Countries in conflict and dictatorships build parallel reality at Expo 2020


In Belarus, consumption and production of chocolates does not stop growing. In Lebanon, there are job opportunities for young people. Somalia is an open field for investment in fishing, taking advantage of its immense coastline. Myanmar is a diverse society in which minorities live together harmoniously.

This is how several countries that tend to be negatively on the news present themselves at Expo 2020, an international exhibition that opened in October in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and is scheduled to end in March of next year.

Last week, the event was visited by President Jair Bolsonaro (no party).

Held every five years, Expos are large fairs where countries compete for public attention in pavilions, often using technology and visual effects. The 2020 was postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but kept the original name.

Although the self-laudatory tone is to be expected, visiting some of these stands is like entering a parallel world, especially when the country in question is experiencing a conflicted reality.

Ruled with an iron fist by the dictator Aleksandr Lukachenko for 27 years, Belarus is presented as a land where stability leads to great scientific development.

In the center of its pavilion, a 4D printer developed by the Belarus Academy of Sciences occupies a prominent place, capable of producing materials ranging from chips to prostheses. Big screens invite tourists to visit the eastern European country, featuring bucolic forest landscapes. “Hello, I’m a bison, one of the symbols of Belarus,” says a message next to an image of the animal, right at the entrance to the space.

There is no trace of reference to the tumultuous environment that the country has been experiencing since the dictator’s re-election in August of last year, considered fraudulent by the European Union. On the contrary, the stand claims that it is possible to import equipment from the European bloc without paying taxes, which would enable the growth of industries such as food, with special emphasis on dairy and chocolate.

In Lebanon, which is experiencing an economic meltdown considered unprecedented in recent decades, screens show natural beauty, Roman ruins and the famous cuisine of the place. Signs advertise attractive investors: one says “jobs and careers”, the other says “opportunities for growth”.

The Arab country is in a dire situation, aggravated by Covid and by the explosion in the port of Beirut, in 2020, which led to protests and political instability. In June, the World Bank said that the loss of power of the local currency could lead the country to experience one of the three worst crises since the mid-19th century.

The makeup of reality reaches extreme contours in the pavilion in Myanmar, where a military junta carried out a coup in February this year, overthrowing the civilian government. “Myanmar is a diverse religious society, where beliefs are free choice,” says a panel at the entrance. Modest, the stand looks like a souvenir shop, with photos on the walls and objects scattered on the floor.

In an area dedicated to investment opportunities, it is said that reforms have been carried out since the civil and democratic government took power in 2011. But there is no word on the fact that this same government was overthrown this year.

Another country in conflict, Ethiopia, mentions its “promising economic potential”, which was a reality before the outbreak of civil war a year ago, which already threatens to overthrow the government.

International entities fear a humanitarian catastrophe as a result of the conflict, which pits the central government and rebels in the Tigre region in the north of the country. According to the UN Food Program, more than 5 million people are at imminent risk of hunger.

At the Expo, the country prefers to exalt its beauty and its rich cultural tradition. A woman serves coffee, a typical local drink, to visitors. Images of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a replica of the Lucy skeleton, found in the country and one of the most important human fossils ever found, are also presented.

Also in Africa, Somalia, which has not had a functioning state for 30 years, invites visitors to earn money by betting on the country. “Welcome to Somalia: Unlocking Opportunities,” says one panel.

One of these opportunities presented is in the fishing sector, with the potential to produce 200 thousand tons of fish per year. These would be extremely high-risk investments, however, given that the country’s coast is littered with pirates.

In Latin America, left-wing dictatorships took advantage of the space to proselytize their regimes.

Nicaragua has placed a flag of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, party of the dictator Daniel Ortega, in the middle of an exhibition featuring typical handicraft products, such as images of wooden parrots. Posters extol Augusto Sandino, national hero, presented as “a fighter for national sovereignty against American interventionism”.

In the space destined for Venezuela, the figure of Simón Bolívar, symbol of the Chavez regime, is exalted.

Virtually all 193 UN countries set up pavilions. Some, like Palestine, gained space even without being recognized members of the organization. The Israeli-occupied territory proudly displays the words “State of Palestine” in large letters on the booth’s facade.

One of the few countries that gave up selling their fish was North Korea, one of the most isolated regimes in the world. The Expo’s excluded list narrowly missed Afghanistan as well.

But the Asian country, whose government was recently overthrown by the Taliban, is present thanks to the actions of a businessman exiled in Austria. “Regimes come and go, but the country and the people continue,” says Rahime Mohammed Omer, 63. The pavilion had been set up by the former Afghan government, until the exhibition was suspended in August, due to the seizure of power by the fundamentalist group.

Owner of shops and a museum in Vienna, where he has lived since 1978, Omer learned of what had happened and got in touch with the Expo organization to fund the pavilion. The election was approved, and so the country’s stand is private. “We had a month to assemble everything”, says he, who occupied the space with around 300 pieces from his personal collection. There are pictures of landscapes, old weapons and silverware, as well as typical clothing of the Pastho tribes, the majority in the country.

As expected, nowhere is there any reference to the Taliban. “It’s important for Afghanistan to participate in the Expo. I couldn’t accept that we weren’t here,” says Omer.


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