Atlantic Article on Effectiveness of New Technologies in Combating Covid-19

from The Atlantic, on-line at < >

3 Ways the Pandemic Has Made the World Better

COVID-19 has inflicted devastating losses. It has also delivered certain blessings.
Zeynep Tufekci March 18, 2021

This has been a year of terrible loss. People have lost loved ones to the pandemic. Many have gotten sick, and some are still suffering. Children have lost a year of school. Millions have lost a steady paycheck. Some have lost small businesses that they’d built for decades. Almost all of us have lost hugs and visits and travel and the joy of gathering together at a favorite restaurant and more.

And yet, this year has also taught us much. Strange as it may sound, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered blessings, and it does not diminish our ongoing suffering to acknowledge them. In fact, recognizing them increases the chance that our society may emerge from this ordeal more capable, more agile, and more prepared for the future.

Here are three ways the world has changed for the better during this awful year.

1. We Now Know How to Code for Our Vaccines

Perhaps the development that will have the most profound implications for future generations is the incredible advances in synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) biotechnologies.

We got our vaccines very fast—the previous record for vaccine development was four years, and that was set in the 1960s. This time, we developed multiple good COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year. Luck bought us some of that speed. For example, the HIV retrovirus is notoriously difficult to vaccinate against, and we still don’t have a vaccine for it. COVID-19 was much more susceptible, and billions of dollars in public money and a global sense of urgency pushed things along. Tragedy also sped things up: Because the pandemic was raging—more cases to test against—it was easier to get results from vaccine trials.
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But amid all this came historic developments. The new mRNA technology, on which several vaccines—notably Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s—are based, is an epochal scientific and technical breakthrough. We are now coding for vaccines, and thanks to advances in science and industrial production, we can mass-produce them and figure out how to deliver them into our cells in a matter of months.

This is all new. Neither Moderna nor BioNTech had a single approved product on the market before 2020. Each company essentially designed its vaccine on a computer over a weekend in January 2020—BioNTech’s took just a few hours, really. Both companies had vaccine candidates designed at least four weeks before the first confirmed U.S. COVID-19 fatality was announced, and Moderna was producing vaccine batches to be used for its trials more than a month before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. In 2021, the companies together aim to produce billions of stunningly efficacious vaccine doses,

We know the principle behind vaccination: Once our immune system encounters a virus, it can learn how to fight it and remember how to do it the next time. Vaccines give our immune system the practice it needs, but it’s deliberately structured as an unfair fight. Until now, most of our current vaccines have been either weakened or completely deactivated viruses or, more recently, protein subunits: just a few fragments from the virus, called antigens. We’ve achieved extraordinary levels of effectiveness and safety with these techniques, but they still have downsides. In 1955, a botched batch of weakened polio vaccine killed 10 children and caused paralysis in hundreds. We’ve since made sure to never repeat that tragic failure, but producing vaccines from the actual pathogen still means handling the virus in the manufacturing process. The newer subunit vaccines hold a lot of promise, but come with their own challenges. Identifying the right subunit (or antigen) can be difficult, and these vaccines tend to produce weaker immune responses. Plus, it’s not like antigens are hanging out on a supermarket shelf. We grow them in cell systems like yeast or in E. coli—essentially hijacking their genetics to produce the antigens we want, and then harvesting the yield. It works, but it’s slower than the mRNA process.

The mRNA vaccines work differently. For these, scientists look at the genetic sequence of a virus, identify a crucial part—such as the spike protein, which it uses as a key to bind onto cells’ receptors in order to unlock and enter them—produce instructions to make just that part, and then send those instructions into our cells. After all, that’s what a virus does: It takes over our cells’ machinery to make more of itself. Except in this case, we instruct our cells to make only the spike portion to give our immune system practice with something that cannot infect us—the rest of the virus isn’t there!

Until this year, that was the dream behind the synthetic mRNA technologies: a dream with few, scattered adherents, uphill battles, and nothing to show for it but promise. This year, it became a reality.

Our cells have a remarkable kind of software—wetware—that uses the instructions in the DNA in our cells’ nuclei to produce proteins. If you imagine the assembled proteins as a Lego structure, the DNA is like the instruction booklet. But someone has to look at those instructions and put the blocks together in the right way. In the cell, a key part of this process is the messenger RNA: a short-lived, single-strand molecule that carries the instructions from the DNA in the nucleus to the protein-making factory outside it.

In 2020, we figured out how to make messenger RNA with precision, by programming the exact code we wanted, producing it at scale (a printing press for messenger RNA!), and figuring out a way to inject it into people so the fragile mRNA makes it into our cells. The first step was pure programming: Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, sat at his computer and entered the genetic code of the spike protein of the mysterious virus that had emerged in Wuhan. Moderna employees had done the same thing the weekend after the genomic sequence was released on January 10. The Moderna vaccine candidate was called mRNA-1273 because it encoded all of the 1,273 amino acids in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein—the code was so small that it could all be represented with little less than half the number of characters that fit on a single-spaced page.

The rest of the process relied on key scientific and industrial innovations that are quite recent. Messenger RNA are fragile—they disintegrate easily, as they are supposed to. The lipid nanoparticles we envelop them in to use as delivery systems were approved only in 2018. Plus, the viral spike protein is a notorious shape-shifter. It takes one form before it fuses with our cells and another one afterward. The latter, postfusion form did not work well at all for developing vaccines, and scientists only recently figured out how to stabilize a virus’ spike in its prefusion form.

Now that this process is in place, a host of possibilities have opened up. We may soon have vaccines for many other diseases that have eluded our grasp. Efforts are already under way, for example, for an mRNA vaccine for malaria—a parasite that each year kills hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children, and is notoriously hard to vaccinate against.

We may also finally get a new set of tools to better fight cancer. (Both Moderna and BioNTech were working on cancer treatments before pivoting to coronavirus vaccines.) The challenge with cancer is that it is our own cells gone awry. It is really difficult to find a way to kill just a patient’s cancer cells thoroughly without also killing healthy cells—and thus the patient. But synthetic mRNA can be encoded with only the specific mutation in one patient’s cancer cells—and if the cancer cells further mutate, those can be targeted as well.

This may allow us, finally, to transition from a broadcast-only model of medicine, wherein drugs are meant to be identical for everyone in a particular group, to targeted, individualized therapies. Plus, these technologies are suitable for small-scale but cheap-enough production: a development that can help us treat rare diseases that afflict only a few thousand people each year, and are thus usually ignored by mass-market-oriented medical technologies.

It’s also no coincidence that these two mRNA vaccines were the fastest to market. They can be manufactured rapidly and, crucially, updated blazingly fast. Şahin, the BioNTech CEO, estimates that six weeks is enough time for the company to start producing new boosters for whenever a new COVID-19 variant emerges. Pfizer and Moderna are both already working on boosters that better target the new variants we’ve seen so far, and the FDA has said it can approve these tweaks quickly.

2. We Actually Learned How to Use Our Digital Infrastructure

The internet, widespread digital connectivity, our many apps—it’s easy to forget how new most of this is. Zoom, the ubiquitous video service that became synonymous with pandemic work, and that so many of us are understandably a little sick of, is less than 10 years old. Same with the kind of broadband access that allowed billions to stream entertainment at home and keep in touch with family members and colleagues. Internet connectivity is far from perfect or equally distributed, but it has gotten faster and more expansive over the past decade; without it, the pandemic would have been much more miserable and costly.

Technology also showed how we could make our society function better in normal times.

Consider, for example, the advent of telehealth during the pandemic. Last summer, while a few hours away from home, I developed the same debilitating neck pain that I had experienced once before, about five years ago, on a different trip. It was instantly recognizable: sharp, relentless pain that radiated from where my neck joined my left shoulder; even a slight movement felt as if an army of tiny, poisonous spears were hitting that area.

Read: What a doctor learns from watching you on video chat

The previous time, I was told nothing could be done before I could see my doctor in person, many days later. Not so now: My doctor and I connected immediately through a new patient portal, which had a videochat option that had become available because of the pandemic. I described the problem and demonstrated my limited range of motion. He signed off by saying he’d send a prescription for oral corticosteroids to a nearby pharmacy. Just an hour later, and less than a full day after the onset of my symptoms, I was sitting in my car in the pharmacy’s parking lot, staring at the box of medicine in wonder. Previously, I had suffered through severe pain for multiple days, to the degree that I had started hallucinating from lack of sleep. This time, relief was right there in my hand.

According to the CDC, telehealth visits increased by 50 percent in the first quarter of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. Such visits are clearly not appropriate for every condition, but when warranted, they can make it much easier for people to access medical help without worrying about transportation, child care, or excessive time away from work. Remote access to medical help has long been a request from people with disabilities and people in rural areas, for whom traveling to clinics can be an extra burden.

Work, too, has been transformed. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people around the world had to figure out how to get things done without going into the office. It turns out that for many white-collar jobs, this is not just possible; it comes with a variety of upsides.

Commutes, to take one example, are unhealthy—they waste time and potentially increase our sedentary time, which is associated with many adverse health outcomes, and perhaps worst of all, driving is among the most dangerous activities we undertake each day. The competition to try to avoid long commutes distorts property values and can worsen inequality, as those with money pay extra to live near centers of work, while other residents can no longer afford to live there.

Unsurprisingly, many of my luckier friends—those able to work from home and who did not suffer directly from COVID-19—have been whispering about how much better their lives have gotten without commutes and with more flexibility.

Many events have become a lot more inclusive too. Throughout the past year, I’ve been able to attend conferences and talks I’d otherwise have no chance to participate in without extensive time and travel costs. I’ve also given talks during which I’ve interacted with folks from around the world, who might never have been in that “room” otherwise. And I’ve noticed that a broader range of experts can appear on TV, now that we’ve normalized calling in from one’s home office, living room, or even bedroom. In a world divided by visas, income inequalities, time constraints, and opportunity, why didn’t we just incorporate videoconferencing into more of our events before? Why didn’t we take questions from the audience not in the room? We should keep doing that after the pandemic as well.

I certainly miss some of the serendipitous conversations that conferences and other in-person events provided: not just during the talks, but in the corridors, or at breakfast before a panel. And it’s true, such events are a form of livelihood for many, and I’m not advocating for eliminating that income. It’s also not that we should never go back to the office, nor ignore all the issues that can stem from working outside of the office—especially the threat to work-life balance. Being in the same office also allows for conversations that go beyond strict work discussions, and the connections they foster. We might never be able to fully replicate those positives digitally, but we should still provide some remote access to those who would otherwise be completely left out.

3. We’ve Unleashed the True Spirit of Peer Review and Open Science

On January 10, 2020, an Australian virologist, Edward Holmes, published a modest tweet: “All, an initial genome sequence of the coronavirus associated with the Wuhan outbreak is now available at here.” A microbiologist responded with “And so it begins!” and added a GIF of planes taking off. And so it did indeed begin: a remarkable year of open, rapid, collaborative, dynamic—and, yes, messy—scientific activity, which included ways of collaborating that would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Holmes was announcing that a scientist in China, Zhang Yongzhen, had rushed to sequence the genome of the mystery virus from Wuhan—his team had worked practically nonstop, completing the sequencing a mere 40 hours after a virus sample had arrived in a box of dry ice at his Shanghai office. Without waiting for approval or official permission, Zhang also promptly shared the result with a consortium of researchers in Australia, giving them the go-ahead to post it online in an open depository.

Peer review—review by one’s fellow scientists—remains the cornerstone of the scientific process, and rightly so: Good science happens when members of a community dedicated to advancing our knowledge can examine findings, replicate results, test theories, and challenge one another.

However, peer review as a formal process—as it happens right now—is different from the idea and spirit of peer view. We have “peer reviewed” scientific journals in which scientists can publish their findings. But in a hard-to-believe-but-true twist, many of those journals—especially the highly prestigious ones that can help a scientist’s career—are privately owned by for-profit companies, even though the peer reviews are done for free, on a volunteer basis, on articles that are submitted by scientists who also don’t get paid by the journals.

Worse, after they go through the formal process at these for-profit journals, these papers are then put behind paywalls, meaning these companies then charge outrageous sums to academic libraries in universities—whose scientists have freely contributed the paper and the peer review. The companies block the general public from accessing them too, unless they also pay for them. These companies will even charge scientists for the privilege of making these papers “open access”—again, papers written by the very scientists who receive no financial benefit from charging the public!

It’s little wonder that these companies remain highly profitable while many academics are up in arms over this terrible process that impedes the dissemination of science! Unfortunately, scientists—especially those who are early in their career—feel compelled to keep participating in this system, because getting published is the coin of the realm for hiring, promotions, and prestige.

Well, no more. When the pandemic hit, it simply wasn’t tenable to keep playing the old, slow, closed game, and the scientific community let loose. Peer review—the real thing, not just the formal version locked up by for-profit companies—broke out of its constraints. A good deal of the research community started publishing its findings as “preprints”—basically, papers before they get approved by formal publications—placing them in nonprofit scientific depositories that had no paywalls. The preprints were then fiercely and openly debated—often on social media, which is not necessarily the ideal place for it, but that’s what we had. Sometimes, the release of data was even faster: Some of the most important initial data about the immune response to the worrisome U.K. variant came from a Twitter thread by a tired but generous researcher in Texas. It showed true scientific spirit: The researcher’s lab was eschewing the prestige of being first to publish results in a manuscript by allowing others to get to work as fast as possible. The papers often also went through the formal peer review as well, eventually getting published in a journal, but the pandemic has forced many of these companies to drop their paywalls—besides, the preprints on which the final papers are based remain available to everyone.

Working together, too, has expanded in ways that were hard to imagine without the new digital tools that allow for rapid sharing and collaboration, and also the sense of urgency that broke through disciplinary silos.

For example, in early 2020, after I started writing about the necessity of wearing a mask, it became clear that we also needed detailed scientific articles looking at the science of the efficacy of masks for dampening community transmission. The questions the topic touched on involved many disciplines, including infectious diseases, aerosol science, and sociology. So I teamed up with a group of scientists, doctors, researchers, and data analysts across the globe to co-write an academic paper, and from start to finish, it was like nothing I had done before. A lot of scientific work involves international teams, but this time we had assembled practically on the fly: the co-authors lived in cities as varied as Cape Town, South Africa; Beijing, China; Chapel Hill, North Carolina (me!); Stanford, California; and Oxford, England. We would eventually publish in the most highly cited scientific outlet in the world, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which is more than 100 years old. Most of the tools we used, however—shared editing of scientific papers, videochat and other forms of meetings—weren’t widely available or as easy to use even just a few years ago.

Like many others, we didn’t wait for formal peer review to end before sharing our findings. We quickly put our paper onto a preprint server so that it could receive both open peer review from the scientific community and questions and comments from other relevant stakeholders, including policy makers and even ordinary people trying to puzzle through a confusing time. And feedback came in quickly: We received thoughtful and lengthy emails and Twitter corrections and comments, which were extremely useful—as well as much less useful contributions, which sometimes involved random people getting mad at us. I started categorizing the feedback on the sections I’d worked on, as did many of my collaborators. Even before the first round of formal peer reviews were in, we used that feedback to generate a new, stronger version, which we added to the preprint server. We then got our initial round of formal peer review—which we also found quite useful. We updated the paper again, resubmitted the new version to PNAS, and waited for a second round of peer review (which took many months, but was also very useful). Finally, about a year later: acceptance and formal publication.

I have to admit, the final published paper looks great on my CV, but our preprint had already been downloaded more than any other paper on that server. It has been cited hundreds of times, including in the highest-ranked medical and scientific journals in the world; contributed to the global scientific discourse; and played a crucial role in the adoption of mask mandates. We even had a celebratory happy hour—chatting about our lives; challenges; and new, shared friendship.

This process of open peer review is fast, dynamic, and, admittedly, messy; it’s not without its downsides. Too many sensationalist headlines have resulted from journalists rushing to write about not yet sufficiently evaluated preprints, without waiting for the process of open review and feedback to do its work. This can be confusing to the broader public. However, the explosion of preprints is sometimes portrayed as the downfall of formal peer review. It’s the opposite. No process that allows more insight into how the sausage gets made can avoid a glimpse of its less tasteful elements, but what we need to change is how we relate to science, not try to go back to the stilted, slow pre-pandemic world. We should embrace the extraordinary and robust process of open science and more peer review, as well as its dynamism, even as we establish new guardrails to contain its energy.

The pandemic happened at a moment of convergence for medical and digital technology and social dynamics, which revealed enormous positive potential for people. Nothing will erase the losses we experienced. But this awful year has nudged us toward dramatic improvements in human life, thanks to new biotechnologies, greater experience with the positive aspects of digital connectivity, and a more dynamic scientific process.

Still, let’s never do it again.

Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.

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Sint Maarten Accuses the Netherlands of Neo-colonial Paternalism in Covid-19 Assistance.

The Americas — this appeared in the 14 March, 2021, print edition of the Washington Post and at < >

Racial reckoning in the Caribbean: Former colony confronts the Netherlands over coronavirus aid conditions

Sint Maarten Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs and Curaçao Prime Minister Eugene Rhuggenaath speak to reporters after the weekly council of ministers in The Hague in July as the Caribbean former colonies sought a coronavirus aid package. (Bart Maat/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
By Anthony Faiola and Ana Vanessa Herrero
March 10, 2021 at 12:39 p.m. EST

Inside the prime minister’s office in the Caribbean nation of Sint Maarten, the walls of paradise were closing in.

In the former Dutch colony renowned for fish stews and rum cocktails on Great Bay Beach, the coronavirus pandemic had ground tourism to a halt, sparking a financial crisis akin to the aftermath of a hurricane. By December, Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs said, public coffers were so low that she didn’t know how she could continue to cover the government payroll.

She needed a financial lifeline. Four thousand miles away, Mother Holland was prepared to throw one — but with strings attached. What followed would be a racial reckoning in the Caribbean: a bitter dispute between Sint Maarten’s Dutch overseers in Europe and local politicians representing an island populated predominantly by Afro-Caribbeans and other people of color.

“This top-down approach definitely feels like reverting back to colonial times,” Jacobs said.

The pandemic has upended the economic fortunes of billions of people worldwide, exacerbating existing inequalities and ­creating new ones. In the case of Sint Maarten and the other Dutch autonomous islands in the Caribbean — Aruba and Curaçao — the economic upheaval has gone much further.

Broad demands from the Netherlands in exchange for millions of dollars’ worth of emergency aid are threatening to shift the balance of power between the former empire and its former colonies, reimposing the kind of oversight that the islanders thought they had left behind when they gained autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010. Last week, Sint Maarten lawmakers filed a petition with a U.N. special rapporteur on racism accusing the Netherlands of “racial discrimination” and “violations of international rights.”
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Philipsburg, the capital of Sint Maarten, is pictured with Salt Pond in the foreground and Great Bay and the Caribbean Sea beyond. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The filing Tuesday, which seeks monitoring, documentation and action against alleged racist policies, comes two months after the Dutch government fell in a scandal involving the alleged racial profiling of benefits claimants in the Netherlands.

The fundamental claim now is that the Dutch government is using the pandemic to turn back the clock on colonial rule.

“They are trying to take full control of our democracy,” said Grisha Heyliger-Marten, the senior member of the Sint Maarten parliament who helped lead the petition effort. “They have for far too long ran with the narrative that our people are corrupt and incompetent.”

“It’s like Black Pete,” she said, referring to the blackface Christmas character still popular in the Netherlands. “They say that’s not racist, but it is. Just like what they’re trying to do to us now.”

The Dutch, however, see a problem that needs fixing, with the pandemic presenting an opportunity to overhaul islands that they say just don’t work. In exchange for millions of dollars in aid, they’re insisting on cuts to state salaries and benefits. They’re also demanding broad, long-term changes to local tax laws, labor codes, border controls and the education and health-care systems that could forever change the way of life in Sint Maarten, Curaçao and Aruba. All is to be done under the watchful eye of the new Caribbean Entity for Reform and Development, whose members will be appointed by the Dutch government in “consultation” with the islands.

Paul Blokhuis, the Dutch state secretary for health, welfare and sport, left, and KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers check an aircraft loaded with coronavirus vaccines leaving Amsterdam Airport Schiphol last month for the islands of Aruba and Bonaire. (Koen Van Weel/AFP/Getty Images)

Dutch officials say the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on years of mounting problems since autonomy was granted — including excessively high salaries for lawmakers and government ministers. In Sint Maarten, with a population of about 40,000, members of parliament earn upwards of $10,000 a month — amounts Dutch officials say are higher than comparable salaries in the Netherlands. (Officials in Sint Maarten say the claim does not take into account the extra benefits and allowances granted to their Dutch counterparts.)

For the Dutch, it feels like 2017, when Sint Maarten was devastated by Hurricane Irma. The country, which shares an island with the French overseas collectivity of St. Martin, needed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Dutch officials say taxpayers in the Netherlands are again being asked to open their pockets for islands that are meant to be self-sustaining. Since the pandemic reached the Caribbean, they say, they have been feeding thousands of islanders through food programs and offering medical equipment and coronavirus vaccines through grants, in addition to tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans for fiscal support.
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A rescue plane lands at the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Martin on Sept. 12, 2017, days after Hurricane Irma devastated the island. (Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Dutch officials insist that Sint Maarten — whose politicians have been the most vocal among the former colonies in condemning the Dutch demands, and held out the longest before agreeing to them — has not managed to create a functioning and fair society. They say they’re trying to push it toward that goal now. They point to allegations of rampant political corruption and stubbornly high levels of poverty on an island that’s a haven for mega-yachts and the billionaires who love them.

“If they feel colonized by us still today, they could jump out of the kingdom — that’s totally up to them,” said Raymond Knops, the Dutch cabinet minister for kingdom affairs. He said the Dutch demands had to do with guilders and euros, not “racism or post-colonial action.”

“Because of this crisis . . . they weren’t autonomous at all and they had to ask for money somewhere else — in this case, the Dutch government,” Knops said. “That makes this relationship a little bit contentious.” He added that he hoped they could achieve “real autonomy” and that “all these things we’re doing will help them get stronger.”

Sint Maarten voted for autonomy in 2000. The three Dutch Caribbean islands that chose to remain as closer “municipalities” within the Netherlands — Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba — are not being targeted. Critics say the Netherlands is singling out for punishment the islands that chose greater freedom.

Sint Maarten maintains its own parliament and police force; its defense and the judicial system are still run by the Dutch. It rests on an island slightly larger than The Hague. The island was divided in the 17th century between the Netherlands and France, whose relationship with its territory has been markedly less adversarial.

Dutch soldiers return to the air base in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Sept. 30, 2017, after assisting emergency services after Hurricane Irma in Sint Maarten. (AFP Contributor/AFP via Getty Images)

Dutch officials in Sint Maarten blame hyperbolic politicians for the discord. They say island leaders have refused to recognize the sacrifices Dutch taxpayers have made to support them. Ordinary islanders, they say, understand those sacrifices far better, and crave an end to the inefficiencies and corruption that plague the former colony.

“If you listen to stuff in the newspapers, and the politicians, you’ll hear words like ‘neocolonialism,’ ” all kinds of accusations against the Dutch,” said Chris Johnson, the Dutch representative to Sint Maarten. “But what civil servants are telling me is that they’re excited they’ll be able to look at their institutions and find out ways where they can be more efficient.”

At least some business leaders on the island agree.

“When a country is putting down hundreds of millions in aid, it is going to set conditions,” said Ricardo Perez, secretary of the Sint Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association. “Are the conditions hard? Definitely. But the government has not generated the level of confidence for the Netherlands to say, ‘Take the money and spend it however you want.’ ”

Yet the U.N. petition makes far broader allegations, asserting that racism has stained Dutch policy in the Caribbean.

“Take a look at what the Dutch [government] is doing with respect to its own citizens in Europe, who are overwhelmingly White, in terms of covid assistance, covid relief for small business and being part of a funding mechanism for all of Europe,” said Peter Choharis, the Washington lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of Sint Maarten’s parliament. “Compare that to what they’re doing on the islands, which is, ‘You need to accumulate more debt and agree to our demands.’ ”

Rolando Brison, the head of Sint Maarten’s parliament, said 12 of the 15 members of the chamber backed the petition. But Dutch officials questioned its legality, ­arguing that its specific language had never been approved in a public hearing. They also said past legal challenges to Dutch fiscal edicts and claims of neocolonialism have been struck down by local courts.

“At the end of the day, sides will always have opinions on who is right and who is wrong,” Johnson said, “but it is the people that should be allowed to make the final call, so maybe we’ve reached the time for a constitutional referendum that asks the question: Independence, yes or no?”

Sint Maarten officials say they tried to avoid asking the Netherlands for fiscal help, but had no choice after Dutch officials effectively blocked their attempt to float a private bond offering last year. Dutch officials say they frowned on that deal because it smacked of “self-interest” for the politicians involved, and would have saddled the island with worse financial terms than zero-interest Dutch loans.

“You cannot come and use your money as a whipping tool to recolonize my country because a pandemic has put us in need,” ­Heyliger-Marten said. “You took everything from us already during colonization, and you left us with nothing. You guys were the pirates, you guys were corrupt. Don’t blame us now.”

Her husband, a former politician, was jailed on corruption charges. He denies the charges and is appealing them.

Jacobs, the prime minister, said she was grateful for the pandemic aid provided by the Dutch. She declined to say whether their demands amounted to racism.

“What it feels like, though, is a lack of respect, whether it’s because of race or whether it’s because we’re a small island,” she said, adding, “Draw your own conclusions.”

Correction: Grisha Heyliger-Marten’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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A Cautionary Tale

From The Washington Post: < >

A new, younger ‘First Lady’ bald eagle moves in at the National Arboretum

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A new, young female bald eagle has shown up at the nest of a bald eagle couple, Mr. President and the First Lady, in a tree on the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington. (Courtesy of American Eagle Foundation/Friends of the National Arboretum)
By Dana Hedgpeth March 2, 2021 at 8:13 a.m. EST

There’s a new ‘First Lady’ in town.

A drama has been playing out between two female bald eagles in a nest that sits about 80 feet high in a tulip poplar tree at the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington.

Wildlife experts said a new, young female bald eagle arrived a few weeks ago and has pushed out and displaced the previous female bird — named the First Lady — from the nest. And the male bald eagle, Mr. President, is smitten.

It began in mid-February when watchers of live cameras at saw the happenings at the eagle nest as some new visitors arrived.

Dan Rauch, the District’s wildlife biologist, said the newest female visitor was one of five bald eagles — both male and female — that had recently checked out the nest. Often, the First Lady would come into the nest and chase off “any female spending any amount of time in the nest.”

“She would come in at 50 to 60 mph with the talons out,” Rauch said.

Mr. President tweets: The First Lady has laid an egg

There was one “altercation” between the two females, said Rauch, who caught a glimpse of it on the cameras. After the interaction, he said, the other female eagle “returned and the First Lady didn’t.” Wildlife experts said they last saw First Lady around Feb. 15.

Since then, the new female bald eagle has been cozying up to Mr. President in the nest.

“This one seems to have settled in,” Rauch said. “She immediately started to nuzzle his neck. They were food sharing and she was helping him get together the nest.”

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The young female bald eagle (left, with her back to the camera) is seen with Mr. President, the male bald eagle. (Courtesy of American Eagle Foundation/Friends of the National Arboretum)

He said the new female eagle also has been making “herself rather comfortable in the ‘nest cup,’” where she may lay eggs.

Bald eagles typically mate for life unless there’s a problem, Rauch said.

“They will mate for life as long as they’re successful, and having and raising chicks together,” Rauch said. “If they’re not successful, they will switch up partners and find new ones.”

It’s here! A baby bald eagle has hatched at a nest in D.C.

Mr. President and the First Lady had been together at the arboretum nest since 2014. The pair has laid and hatched seven chicks there, Rauch said. Their last chick hatched in 2018 and was named DC7, but it succumbed to West Nile virus. In the last two years, the bald eagle couple has had troubles producing offspring.

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Experts said the new female bald eagle is about 4 years old. (Courtesy of American Eagle Foundation/Friends of the National Arboretum)

So, it seems, Mr. President welcomed a new bird to the nest.

Rauch said Mr. President does tend to favor young female eagles. He estimated the new eagle is about 4 years old, judging by the chocolate coloring that’s sprinkled in on her white head. Mature bald eagles have completely white heads and they usually begin to mate at between 4 and 5 years old.

The new female bald eagle could be on the young side for mating and she may not be “mature enough to lay viable eggs,” Rauch said.

If the couple does lay eggs, now is the time to do it. Early February to mid-March is the typical “egg-laying” season, with the incubation period for bald eagles about 34 to 36 days.

Wildlife experts say they wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. President and his new, young female partner become parents.

Watch live: ‘Mr. President’ and ‘The First Lady’ nest at National Arboretum

The First Lady surprised wildlife experts in 2015 when she, as a young eagle, laid viable eggs. Rauch said that when those eggs hatched, Mr. President was the older, more mature bald eagle and knew what to do in feeding the chicks. Mr. President is between 11 and 12 years old.

“The First Lady was a younger eagle at the time and she didn’t know how to feed them,” Rauch said. “He kind of showed her.”

So far, Mr. President and his new female eagle appear to be hitting it off.

“They are constantly perched together, copulating and nest-building,” Rauch said.

Mr. President and the First Lady aren’t the only bald eagles in Washington to have a lover’s quarrel.

Two years ago, another bald eagle couple — Liberty and Justice — that live in a nest at the D.C. police training academy in Southwest Washington had been together for 14 years before trouble brewed. Justice, the male, went missing and two other male suitors — including one nicknamed “Aaron Burrd” by eagle watchers — showed up at the nest.

‘It’s a lot of drama at the nest this year’ for bald eagles in Washington

The bald eagle duo eventually got back together but moved their nest to a spot at Oxon Cove, off Interstate 295, according to Rauch. Last year, they had one chick.

As for the whereabouts of First Lady, no one is sure where she went. Experts said they plan to look for her during a helicopter flyover as they search for eggs along waterways in the Washington region.

Rauch said it’s possible she “moved off, looking for a new territory or mate.”

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What Remote Working Can Mean for New “Tourism” in the Caribbean

This article from the on-line Washington Post special travel-related section called “By the Way” < > presents some of the issues that might influence the development of new tourism models, based on new work modes for several categories of worker.I haven’t seen much discussion of this in regional fora, although lately I don’t follow the many threads of the tourism press in the region.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Like summer camp for grown-ups:
The pandemic is changing the digital nomad scene

From nomad villages to “slowmadism,” the uptick in remote work has ushered in a new wave of nomads.

(Illustration by Dan Page for The Washington Post)
By JD Shadel February 22

About 300 miles off the coast of Morocco, a tiny archipelago seems like Portugal’s take on the classic Hawaiian getaway.

For one, there’s a noteworthy cultural connection between Madeira and its Pacific counterpart: Immigrants from this autonomous region of Portugal introduced the ukulele to Hawaii in the 19th century. Then there’s the tropical volcanic landscape, with terrain ideal for hiking and mountain biking. Now, both island destinations are hoping to attract remote workers to help prop up their largely tourism-driven economies, which have struggled throughout the ongoing pandemic.

In mid-December, Hawaii kicked off a long-term stay program for 50 out-of-staters to work remotely there. Madeira, which has maintained relatively low infection rates, launched a program earlier this month that takes the concept to another level — converting infrastructure in one coastal town to launch a community for digital nomads.

[These 8 countries are accepting American travelers for remote-work trips*]

Digital Nomads Madeira Islands is akin to a summer camp for grown-ups. The program provides a free co-working space and helps find accommodations, which nomads rent privately. Organizers have dubbed it the first “digital nomad village” in the European Union.

A privileged class of workers have used the disruption of the pandemic and subsequent surge in remote work to become nomads. For some, it’s been an experience fraught with “covid grief,” “travel shaming” and even a few controversial deportations. Responsible nomads have temporarily chosen a new home base, but many are planning their post-pandemic moves. Digital nomad advocates say these new workers signal a much larger wave set to break as soon as travel restrictions ease.

“People are taking advantage of this new freedom they have to travel and work from different places,” says Gonçalo Hall, a nomad and remote work consultant who first pitched the idea of a digital nomad village to Madeira’s authorities in September.

At first, Hall framed the village as a way for struggling communities to replace lost tourism revenue. But he sees this pandemic pilot of around 100 nomads — most of whom have come from throughout the European Union, all required to show negative coronavirus tests on arrival — as the start of a growing trend.

“I think this new remote work wave will allow more and more people to [become digital nomads].” At this point, he suggests, it’s only inevitable.

The rise of the ‘slowmads’

The pandemic has accelerated several predictions that Japanese technologist Tsugio Makimoto made 2½ decades ago in his book “Digital Nomad,” one of the first-known uses of the term. In the late-’90s, Makimoto said the digital revolution would eventually eliminate the need to live near your employer — or have an employer at all.

In the case of Madeira, thousands of people from around the world have expressed interest in joining the program in Ponta do Sol — far more than the few hundred the organizers originally expected. Of those respondents, about 50 percent decided to become nomads because of the pandemic, Hall estimates.

Newer nomads say the pandemic pushed them to take a more location-independent approach to their careers — sometimes out of necessity.

“The pandemic forced me to stop and reflect on my life, and gave me the time to develop as a ‘travelprenuer,’ ” Kesi Irvin, said in an email. After covid-19 eliminated Irvin’s job as a host on sailing charters, she quickly had to pivot. As she had already built an audience on Instagram for her travel content, where she’s known as @kesitoandfro, she decided to become a full-time blogger, relocating to Budapest in September.

Pandemic travel restrictions have halted the rapid pace of most nomads. But with increasing concerns over the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, as well as the negative impact of overtourism, some nomads plan to slow their roll even when they’re able to travel more freely. It’s a travel style sometimes referred to as “slowmad.”

“I actually was never a fan of the country-hopping, fast-paced rhythm of some travelers,” Gabby Beckford, a co-founder of the Black Travel Alliance, said in an email. She is better known on Instagram and TikTok as @packslight.

A post shared by Gabby Beckford, Travel Blogger (@packslight). A year ago, Beckford quit her 9-to-5 engineering job to travel, but the pandemic kept her working remotely from her parent’s house in Virginia. At the start of 2021, she decided she “couldn’t stay home for another year,” so she relocated to Dubai. There, she says, she’s keeping an eye on the case counts. “With the vaccine rolling out,” she says, “I’m giving myself a bit of time to see how things evolve.” In the meantime, she is making a plan for what countries she might “‘slowmad’ through” once the public health conditions permit her to make her next move.
Nomad visas signal a paradigm shift

Nomads before the pandemic were mostly a niche group of millennials, many of whom promoted the #DigitalNomadLife on Instagram. They would live out of carry-on suitcases and often cross borders every few weeks, a pace set by the limits of short-term tourist visas.

This was an era of the “bromads” and the “life-hacking” popularized by self-help authors like Timothy Ferriss, who wrote the 2007 bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.” Ferriss preached a gospel of “geo-arbitrage” — the idea that money goes further in “cheaper” places than San Francisco or New York.

If “overtourism” defines the negative effects of an overwhelming number of tourists, then “overnomadism” seems like an apt way of describing what happened when this young class of jet-setters descended on popular destinations, from Bali and Berlin to Barcelona and Chiang Mai, Thailand. With destinations trending online and the influx of short-term rentals driving up rent, some cities began cracking down on Airbnb to tackle this brand of global gentrification.

But the economic crisis and covid-19 pandemic seems to have changed the tone in many destinations. A new category of “digital nomad visas” might make it easier for foreigners to legally stay in one place for longer periods of time. The visas also allow countries to target more mindful nomads in the process.

Last summer, Estonia became the first country to announce a digital nomad visa, which authorities believe appeals to a different type of traveler. “If you are the kind of digital nomad who would like to build long-lasting business relationships and friendships, a digital nomad visa can certainly get you into a more relaxed head space for when you approach social interactions,” says Florian Marcus, digital transformation adviser at the government agency e-Estonia.

So far, the tiny Baltic country has seen more than 10,000 people sign up for more information about its visa.

Related programs, including Barbados’ “Welcome Stamp” to Greece’s tax breaks for “digital migrants,” signal the international enthusiasm for allowing these highly mobile workers to stick around longer than most earlier nomads were permitted to. Croatia, a popular spot for nomads during the pandemic, recently approved the first foreigner, an American, for its new 12-month visa program.

“Right when the pandemic started, I was asked the question what we can do to turn Croatia into a year-round destination,” Jan de Jong says. The Netherlands-born, Zagreb-based entrepreneur wrote an open letter on LinkedIn last summer to Croatia’s prime minister. “Seeing a global trend of remote work being accelerated by covid-19, my thoughts were to start welcoming remote workers to Croatia.”

His viral post ultimately inspired the country to become among the few in Europe so far to approve a temporary residence permit for digital nomads. “Many more countries will follow,” he predicts.

Before the pandemic, Madeira’s tourism sector was booming, with more than a million annual visitors. When designed with participation from locals, nomad villages have the potential to bring in similar revenue as seasonal tourists, but with a smaller number of longer-term visitors, Hall says. He says the community partnerships might help this new wave of newbies avoid making “the same mistakes” pre-pandemic nomads commonly made such as “traveling too fast” and “not having a positive impact [on the locals].”

“These new people can learn from the more experienced people,” Hall says. “I don’t want all OGs. That would be Bali again. And I don’t want all newbies, either. That would be a weird environment. This new mixture is actually quite fun.”

JD Shadel

JD Shadel is an independent writer and editor, who covers culture, travel, technology and LGBTQ+ life. Originally from Maryland and based in Portland, Oregon since 2013, Shadel frequently travels to report stories for national and niche media outlets. Wherever they go, they always bring a can of Old Bay Seasoning.



I don’t want all OGs.

What are OGs? Old Guys?

Original gangsters, yo.


My partner and I spend a year as digital nomads in 2008-2009, and we are going to do it again as soon as we get vaccinated. It’s an incredible experience and one that I would recommend to anyone who can make it happen. Plus, it costs less than living in the US if you do it right.

My wife and I are digital nomads, we got stuck in Barcelona during the initial part of the pandemic. We hope more and more countries break out the welcome mat for remote workers.

Most countries, including the United States don’t allow you to work on a tourist visa. It’s clearly stated on the visa. Doing so can possibly put you in legal jeopardy in a foreign country if some local with “pull” complains. Then you will find out how much legal protection you will have during your trial, where the legal system might not be as transparent and honest as back home. 😉


That’s the entire point of these new programs. They allow digital nomads to work legally.

Meanwhile, doing some work over the internet in a foreign country for a short time period is really a grey area. Imagine a situation where someone is on vacation for two weeks, but answers a couple emails from work from the hotel room. Obviously that is not going to get someone in trouble. Being a digital nomad based on a country for a month looks barely different from that, from the outside, which is why in practice, basically no one actually gets in trouble that way.

Meanwhile, doing some work over the internet in a foreign country for a short time period is really a grey area.

2 days ago

Hey, I’m all for the concept of “slacking”. But it’s not free. Look at the prices they’re charging.

I’m just stating the fact that many desirable, i.e. inexpensive locations around the world don’t have special “digital nomad” visas, like Chiang Mai, Thailand, only tourist visas.

And all it takes for them to get a conviction in court is to print out your emails showing you’re working without a work permit.

But yeah, most criminals get away with crimes, especially minor ones. Good luck 🤞

2 days ago

Aren’t the work restrictions there to keep you from taking jobs within the host country? As long as you don’t overstay your visa, I don’t see what difference it makes to the host country if you are earning a living through blogging or whatever, or if you’re independently wealthy.

I’m not saying work isn’t forbidden–I’m sure you are right, and people would be wise to avoid breaking the law. I just wonder if the laws have perhaps not caught up with digital realities or if there is some reason a host country would prefer tourists to be unemployed or on vacation.

Antigua and Barbuda

Remote workers earning at least $50,000 per year can live and work on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda for up to two years through the country’s Nomad Digital Residence program. The cost to apply is $1,500 for a single applicant, $2,000 for a couple and $3,000 for a family of three people or more.

“Visa holders will be able to travel into and out of the country as they wish for the period of the visa, but will have to maintain accommodation in the country,” the program’s website states. It also notes that “applicants are not allowed to work for any entity of any kind in Antigua and Barbuda, nor to derive any income from any entity in Antigua and Barbuda.”

Entering Antigua and Barbuda requires a negative coronavirus test result received within one week of arrival, and all arriving passengers will be monitored for up to 14 days to ensure they do not develop symptoms.


The Emirati city of Dubai launched a remote-work program that allows employed people making a minimum of $5,000 per month to live and work remotely in the city for up to one year. “Tourism has reopened in Dubai thanks to safety and hygiene management across the city — with open access to hotels, restaurants, theme parks, beaches and shopping malls,” according to the Visit Dubai program’s website.

A visa fee of $287, international medical insurance and a valid passport with six months validity remaining is required to apply. Americans entering Dubai must provide a negative coronavirus test result and are subject to airport health screenings, according to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates.

Cayman Islands

The Cayman Islands tourism department will allow remote workers who make over $100,000 annually, couples who make a joint $150,000 annually, and couples with children who make $180,000 together annually, to stay in the country for up to two years when they acquire a Global Citizen Certificate. In addition to the salary requirement, applicants must have a valid passport, a reference from a bank, a letter of employment from a company outside of the Cayman Islands, and proof of health insurance coverage. The program also charges an application fee of $1,469.

“Global citizens can begin their day with a stroll along Seven Mile Beach, snorkel with stingrays in the clear waters of the Caribbean during lunch,” Visit Cayman Islands said in a news release announcing the program. “Not to mention, remote workers have the unique opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the wonders of island life in the Cayman Islands.”


The small island of Aruba launched its One Happy Workation program in September. The remote-work visa allows U.S. visitors to stay up to 90 days by booking a package-stay program at a participating hotel, villa or condominium.

Applications are not required to book a participating stay, according to the Aruba tourism board’s website, and depending on the property chosen, “program amenities will include special rates, complimentary WiFi, breakfast, all-inclusive food & beverage options and more.” All U.S. nationals with a valid passport for their stay are able to book a “workation” with a participating property. You can browse the options, which range from hotel rooms to apartments, on the One Happy Workation website.


Launching on Aug. 1 after years of development, the Republic of Estonia’s digital nomad visa will allow foreigners to stay in Estonia for up to a year.

Applicants must have a gross monthly salary of 3,000 euros (about $3,530) or more from a remote work job to be considered for the visa, which is an extension of Estonia’s e-Residency program for foreign entrepreneurs.

“We saw that there was kind of a lack of opportunities for [digital nomads], so we wanted Estonia to solve the problem,” Ott Vatter, the managing director of e-Residency, told The Washington Post. “Estonia aims to be the hub for these kinds of new entrepreneurs that we see trending globally.”

Since the Estonian Parliament authorized the program in June, international applicants mostly from the United States, Canada, Russia and Asia completed the online request for either a Type C short stay visa, or a Type D long stay visa.

At this time, Estonia is not allowing Americans to visit the country for tourism, but they are allowed in for the purpose of work or study. On arrival, foreigners must self-quarantine for 14 days.


Shortly after reopening its borders to international travel, Barbados launched a program that allows visitors, including Americans, to stay on the Caribbean island visa-free for up to one year.

Called the “Barbados Welcome Stamp,” the program was created to bring remote workers to the country.

“The aim is to attract remote workers, with a bill to be introduced in Parliament by the government that will remove the local income taxes that normally kick in after six months,” The Post reported.

The online application fee is $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for families. Applicants must certify they earn an annual income of $50,000 or have the means to support themselves during their time in Barbados.

Those traveling to Barbados for remote work or pleasure during the pandemic must follow new travel protocols.


On July 16, the country of Georgia announced a new program for foreigners to work remotely from the country.

“Georgia has the image of an epidemiologically safe country in the world and we want to use this opportunity,” the country’s minister of economy, Natia Turnava, said in a statement. “We are talking about opening the border in a way to protect the health of our citizens, but, on the other hand, to bring to Georgia citizens of all countries who can work remotely.”

Applicants must provide proof of employment and give their consent to self-quarantine for 14 days to be considered for the program. Applications should be available soon.

American travelers are not allowed into Georgia at this time unless they’re granted a long-term visa of at least six months, traveling for business with a special permit or are the spouse of a Georgian citizen.


Travelers from the United States are allowed to visit Jamaica. However, the entry requirements vary depending on their home state.

All Americans must have an approved Travel Authorization ahead of their trip, or they won’t be allowed to travel to Jamaica.

At this time, visitors from Florida, Arizona, Texas and New York are classified as high-risk states by the Jamaican government and are required to provide a proof of negative covid-19 PCR tests from an accredited lab to receive a travel authorization.

People who identify as business travelers in their Travel Authorization application will be given a test for the novel coronavirus on arrival to Jamaica.

“We have worked with IATA to ensure that it is a part of the airline check-in protocols that if you’re coming to Jamaica you have to produce this authorization,” said Donovan White, Jamaica’s director of tourism.

White says that while most travelers are given a 30-day visa on arrival, they can apply for a longer stay visa to enjoy more of what Jamaica has to offer digital nomads.

“There’s so much history and folklore around Jamaica. Anyone who is a nomad traveler … will be able to write a storybook about spending an extended time in Jamaica,” White said.

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Funniest Thing I’ve Read in Years: Abbott & Costello versus the Marx Brothers

From AXIOS, just out < >

8 hours ago – Politics & Policy

Off the Rails
Bonus episode: Inside the craziest meeting of the Trump presidency

Axios by Jonathan Swan, Zachary Basu

Photo illustration of the white house surrounded by scraps of paper feating a ballot, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and Patrick M. Byrne per Sarah Grillo/Axios. Getty Images photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, George Frey/Bloomberg

Last month, Axios published “Off the rails,” a series taking you inside the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, from his election loss to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that triggered his second impeachment — and a Senate trial set to begin next week.

In this bonus edition, we take you back into those final weeks — to one long, unhinged night a week before Christmas, when an epic, profanity-soaked standoff played out with profound implications for the nation.

Four conspiracy theorists marched into the Oval Office. It was early evening on Friday, Dec. 18 — more than a month after the election had been declared for Joe Biden, and four days after the Electoral College met in every state to make it official.

“How the hell did Sidney get in the building?” White House senior adviser Eric Herschmann grumbled from the outer Oval Office as Sidney Powell and her entourage strutted by to visit the president.

President Trump’s private schedule hadn’t included appointments for Powell or the others: former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former CEO Patrick Byrne, and a little-known former Trump administration official, Emily Newman. But they’d come to convince Trump that he had the power to take extreme measures to keep fighting.

As Powell and the others entered the Oval Office that evening, Herschmann — a wealthy business executive and former partner at Kasowitz Benson & Torres who’d been pulled out of quasi-retirement to advise Trump — quietly slipped in behind them.

The hours to come would pit the insurgent conspiracists against a handful of White House lawyers and advisers determined to keep the president from giving in to temptation to invoke emergency national security powers, seize voting machines and disable the primary levers of American democracy.

Herschmann took a seat in a yellow chair close to the doorway. Powell, Flynn, Newman and Byrne sat in a row before the Resolute Desk, facing the president.

For weeks now, ever since Rudy Giuliani had commandeered Trump’s floundering campaign to overturn the election, outsiders had been coming out of the woodwork to feed the president wild allegations of voter fraud based on highly dubious sources.

Trump was no longer focused on any semblance of a governing agenda, instead spending his days taking phone calls and meetings from anyone armed with conspiracy theories about the election. For the White House staff, it was an unending sea of garbage churned up by the bottom feeders.

Powell began this meeting with the same baseless claim that now has her facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit: She told the president that Dominion Voting Systems had rigged their machines to flip votes from Trump to Biden and that it was part of an international communist plot to steal the election for the Democrats.

[Note: In response to a request for comment, Powell said in an emailed statement to Axios: “I will not publicly discuss my private meetings with the President of the United States. I believe those meetings are privileged and confidential under executive privilege and under rules of the legal profession. I would caution the readers to view mainstream media reports of any such conversations with a high degree of discernment and a healthy dose of skepticism.”]

Powell waved an affidavit from the pile of papers in her lap, claiming it contained testimony from someone involved in the development of rigged voting machines in Venezuela.

She proposed declaring a national security emergency, granting her and her cabal top-secret security clearances and using the U.S. government to seize Dominion’s voting machines.

“Hold on a minute, Sidney,” Herschmann interrupted from the back of the Oval. “You’re part of the Rudy team, right? Is your theory that the Democrats got together and changed the rules, or is it that there was foreign interference in our election?”

Giuliani’s legal efforts, while replete with debunked claims about voter fraud, had largely focused on allegations of misconduct by corrupt Democrats and election officials.

“It’s foreign interference,” Powell insisted, then added: “Rudy hasn’t understood what this case is about until just now.”

In disbelief, Herschmann yelled out to an aide in the outer Oval Office. “Get Pat down here immediately!” Several minutes later, White House counsel Pat Cipollone walked into the Oval. He looked at Byrne and said, “Who are you?”

The meeting was already getting heated.

White House staff had spent weeks poring over the evidence underlying hundreds of affidavits and other claims of fraud promoted by Trump allies like Powell. The team had done the due diligence and knew the specific details of what was being alleged better than anybody. Time and time again, they found, Powell’s allegations fell apart under basic scrutiny.

But Powell, fixing on Trump, continued to elaborate on a fantastical election narrative involving Venezuela, Iran, China and others. She named a county in Georgia where she claimed she could prove that Dominion had illegally flipped the vote.

Herschmann interrupted to point out that Trump had actually won the Georgia county in question: “So your theory is that Dominion intentionally flipped the votes so we could win that county?”

As for Powell’s larger claims, he demanded she provide evidence for what — if true — would amount to the greatest national security breach in American history. They needed to dial in one of the campaign’s lawyers, Herschmann said, and Trump campaign lawyer Matt Morgan was patched in via speakerphone.

By now, people were yelling and cursing.

The room was starting to fill up. Trump’s personal assistant summoned White House staff secretary Derek Lyons to join the meeting and asked him to bring a copy of a 2018 executive order that the Powell group kept citing as the key to victory. Lyons agreed with Cipollone and the other officials that Powell’s theories were nonsensical.

It was now four against four.

Flynn went berserk. The former three-star general, whom Trump had fired as his first national security adviser after he was caught lying to the FBI (and later pardoned), stood up and turned from the Resolute Desk to face Herschmann.

“You’re quitting! You’re a quitter! You’re not fighting!” he exploded at the senior adviser. Flynn then turned to the president, and implored: “Sir, we need fighters.”

Herschmann ignored Flynn at first and continued to probe Powell’s pitch with questions about the underlying evidence. “All you do is promise, but never deliver,” he said to her sharply.

Flynn was ranting, seemingly infuriated about anyone challenging Powell, who had represented him in his recent legal battles.

Finally Herschmann had enough. “Why the fuck do you keep standing up and screaming at me?” he shot back at Flynn. “If you want to come over here, come over here. If not, sit your ass down.” Flynn sat back down.

The meeting had come entirely off the rails.

Byrne, backing up Flynn, told Trump the White House lawyers didn’t care about him and were being obstructive. “Sir, we’re both entrepreneurs, and we both built businesses,” the former Overstock CEO told Trump. “We know that there are times you have to be creative and take different steps.”

This was a remarkable level of personal familiarity, given it was the first time Byrne had met the president. All the stanchions and buffers between the White House and the outside world had crumbled.

Byrne kept attacking the senior White House staff in front of Trump. “They’ve already abandoned you,” he told the president aggressively. Periodically during the meeting Flynn or Byrne challenged Trump’s top staff — portraying them as disloyal: So do you think the president won or not?

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

The staff were now on their feet, standing behind one of the couches and facing the Powell crew at the Resolute Desk. Cipollone stood to Herschmann’s left. Lyons, on his last day on the job, stood to Herschmann’s right.

Trump was behind the desk, watching the show. He briefly left the meeting to wander into his private dining room.

The usually mild-mannered Lyons blasted the Powell set: “You’ve brought 60 cases. And you’ve lost every case you’ve had!”

Trump came back into the Oval Office from the dining room to rejoin the meeting. Lyons pointed out to Powell that their incompetence went beyond their lawsuits being thrown out for standing. “You somehow managed to misspell the word ‘District’ three different ways in your suits,” he said pointedly.

In a Georgia case, the Powell team had misidentified the court on the first page of their filing as “THE UNITED STATES DISTRICCT COURT, NORTHERN DISTRCOICT OF GEORGIA.” And they had identified the Michigan court as the “EASTERN DISTRCT OF MICHIGAN.”

These were sloppy spelling errors. But given that these lawsuits aimed to overturn a presidential election, the court nomenclature should have been pristine.

Powell, Flynn and Byrne began attacking Lyons as they renewed their argument to Trump: There they go again, they want to focus on the insignificant details instead of fighting for you.

Trump replied, “No, no, he’s right. That was very embarrassing. That shouldn’t have happened.”

The Powell team needed to regroup. They shifted to a new grievance to turn the conversation away from their embarrassing errors. Powell insisted that they hadn’t “lost” the 60-odd court cases, since the cases were mostly dismissed for lack of standing and they had never had the chance to present their evidence.

Every judge is corrupt, she claimed. We can’t rely on them. The White House lawyers couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “That’s your argument?” a stunned Herschmann said. “Even the judges we appointed? Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Powell had more to say. She and Flynn began trashing the FBI as well, and the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr, telling Trump that neither could be trusted. Both institutions, they said, were corrupt, and Trump needed to fire the leadership and get in new people he could trust.

Cipollone, standing his ground amidst this mishmash of conspiracies, said they were totally wrong. He aggressively defended the DOJ and the FBI, saying they had looked into every major claim of fraud that had been reported.

Flynn and Powell had long nursed their antipathy to the FBI and Justice. Flynn had pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation but withdrew the plea after hiring Powell as his lawyer in June 2019.

The two alleged the FBI had entrapped Flynn and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, known as Brady material, as required by law. They had found an ally in Barr, a fierce critic of the Russia investigation who finally directed the DOJ to drop Flynn’s case.

Herschmann, known inside the White House as a defender of Barr and the DOJ, went off on Flynn again: “Listen, the same people that you’re trashing, if they didn’t produce the Brady material to Sidney, your ass would still be in jail!”

It was no longer technically true that Flynn would be in jail, as he had received a post-election pardon from Trump. But Flynn was furious. “Don’t mention my case,” he roared. Herschmann responded, “Where do you think Sidney got this information? Where do you think it came from? From the exact same people in the Department of Justice that you’re now saying are corrupt.”

Byrne, wearing jeans, a hoodie and a neck gaiter, piped up with his own conspiracy: “I know how this works. I bribed Hillary Clinton $18 million on behalf of the FBI for a sting operation.”

Herschmann stared at the eccentric millionaire. “What the hell are you talking about? Why would you say something like that?” Byrne brought up the bizarre Clinton bribery claim several more times during the meeting to the astonishment of White House lawyers.

Trump, for his part, also seemed perplexed by Byrne. But he was not entirely convinced the ideas Powell was presenting were insane.

He asked: You guys are offering me nothing. These guys are at least offering me a chance. They’re saying they have the evidence. Why not try this? The president seemed truly to believe the election was stolen, and his overriding sentiment was, let’s give this a shot.

The words “martial law” were never spoken during the meeting, despite Flynn having raised the idea in an appearance the previous day on Newsmax, a right-wing hive for election conspiracies.

But this was a distinction without much of a difference. What Flynn and Powell were proposing amounted to suspending normal laws and mobilizing the U.S. government to seize Dominion voting machines around the country.

Powell was arguing that they couldn’t get a judge to enforce any subpoena to hand over the voting machines because all the judges were corrupt. She and her group repeatedly referred to the National Emergencies Act and a Trump executive order from 2018 that was designed to clear the way for the government to sanction foreign actors interfering in U.S. elections.

These laws were, in the view of Powell, Flynn and the others, the key to unlocking extraordinary powers for Trump to stay in office beyond Jan. 20.

Their theory was that because foreign enemies had stolen the election, all bets were off and Trump could use the full force of the United States government to go after Dominion.

It was remarkable that the presidency had deteriorated to such an extent that this fight in the Oval Office between senior White House officials and radical conspiracists was even taking place.

“How exactly are you going to do this?” an exasperated Herschmann asked again, later in the conversation. Newman again cited the 2018 executive order, which prompted Herschmann to question out loud whether she was even a lawyer.

Then Byrne chimed in: “There are guys with big guns and badges who can get these things.” Herschmann couldn’t believe it. “What are you, three years old?” he asked.

Lyons, the staff secretary, told the president that the executive order Powell and Flynn were citing did not give him the authority they claimed it did to seize voting machines. Morgan, the campaign lawyer, also expressed skepticism about their idea of invoking national security emergency powers.

To help adjudicate, Trump then patched in the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, on speakerphone. Trump’s personal assistant brought O’Brien into the call with no explanation of what madness would await him.

O’Brien said very little in the short time he was on the call but intervened at one point to say he saw no evidence to support Powell’s notion of declaring a national security emergency to seize voting machines. There was so much fiery crosstalk it was hard for anyone on the telephone to follow the conversation.

Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, “At least she’s out there fighting.”

The discussion shifted from Dominion voting machines to a conversation about appointing Powell as a special counsel inside the government to investigate voter fraud. She wanted a top secret security clearance and access to confidential voter information.

Lyons told Trump he couldn’t appoint Powell as a special counsel at the Justice Department because this was an attorney general appointment. Lyons, Cipollone and Herschmann — in fact the entire senior White House staff who were aware of this idea — were all vehemently opposed to Powell becoming a special counsel anywhere in the government.

By this point Trump had also patched into the call his personal lawyer Giuliani and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Meadows indicated that he was trying to wrap his mind around what exactly Powell’s role would entail. He told Powell she would have to fill out the SF-86 questionnaire before starting as special counsel.

This was seen as a delaying tactic. The sense in the room was that Trump might actually greenlight this extraordinary proposal.

At its essence, the Powell crew’s argument to the president was this: We have the real information. These people — your White House staff — don’t believe in the truth. They’re liars and quitters. They’re not willing to fight for you because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. Put us in charge. Let us take control of everything. We’ll prove to you that what we’re saying is right. We won’t quit, we’ll fight. We’re willing to fight for the presidency.

On some level, this argument was music to Trump’s ears. He was desperate. Powell and her team were the only people willing to tell him what he wanted to hear — that a path to stay in power in the White House remained.

The Oval Office portion of the meeting had dragged on for nearly three hours, creeping beyond 9 p.m. The arguments became so heated that even Giuliani — still on the phone — at one point told everyone to calm down. One participant later recalled: “When Rudy’s the voice of reason, you know the meeting’s not going well.”

Giuliani told Trump he was going to come over to the White House. The president, having forgotten about the others on the line, hung up and cut multiple people off the call.

Herschmann, Cipollone and Lyons left the Oval Office, but soon discovered that the Powell entourage had made their way to the president’s residence. They followed them upstairs, to the Yellow Oval Room, Trump’s living room, where they were joined by Giuliani and Meadows.

Trump sat beside Powell in armchairs facing the door, separated by a round, wooden antique table. Giuliani sat in an armchair to the right of them, while Byrne and Meadows sat on a couch. Byrne wolfed down pigs in a blanket and little meatballs on toothpicks that staff had set on the coffee table.

Herschmann was primed to brawl and ready to dump on Powell. It had been a long day.

“Rudy,” he said, turning to Giuliani, “Sidney was just in the Oval telling the president you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Right, Sidney?” He turned to Powell: “Why don’t you tell Rudy to his face?”

“Eric, really it’s not appropriate,” Trump replied curtly.

“What’s not appropriate?” Herschmann shot back. Turning to Powell, he said, “Why don’t you repeat to Rudy what you just told the president in the Oval Office — that he has no idea about the case and that he only just began to understand it a few hours ago.”

Three days later, Giuliani would publicly distance himself from Powell, telling Newsmax that Powell did not represent the president, and that “whatever she’s talking about, it’s her own opinions.”

It didn’t take long for the yelling to start up again. They were now in hour four of a meeting unprecedented even by the deranged standards of the final days of the Trump presidency.

Now it was Meadows’ turn, blasting Flynn for trashing him and accusing him of being a quitter. “Don’t you dare challenge me about whether I’m being supportive of the president and working hard,” Meadows shouted, reminding Flynn that he’d defended him during his legal troubles.

Trump and Cipollone, who frequently butted heads, went at it too, over whether the administration had the authority to do what Powell was proposing.

Powell kept asserting throughout the night that she had — or would soon produce — the evidence needed to prove foreign interference. She kept insisting that Trump had the legal authority he needed to seize voting machines. But she did not have the goods.

Powell at one point turned to Lyons and demanded, “Why are you speaking? Are you still employed here?” The staff secretary, who had already resigned, laughed and joked, “Well I guess I’m here until midnight.”

It was after midnight by the time the White House officials had finally said their piece. They left that night fully prepared for the mad possibility Trump might still name Sidney Powell special counsel. You have our advice, they told the president before walking out. You decide who to listen to.

🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan on Axios’ new investigative podcast series, called “How it happened: Trump’s last stand.”

Read the rest of the “Off the Rails” episodes here < >.

About this series: Our reporting is based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to the president. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.

“Off the rails” is reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen and copy edited by Eileen O’Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.

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Thank you, Marty Baron , and Jeff Bezos, too

From The Washington Post, 27 January 2021:

< >

Martin Baron, executive editor who oversaw dramatic Washington Post expansion, announces retirement

Photo caption: Martin Baron, seen in the Washington Post newsroom as it is announced that The Post received Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting and national reporting in 2018. Baron announced his retirement Tuesday, effective Feb. 28. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi ——— Jan. 26, 2021 at 7:58 p.m. EST

Martin Baron, one of the most highly regarded editors in American journalism and an outspoken advocate of the value of a free press, announced Tuesday he would step down as executive editor of The Washington Post on Feb. 28.

Over a 45-year career, Baron led reporters at some of the nation’s finest newspapers through groundbreaking investigations of challenging targets — including the Catholic Church, the National Security Agency and the charities of Donald Trump. During his last eight years at The Post, the paper has won 10 Pulitzer Prizes.

“From the moment I arrived at The Post, I have sought to make an enduring contribution while giving back to a profession that has meant so much to me and that serves to safeguard democracy,” Baron, 66, wrote in a memo to The Post’s staff Tuesday morning announcing his retirement.

Baron, who was formerly the editor of the Boston Globe and the Miami Herald, joined The Post on Jan. 1, 2013, at a time when many newspapers, including The Post, were in financial decline. It was also just months before the paper embarked on one of its most consequential stories, centered on the leak of material describing the NSA’s extensive surveillance operations.

Later that same year, the Graham family, longtime owners of The Post, sold it to Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos — marking the beginning of the newspaper’s sustained revival under Baron’s leadership, both financially and in its journalistic ambitions.

Baron oversaw a dramatic expansion of the newsroom, which had undergone several buyouts before his arrival; its numbers grew from 580 journalists at his arrival to more than 1,000 this year. In a memo to the staff Tuesday, Publisher Fred Ryan said Baron had “inspired great reporting, managed an awesome digital transformation and grown the number of readers and subscribers to unprecedented levels.”

Within a couple of years, the understated editor became something of a journalism icon. The 2015 movie “Spotlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture, dramatized the Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s child sexual-abuse scandal, with Baron a key heroic figure portrayed by actor Liev Schreiber.

“His depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize,” Baron later wrote, “and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.”

And at the dawn of the Trump administration, it was Baron who clarified the mission of the mainstream press as it was blasted with political attacks of “fake news” from the right.

“We’re not at war with the administration,” Baron said, asserting his paper’s dedication to aggressive, fair and nonpartisan reporting. “We’re at work.”

In an interview, Baron said he decided to step down now after several years of intense work. “It’s an exhausting job,” he said. “With the Internet being so big a part of it, it’s 24-7-365. You’re pretty much on duty and on alert all the time. It means you never really get to disconnect.”

He has no immediate plans after he leaves The Post, he said: “I think I’m owed a breather.” The Post has not yet named Baron’s successor.

He credited Bezos with transforming The Post from a primarily regional publication to one that was national and international in scope and more focused on digital presentation, rather than print. “Had we stayed largely regional, we would be facing severe financial problems today, as most newspapers are,” Baron said. “He knew we could leverage The Post’s name and tradition of great journalism to national scale.”

Under Baron’s stewardship, Bezos introduced a new motto for the paper: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

“You leave behind a newsroom that is bigger and stronger and more thoughtful than ever,” Bezos wrote in an Instagram tribute to Baron. “You will be missed so much. Not just your intellect but also — and most hard to replace — your heart.”

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who worked with Baron when Baron was a Times editor, said Tuesday, “He made three newspapers [The Post, Globe and Miami Herald] better. He led The Post brilliantly. And he has been an important spokesman for the industry, a champion of investigative work and holding power to account.”

Baron’s retirement is part of a generational change at some of the nation’s largest news organizations. The Los Angeles Times’s top editor, Norman Pearlstine, recently announced his retirement, as has Stephen Adler, the editor of the Reuters news service. Baquet has been widely expected to retire from the New York Times soon.

Baron has worked in the upper echelons of newsrooms throughout his career. He spent his longest professional stretch, from 1979 to 1996, with the Los Angeles Times, rising to editor of its Orange County edition. After four years at the New York Times, he was named editor of the Herald in 2000 and led its coverage of Elián González’s return to Cuba and the disputed 2000 presidential election.

As the editor of the Globe, starting in 2001, Baron emphasized regional investigative reporting, culminating with the newspaper’s reporting on the Catholic Church’s coverup of allegations against abusive priests.

In 2012, Katharine Weymouth, then The Post’s publisher, hired Baron to succeed Marcus Brauchli as the newsroom’s leader. “I was looking for an editor with a proven track record, who could lead the newsroom as we became truly multiplatform and who would push us to do better work than ever,” Weymouth said Tuesday. “He has far exceeded my greatest expectations.”

Barton Gellman, a former national security reporter for The Post, recalled Tuesday how he met Baron for the first time in 2013 to discuss what Gellman would do with the voluminous trove of leaked material shared with him by whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor.

“I remember thinking he might throw me out of his office when I laid out my outlandish conditions — a windowless room, a heavy safe, encrypted email and so on — for bringing the Snowden documents to The Post,” Gellman said. “He did not hesitate.”

At one “delicate moment,” Gellman said, Baron overruled a Post lawyer who had advised greater caution in the reporting.

“This was an uncommonly risky story,” he said. “Marty never put a foot wrong. Every choice he made came from a place of courage and common sense and journalistic integrity.”

In 2016, it was Baron who suggested the direction that Post staffer David Fahrenthold should take in covering then-candidate Trump as the two waited for an elevator at the office one night.

Fahrenthold had been reporting on Trump’s broken promises to contribute to veterans’ charities; Baron said he should go wider and look at all of Trump’s charitable claims over the years.

“The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV,” Fahrenthold later wrote. “What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”

The answer was a pattern of deceptive, even fraudulent activities, all of which led officials in New York to shut down Trump’s charitable foundation. Fahrenthold later broke the news that Trump had been recorded bragging about assaulting women during an appearance on the “Access Hollywood” TV show in 2005. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage in 2017.

In his note to the Post staff, Baron said he had told department heads two years ago that he was committed to staying as editor until after the 2020 election. He said he has worked in journalism “without stop” for nearly 45 years.

Baron wrote that his journalism experiences have “been deeply meaningful, enriched by colleagues who made me a better professional and a better person. At age 66, I feel ready to move on.”

He added, “Working at The Washington Post allows each of us to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves. Such is the honor of being a journalist, perhaps nowhere more so than in a newsroom like ours. I came here eight years ago with a reverence for The Post’s heritage of courage and independence and feeling an inviolable obligation to uphold its values. With all the energy I possess, I have tried to ensure that we remain faithful to all this institution has long stood for, with an emphasis on our duty to seek the truth and tell it.”

This story, originally published at 11:24 a.m., has been updated. Twelve hours after posting, there were over 400 comments.

Paul Farhi
Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter. Follow


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Obituary for Juan Guzmán

From The Washington Post —
< >


Juan Guzmán Tapia, judge who battled Chilean dictator,
dies at 81

Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005.
Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia in 2005. (Tom Uhlman/AP)

By. Matt Schudel – – – – – Jan. 23, 2021 at 11:23 p.m. EST

Juan Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who was the first person to prosecute the country’s onetime military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, using novel legal strategies to hold him and members of his regime accountable for killings and human rights offenses in the 1970s and 1980s, died Jan. 22 at age 81.

Chilean newspapers, including La Tercera, reported his death, which was confirmed by his family to Spanish-language news services. Other details were not disclosed, but Judge Guzmán lived in Santiago and had dementia, said a friend, Peter Kornbluh, the author of “The Pinochet File.”

Judge Guzmán, who was the son of a Chilean diplomat, said he and his conservative family celebrated in 1973 when Pinochet and his military supporters overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, in a coup. It took years before Judge Guzmán understood the full extent of the terror that was then unleashed by Pinochet, his secret police and other henchmen.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Judge Guzmán led an often risky legal campaign to redress rampant human rights abuses that left thousands of Chileans dead.

“He has become the iconic pursuer of justice in Chile — the first judge to indict and began a legal process to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice for crimes against humanity both within Chile and elsewhere,” said Kornbluh, who is director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

Judge Guzmán, who became a regional magistrate in the early 1970s, was an appeals court judge by the time Pinochet relinquished power in 1990. Pinochet maintained control of the military until 1998, and the country’s judicial system and leading media outlets were also aligned with him.

A Chilean Dictator’s Dark Legacy

After democratic rule returned to Chile in the 1990s, accounts began to surface of systematic kidnappings, torture and murder carried out at Pinochet’s behest. Lawyers for victims and their families filed suit against Pinochet, and Judge Guzmán was assigned to investigate the cases, becoming, in effect, a special prosecutor. (In Chile’s judicial system at that time, judges had investigative and prosecutorial authority, in addition to the role of presiding in court.)


Judge Guzmán leaving a court building in Santiago,
Chile, in 2001. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Judge Guzmán was appalled by what he began to learn about his country.

Soon after Pinochet seized control in 1973, he launched a purge of local government officials associated with Allende known as the Caravan of Death. Military squads arrived by helicopter, rounded up local officials and shot them. Their bodies were buried in remote places. Pinochet loyalists were installed in their former offices.

Pinochet was also a central figure in a second wave of repression, called Operation Condor, which linked several military regimes in South America, reportedly with support from the CIA. Students, professors and dissidents were hounded and sometimes kidnapped, many of them never to be seen again. These people became known in Spanish as the desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.”

A Chilean commission on truth and reconciliation later documented 3,197 victims of extrajudicial execution or disappearances. A separate commission estimated that there were more than 80,000 survivors of torture. Against that background, Judge Guzmán assembled a team of detectives and forensic experts to investigate Chile’s bloody past.

“I traversed Chile city by city to piece together the macabre puzzle left behind,” he wrote in a 2005 memoir. “We found eyewitnesses, people who’d been waiting for decades for the judicial system to pay attention to what they had to say.”

He interviewed relatives of people who disappeared and others who had been tortured. He found mass graves and secret prisons. He interviewed helicopter mechanics who described how bodies were loaded onto military helicopters, then dumped in the Pacific Ocean, weighted down by sections of railroad track.

Judge Guzmán often brought journalists with him to document the grisly discoveries, which included skulls and skeletons dug from the earth. Judges on higher courts admonished him for being a publicity seeker, but he pressed forward.

“The deeper I got into my inquiry into the crimes of the dictatorship,” he told the New York Times in 2006, “the more I realized that people in Chile were either unaware or wanted to be unaware of those crimes.”

The bulk of the human rights abuses had occurred during the first five years of Pinochet’s regime. He later issued a blanket amnesty to military and security officials for any crimes committed before 1978. After Pinochet lost the presidency in 1990, he was named a senator-for-life, which granted him immunity from prosecution.

Judge Guzmán was particularly troubled by the cases of people who had vanished.

“I was convinced the amnesty did not apply to disappearances,” Judge Guzmán said in a 2008 documentary, “The Judge and the General,” directed by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco Leverton. “The bodies of the disappeared had never been found, and so the crimes never ended. It was continuing crime.”

Another term used for the disappearances was “perpetual kidnapping.” In other words, if a criminal act had no clear resolution, the crime was still ongoing, and the perpetrators could be brought to justice.

The Chilean supreme court agreed with Judge Guzmán’s theory. He brought his first indictments in 1999 and ultimately sent dozens of onetime Chilean officials to prison.

In the meantime, Pinochet was taken into custody while visiting London in 1998 on orders from a Spanish judge who sought to have the general stand trial for genocide, torture and other crimes against Spanish citizens in Chile.

Pinochet was never extradited to Spain, but after 17 months of house arrest in London he returned to Chile in March 2000, welcomed by cheering supporters. Within 72 hours, Judge Guzmán filed documents to have Pinochet’s legal immunity removed.

He brought charges against Pinochet, connecting him to 75 killings in the Caravan of Death, and ordered him confined under house arrest at his mansion outside Santiago. The case stalled when Pinochet’s lawyers argued that the aging dictator had developed dementia and could not stand trial.

Judge Guzmán later discovered an interview that Pinochet had given in November 2003 to a Spanish-langauge TV station in Miami and asked a panel of psychiatrists and other experts to examine it. In the TV interview, Pinochet appeared coherent, reasonable and utterly without remorse.

After questioning Pinochet in person, Judge Guzmán ruled in December 2004 that the 89-year-old ex-dictator was competent to stand trial. Furthermore, he leveled nine charges of kidnapping against Pinochet and one of aggravated murder, all related to Operation Condor. Other members of Pinochet’s junta, including the chief of his secret police, were arrested.

Millions of dollars were later discovered in offshore accounts controlled by Pinochet, leading to additional charges of financial fraud. In the end, Judge Guzmán indicted Pinochet three times, but the general never came to trial.

Pinochet spent his final years in internal exile, repeatedly under house arrest and deserted by his once-loyal followers. He died in 2006 at age 91, with multiple cases still pending against him.

“The important thing is what we leave to our children,” Judge Guzmán said in 2006, “and here they are going to be able to say, ‘Look, here a dictator was judged.’ ”

Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia was born April 22, 1939, in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, where his father was serving as a diplomat. His father was also a poet, and his mother had studied theater and sculpture. Writers and artists were frequent guests at the family home.

Judge Guzmán spent his formative years, from 4 to 12, in San Francisco and Washington and was deeply influenced by his early exposure to American culture and constitutional principles.

He lived in Venezuela and Colombia before receiving a law degree from the Pontificial Catholic University of Chile. He studied at the University of Paris in the late 1960s and was fluent in several languages.

Survivors include his French-born wife, Inés Watine Dubrulle, and two daughters.

Judge Guzmán retired from the bench in 2005 and became a law school dean at the Central University of Chile and later taught at other law schools, including the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke widely about the need to pursue justice against those responsible for human rights crimes, regardless of how powerful they might be.

“Judges must speak,” he said in the documentary “The Judge and the General.” “They must be transparent. It’s important for the people, it’s important for the relatives of the victims, and it’s important for the country. . . . A wounded country needs to know the truth.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

José Zalaquett, champion of human rights in Pinochet’s Chile and around the world, dies at 77

‘Tex’ Harris, U.S. diplomat who exposed human rights abuses in Argentina, dies at 81

Matt Schudel
Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida. Follow

Bruce Potter
Annapolis, MD 21403

Bruce’s iPhone: 443/454-9044
E-mail: <bpotter>
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News from the Deep Swamp: Finance Companies Took $500 million in PPP Funds

[Long] From The Washington Post <

Summary: More than 1,700 debt-collection agencies and related businesses borrowed from the program, totaling more than $520 million in loans.

Debt collectors, payday lenders collected over $500 million in federal pandemic relief
Paycheck Protection Program money went to firms that have drawn sanctions and received hundreds of consumer complaints

A customer leaves a payday loan store in Maryland. The check-cashing and payday loan services industry has thousands of branch offices nationwide.

A customer leaves a payday loan store in Maryland. The check-cashing and payday loan services industry has thousands of branch offices nationwide. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

By Peter Whoriskey, Joel Jacobs and Aaron Gregg Jan. 15, 2021 at 6:13 a.m. EST

A Texas firm that describes itself as one of the nation’s largest medical bill collectors was racking up consumer complaints last year.

“For months this company has been reporting inaccurate, unverifiable, erroneous things on my credit report and I am sick of it!!!” states one consumer’s report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in January 2020.

“I get calls almost every other day,” according to another in April. “I consider this harassment.”

“I am reporting a potentially fraudulent credit collection and reporting issue,” said a third.

The firm, Capio Asset Servicing, came under investigation last year as part of Operation Corrupt Collector, an enforcement sweep of the debt-collection industry by federal and state officials. In a September lawsuit, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) alleged that the company was seeking to collect debts that were not owed and “causing emotional and physical stress when they threaten and intimidate consumers.”

Yet the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program last year also gave the company a helping hand: It provided $2.4 million in forgivable loans to Capio and an affiliated firm, the Law Office of Mitchell D. Bluhm and Associates, which works with Capio, investigators said.

Those were just two of more than 1,800 loans that went to debt collectors and high-interest lenders through the Paycheck Protection Program, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. In all, the aid to these businesses amounted to more than $580 million.

More than half of small-business loans went to larger businesses, new SBA data shows

More than 170 of those recipients have been the subject of a multitude of complaints — each racking up at least 100 with the CFPB, according to The Post’s analysis. Twenty-five have been subject to legal enforcement or consumer alerts, many by the CFPB and the Federal Trade Commission.

“Giving these companies government money was a terrible idea,” said Don Yarbrough, a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represents debtors in collection cases. The government loans to debt collectors essentially finance “debt collection against people who already are dealing with a global pandemic.”

Yarbrough recently sued Capio on behalf of a Florida woman with a brain injury from whom Capio was allegedly seeking to collect a six-year-old medical debt. Capio did not respond to requests for comment about the case, which was settled.

A Capio representative said the companies met the requirements for the government loan and supplied all necessary information. The companies reported that the loans would support 245 jobs. Balderas, the attorney general, has voluntarily withdrawn the lawsuit as the parties conduct settlement discussions.

“Like millions of businesses in America, Capio and Bluhm enrolled in the Paycheck Protection Program,” a Capio representative said in a statement. “Capio and Bluhm are working closely with the New Mexico Attorney General and the Consumer Protection Division to address any of their questions.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, which administers the pandemic loan program, declined to comment for this article.

Companies fined by regulators received loans

From the beginning of the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program, disputes have arisen about which businesses should be eligible for the money.

Intended to support small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, the program offered loans up to $10 million — and critically, the loans could be forgiven if companies used most of the money to cover payroll. The idea was to encourage companies to keep people employed. In December, Congress finalized another coronavirus relief measure that provided an additional $284 billion for the program.

How to get a loan from the new $284 billion Paycheck Protection Program

For this article, The Post tallied the number of consumer finance firms receiving PPP loans that have faced scrutiny from regulators or drawn more than 100 consumer complaints with the CFPB.

While the CFPB does not verify all of the complaint narratives, The Post may be undercounting the number of such companies because some may have received loans under business names that differ from those reported in enforcement and complaint records. In addition, The Post found dozens of cases in which companies did not list themselves as debt-collection agencies despite having public websites advertising such services.

Consider, for example, National Credit Adjusters, a Kansas firm that provides debt-collection services. It received $1.5 million from the federal loan program.

In July 2018, the company agreed to pay a $500,000 civil penalty to the CFPB after the federal agency found it had used a network of companies that “engaged in frequent unlawful debt collection acts.” The companies told consumers they owed more than they were legally required to pay and threatened them and their families with lawsuits and arrests, according to the CFPB.

Over the past three years, National Credit Adjusters has provoked more than 1,000 consumer complaints, according to CFPB data.

“A man … called my office phone. He then stated that I would be served at my job and arrested!” according to an August complaint from Texas. “I asked him to not call my work and he called 4 times back to back to back harassing me and my co-workers.”

“I checked my credit report today and noticed a collection from National Credit Adjusters claiming that I owe ($480.00) to some company,” according to one November complaint from Tennessee. “I have never done business with [them] nor have I ever heard of them. This ridiculous collection has caused my credit score to drop.”

“A few months ago this random company showed up on my credit report saying I owed money. I have no loans and have never heard of them,” according to another last year from Wisconsin. “I attempted to reach out numerous times for verification and they just send more requests for money.”

The company declined to comment.

In several other cases, PPP loans have gone to companies facing recent financial penalties for regulatory infractions, and the loans could have helped the companies pay the government fines.

For example, seven mortgage firms agreed last year to pay civil penalties for problems the CFPB uncovered. The agency found that the mortgage companies were sending misleading advertising to veterans and service members about loans backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Their combined penalties totaled $3.6 million — less than half of the $9.8 million they collectively received in forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“These are not the kind of companies you would hope to be at the front of the line for government help,” said Derek Martin of, a nonprofit government accountability organization. “Especially if their history of harming the consumer is there in official records.”

Debt collectors prosper in pandemic

Another question that has arisen regarding such loans to consumer finance companies is whether they needed the money.

Although the Paycheck Protection Program was intended to help ailing small businesses, it did not require evidence of losses. Its rules required companies only to attest that “current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary.”

More than 1,700 debt-collection agencies and related businesses borrowed from the program, totaling more than $520 million in loans.

Yet many of these firms are prospering during the pandemic. Although debt collectors often lose in recessions, this pandemic recession may be different, industry analysts said, and some are reaping more money than ever.

Many debtors — the primary source of revenue for debt-collection agencies — have at least temporarily been in a better position to pay their debts. Many received government stimulus checks in the spring; others have been granted permission to delay paying their mortgages.

Two of the largest debt collectors, Encore Capital Group and Portfolio Recovery Associates, have been seeing significant increases in collections, according to their quarterly financial statements. Although neither of those companies received money from the federal loan program, the renewed ability of their debtors to repay is probably helping other debt-collection companies, analysts said.

“We have continued to generate unprecedented cash collections,” Portfolio Recovery Associates said in a recent financial statement. “We have assumed that these collections are accelerated due to current circumstances providing consumers with additional discretionary funds and a willingness to voluntarily repay their debts.”

As a result, critics say, many debt collectors are prospering and should not have benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“Some of these companies are recording record profits,” Yarbrough said. “They don’t need government assistance.”

A trade group representing debt collectors, however, defended the government loans provided to the companies.

“Our members employ 124,000 people, many of whom have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and the PPP has helped preserve those jobs,” Mark Neeb, chief executive of the trade group, ACA International, said in a statement. “Consumers and creditors depend on our members’ services to help resolve disputes and unpaid debts and in order to help keep the credit system running smoothly.”

Payday lenders, strip clubs vie for PPP loans

Similar questions have arisen about whether lenders, particularly payday loan companies that charge high interest rates, ought to be eligible for the program.

At the outset, the Small Business Administration imposed a rule excluding all lenders from the Paycheck Protection Program.

But the decision to exclude them — along with lobbying firms and businesses that offer “prurient” entertainment — has been repeatedly challenged in court: The SBA and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were sued last year by a strip club in Flint, Mich., a group of strip clubs in Wisconsin, a lobbying group and a payday lender.

Those who represent payday lenders argue that the point of the Cares Act was to keep employees on the job regardless of the industry in which they work.

“Employees of legal, licensed, and regulated lending companies are just as deserving of payroll protections and support as those of any other legitimate industry in the country,” said Mary Jackson, chief executive of the Online Lenders Alliance, which advocates on behalf of payday lenders as well as others.

Jackson said in an email that many “small-dollar lenders” actually have struggled during the economic crisis and are doing everything they can to make payroll. She added that such loans can be essential for people with a higher credit risk.

There are “approximately 100 million Americans who need these options,” Jackson said. “They are providing longer term installment loans that allow consumers the opportunity to build or repair their credit.”

Strip clubs, payday lenders, lobbyists fight to get emergency federal loans

At least some judges agreed with the excluded businesses. In two cases, federal judges noted that in approving the Paycheck Protection Program, Congress specified that the loans be available to “any business” and that the administration erred in ruling out some industries.

There was a political push, too: In the House, 24 Republicans and four Democrats signed a letter in April pushing for the program to include lenders such as payday-loan companies.

“As you may know, in many parts of our districts (especially in our rural communities), our constituents’ sole access to financial services is from small-size nonbanks — installment lenders, finance companies,” the letter said. A spokesperson for Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), one of the signees, later clarified that payday lenders were intended to be included in the request.

A senior administration official involved in the government’s PPP implementation declined to comment on payday lenders specifically, but said lending organizations generally would not be eligible for PPP loans in the next $284 billion phase of the program.

“Generally businesses whose stock and trade is financing or lending are generally, and I need to qualify this, may not be eligible,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the federal government’s plans.

“I can’t comment on specifically payday lenders, but we are aware of those, and this is part of our data verification and identity management controls that we are seeking to have with our new round,” the official said.

In a departure from the first rounds of funding, the SBA says it plans to conduct automated eligibility checks before disbursing funds. The agency said this week it plans to allow community financial institutions — those with assets under $1 billion — to start making loans beginning Friday, with larger banks allowed to begin making loans Tuesday.

The Paycheck Protection Program data does not clearly indicate which companies are consumer lenders that charge high rates, but The Post was able to identify more than 80 of them that received loans totaling more than $60 million. Those loans were approved by banks that distributed the money based on applications from the companies.

LoanMe, based in Anaheim, Calif., received a PPP loan of $4.8 million to support 85 employees. Although interest rates vary by state, the company’s disclosures say it can charge annual percentage rates as high as 99 percent in South Carolina and 510 percent in Texas. The business did not respond to requests for comment. The interest rate for the government loans that aren’t forgiven is far less — about 1 percent.

Similarly, a group of 17 companies with the same Alabama address and affiliated with Title Cash, a title and payday lender, received loans totaling more than $3.6 million from the program.

The Title Cash chain has hundreds of locations across nine states and provides short-term loans with very high interest rates, according to its website. A 14-day loan in Alabama is advertised at 456 percent interest on a yearly basis, for example, and a 30-day loan in Mississippi has a maximum annual percentage rate of 267 percent.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

At the very least, Martin said, “these companies should pay back the U.S. government at the same rate they’re lending to consumers.”

Updated January 15, 2021

Peter Whoriskey
Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post whose investigative work focuses on American business and the economy. Previously, he worked at the Miami Herald, where he contributed to the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Andrew, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Joel Jacobs
Joel Jacobs is a data reporter working with the corporate accountability team at The Washington Post.
Aaron Gregg
Aaron Gregg covers the defense industry, government contractors and federal policy issues for the Washington Post’s business section.

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Chilean Wine in the Jan 8th edition of the Economist

Link to the on-line version of this article, but it may be behind a “pay wall” for non-subscribers. . . . < >

Label your libation with love

Why Chinese tipplers like Chilean wine
Presentation counts as much as the taste

The Americas. Jan 2nd 2021 online edition


IN THIRTY YEARS Chile’s wine industry has gone from backwater to global powerhouse. Its vineyards are blessed with few pests, warm summers and low costs. That has helped it become the world’s largest non-European wine exporter by volume. Now it is taking China by storm; only Australia and France send more wine there.

The absence of tariffs helps. Since Chile signed a trade deal with China in 2006, the value of its wine exports to that country has rocketed from $5m to $250m in 2019. Another factor is Chile’s ability to make wine that is specially branded and packaged for the Chinese market, known in the trade as “private-label” wine. This requires not only good plonk, but also impeccable labelling and bottling: the drink is often given as a gift, so it has to look impressive. Chilean wine sent to China fetches an average of $33.11 a case, a price that includes all costs up to loading it onto a ship, compared with $27.42 for wine sent to the United States.

“The key to success in China is to understand the market and…cultural context,” says Nathalie Malbrán, who oversees Asia for Viña Futaleufú, a winery that specialises in private labelling. Founded in 2012, it now leads Chile’s wine exports to China, ahead of dominant brands Concha y Toro and Montes. China’s size and diversity mean there is no common pattern for bottles and labels. “It is essential to be flexible,” says Ms Malbrán.

This business model has fostered a flourishing label-design sector in Chile to cater for China’s changing requirements. It is a huge challenge, says Carlos Scheuch of Colorama, a label-maker, not least because the labels must withstand rough weather and extreme temperatures on the month-long journey across the Pacific to China, then overland to the retailers.

“The label designs are spectacular,” he says. They involve different textures, unusual shapes and advanced printing techniques such as embossing, silk-screen printing and coloured metallic foils. Gold and silver are favoured colours. Whereas chateaux often appear on French bottles, Chilean private-label ones favour landscapes, animals, birds and images that emphasise their Chilean character. Designs are rarely repeated, so printers have adjusted to one-off print-runs. “Eighty per cent are printed only once and never again,” says Mr Scheuch.

The wine’s name is noticed as much as the design. The ideal is to retain some meaning when transliterated or written phonetically in Chinese, says Jaime Muñoz, who founded Antawara Wines in 2006 to enter the Chinese market. The transliteration may be Chinese for an auspicious number or a hopeful omen, he says.

Viña Futaleufú, for instance, trades in Asia under the simpler name Anun Wines. The two Chinese characters for Anun (an and neng), which means “putting down roots” in Mapudungun, the language of Chile’s Mapuche people, can be interpreted as “safe” and “capable”. Anun also markets a brand called Ahu, a ceremonial platform for the moai stone carvings on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a Chilean territory. A gold moai head stands out on the black label.

Six out of Chile’s top ten wine exporters to China use private labels, says Ms Malbrán. This is paying off. In 2016 China became Chile’s main wine destination by value, though in 2020 it slipped behind Brazil and Britain by volume after covid-19 left stocks languishing in Chinese warehouses. Chile’s industry insiders reckon that time, and vaccines, will restore the Asian giant to its perch. ■

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Label your libation with loving lustre”

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Congress Confirms Biden Victory

From the National Public Radio account at 3:41 AM, 7 January, 2021.
“ . . . One woman was killed by a Capitol Police officer in the Capitol. Wednesday night, D.C. police said three other people died from medical emergencies in the surrounding area.”

Not a proud toll, I’d say, Mr. President.

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