The 2020 Election and Latin American Politics

Another event I had the opportunity this semester was a discussion of potential effects of the US presidential on Latin American politics. This event was also hosted by Dr. Kenney and featured two guest speakers in Dr. Paolo Moreira and Dr. Rossana Castiglioni. This event occurred only 10 days after the election (November 13th), so the exact outcome of the election remained very uncertain. Additionally, the speakers were simply offering projections on potential changes in American policy toward Latin America – as such, the ideas discussed in this post should be considered in that context.

            Now, given President-elect Biden’s stark policy contrasts with President Trump, it is reasonable to imagine that there will be changes in America’s policy toward Latin America. Among other things, the panelists anticipated that US diplomatic efforts would place greater emphasis on developing democratic institutions and ensuring human rights. However, they noted that given the vast asymmetries in power between the US and Latin American countries, it is unlikely that there will be massive changes in US policy toward Latin America.

            The panelists did note that there might be a few areas of policy change, though they warned against any expectation of dramatic changes from the pre-Trump era norms. For instance, they hypothesized that immigration rules would return to “normal” and that the US would make Amazon protections a diplomatic priority.            

One final observation made by the panelists was that the US election highlighted the instability that exists even within the US political system. While the instability and uncertainty in Latin American governments are far greater than we experienced in the past election, it still gives us a taste of the ease with which uncertainty can be introduced into the political process.


Trust in the Government and COVID-19

It’s easy for me to lose sight of the full scale of COVID-19’s effect on the world. Having personally experienced it in Germany and EU as well as the US, I frequently forget that COVID has affected all nations around the world. One event, hosted by Dr. Charles Kenney and featuring guest speakers Gilberto Hochman and Rossana Castiglioni, highlighted the worldwide effects of COVID-19 for me by describing the situations in Brazil and Chile.

Essential to understanding the full effects of COVID-19 in South America in general is the political unrest and corruption that characterizes much of the political discussion in these countries. Having grown-up in America – the longest-lasting (and arguably most stable) democracy currently in existence – it’s difficult for me to fully appreciate the uncertain political situation of these nations. As Dr. Hochman and Dr. Castiglioni note, this political instability has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

            Dr. Gilberto Hochman, author of “The Sanitation of Brazil: Nation, State, and Public Health, 1889-1930,” discussed the history of vaccinations in Brazil and related this history to the public’s current opinion regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. Brazil, when under a military dictatorship in the early 1970s, was one of the last strongholds of smallpox in the world. However, Brazil, assisted by the WHO, actually eradicated smallpox through mandatory vaccinations, despite being under despotic rule. Support for vaccines in Brazil has been fairly consistent, being guaranteed by the government by the “United Health System,” established in 1988.

            Unfortunately, under President Bolsonaro, immunization coverage rates, along with public trust in the government, have plummeted in recent years. This drop in coverage has occurred despite widespread support for the public health system in Brazil. However, popular support for a COVID-19 vaccine appears tenuous given President Bolsonaro’s mixed messaging on vaccine distribution, distrust in government, and a vocal anti-vaxxer minority. Further, given the decrease in vaccine coverage, the government’s ability to effectively distribute the vaccine is far from certain.

            The situation in Chile shares several similarities with circumstances in Brazil, but has led to rather more dramatic results. Where public trust in government has declined in Brazil, the COVID-19 pandemic and inadequate government response has destroyed popular support for the existing government. Surprisingly, Chile is among the most prosperous (in GDP per capita) countries in South America, yet its people are among the most dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction has prompted calls for a constitutional convention to completely rewrite their constitution. Dr. Castiglioni notes that any new government formed during this time (and a new government is needed) will lack long-lasting legitimacy. She discussed how the gap between Chilean expectations from government and the realistic realities will make the creation of an enduring, legitimate government virtually impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic.            

The examples of Chile and Brazil highlight in stark terms the critical role of trust in the government as it relates to pandemic mitigation. While this lesson can still be seen in the United States (where states with greater adherence to social distancing and masking ordinances generally fared better), the true consequences of distrust in the government (or illegitimate, corrupt, political processes) are much more clearly seen in Brazil and Chile.


Growth Opportunities

As has been noted throughout the year, it’s been really hard to get out and get involved in what’s happening in the world. Add to this my tendency to not avail myself to many of the educational opportunities offered by various international organizations, and it would have been easy to miss out on a lot of knowledge. However, I can safely say that I learned more about German culture and history this semester than any other, in large part through the efforts of the OU German Club.

            This was the first semester in which I took two German courses – German Literature and Film (focusing on the 20th century) and Business German. These two courses helped keep me apprised of upcoming German Club events while also providing educational about various facets of German culture. In Business German we were provided the opportunity to read Max Weber in the original German as well as analysis done by Konrad Adenauer on the “salaried masses.” It was fascinating German philosophical (and economic) thought that has gone on to transform the world. Further, German Literature and Film exposed me to some of the primary German artistic movements of the 20th century and provided me with a lot of context surrounding Germany’s process of overcoming their Nazi past.

Besides the classroom instruction, the German Club events provided numerous opportunities to examine various other facets of German culture. The first event I attended was a forum on internships in Germany. As I interned with the State Department earlier this year, I was invited to share my experiences, as did another student who had participated in a remote internship over the summer. The short story is this: if you can intern in Germany, you probably should.

            The German Club brought in an outside speaker for the second event I attended this semester – a discussion on the history and current state of gaming in Germany. This lecture was fascinating, for several reasons. First, the discussion included lots of interesting information about some of my favorite modern board games. For example, I hadn’t known that my favorite board game of all time, Settlers of Catan, was created in Germany. Second, the speaker discussed the evolution of board games from simple entertainment commodities to a form of artistic expression in their own right and the accompanying push by game developers for recognition. I had never thought about the process and difficulties of bringing new games to market, and I didn’t realize that for most of gaming history, game developers did not receive much popular credit for their work. Finally, the discussion ended by noting one of the largest trends in computer games in Germany: agricultural simulations. In these games, players (frequently living in urban areas) simply drive farm equipment (harvesters, tractors, etc.). This trend is notably ironic given Germany’s long history of war games.  

            Although my course-load prohibited me from attending all the events I found interesting, two other events deserve honorable mentions. One event was a lecture covering one of the continuing challenges of German reunification – legal uncertainties regarding the proper ownership of houses in former East Germany. Another was a bake-along event for the traditional Viennese cookie, Vanillekipferl. (Although I didn’t attend this event, I did bake some Vanillekipferl, and they were fantastic. Would highly recommend.) In short, The OU German Club provided many high-quality opportunities for myself and other students to expand their knowledge of German culture and history, and I’m excited about continuing my involvement in events that they host.


A Technological Triumph

In spite of all the darkness in the world in 2020, one recent, inspiring example of international is the cooperation between BioNTech (a German biomedical firm) and Pfizer (a United States biotech company) have jointly created the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved for emergency use by the FDA. Obviously, these are not the only firms who have acted to create a COVID-19 vaccine – Moderna (another US firm) has also created a vaccine now being deployed, and other multi-national firms (e.g. Astrazeneca, partnering with Oxford University) are also in the process of creating a vaccine.

            The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is particularly noteworthy because it highlights what can be accomplished through international cooperation. As noted, while this partnership is not unique, it first demonstrates that international cooperation can produce remarkable results. More impressive than being the first vaccine to receive approval by the FDA is the creation of any effective vaccine within 9 months of starting. I’ll confess that nine months ago whenever a COVID-19 vaccine was first discussed, the prospect that one could begin deployment before 2021 seemed preposterous. And yet it was accomplished; and that deserves recognition.

While the creation of a vaccine is a testament to the incredible results possible from international cooperation, effective dispersal of the vaccine is also going to require tightly coordinated efforts from governments around the world. COVID-19, although it has impacted some nations more than others, is not the problem of a single nation; it’s a truly international challenge. Indeed, as international travel picks up, if COVID-19 remains a substantive problem for any nation, it will also remain a problem for all nations; as was evidenced earlier this year, COVID-19 won’t just remain in one place. Clearly then, dispersal of the vaccine will require coordinated international efforts to ensure that all nations have access to the resources required to surmount the challenge provoked by COVID-19. Certainly, COVID-19 has not always (or even mostly) brought out the best in us. But I hope that as we look back at the dispersal of the vaccine (and hopefully at COVID-19 as well), we can see the tremendous potential of coordinated international efforts.


Life in the Matrix

            I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 has changed, and will continue to change, the world. These changes are too numerous to exhaustively cover in a single post, so I’ll simply note the one that stands out most in my mind. COVID-19 has, in ways not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall, divided country from country. This division – seen primarily in travel bans – can be seen as a macrocosm of the pandemic-mitigation measures implemented across the world.

            Although I have lived in Oklahoma for the past four months where social distancing measures and mask mandates are, at best, loosely applied, I’ve still noticed that I’ve felt more isolated in previous years. Attending classes on Zoom and doing homework in my house (or more specifically, my bedroom) made it easier to separate from the outside world. My world just felt small, constrained, and isolated. It was so easy to forget that there’s a whole world outside of my bubble. This isolation – or at least separation – from the ‘rest of the world’ extended to my connection with other countries. Although international news was much more common than in “normal” times, the world outside of Oklahoma (and on a larger scale, the US) seemed much farther removed. Nations aren’t just a plane flight away. Rather than a “community of nations” – which has arguably never really existed – the world seems more starkly divided into its disparate parts. The world (certainly the accessible world) just seems smaller.

These isolating effects of COVID-19 aren’t just constrained to individuals – they’ve been seen in international relations in ways that seem unique in my lifetime. It was shocking earlier this year when Poland, the Czech Republic, and ultimately most European nations closed their borders to others in the EU (and naturally, the rest of the world). Indeed, only this week, France has closed access to UK citizens after a new, and more contagious, strain of COVID-19 emerged in Great Britain. These aren’t warring nations – these are allies. The closures aren’t due to strained international relations – it’s in the interests of public health.

Now, I don’t have anything new to add to the discussion of pandemic mitigation measures. I don’t know what the right answers are – I don’t think that widespread (or universal) shutdowns are the solution, but ignoring the problem seems riddled with errors of judgment as well. One idea seems critical, whether it’s considered on an individual, societal, or international level: going in alone is destined for failure. I lived the first half (or ten weeks) of my fall semester trying to succeed alone – in part driven by pandemic cautions. In mild terms, it blew up in my face. Across society – whether one looks at the United States or other nations around the world – COVID-19 has laid bare deep-seated divides. As already noted, nations have erected barriers against allied nations in hitherto (in my experience) unexperienced ways. I concede that barriers might have to be temporarily enforced between nations; however, it’s critical that we (as nations) not create an island, insulated and independent from all others. Fundamentally, that’s not representative of how the world works. While each citizen might possess limited power to influence policy, we can (at a minimum) remain informed of events from around the world, act when we can to alleviate the sufferings of others, and refuse to (mentally) sequester ourselves at a time when (physical) sequestration is required. We must not resign ourselves to the blue pill, to a matrix of our own creation.


Everyday Life

Regardless of where I live, I find that daily routines dominate life. I’m convinced that if I can’t derive joy from the everyday experiences then I’ll have difficulty deriving value in my life. Interestingly, some of my favorite memories of my time in Berlin are tied to those daily, mundane routines – as dull as they sometimes felt, they were defining characteristics of my experience. I think it’s important to say now that interning at the State Department was my first experience working a “9 to 5” (or in my case, 8:30 to 5:30) – this created a far more regimented schedule than I followed during university semesters.

One of the best looking cups of coffee I got in Berlin — gotta love oat milk Flat Whites

            I’ve talked about coffee already in these blogs, but every day starts with coffee. In my case, coffee starts with a hand grinder and an AeroPress. No later than 6:30 every morning I’d have a podcast on, fresh grinding my beans, and boiling water. Those quiet ten minutes set the tone for my day – if I miss my morning brew, I can tell my day just isn’t set up the way I want. My kitchen window (on the fourth floor) overlooked Gesundbrunnen, a neighborhood in the former Soviet section of Berlin. I saw some amazing sunrises – the apartment might not have been much, but that kitchen was home to the best 10 minutes of my day.

This isn’t the worst view I can imagine waking up to

            As noted, coffee essential to starting my day. But the gym is essential to finishing my day. I didn’t get off work until sometime around 17:30, and I didn’t really get anywhere fast in Berlin. So I wouldn’t get to the gym until sometime around 18:00, and I wouldn’t leave before 19:30 or 20:00 (I’m a self-acknowledged compulsive exerciser). But the thing that sticks with me about the gym isn’t really the workouts; it’s the commuting. In the US, I can’t imagine commuting more than about 30 minutes to get anywhere (a consequence of growing up in a small town). My shortest commutes in Berlin were ~30 minutes and commuting home from the gym would always take 45-60 minutes. I’d have to stop by the store for groceries 2-3 days during the week on the commute. Sometimes it would frustrate me since I’d just want to be home. I was frequently exhausted, spent from the day. But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d change it if I could. It gave me a new perspective – it taught me that there’s a lot more to life than what you see at University. It taught me patience; I needed to accept a 45-60 minute commute, because that was outside of my control. I learned a lot from that commute, and to be honest, I was ultimately able to let that hour be my time to decompress from the day.

It just doesn’t get old

            But there’s one true highlight from my time in Berlin: and that’s the Brandenburger Tor. For those unaware, the US Embassy in Berlin is on Pariser Platz, the square near the center of Berlin where the Brandenburger Tor stands. Every day I’d exit the S-Bahn station and walk up the stairs to, perhaps, the most iconic view in Germany. That view was new every morning; it never got old.

It’s beautiful at all times of day

            I’m grateful for the cool stuff I got to do while living in Berlin, but those aren’t the only memories with which I leave Germany. I’ll remember the peaceful mornings brewing coffee, the Brandenburger Tor coming into view from the S-Bahn station, long commutes home at night. It’s those little things that really make the experience memorable.

            P.S. (This title is borrowed from Coldplay’s latest album “Everyday Life” – give it a listen, especially “Orphans,” “Champion of the World,” and the titular “Everyday Life.”


This will Change the World

Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t imagine that I’d intern with the State Department during the most significant challenge the world has faced in my lifetime. If you had told me that freedoms across the Western world would be restricted in response to COVID-19 just as in China, I’d have told you that could never happen. That we’re be facing a financial crisis that’s likely greater in magnitude than that of 2008 – it’s staggering. The world, the economy, the way of life that we all thought was resilient and stable, just isn’t. My boss at the State Department was repeatedly said that “everyone’s going to know where they were doing the Coronavirus crisis. It’s this [my] generation’s 9/11.”   

From an overarching perspective, a few things strike me about this outbreak. First, the fragility of our economic system is shocking. Having watched this outbreak closely from a single nation’s perspective, its startling to see how a system that seemed so strong, so resilient, can crumble in the space of two weeks. When I got to Berlin in early February, we were just reporting on potential downstream economic consequences from China’s shutdown. We weren’t really looking at a potential outbreak in Germany. I don’t think any of us saw it coming; no one planned for an outbreak, much less one of this scale. And even two weeks ago, as of writing this, I was just a tourist in Copenhagen – flights were still mostly full, very few people had any sort of mask on, and life more or less went on as normal. Today, 90% or more of the scheduled flights in Berlin and Amsterdam have been cancelled and there’s probably someone with a mask on every row of this plane; there are no tourists. In airports, there’s a pervasive sense of impending calamity. It’s a different world than two months ago.

The fragility of the system has come through in my research on government responses to COVID-19 – it’s never felt like the government knew what to do. They’ve been playing catch-up, intensifying restrictions as the virus afflicts greater and greater swaths of the population. This isn’t just true for Germany – it’s true for virtually every nation in the Western world. The system that I assumed was solid enough to weather virtually any storm . . . just wasn’t.

Second, the human impact of COVID-19 is shocking. The terror of the virus came long before the virus itself. We saw “hamster buying” – hoarding essentials like toilet paper, eggs, and non-perishable foods – a stigma against those of east Asian descent (a stigma that still persists), and I’d argue a general discomfort of our fellow people (because we don’t know who has COVID-19). One needs only look at the disastrous situation in Northern Italy to see the necessity of quick and decisive action limiting social interactions, but we can’t allow these measures to pull our intention into ourselves exclusively. Now is not the time to lose our connection to others. There’s tremendous uncertainty on all fronts for us all – let’s not add isolation on top of the uncertainty that already permeates society.

As a part of my reporting on COVID-19 at the State Department, I read stories of hospitals being robbed of personal protective equipment (like respirators and the like). I’ve seen stories of people ignoring social distancing restrictions – choosing their temporary wants over the good of society. Let’s not be like them; let’s choose to act in ways that put the good of society first – if there’s one thing that came through virtually all the messaging in Germany, it was this: as citizens, we have the ability to control the effects of COVID-19 on the world. We can take actions that allow the healthcare system to support the burden. Chancellor Merkel said it well: this is the greatest crisis faced by Germany (and possibly the world) since WW2.

I don’t know what the future holds; when social distancing’s efficacy in slowing the outbreak will be seen, if we’ll become a more coherent or isolated society, etc. There are many unknowns. But one thing is certain: COVID-19 will change the world.



As I get older (which feels ironic at 21), the importance of expressing gratitude is made clearer and clearer to me. In that spirit, looking back at my two months in Germany, I’m struck by all the awesome stuff I got to experience. I visited Dresden, Prague, Cologne, Düsseldorf (unfortunately), Wroclaw, and Copenhagen. Besides that, I was living in Berlin, and Berlin is pretty awesome, not going to lie. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel, and even though my experience was different than I expected, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. On the topic of travel, I just have to mention Prague. Every street corner looks like a fairy tale, the Prague Castle complex is probably my single favorite landmark in Europe. It’s a bit crowded, but it deserves every bit of the attention it gets. Prague also has (in English) Chimney Cakes – delightful baked treats that can be slathered in Nutella to become even better.

            But Prague doesn’t have a monopoly on cool things – The Cologne Cathedral is awe inspiring. The imposing verticality, the mixture of monolithic permanence and spiritual elegance, is a sight to behold. I got to see a quartet perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. They were frankly fantastic – it’s probably the most fun I’ve had a concert. And on the topic of music, I have to mention a street performer in Dresden who did acoustic covers of classic rock songs; I could’ve listened to him all night. I saw some incredible modern art at K20 in Düsseldorf – Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso are incredible artists; it’s not just a question of form, they have an incredible ability to communicate torment, joy, confusion using a only few brushstrokes. But on the topic of art, I also found my new favorite artist at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark. Anna Ancher is a Skagen artist, and her work, in perhaps a wild understatement, made me feel things. Her works are beautiful, emotive, (in a word) human. However, I’d say the single artistic highlight of my time in Berlin was a Jan Van Eyck at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin – he’s just an astonishing artist.

I didn’t just get to see lots of awesome art, there’s also great coffee everywhere; and I certainly had plenty of it. This one coffee shop in Copenhagen had an awesome espresso blend that had strong, clear notes of strawberry; I think it might be my favorite cup of the trip. I had some fantastic breakfasts in Poland, great pizza in Prague (of all places), an awesome hamburger in Dresden, and my favorite donuts of all time that also happen to vegan in Berlin. You could say that food was an important part of my experience.

I’m grateful for the experience to intern at the State Department – I didn’t have any experience in an office environment before, and I hadn’t even interned anywhere previously either. It was a great first experience. I got experience on working eight-hour days (that’s not a nothing experience), reporting on a whole range of topics, and engaging with another governmental system. Even though my time there got cut short, I wouldn’t trade that experience for a semester at university.

Just like before, I’m ready to go back to Europe. See more things, eat good food, drink great coffee, and see some incredible history. I’m grateful for the time that I had, and I’ll always remember that on this trip to Europe, I didn’t just get to see historical sites: I saw history in the making.


Staple Foods in Egypt

I imagine that for many of us in the United States, it’s hard to appreciate the full import of staple foods, largely because it’s not a concept that exists within our culture. Generally speaking, a staple food is one upon which a diet is based, but its importance is far greater than that. Culturally, it is a commodity without which one cannot feel safe and secure in their land and life. While in the United States we generally don’t place such stock in one particular food, the same is not true everywhere. Specifically, in Egypt, the staple food is bread. Regardless of the other food available a family or individual might have available, if they do not have bread, then they might as well have no food at all. As a result of its importance to Egyptian culture and security, bread has been the source of great national unrest in Egypt. When the price of bread skyrocketed, and its availability was reduced, there were riots in the streets of Cairo protesting the government’s actions and ludicrous price of bread.

My awareness of the situation in Egypt is based off the work of a professor, Dr. Jessica Barnes, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her research is focused on Egyptian culture. She is in the process of writing a book that discusses Egyptian dependence on foreign wheat and the consequences thereof, given the country’s dependence upon bread. The logistics of the wheat industry in Egypt are fascinating, and the effects far-reaching.

The availability of bread is uncertain for many Egyptians because of financial limitations and a significant dependence on international wheat. In fact, Egypt is the largest importer in the world of wheat. Approximately half of the wheat used Egypt is sourced from outside the country. Given the strong relationship between a stable wheat supply and populace happiness, the government invests significant effort keeping wheat supply stable. This is challenge given the necessity of importing large quantities of foreign wheat, and its process has been frequently plagued by both corruption and paranoia.

Dr. Barnes’ presentation focused on the efforts of individuals on all levels of society, from the government’s effort to import adequate amounts of wheat to the residents of Cairo depending on (what is in essence) a “bread card”, allowing them to purchase adequate bread for their lives. She also discussed the rural farmers of Egypt who not only produce wheat for the nation but also for themselves. Each strives to provide a measure of security to their lives and the lives of those around them through effort to procure enough bread for their lives.

As I learn more about other cultures, I appreciate more and more both the commonalities and differences that exist in the world. Yes, we live in different places, under different systems of government with different levels of comfort in our lives. And yet, when it comes down to it, we are all looking for comfort and security in our lives. Now, the paths we follow to reach this comfort are vastly different. In Egypt, that comfort and security is grounded in the possession of enough bread to eat. What is it for you?


Brazilian Politics and the Rainforest

I know that for most of my life I’ve imagined the Amazon as an expansive, untouched wilderness that is filled with an astonishing diversity of creatures, some unique among every other species on earth. As it turns out, although some of this assessment is fairly accurate, several of the assumptions I’ve made about the Amazon are not particularly accurate. Perhaps most importantly, the Amazon is not untouched. I recently watched a Vox YouTube video detailing how the expansion of Brazilian agricultural and forestry industries has impacted protected indigenous lands within the rainforest. Many tribes have lived on the same land within the rainforest for hundreds of years but in the mid-to-late 1900s, their lands began to be constricted by a booming industrial sector that thrived off the abundant natural resources of the Amazon.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government acted, protecting their historic lands. However, industries have cleared significant swaths of rainforest surrounding these lands, leaving only the tribes’ small pockets of land as the remaining rainforest in some areas. The political tides in Brazil have swung toward a reduction in rainforest production in recent years. FUNAI, the government agency dedicated to the Amazon’s protection, has had its budget significantly reduced. Further, enforcement of many existing laws regarding the Amazon’s protection has been either reduced or eliminated. As a consequence of these changes, illegal encroachments into natives’ lands by many industries have skyrocketed, specifically within the last year. These encroachments are frequently accompanied by threats warning against retaliation, leaving the native population frightened and unsure of where to turn.

I would argue that it is simple to understand that the Amazon is an invaluable natural resource – one that is essential to the world’s climate. The Amazon is an irreplaceable natural wonder – and for that reason only ought to be protected. Further, those whose heritage is within the rainforest should have that heritage protected – they should be able to live upon their land without fear of having their home taken away. To anyone who is interested in learning more about this issue, I’ll attach the links to the videos used in reference to this video – I hope you all find them as informative and interesting as I did.


“Brazil’s Indigenous Land is being Invaded” —

“The Destruction of the Amazon, Explained” –