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Cuba Lifts Import Restrictions on Essential Goods After Largest Protests in Decades

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The protests have continued despite a brutal police response, which has likely left hundreds arrested and more facing fines that far outpace their monthly wages.


Cuban Protests Continue

Cuba has temporarily lifted restrictions on imports by international travelers as an apparent concession to anti-government protesters, authorities announced Wednesday.

For decades, Cuba has imposed high customs duties on goods brought onto the island by international travelers in an attempt to bolster government revenue. Some of the most affected items were essential goods, such as food, medicine, and hygiene products. The restrictions have partially aided in a severe shortage of goods across Cuba and helped fueled the largest anti-government protests since 1994.

Like many countries around the world, Cuba is also facing increased hardships because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to even further restrictions on when people can go out and attempt to procure elusive goods.

The protests began on Sunday and were met with a severe government crackdown. Exact numbers in the reclusive country are hard to verify, but multiple outlets reported that hundreds have been detained by police Independent journalists are allegedly also being systematically targeted.

In response to the growing protests, Cuban authorities largely shut off the internet. By Thursday, services were mostly restored, with videos showing that anti-government protests continued across the island and that the concession to ease restrictions on imported goods likely didn’t address the core issues for many Cubans.

Blaming the Embargo

The Cuban government has long blamed the island’s chronic shortages on the decades-long trade embargo imposed by the United States. It has attempted to paint the recent protests as a product of the embargo despite rhetoric from protesters demanding political freedom. On Thursday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez tweeted, “The blockade surpasses any desire, it delays us, it does not allow us to advance.” He added that the problems caused by it compound, leading to Cuba’s current predicament.

Without a doubt, the embargo has aided in shortages throughout Cuba as it places restrictions on ships from coming to U.S. ports if they wish to go to Cuba as well, effectively restricting trade to the island from international partners unless the ship is willing to skip the U.S. completely. However, it doesn’t completely cut off trade, and many of the shortages on the island have been blamed on government mismanagement, as nearly the entire Cuban economy is centrally controlled.

Regardless, the Cuban government’s anti-embargo messaging has been partially supported by some U.S. politicians and organizations. Black Lives Matter wrote on Instagram, “The people of Cuba are being punished by the U.S. government because the country has maintained its commitment to sovereignty and self-determination. United States leaders have tried to crush this Revolution for decades.

“Since 1962, the United States has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba by cutting off food, medicine and supplies, costing the tiny island an estimated $130 billion,” the post continued. “Now, we look to president Biden to end the embargo, something Barack Obama called for in 2016. This embargo is a blatant human rights violation and it must end.”

The statement has received widespread pushback from across the political spectrum, with one user writing “Shame on you BLM. Sharing awareness on Cuba’s fight for freedom is appreciated, but your message is all wrong.

By and large, Cubans and Cuban-Americans have been angry with messaging such as that by Black Lives Matter for failing to consider that protesting Cubans rarely mention the embargo in their chants or demands, but rather call for widespread political changes, decreased civil repression, and anger at government policies that lead to widespread shortages of goods that are normally widely available.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also partially blamed the embargo in a statement, but also made sure to acknowledge abuses by the Cuban government, writing in an accompanying tweet, “We stand in solidarity with the Cuban people and condemn the suppression of the media, speech, and protest.”

“We also call for an end to the U.S. embargo and additional Trump-era restrictions that are profoundly contributing to the suffering of Cubans,” Ocasio-Cortez continued.

Protests have continued despite the eased restrictions on customs duties, and there are fears that another wave of Cuban migrants may come to the U.S. by traveling on sea, an extremely dangerous route. To discourage this, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas warned would-be refugees on Tuesday, saying, “Allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United StatesTo those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking.”

“The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. We call on the government, the government of Cuba, to refrain from violence and their attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba,” he added.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Miami Herald) (BBC)

International

South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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Toyota Largely Pulls Olympic Sponsorship Ads Amid Calls for Games To Be Canceled

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Locals in Japan are particularly worried about the spread of COVID-19 among athletes at the densely packed Olympic village, something that has already happened despite assurances that it wouldn’t.


Tainted View on Olympics

The Olympic Games continued to face controversy Monday after Toyota, one of the event’s largest sponsors, announced that it would not air any commercials featuring the Olympics in Japan.

The news may come as a surprise since companies often view their ties to one of the world’s largest sporting events as a major selling point and public relations win. However, Toyota’s decision to distance itself instead highlights a growing trend among brands and locals who view the Games as a semi-toxic subject, especially in Japan where most of the population would like the Games canceled or postponed.

The controversy around the Olympic Games largely revolves around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to host the Games despite rising cases in Japan, concerns about new variants of the virus, and low vaccination rates due to a slow rollout.

Despite Toyota’s recent decision, the company has provided invaluable support to organizers of the Games, including over 3,000 vehicles to transport athletes, crews, and staff. Additionally, the company continues to showcase individual Olympic athletes that it directly sponsors in competitions on its website.

Cardboard “Anti-Sex” Beds

Growing COVID concerns have many on edge, often causing jokes to be taken seriously and spread as misinformation. One such case involved the decision by organizers to use cardboard beds for athletes. Paul Chelimo, from the United States’ track and field team, joked on Twitter, “Beds to be installed in Tokyo Olympic Village will be made of cardboard, this is aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes.”

“Beds will be able to withstand the weight of a single person to avoid situations beyond sports. I see no problem for distance runners, even 4 of us can do.”

While many understood the statement to be a joke, outlets quickly ran with the sentiment that the beds were actually designed to prevent sex between athletes. Headlines from publications like the New York Post, for instance, read, “Athletes to sleep on ‘anti-sex’ cardboard beds at Olympic Games amid COVID.”

The situation was largely put to rest after Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan posted a video jumping on the beds to prove they were perfectly suited for any activity. Officials at the Games went on to clarify that the decision to use cardboard was because it was a cheap, sustainable option that was easy to dispose of after the games without creating much waste.

The fact that the cardboard beds might prove awkward for athletes to use for sex could be a happy accident for the Olympic organizers, as they’ve made it clear that they don’t want attendees having sex to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’ve even gone so far as to threaten athletes who have sex during the games with penalties.

In an effort to further dissuade athletes from hanging outside of their dorms or with others, the use of alcohol has largely been banned. Athletes are allowed to have it in their rooms but are supposed to enjoy it while alone.

For many, proof that the Games can’t be protected against COVID-19 has already presented itself, despite assurances from organizers like IOC president Thomas Bach — who said there was “Zero” risk of transmission between athletes and Japanese staff. At least 61 people at the Olympic village have reported contracting COVID since arriving, including at least one U.S. athlete and Japanese workers at the village.

Non-political Games Rocked by Political Tit-for-Tats

The Games have also been rocked with other problems, especially involving Japan and its neighbors.

Korea was forced to take down flags that it had hung from its Olympic Village dorms that read “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.” The phrase was borrowed from Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who said, “I still have 12 battleships left,” prior to a lopsided 16th-century naval victory against Japan in the Imjin War.” The phrasing drew outrage from right-wing Japanese groups who asked the International Olympic Committee to have Korea remove the quasi-political statement.

Korea agreed, but only if Japan agreed to use the Rising Sun flag, a standard used by Imperial-era Japan and the Japanese Navy. It’s also one that is often viewed by many East Asians as a symbol as controversial as the Nazi flag is for Westerners.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Associated Press) (ABC News)

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