laws and protocols in ways that disrespect international law.  Since the fence was completed on September 15, Prime Minister Orbán’s priority recasts him a strongman able to protect the country and defend the state.  The barrier offers Hungary’s government the excuse to punish attempted crossings with three years of imprisonment and automatic deportation.

This haunting but perverse image of the reception of migrants–at a time when Hungarians view emigration as a more dangerous threat to the nation than immigration or the arrival of new and potentially skilled workers–offers an illustration of the strength of the nation and the extent to which the nation will go in taking strong mesures against an imaged enemy.  For in  refusing entry to refugees as they seek to enter the European Union, confining them in “transit zones” sealed off from Hungarian territory, but open to Serbia, Orbán’s government turns the other face to many without medical, legal, or financial assistance.

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2.  By declaring “a state of emergency due to mass migration,” that expands police rights to stop suspected “illegal” refugees, the Orbán government has rewritten the rules refugees follow while authorities decide asylum applications and decide who can be admitted to Hungarian territory:  hence the need for the fence.  (The decisions are unilaterally made without possibility of appeal.)

The barrier quarantines those pleading from asylum on the margins of the country through which they desire passage. Does the fence, patrolled by police and the state army, not provide an image of the defense of the nation where one lacked before, blocking transit across a route where some 170,000 refugees have already entered the EU this year?  The militaristic maneuver seems a show of force disproportionate to, as does the recent dispatching of armored vehicles and hundreds of troops to its Croatian border.  In undermining the most central values of granting asylum that most all European Union countries affirm, dehumanizing refugees as the new target of xenophobic accusations recasts their plight as a disturbance to the state.  And in using national workers to create this boundary barrier, as an artificial boundary of the state, the Orban government could be accused of reallocating funds that the EU had in fact provided his country.

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Hungarian Border near the village of Horgos, Serbia; September 15, 2015 (The Independent)

Even if it is not the impermeable boundary it has been touted–

across the fence? Under it?

Near Röske, Csaba Segesvari (AFP/Getty Images)

What role does the fence serve in blocking refugees entrance to the Schengen countries where they have travelled in search of work?  Designating those who attempt to cross its borders as “illegal” dramatically reinforces regional ethnic prejudices, blaming those undocumented for their circumstances and alternately recasting their identities as muslims, opportunists and actual terrorists, the construction of border barriers crudely exploits the mapping of the national unity as a way to divide space and the flag as a threatening sign of national belonging.

3.  Hungary may lack prison space to accommodate refugees, but seeks to portray itself as able to manage the “crisis” of refugees’ arrival, choosing deportment while ignoring their presence or dilemma.  It is almost paradoxical that the insistence on protocols of boundary-crossing and legal procedure should be so strongly espoused by Prime Minister Orbán–who has regularly flouted and rewritten laws and the constitution, and attacks an independent judiciary.  For the Hungarian border barriers continue Orbán’s openly anti-democratic defense of the Hungarian “homeland” even as he flouted the many EU reprimands his government has already received.  Building the border wall offers a way to ignore global actualities even as refugees cannot continue to comprehend the interruption of their attempt to flee civil war.

Refugees from Turkey and Syria who have crossed the Balkans have been met by similar barriers along the borders of BulgariaSlovenia, Austria, Germany, and Macedonia, to be sure.  While Hungary insists, in double-speak fashion, it hasn’t betrayed the Schengen Accords allowing free transit, whereas border controls were thought dissolved by the European Union, they have returned with a vengeance, stranding many families and individuals in the non-places of airports, parking lots, and improvised camps guarded by attack dogs.  Current plans to expand similar fences and border barriers have spread to Serbia, Ukraine and Estonia, who see themselves as victims of Germany’s vice-chancellor promise to accept one million refugees and half a million yearly.  The fence has served to direct media attention at the problem of a refugees trying to enter western Europe, illustrating the reflexive response of a government providing similar fences of barbed wire on its borders with Romania and Croatia–lest Europe indeed be “over-run,” whatever being over-run by those on foot might mean.  Perhaps we have a failure to map their arrival less in terms of lines of sovereignty–and border fences–and governmentally than charting their painful itineraries.


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BBC

The erection of such border fences on Europe’s edges echo a concept of state sovereignty that seems outdated at a time when the national protection of governments in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere no longer exists. Their creation on a map offer a truly paradoxical means and symbol to cynically assert his own authority, openly rebuking human rights traditions even as he shrouds himself with legitimacy, but has sanctioned the spread of similar frontiers that obstruct the local overland routes on which most refugees have travelled.

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ˆNew York Times

 

By 2016, they had grown, and seemed to reflect not only growing xenophobic suspicions but a deep distrust that actual borders provided meaningful national frontiers, with the number of countries that had completed boundaries or planned to do so providing cordons against future travel that eerily illustrated the removal of the Iron Curtain:

 

European Fences

Economist:  January 7, 2006

 

And the world looked little different, as the reaction to growing global migration was to construct imposing walls to impede human motion:

 

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Economist:  January, 2006

 

The long-planned fence championed by the Orbán government as a response to the “mass-migration” of refugees seems to have sanctioned the “return of the long repressed.”  For it has given a green light to the proliferation of other border controls that constrain refugees’ movement as they search for safety and homes.  The effective obstruction refugees now face has redefined their movement as “illegal”–in ways, that, as Bill Frelick warned, create a categorical confusion that questions the value and rights of humans and transforms their movement across boarders into a punishable event.  If this seems to respond to the 85% jump in requests for asylum since 2014, mostly Syrians followed by Afghani, Albanians, and Iraqi, the abdication of actions of processing or accepting individuals in civil society intentionally marginalize refugees.  Even if Hungary is only a transit zone for these families of refugees, the construction of a fence responds to their arrival in ways that have only unleashed as a response latent xenophobic tendencies.

4.  As increasingly desperate and uneasy refugees walk on foot to reach the perpetually receeding illusion of the “rich EU”–many hoping to join their families–by foot, taxis, rented minibuses, trains, or through human traffickers, their searches for asylum are complicated by the relative nature of European prosperity in the poorer countries through which they travel.  After refugees and immigrants were granted asylum at rising rates in western Europe since 2010, Hungary has erected a militarized border against those forcibly displaced entering central Europe as if to distance the plight of those crossing the Balkans through Turkey and Greece from the mental space of Hungarians and portray their entrance into the country as a national danger–inordinately magnifying the role of Hungarian law on the already unduly onerous lives of refugees beyond what they ever expected.  The difficulty in mapping the numbers of those seeking asylum, and the difficulty of determining where increasingly desperate refugees might settle, complicate the inhuman exaggeration and magnification of the difficulties they pose to governments who may grant them asylum, as do the multiplication of dehumanizing metaphors of swarms of insects, tidal waves, a tsunami, herds of animals,  or indeed as an army convert the almost two million who have fled from Syria and live in refugee camps in Turkey.  Such metaphors certainly seem to sit well with the Hungarian government, who demolished neighborhoods where Roma live only to pay the cost of their reconstruction; other party members call for a ““final solution” for Roma in Hungary–even as the EU has both funneled money to Hungary to aid Roma and prioritized their integration in Hungarian society.

Are our very maps complicit in concretizing and perpetuating such dishonest and profoundly unuseful metaphors as they show the routes refugees take across the Balkans, and the exclusion from countries they confront?

Wa Po Migrant Routes around Hungary

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New York Times

Since the now rightly notorious wall was completed on September 15, the Orbán government announced that any attempted crossing the border barrier by families and children will be punished by Hungarian law.  The continued “mass-migration” has led the Orbán government to declare a state of crisis in which it needs to defend its borders in ways that trump international law–and the rights of persecuted refugees arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, detaining them in “transit zones” controlled by military police.  If the fence responds to a crisis in governmentally–alleging that the river of refugees who have crossed the Balkans from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq were not displaced–the newly militarized borders of nations facing arriving refugees have cast themselves as victims of “mass-migration” by desperate people fleeing on foot; hastily erected fences are monitored by officers in riot gear, bearing ammunition, and water-guns, installing security cameras at a barrier they are investing a paranoid tenor with quite terrifying concreteness.

The chain-link fence topped by barbed wire and security cameras suggests a knee-jerk response to mass-migration with eery echoes of the past.  Hungary’s government has only proposed its rights to build analogous fences on the country’s borders with Croatia and Romania–even as UN officials and the UNHCR voiced dismay at the militarization of its southern borderline.  For while those seeking asylum view Hungary as a site of transit to Europe, and to a new home, this affirmation of local boundaries and exercise in territoriality places those following the hundreds of thousands who have already fled civil wars in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in a sort of legal limbo of displacement unforeseen by countries who  became members in the Schengen Agreement promising unity to asylum requests.  Rather than grant asylum, the labelling of refugees as terrorists, criminals or violent, collectively not deserving entry, rehabilitated flimsy conceit of the border as impassible barrier.

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 AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 

Guardian

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The Guardian UK

Such widespread projects of constructing militarized border fences mark unprecedented local distortion of the thirty-first article of the Geneva Conventions.  The consensus of preventing punishment for refugees illegally entering any territory of a contracting State responded to an era of violence Europe sought to banish. But the barrier distorts Hungary’s place in the world, by treating those who seek passage through Hungarian lands as criminals who are to be kept at a gate.   While the Geneva Conventions affirmed rights for those with refugee status, without medical care or financial means. the criminalization of border-crossing lies not within any nation’s right to police its boundaries, as has many sustain in the United States, is an affront against humanity and international law.

So much is already apparent ent in locally-produced videos seeking to persuade refugees–here identified “illegal Immigrants”–to adopt alternate pathways for eventual asylum in Germany, across mine-filled Croatia:

Illegal Immigrants and You want to get to Germany

The Shortest Journey from Serbia

Do Not Trust the Lying Human Traffickers

The desire to shunt refugees through Croatia, rather than Hungarian lands, conceals the ugliest of inheritances in the Balkans–and its distinctive topography of active land mines blocking most paths and roads to Austria or to Zagreb.

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The obstruction of the progress of landless refugees lacks any sense of the global dilemma we increasingly face.  For the notorious fence strikingly reveals how this oldest of designators of territoriality has been rehabilitated and so openly championed when the pathways of refugees across borders is both common and challenging to visualize–and distorts their plight as if it were a purely local affair of following procedures, but whose Kafkaesque character conceals a hatred fueled by xenophobia.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations

“Global Trends in Displacement”/New York Times (based on UNHCR data from 2014)

Such authoritarian boundary-building is all too easily justified by ignorant questions of who deserves refugee status or which government is rightly tasked with processing petitions of asylum–even if Schengen accords clearly place that responsibility in the country of entrance, the massive movement of nationals across the Balkans was never imagined.  Rather than appreciate human displacement, the Hungarian decrees unilaterally police entrance into a region of passport-free travel by local law; those seeking asylum are “othered” as illegal, and deserving punishment, without recognition of their dire trajectories or desperate search for new homes:  labelled “migrants,” rather than refugees, those fleeing civil wars and destroyed states are portrayed as opportunistically seeking benefits and jobs–rather than the economic air political security that is their legal right.

As much as the arrival of refugees challenges a notion of governmentality, refugees are unfairly recast as offenders decorum who stand in violation of legal codes.  The argument for building boundaries on our borders to prevent human border-crossing is not without other precedents, as Americans well know–and are knee jerk responses to questions of governmentally, as much as they offer responses to human needs.  Is it a coincidence that the assertion of this imaginary borderline by an actual wall–similar to the fortified border barrier between the US and Mexico, lambasted by Vincente Fox as “disgraceful and shameful”?   President George W. Bush had prioritized the fence to prevent “illegal entrance” and immigration in 2001.  It has not prevented migrants from crossing–and, as Michael Dear noted, whatever deterrence of migration is created by the barrier, it can hardly justify the “enormous expense of maintaining the fortifications — estimated to be $6.5 billion over the next 20 years.”  But the game was always primarily political, and when it was resurrected in the first platform paper Donald Trump released for his presidential run, he cast the plan to expand the border barrier in particularly xenophobic terms–and may have led the hapless Scott Walker to continue the folly of drawing borders by casting wall-building on the US-Canada boundary as a “legitimate issue”.

The border barrier Orbán erected along Hungary’s southern frontier echoed that on the US-Mexico border, but averts eyes from the refugee crisis:  “Don’t come,” an aid to Orbán quipped, “because this route doesn’t lead where you want to go.”  “Don’t come here anymore,” chimed in Serbia’s Interior Minister, pressing his government’s control over passage; “This is not the road to Europe.”   Inhumane response almost taunt refugees–as liberal use of pepper spray, water canon and teargas against those who have tried to breach the barrier materialize these only slightly veiled threats.  The fence not only keeps out refugees, but imagines their distance from the Hungarian state, and indeed costs Hungary as a frontier of Europe–and a country of Christian Europeans.  Much as patrol agents prevent passage at the US-Mexican border, the border barrier distorts questions human rights by way of recasting them in terms of national defense, in ways far less constructive or considered response to human needs or occasion needing international cooperation.

The fence that several presidential candidates propose to further expand the fence that runs along a third of the boundary ignores that the fence’s ineffective role in stopping migrants than has the US Border Patrol–the border barrier has been ineffective in discouraging migration, although it has actually prevented migrants from returning to Mexico–expanding 83 miles of fenced border to militarized expanse of 700 miles at a cost of $2 billion.  The embrace in Hungary of fortifications that recalls the triple curling of concertina wire atop the US-Mexico fence at Tijuana “to make the border safe and secure” claimed to have reduced illegal border-crossings by 50% in 2008, forgoing the  “aesthetically pleasing” federal design standards used in other regions of the US-Mexico fence, the fence is a similarly foreboding remapping of the boundary line for visual effect in a new rallying cry.

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Razor Wire Fence Patrolled along the US-Mexico Border

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AP (2006)

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Donald Trump’s logic that “A nation without borders is not a nation” seems adopted by the Orbán government’s actual plan.

The improvised barricade constructed iduring the summer of 2015 runs along Hungaryy’s southern border with Serbia seeks to create the absolute division one might read in a regional map.  But protection of the actual border may have somewhat less relevance to FIDESZ Prime Minister Orbán than the desire to appear strong in the face of the anti-migrant and anti-gypsy rhetoric he has profited from and continues to incite.  Orbán declared with mock magnanimity that “the tolerance period is over” for granting refugees asylum as it was erected, intentionally creating, seeking to “stir up popular sentiment against immigrants and refugees” by any means possible, observed Marta Pardavi.  Despite being a signatory to the Geneva Convention that makes it incumbent to accept refugees from war-torn lands, even to a country which sees itself as poor, the wall prevents recognition of refugees–each of whom the far-right-wing Jobbik party, which has portrayed the arrival of refugees as a failure in local governance, argues will cost Hungarians 4300 HUF daily, in a country where daily unemployment benefits for its citizens come to 2362 HUF.

In this politicized context, the plans for enforcing the construction of the fence along Serbia’s border primarily constituted a strong public statement.  The enforcement of the boundary barrier illustrates Orbán’s commitment to a distorted image of the Hungarian nation’s integrity, and suggesting his willingness to defend Europe from refugees who most saw as fleeing from their lands, but he portrayed as alien migrants.  After protesting delays in its construction, the deployment of troops to this newly militarized zone to stop those seeking transit to Europe creates fixed portals for processing people without according them human dignity, for the rationale that “They don’t look like people who could become useful members [of society].”  There is all too clear a danger that the refusal of Hungary’s Prime Minister and government to process refugees who seek asylum and have traveled across the Balkans on foot from Syria, Afghanistan, and also Iraq is an attempt to pander to the right-wing Jobbik party, who have consistently claimed and asserted that the current government will not be able to solve the refugee crisis as it has staged public anti-refugee rallies in Budapest that distort the dangers that the “migrant crisis” will cause the nation–and that Hungary’s current government fails to fully address.

The imagined dangers posed by such refugees, wrongly cast as opportunistic threats, or immigrants in search of work, uses the border from a map as a way to disengage from refugees’ actual plights.  (Indeed the unstinting support Hungary’s Foreign Minister voiced for Germany’s decision to start border controls on rail travel from Austria seems a poorly disguised attempt to unite Europe against the arrival of refugees.)  Meanwhile, alternative routes refugees might take to have been proliferating on social media.  Will the creation of such controls, now enacted by both the Netherlands and Slovakia and apparently being considered in Denmark, impel more human smuggling of refugees who are often both educated and able-bodied and even with cash reserves, and expand the humanitarian crisis of refugees?

Bulgarian Fence

Border Barrier Under Construction in Bulgaria

Has the Hungarian government’s sanctioning of the building of this fence from June 2015 given rise to a knee-jerk defense of territoriality?  Or has the fence also inspired a return of memories of strongmen from Hungary’s past?

The completed border fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia is more suitable for animal chattel to halt the progress men, families and children, and constitutes a new low point in local respect for human rights–oddly resonating with how members of Orbán’s party liken Roma people in Hungary to “animals” who are “not fit to live among people.”  As much as it reveals a panicked response to the global rise in refugees, the chain fence reveals the reluctance of Hungary’s government to confront the problem of refugees, and refuse, ostrich-like, to believe that problems might enter their own national space–a space from which Orbán’s circles have already expelled Roma.  The rhetoric of the wall closely mirrors the project of wall-building US Presidential candidate Donald Trump openly xenophobic proposal to extend a fence across the US-Mexican border to ward off the arrival of “criminal” Mexicans, as much as migrants in search of work who the wall originally targeted.  Indeed, the Orbán government’s “defense” of the boundaries to Schengen countries of the European Union both recalls the creation of an impermeable US-Mexican wall, 700 miles of which already exist–and uses the outdated nature of the national border despite the limited value of border patrols beyond public political posturing.

Is it only a coincidence that the strengthening of such walls parallel the vanishing of the frontiers and borders that once defined the imaginary integrity of the nation-state?  Both “walls” ignore the growing irrelevance of the borders in a global situation.  Both take refuge behind the most antiquated of artifacts:  indeed, the construction of such barriers only affirms the declining significance of the border as an actual divide, in the face of anxiety about the diminished meaning of national borderlines, and offers opportunities for photo-shots to affirm a national imaginary.  Is it only a coincidence that Trump trumpeted an expanded border barrier against the “extreme danger” of Mexican arrivals at the campaign stop he made at the border city of Loredo, TX, for the first time sporting a now-famous trucker hat bearing his campaign promise to restore America’s national greatness?

Trump's Promise

Donald Trump First Sports His Campaign Hat at the Border City of Loredo, TX

When the unlikely presidential candidate looked at the camera declaring that the future of the United States rested in extending border barriers along the entire US-Mexico boundary against “illegal” migrants, Trump unwittingly offered a defense that has been adopted by countries who take it upon themselves to militarize and police Europe’s borders.  As Trump espoused the expansion of border barriers that illustrate national sovereignty in an age that demands increasing international cooperation, the devotion of attention to the policing of boundaries comes at huge cost for addressing refugees’ actual needs.

5.  The Hungarian government has similarly linked the militarized border-zone built along its southern border to the preservation of its national identity.  The fence intentionally creates a no-man’s land and quasi-police state suspending human rights, filled with refugee camps which fail to help prioritize or meet individual needs, and dehumanize refugees, in the ugliest of illustrations of inhumane treatment at “migrant centers.”  For the razor-wire fence that traces Hungary’s southern border with Serbia seems both to be an abdication of legal responsibility and ethical obligation to those seeking asylum from war-torn nations–and a misguided local response to a global problem whose actual proportions it sadly seems to seek only to obscure.  As much as the wall on Hungary’s border has complicated questions of European unity and identity, it puts into crisis a coordinated response to the global problem of refugees.

As Hungarians seem to refuse to grant asylum as the first country in the Schengen area, where passport-free travel is allowed, it has offered a case where the global crisis of refugees in need of protection have been met by a hostility that treats their movement from shattered pasts as a threat to the civil society–and intentionally obscures the role of Hungary as a transit country.

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Hungarian Soldiers Building a Fence near Asotthalom, southern Hungary, on Aug. 30, 2015 (Xinhua/Attila Volgyi)

How did this come to be?  The border-fence built by Hungarian soldiers seems created to prevent any passage of refugees seeking asylum, but suggests a cynical exploitation of a global crisis.  Building an improvised wall of some one hundred and eight miles, complete with a public announcement that any damage to the temporary fence along Hungary’s Serbian border will be punished by imprisonment, is a theatrical attempt to refuse housing or accommodating the refugees who have travelled across the border since the Spring by foot.  For the highly staged building of a such a highly symbolically charged, breachable, and deeply inhumane metal-link fence–whose breaching will be punished, according to the books, by three years imprisonment.

For those seeking refuge from persecution are indeed regularly beaten by police as if they were criminals and left “in legal limbo” in Serbia and Macedonia, wbhie seeking asylum as they try to enter the European Union.  Refugees have been forced to face increasing barriers created to their entrance to Europe even as they are subject to routinized bad treatment and forced to negotiate police brutality on Europe’s borderlands.  “We are human too,” plead refugees, fearing state police.  Orbán’s fear that Hungary may receive some 800,000 asylum requests, and by “next year we will be talking about millions and this has no end,” has fomented xenophobia against refugees at significant human cost, and perversely magnified the problem of those seeking refugee status as a purely national problem at significant cost.

But the true disgrace, as the invocation of a line on a map–the line of the European Union–but is the last in a series of protective insular walls of small-minded construction.  It symbolizes a quite desperate and panicked attempt to keep reality at bay, in the perversely misguided belief that a truly global disaster could be either held at bay or flat-out locally denied.  But the arrogant assertion of the fence is far more emblematic of the hysteria that the Hungarian government seeks to stoke rather than it contains any legal justification.

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At the same time as refugees seeking asylum have abandoned perilous transit across the Mediterranean, and were rebuffed by Iran, Hungary has become a default to enter the EU and area Schengen accords that permit travel without a passport.  Passage by the Balkans is now the recommended by smugglers as a route of transit–such smugglers seem to have a more clear map of the geography of displacement and challenges of asylum than even the UNHCR.  Although Hungary has received a significantly larger number of applications for asylum for refugee status by June, 2015, when Orbán announced the wall’s construction, the requests are merely a way to enter a new life in Europe–as all refugees are obligated to declare their status at a point of entry.  Rather than process those seeking asylum, the wire fence barrier is both a blatant and a cynical rebuff to human rights and legal rights, and an exercise of turning the other shoulder to those attempting passage.

The dedication of public funds to such a barrier seems a further violation of refugees’ legal rights, and constitutes a glaring slight to if not an actual crisis of international law.  The position adopted by Hungary’s FIDESZ government deeply distorts its position in relation to Europe and the world by casting the “crisis” in purely local terms–far beyond the practical difficulties of processing and registering refugees who cross its southern border with Serbia.  The distortion of a ‘local’ crisis created by “migrants” has led the government to use state radio and immigration police to use the border barrier to remove desperate global refugees from their own mental space.  The dangers distort precedents of anti-semitism and xenophobia that the government has long pandered:  indeed, the strongly anti-gypsy rhetoric Orbán’s party has recently exploited and normalized has been rapidly refashioned as Islamophobia, in ways that echoes the antisemitic rhetoric of one of Hungary’s pasts.

As much as the fence reflects an actual rise of immigrants with Hungary as their destination, the figures of those seeing asylum in Hungary  the wall is part of a highly choreographed if misguided moment to rebuff refugees that will allow his xenophobic FIDESZ government to prevent refugees from entering the attention of the government–and claim to represent not only the Hungarian people, but by arrogant and increasingly evidently self-important assumption, all Europe.  As the Balkan route of refugees grows, even as the rights of refugees fail to be adequately defended, a renewed on-foot march of refugees to Austria and beyond has resumed.  Even as a refugee policy is not clearly in place.  Illustrating belonging and its boundaries is what the Hungarian government’s spectacle seems chiefly to address and to do in particularly terrifying terms.  The severely imposing barricade (or fence) constructed from June is the latest attempt to prevent refugees who have travelled from Syria and elsewhere from crossing the frontier–although their suggestion of a fence more worthy of animal pens than humans reveals the disdain and hatred that the Orbán government has concertedly sought to direct to the refugees, to obscure their own dire situation, as much as the threat that they purportedly pose to Hungarian social services–and to treat refugees as human chattel that Roma people have been so regularly cast.

Refugees at Serbian Border:Sergey Ponomarev:NYTSergey Ponomarev/New York Times

The fence is most inopportunely placed.  The fence is an assault on human dignity which however has clear origins in the theater of Hungarian politics.  For it was in part built as a  response to the threat refugees pose to the mental space of the Orbán’s government and his FIDESZ supporters, as much as Hungary–as is the recent confinement of desperate refugees who have arrived, homeless, at Budapest’s nineteenth-century eastern Keleti railway station, in search of final passage to Germany and the European Union.  (The buses that had carried thousands of refugees to Austria–where they have been more generously received–are no longer being provided, according to Hungary’s police chief, but some 1,200 also attempted to walk the same distance, on the highway, to seek to try to reach their destination by foot in the stifling midday heat, after westward buses and trains to Austria and Germany were suspended.)

There a sense that the current and ongoing crisis of processing refugees creates a conceptual crisis in the nation-state, but the reaction to an influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.  But it has been highly staged as a way to deny the humanity of those fleeing, rather than to need to address their misfortunes, and the response of other countries, as Austria, reveals a clear possibility of a different reception for refugees in Europe, less dictated by fear.

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The cyclone chain link fence that along ten miles in length was planned on a political map, in hopes to prevent a global disaster from entering the mental space of the Prime Minister and of sustainers of the right-wing FIDESZ party, as well as Hungarian territory–it stands for a reactionary impulse to affirm the impermeability of the country’s national frontier is an unacceptable reaction to the arrival of refugees in increasing numbers and with increasing desperation.  By exploiting the status of Hungary as the first Schengen nation able to grant asylum, tasked with the job of fingerprinting and processing refugees, the Hungarian government has opportunistically and inhumanely decided to exploit its situation to prevent those seeking asylum from entering the European Union, in ways that have tended to elevate its status as a frontier for its own ends.

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While the problem of processing refugees is surely not only a European one, the position that the Hungarian government has taken is more than opportunistic.  The overtly protectionist barricade is an attempt to force those desperately seeking asylum, and may also encourage them to search for other, riskier, overseas routes.  It seems, moreover, inseparable from terrifying images of the mute rebuff met by the anguished face of terrified refugees.   But it is also a deadly political game.  Prime Minister Orbán’s Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, stoically vowed in mid-June of 2015, unilaterally and with the apparent intent of stoking alarmism, that his country “cannot afford to wait any longer” having processed 54,000 immigrants and with the count of refugees poised to rise 120,000 by the year’s end–even though Hungary was actually way-station to asylum elsewhere, rather than a final destination, for most, and was obligated as the first nation in the Schengen area to grant asylum to refugees who had crossed the Balkans.

But the sense of desperation that he voiced reflected a deep confusion about the place that Hungary seemed to have inherited on the border of Europe.  The fence slated for completion in August, 2015 was not alone; it was only one in a series of fences that Europeans are engaged in building as they wrestle with new global patterns of refugee traffic in Calais, Greece, Bulgaria, Estonia, and the Ukraine, misguidedly construe local perceptions of a truly global crisis–much as Orbán has recast the plight of refugees as a conflict between opposed faiths.  The reaction to refugees has been particularly poignant in Hungary, and has prompted news maps to characterize the dreams of the ruling party to create a gate to Europe, as much as provide a possible response to hopes many refugees will continue to nurture.

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Yahoo News

Sealing the border with a militarized chain-link barricade provides a particularly stony rebuff, truly terrifying, evident in images of recent encounters with the anguished faces of desperate and panicked refugees who sought asylum.

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For the attempt to block the flow of refugees what one seems to erecting is not only an inhumane gesture, but a desperately local distortion of a global problem.  The fence has recently impelled French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to express credulous wonder at the scandal that this act disrespects European respect for human rights–as United Nations refugee agencies stepped just short of condemning the construction of a fence as a fit response to those searching for safety and protection–and asylum; the Swiss would ban Orbán’s travel to their country, and freeze Hungarian assets in response to indignation at the “human rights situation and the refugee scandal” in the country.”  The fence may well encourage those fleeing their own perilous conditions from adopting still more dangerous itineraries and routes of illegal migration.  “This wall–we will not accept it,” Syrian refugee Mohamed Hussein bitterly observed, pausing on travels through Turkey and Serbia, as he attempted to walk from Iran to Turkey.

How can one, however, insist on responding locally to a truly global dilemma of desperate flight?

Even though the actual routes of illegal immigration of refugees are so complexly negotiated and improvised to defy a clean cartographical synthesis, the actual routes of refugees were rarely imaged as running through Hungary on earlier news maps.

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But if the routes of refugees are difficult to map, the propaganda map issued by the Hungarian government’s Office of Immigration and Citizenship pictured the routes of refugees in ways that seem particularly distorting :  the map almost openly validates fears of invasion in a crudely (and no doubt intentionally) propagandistic map designed to stir up fears that shows the Hungarian nation as imperiled from an onslaught of “illegal immigrants” needing to be stopped:

Office of Citizenship and ImmigrationHungarian Office of Immigration and Citizenship

The bold and forceful red arrows that lead directly through Hungary conjure the flows that the proposed barricade proposed to stop or “staunch” along the boundary lines between Hungary and Serbia.

The propaganda map issued by the Office of Immigration and Citizenship seems designed to intentionally stoke xenophobic fears, emphasizing the nation as a unit of continued meaning in an emergency of truly global proportions, as well as to magnify the role that such a fence on Hungary’s border would have.  There is something grotesquely inhumane to chart the itineraries of refugees who have travelled on foot from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria as if they were a phalanx of approaching Panzers, adopting the rhetoric of a map of military advances–although the refugees who often took these paths often travelled not only without arms, but barefoot.  But the map conjures a threat as if it were in danger of being immediately posed to the national frontiers.

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The actual routes of refugees take are considerably more complicated and improvised, of course, but when schematically mapped reveal routes less exclusively focussed on a Balkan itinerary–although this is one of the sites of greatest police push-back according to Amnesty International–until they find detention centers to welcome them across the Sebian border.

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Financial Times (September 2, 2015)

Yet the image echoes the deeply xenophobic fears that the Orbán government has intentionally sought to stoke.  Faced with growing unemployment rates and nourished by openly racist xenophobia, the 23,000 people who applied in the past year for asylum in Hungary alone from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq no doubt created a basis for panic in the Orbán government and ruling Fidesz party, whose prominent display of public billboards cautioning asylum-seekers “IF YOU COME TO HUNGARY, YOU CANNOT TAKE HUNGARIANS’ JOBS” in Hungarian were not only the revers of a red carpet, but widely cast their xenophobic rhetoric–long adopted by Orbán’s FIDESZ ruling party–in the disquieting garb of national protectionism.  Despite the posters, however, Oban has continued to state that the arrival of Muslim immigrants poses not only a challenge to jobs, however, but a challenge to Europe’s faith in particularly incendiary rhetoric, describing the “madness” of the current EU immigration policy as a departure from common sense.

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Independent

As the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner of Refugees has noted, such response hardly befit refugees seeking asylum who are in need of international protection.  And in an attempt to gain the upper hand, UNHCR displayed its own counter-billboards in Budapest–

Anti-Immigration Campaign

–providing images of integration of immigrants that the FIDESZ seeks to banish from Hungarians’ minds.

In Hungary

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The rhetoric of preventing the arrival in European territories of refugees who have travelled through the Balkans appeals to the nationalist imagination of some Hungarians.  The fence was build, allegedly, in a move of protectionism of European identity, “to stop the flood,” as Zoltán Kovács, government spokesperson, coldly put it, indulging a particularly dehumanizing rhetoric that has led not only to the construction of the fence.  In going so far as to claim that Hungary is “the most affected EU country in absolute terms,” the government has perversely distorted a crisis of painfully global proportions by representing it in local terms.  The defense Prime Minister Orbán openly made advocating the use of internment camps as suitable responses to immigrants reflect this perception that Hungary lies the “forefront” of the immigration crisis–although this crisis is clearly global–in order to justify the building of a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border of over 100 miles in length.

For Orbán has gone to great pains to defend the impassibility of a border rather than devote public funds to possible resettlement of immigrants, or to their processing as refugees.  While the construction of an improvised fence of coiled razor-wire and chain link, to be monitored by armed officers who will guard the border with the aim to prevent the fence from destruction with wire-cutters, builds on a conviction that Hungary is the gateway of illegal immigrants to Europe’s borders, and filled his self-assumed charge “to keep Europe Christian,” as Orbán told the German Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung in a particularly ill-considered attempt to win sympathy, does not conceal disregard for human rights in proclaiming the risk of Europe being “overrun“–adopting a explicitly anti-islamic xenophobic tenor that unabashedly invokes a politics of global opposition, if not a conflict between faiths, that echoes Samuel P. Huntington’s clash of civilizations.  The very deployment of this inappropriately oppositional rhetoric all too conveniently overlooks the desperation behind refugees’ flights.  (FIDESZ is an acronym, but evokes the Latin deity of trust and reliability–much as Agenzia Fides remains the news agency of the Vatican, adopting the term for faithfulness or faith to link its pronouncements to those of the Catholic church–even as Pope Francis has ordered all churches and clergymen in Hungary and Europe to open their doors to those claiming status as refugees.)

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Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

Overrun, we might well ask, with whom, or with what?

It is true, the strident rhetoric of Orbán’s government may build on a series of similarly xenophobic precedents by which flustered bureaucrats have, maybe imitating the United States, built walls–perhaps more for their own populations than as actual preventive measures.  In seeking to terrify immigrants and refugees, Orbán has all too openly conflated the dangerous criminal and the immigrant with particular zest.  For the image of a fortressed Europe is a scarily common reaction to fears of immigration that many Europeans can barely suppress, and may press unique pressures on the European Union.

If English newspapers like the Daily Mail seized up on the image of the Hungarian fence as a response to illegal immigration–

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Daily Mail

–no doubt in part due to the proximity of London to the 3,000 refugees crowded into substandard camps in Calais, where refugees are waiting to cross the channel, even as British PM David Cameron has publicly ruled out the granting of safe havens, as Englishmen have volunteered to provide them with some relief in migrant camps, and hundreds from Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia daily risk travel to England by train and ferries.

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6.  The demands to contain the global flow of refugees has often been perceived in a very distorting local optic that seem less interested in care–or of conceptualizing care–than of creating clearer boundaries than refugees might perceive.

The widespread trending across much of Europe toward “fencing” borders to turn back immigrants echo a broad misconception that the best defense is to built fences that blithely believe they can push the “problem” elsewhere in areas on the edges of Europe, as public projects that resemble the extensive ditches dug in the Middle Ages, if they are far less effective:

Fortressing Europe

Such public works projects suggests unique pains of the human rights crisis of refugees seeking asylum, albeit that these attempts have so far been largely located on the margins of the EU (Bulgaria; Greece; Estonia; and Ukraine)–and uncomfortably imitate the same sort of strong-man statist rhetoric with which Orbán confronted his own government’s crisis.

But the truly terrifying materialization of the border line with razor wire in the lengthy fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia conjures a distinct flavor of xenophobia, no doubt, of dubious legality, oddly analogous to the Catch-22 type of situation at Budapest’s Keleti station, where refugees are clustered, confined by guards, in ways that have increasingly come to reflect the markedly increased brutality that the creation of fences so often inspires among border guards and police officers.  Did the existance of the fence not increase the markedly inhumane violence of border guards and police at Keleti station?

Such rhetoric is tied to the improvised creation of a counter-city that has emerged at Budapest’s Keleti railway station, as migrants are denied transit on trains that would provide passage to other EU countries where they would more readily be granted asylum.

Refugees After being forced Outside Station in Budapest:Lazar Simeonov, Al JazeeraLazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera

Is detention, and the prospect of the completion of the iron fence–so analogous to the fences that Donald Trump has promised to build along the United States’ border with Mexico, and based on the distorted logic of viewing non-nationals as akin to terrorists that has been diffused by the US Office of Homeland Security–either an adequate or humane response?  Fears of the brutality of guards brought into face-to-face confrontation with immigrants who border guards feel are both illegal and guilty of having entered across a state-built barrier seem more likely to occur.

Refugees Asleep outside Budapest Station:Simeonov

Lazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera

There is something deeply troubling–and deeply pathetic–that the Eastern Railway station of the capital, a triumphalist beaux arts symbol of the Hungarian nation’s new image of industrial progress, has become a site of confinement–and of refusing to asylum or refugee status to those seeking passage to Europe.  The marginalization of these refugees to a stateless limbo hopes that their problem will go away, rather than develop a consensus that their fate remains a pressing problem needing collective attention.  So much seems a symptom of the priorities that the Orbán government has established, as if to deny any possibility of refugees’  entry and to deny their actual itineraries and travails.

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September 3, 2015 · 2:19 pm