The Caribbean Thaw

Over the past few years significant progress has been made in reforming relations between the United States and their longtime enemy, Cuba. The process began when president Obama approved secret talks with Cuba in both the Vatican and Canada. The proceedings were hosted by the Canadians and facilitated by Pope Francis himself.
Finally in December of 2014 president Obama and president Raúl Castro of Cuba announced the beginning of the normalization process of US Cuban relations. The resulting thaw led to loosening of trade and travel restrictions, the opening of Cuban banks to the United States and even new embassies.
During talks while normalizing relations President Raúl Castro stated that “destroying a bridge can be an easy and quick undertaking, however its solid reconstruction can prove a lengthy and challenging endeavor.” (NYTimes) Both leaders were frank in their assertions that relations would not change overnight. Many issues remain between the two countries, mostly concerning democracy and human rights under the Castro regime.
A major disagreement from the Cuban side remain the existence of the United States Guantanamo Bay naval base and prison. Since Fidel Castro came to power the United States has continued to pay Cuba a check for renting the area where the Guantanamo Bay base is located every year. Under the Castro regime only one of these checks was ever cashed under the Castros.
Both President Obama and Castro have stated that their intent in normalizing relations is to improve the wellbeing of both Cubans and Americans. Unfortunately there is opposition to the normalization in both countries.
The current US president has so far failed to issue any information on the future of Cuban relations under his administration. While president elect trump tweeted that he would not continue President Obama’s work to restore mutually beneficial relations.

Mexico’s Litter Crisis

Huge mounds of trash are heaped on rural highways, clog the city streets, and ravage the scenic beaches of Mexico. Not every Mexican litters, and those who do may not do it regularly, but as the garbage piles up, many Mexicans seem to remain oblivious to the consequences of this cultural habit.

Litter contributes to the severe flooding that occurs in Mexico City every rainy season, as piles of trash clog up storm drains. Littering is also a health hazard, as roadside dumps breed mosquitoes, which fuels the outbreak of diseases like dengue fever in rural villages in the south.

The city government makes pleas regularly to end the littering, but those pleas seem to be uniformly ignored. Even in upscale neighborhoods like Condesa in Mexico City, trash thrown into the streets is a problem on the rise:

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A lack of public concern and responsibility is at the heart of the problem, according to environmental activists. People will put empty bottles into trees, bushes, lampposts – anywhere that is convenient at the moment. Children act by example, imitating their parents and other people by dropping wrappers where they please. City bus drivers tell their passengers to throw trash out the window rather than leave it inside the bus.

“People see it as a problem that doesn’t affect them, but it does,” said Francisco Padron, the director of a Mexico City civic organization whose goal is to educate the public on environmental issues such as this. To many citizens, the littering problem is essentially invisible.

However, it’s not just the people alone; citizens of Mexico share the blame with their government. According to Jorge Trevino, the director of Ecología y Compromiso Empresarial, or ECOCE, an industry-funded group that manages recycling and public awareness campaigns, “There is a lack of political will. There is a lack of infrastructure. In many cities, there is a lack of planning. There is nowhere to put the trash.”

Environmental officials in Mexico say that only a few dozen of over 2,500 Mexican cities, towns and villages actually have a landfill or some other type of municipal garbage dump. One of the largest trash dumps in the world, Bordo Poniente, recently closed, eliminating a place to put waste and exacerbating Mexico’s dilemma.

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Alongside the issue of where to put the trash, there’s very little social or legal obligation to be clean –  “In the United States, you have an authority that is watching. Here in Mexico, there is nothing like that,” Trevino said. “If you throw trash on the highway here in Mexico, no one says anything.”

In recent years, some Mexican cities have been trying to alleviate the litter crisis by using public shaming as a way to punish people who are caught littering. In Monterrey, a northern Mexican town, a system of public shaming was set in place that plastered the litterer’s mugshot and full name on a giant billboard with the words “Detenido por cochino,” which literally translates to “arrested for being a pig.”

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However, this was seen by the human rights commission as going a bit too far, and was ruled unconstitutional in the area. “We have to change the culture of cleanliness in the municipality,” said Mayor Pedro Salgado of San Nicolás de los Garza, a suburb of Monterrey , who defended the decision when asked whether human rights were violated by this kind of punishment. The ruling prompted San Nicolás de los Garza to cover the billboards with the following message, which reads “We disagree, but in compliance with the human rights resolution we are covering up the face of someone who dirties our city.” “Every day, we pick up 25 tons of trash.”

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In another attempt to shame a litterer publicly, a city official broadcasted his encounter with a woman he caught dumping trash illegally in a district of Mexico City live on the internet. The video was viewed on Facebook over eight million times. This official uses Periscope, the live streaming video app, to shame citizens who litter. The woman caught on film has become known as “Lady Basura,” or “Lady Garbage.”

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In many cities and towns in Mexico, littering is common, even acceptable, because the people view it as someone else’s problem – why shouldn’t they throw their trash in the streets if it’s someone’s job to pick it up in the morning? It will undoubtedly take time for the mindsets of many Mexican citizens to change, and the usefulness of the government’s public shaming approach is uncertain.

Europe’s invisible minority

While the media have focused on the unsavory situations of Europe’s Muslims, the plight of the Romani, a devastatingly poor, long-persecuted minority in Europe, has gone unnoticed by many. These migrants are not newcomers from the Arab world, but rather nomads who came a millennium ago from northern India, genetic and cultural evidence suggests. Romani have adopted many of the customs of their homeland, and most practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, or Catholicism, while maintaining some ancient Hindu customs. Concentrated mostly in Eastern and Southern Europe, this ethnic group makes up 1-10% of most European populations, but has lifestyles reminiscent of a different continent and century. A third of Romani are unemployed, 90% live below their home country’s poverty line, and large portions of the population are illiterate.


Data from the Pew research center and show that Romani today face far more discrimination in Europe than other minorities, including Muslims. This racism, called anti-ziganism, is strongest in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nations and weakest in the Protestant Northwest of Europe.

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Hundreds of thousands of Romani, having been deprived of German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, were killed during the Holocaust. Unlike Jews, however, widespread belief in their genetic inferiority persisted. From the 1970’s until the breakup of the USSR, hundreds of thousands of Romani women in Eastern Europe underwent forced sterilization, sometimes without the knowledge of the victim. Like many of the laws requiring desegregation of Romani and whites in some European schools today, patient’s consent existed in name only. In Czechoslovakia alone, over 90,000 women were made infertile from 1971 until 1991. Sterilizations continued illegally in the Czech Republic until 2007, by which time it was a full member of the EU, and isolated incidents have been reported in other parts of Eastern Europe more recently.


Some of the worst conditions Romani face today are in Italy. 82% of Italians have unfavorable views of the group, and 68% believe that all Romani should be “expelled from the country.” Several acts of terrorism by Romani in the past decade have sparked a new wave of resentment on both sides, and Italy’s reactions have been unpleasant. In the most publicized of these incidents, Italian beach-goers looked on as two Romani children drowned, then took pictures of their dying bodies without seeking help. In the same month, a mob of Italians stormed a Romani village, lighting several houses on fire. In a lawsuit related to the organization of this terrorism, the Italian supreme court ruled against the Romani. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s last election campaign promised a severe clampdown on “Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals.” The association of an ethnic group with crime is not an unusual tactic for politicians, but seems particularly troubling considering the region’s recent history. The most recent attack, the bombing of a Romani home that killed three sisters, is shown below.


According to Persian legend, the Sassanid king Bahrām V Gōr discovered that the poor in his empire could not afford music, and hired ten thousand of the best lute players from India. He gave each of them an ox, a donkey, and some wheat, so that they could sustain themselves while playing music for the poor. Rather than set up farms, the musicians ate their animals immediately and a year later returned demanding more. Angry that they had squandered his gift, the king banished them West, to wander the world. Whatever the truth of this story, it represents a long history of Western oppressors accusing the Romani of laziness and greed, rather than recognizing their own failure to provide a welcoming home for this travel-worn people.


The Earth’s Largest Rainforest Is Being Destroyed

The Amazon rainforest has lost over 750,000 square kilometers of land since 1978, due to deforestation. For the larger part of history, subsistence farmers who clear cut chunks of land to grow crops for locals and their families, have been the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. As time went on, it was no longer subsistence farmers who were primarily responsible, instead it was industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. Eventually cattle-ranching, was responsible for more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon by the 2000s. As a result of deforestation, land in the Amazon was cleared faster than ever before from the late 1970s up until the mid 2000s.

Currently in the Amazon rain forest, the leading cause of deforestation is cattle-ranching. According to government figures this has been the case since at least the 1970s in Brazil. From 1966-1975 around 38 percent of deforestation in Brazil, was due to large-scale cattle-ranching. This still holds true today, only now it is closer to 70 percent of the deforestation being attributed to cattle ranching. There are people making money from the cattle, and then there are also people that make money from selling the converted land. Forest land itself has little value, but once it is cleared and turned into pastureland, it can then be sold to be used for cattle or for large-scale farming.

The current situation is possibly starting to change, at least in Brazil. Since 2009, after being pushed by environmental campaigners, the Brazilian government along with major cattle buyers, have begun to crack down on the amount of deforestation that is due to cattle production. There have been pledges made by some major slaughterhouses, to enforce stricter controls on their cattle sourcing in order to make sure they are not a driving force in the deforestation.

Another major factor towards deforestation is commercial agriculture. From the 1990s until the mid 2000s the production of soy was a huge contributor to deforestation. The production of the soybean really increased after a new variety of soybean was made by Brazilian scientists which was able flourish in the climate of a rain forest. While there was deforestation due to the actual forest that was converted into soy fields, the crop had more of an impact than just that. It drove up land prices, which caused farmers to move deeper into the rain forest, and also brought new motivation to produce more highways. A high-profile campaign that was run by Greenpeace started to turn things around when they stepped in back in 2006. They made one of Brazil’s largest soy producers commit to avoid clearing land for new production. Soy is not the only form of commercial agriculture that contributes to deforestation, and others include corn, sugar cane, and rice.

Due to all of the efforts made since the mid 2000s, Brazil which contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest, has seen the annual forest loss decline almost 80 percent.

A few of the efforts include satellite monitoring, heavy pressure from environmentalists, increased law enforcement, new protected areas, as well as many others. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all Amazon counties, some of which have been actually experiencing a rise in deforestation since 2000.

The Snow Star Festival


The air whips your face, your lungs ache in the thin air, and with little help from the oxygen pack slung across your back, you struggle up the rocky mountain path. Behind you, throngs of pilgrims push forward, forcing you onward and upward. Your destination: the Snow Star Festival which takes place five-miles into the Andes Mountains and 15,000 feet above sea level, in the Sinakara Valley.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims wait for the start of a procession to the Sanctuary of the Lord of the Qoyllur Rit’i, as part of the the syncretic festival of the same name, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. Tens of thousands of pilgrims crowd into the Andean valley, with dancers in multi-layered skirts and musicians with drums and flutes performing non-stop for the three-day festival. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The event holds both significance to the local pagan population and the rather recently converted Christians. The native people see it has a celebration of the natural might of the glacier and the mountains themselves, while also believing that the reappearance of the Pailedes star cluster signifies the return of order to the region. For the Catholics, the holiday began in 1780s when a suspicious picture of Jesus appeared on a rocky outcropping in the valley after the death of a young shepherd boy; obviously, God was at work here. The festival was Christianized in the 1780s but it still maintains much of its original character. One can find wooden crosses and other religious memorabilia scattered all across the plain.

In this May 24, 2016 photo, men dressed as mythical half-man, half-bear creatures called "Ukukus", descend the Qullqip'unqu mountain glacier carrying a cross on the last day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The ukukus also used to cut away blocks of ice from the glacier to bring down to share with the community in the belief that the melted held magical healing powers, but no longer noting a decline in the size of the glaciers because of warming trends. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In a world filled with divisions and disunity, the Snow Star Festival of Peru reminds us of the harmony and fellowship of mankind. The entirety of the cultural mosaic of Peru is represented here. The cultural and religious groups are able to coexist happily. It’s amazing that in a particularly tense religious climate, two groups with very different foci can come together and share the same camp for a three-day magnificent celebration.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims rest at the base of the Qullqip'unqu mountain, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region, during the Qoyllur Rit’i festival, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star. The gathering is held every year shortly before the Christian feast of Corpus Christi and draws as many as 100,000 people to the Quispicanchis province. It also coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The Snow Star Festival is one of the largest of its kind, and attracts tens of thousands of Peruvians yearly. The people are organized into 500 geographic nations, each with its own individual identity and traditions, united by the common festivity. Families journey by foot to the valley, grandparents and children alike, carrying everything they will need on horseback, from cooking materials and food to bedding and tents. For some the walk takes several days, as they are coming from miles away. The valley quickly takes on the appearance of a refugee village with houses, restaurants and other buildings springing up out of colorful tarps and poles. Vendors walk through the camp selling goods from hats to tarps.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, a Quechua woman waits for a religious procession to file past so she can cross the road, during the second day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The festival coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A central church anchors the sprawling village, and the church remains mobbed throughout the festival as people enter it to pay homage. A line of worshippers snakes throughout the encampment as people wait hours to enter the church. For the entirety of the three-day festival, music can be heard echoing throughout the valley from the central square. The hundreds of nations take turns dancing to the music, and with no schedule, they police themselves peacefully, handing over  the space to a new group with their own costumes, dance moves and customs.main_900-3

After thousands of years, the “Ukukus” remain a central part of the event. Although the event has taken on numerous Catholic aspects, this pagan tradition would not budge. Hundreds of men dressed as mythical half-bear-half-men ascend to the top of a surrounding mountain on both nights of the festival. They stand on the glacier all night to converse with the gods; in the past, they have brought back sacred blocks of ice from the glacier to the people in the camp below. Today, however, the fast shrinking of the glacier has scared the festival goers and forced them to refrain from this tradition.


The derivation and the definition of the festival are greatly debated and two ideas have triumphed: the Christian tradition and the indigenous tradition. Both have remained today. As Paula Sadock put it in a particularly interesting New York Times article, “Andean people worshiped the earth and the mountains in this spot long before they were converted by their Christian conquerors. So the festival offers a uniquely Andean trinity, combining worship of the Apus (mountain gods), Pachamama (the earth mother) and Jesus with no apparent sense of contradiction.”


The power of the valley can unite people from all walks of life, religious background and cultural upbringing. There is something special about the land itself. The festival is not only divided into religious factions, but also into regional cultural groups called nations. As many as 500 nations send delegations to the event. The great diversity of the festival has the potential to create a tense environment, but impressively this is not the case.

All the pictures were taken from an Atlantic Article 

The title picture was taken from a New York Times Article