On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.
Developments in the U.S.-Cuba Relationship
On August 23rd, 2018, the U.S. State Department downgraded the travel advisory for Cuba from a Level 3: Reconsider Travel, to a Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. Many view this change as the most positive diplomatic development between the U.S. and Cuba since the Trump administration came into office. A key objective of the Obama administration was normalizing relations with Cuba and, in particular, easing some travel and trade restrictions (which have since become strained under the current administration).
On September 29th, 2017, the U.S. State Department recommended against U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba because of reported sound-based attacks that had affected several diplomats and family members stationed in Havana. The State Department also chose to reduce staffing at the embassy in Havana, which significantly reduced the embassy’s ability to conduct consular operations. It has still yet to be officially determined who or what was behind the “sonic attacks.” It is presumed that possible hardliners within Cuban intelligence or perhaps Russian intelligence were attempting to disrupt diplomatic relations and progress between the two countries. A more recent New York Times report offers a theory stating the cause of brain injuries to embassy staff in Cuba was not due to sonic attacks but microwave-based attacks instead.
President Trump is set to appoint Mauricio Claver-Carone as Senior Director of the National Security Council for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Claver-Carone is the son of a Cuban exile and a known hardliner on maintaining the Cuban embargo. It is believed that Claver-Carone was also closely involved in imposing recent sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. This could be an indicator that Cuba and the influence it wields in other neighboring areas, including Venezuela, will be a guiding issue while formulating security policy in the Western Hemisphere. As such, the U.S. will likely continue to take a less amicable approach to Cuba than the previous administration.
Middle East and Africa
Damascus Preparing for Possible Offensive
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, is allegedly preparing for an offensive against insurgent-controlled Idlib Province in Northwestern Syria. Idlib Province is currently home to three million people, including tens of thousands who sought refuge following surrender to government forces elsewhere in Syria. Iran, Turkey, and Russia are slated to meet in the coming days to attempt to work out a compromise and avoid massive bloodshed and displacement that would occur if the offensive were to go forward.
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have warned that attacking Idlib would serve as an escalation to the Syrian conflict and have vowed to intervene along with United Kingdom and French partners if chemical weapons are used in the attack. Syria has responded that Western powers are failing to understand government plans for the region, while Iran has responded that this move is a response against Western “pressure” (thought to be referring to renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran).
A failure to reach a compromise could lead to disastrous consequences, including many more Syrian casualties as well as conflict between interested third powers in Syria, if chemical weapons were to be utilized. Turkey could experience another overwhelming refugee crisis with up to 800,000 people expected to be displaced. In addition, refugees in neighboring states and Europe could refuse to return home if violence continues. Therefore, the upcoming conference to discuss a compromise will prove essential in predicting the future of the Syrian conflict.
Security Considerations for the Shared Economy in Asia
Similar to the rise of the shared economy in the West, various ventures across Asia have also gained a similar footing and have become increasingly popular. The services, introduced through now globally-recognized brands such as Uber and Airbnb, have spurred a mass of indigenously-developed services. These services range from shared Wi-Fi to bicycles to shopping services, and the ubiquitous peer-to-peer ride sharing and carpooling services.
In the midst of this increased availability of shared services and related interactions across the region, what has seemingly been lacking in focus has been security considerations and safety measures that are necessary safeguards for this industry. Most recently, Didi, a Chinese peer-to-peer ride sharing service and the largest such provider in the world (by volume), faced significant backlash from the public and was ordered to halt its operations by the authorities. This occurred following the murder of a passenger by a driver of the service, the second such occurrence in under a year. Other shared economy services are the infamous case studies surrounding Uber operations in India, which have faced severe repercussions due to lack of preemptive due diligence in the realm of safety and security.
Despite the concerns, these services are – the majority of time – convenient and safe to use and forecasted to continue growing. As more security and safety cases come to the forefront, local authorities and providers are recognizing the need to address these concerns by implementing policies and safeguards to mitigate associated risks. Depending on an individual’s or an organization’s risk profile, threshold, and internal policies, organizations are urged to educate and consider the risk management strategies that go into these types of services prior to engaging with or utilizing services from this sector.
Far-Right Rallies Increase in Germany
A large number of migrants has continued to lead to popular backlash against the German government’s response to immigration. Accusations of criminal activity by refugees and migrants have further inflamed public opinion and far-right recruitment activities. Numerous protests have occurred in Kandel following the conviction of an Afghan refugee for revenge-killing a sixteen-year-old girl. Most recently, following the murder of a German citizen by Afghani and Syrian migrants in Chemnitz, massive protests and counterprotests have taken place. While far-right protests have become common in recent years, the Chemnitz protest is unique because of the size of the rallies, protester behavior, and lack of effective police response.
The province of Saxony, where Chemnitz is located, has long been a hotbed of far-right activity. However, the murder of a German citizen has given right-wing groups such as the Alternativ fur Deutshland (Afd) party, Pegida, (a traditional anti-Islamist group), and Pro-Chemnitz an excuse to rally individuals to the cause and engage in rampant protests. Several protests occurred in August, with police largely underestimating the magnitude of protester turnout. Eighteen people have allegedly been injured and thirty-seven crimes related to the rallies reported. Counter-protests by liberal groups, including a concert against the far-right movement, have further fueled animosities and led to an increased chance for violence. German authorities are cracking down on the far-right groups, arresting several individuals accused of giving the Nazi Salute (a federal crime in Germany), and are considering lawfully surveilling the AfD party.
The Chemnitz protests are the latest provocation resulting from a general increase in racism and xenophobic activities. Anti-Semitic crimes have increased due to the effect of an increasingly radical Islamist population integrated into Germany and the activities of right-wing extremist groups. In addition, the German government’s failure to effectively account for all individuals migrating into the country has led to a widespread fear of immigrants. While many European countries are experiencing a new wave of right-wing extremism and xenophobic attitudes, Germany’s history of racism has led to increasing concern and calls for vigilance.