Venezuela with a vengeance?

Last month there was a lecture on Venezuela, organized by a Dutch organization called JASON Institute. The event caught my attention as I have written blogs about this country before and seeing the title they chose for the evening (“Venezuela, an explosive country?“) I realized I was hopelessly out of the loop.

The last blog I wrote about Venezuela was in March 2014, after the elections and subsequent riots and police violence that resulted in several dozens of dead civilians. I ended this blog with the following analysis:

At this moment there are still masses on the streets, both in favor and against the government. It is difficult to predict if either group will shrink or cross over to the other side. One thing that is sure, the government can definitely not go on denying the occurrences by showing cartoons on TV all day and censoring the daily news coverage. If Maduro wants to survive, he shouldn’t have to rely on manipulating the news. If he has any integrity in him, he should show true lament for what has happened to his fellow countrymen and find a way to move forward, taking all of Venezuela’s citizens into account.

That was over 14 months ago, and now this is what the streets of Caracas (reportedly) look like:

So over a year has passed since I last tuned in and the pictures in the newspapers look pretty much the same as they did at the time of my previous blogs. So what happened? What didn’t? What should have happened? Who’s calling the shots? How dangerous / explosive is the situation really? Is it merely a national struggle or is it influencing (or being influenced by) other actors in the global arena?

And just as this issue was starting to fade back out of reach for my gold fish attention span, Venezuela was suddenly a point of discussion in the Dutch house of representatives, as members of different parties (VVD (one of the governing parties)), PVV, CDA en D66 (all three are opposition parties) expressed their concerns over the rising threat from this South American country. They commented our minister of foreign affairs, Bert Koenders, was not taking the situation seriously enough and that the Dutch Caribbean islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) were not being offered the support they needed in the face of the instability on the Venezuelan mainland, only 30 to 80 kms from their respective coastlines. VVD-member ten Broeke spoke of a “ticking timebomb”, to which Koenders reacted by saying Venezuela isn’t a threat but “a risk” that is being closely monitored by the Dutch government.

And then yesterday the former vice-minister of the Ministry of Planning, known to be a Chavista, spoke up against the current state of affairs the path on which his country is headed. As fellow blogger Giancarlo Fiorella explains in this blog:

[Giordani] also suggested that the government is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to find dollars for importing food and medicine, and that PSUV officials appear more worried about making televised speeches than they are about running the country.

Speaking on Maduro, Giordani said simply that it was “painful and alarming” that he does not appear to show any kind of leadership at all.


Last Tuesday, the country saw the closest thing to an official statement regarding economic performance so far in 2015: The Minister of Planning, Ricardo Mendez, said that inflation between January and May grew 60%.

Sadly, I didn’t go to the lecture last month and am therefore unable to quote any of the experts that attended and am struggling to formulate some sort of clever analysis of my own, let alone a sound conclusion. What I know is that there are political prisoners on hunger strike and new protests have been announced for this weekend, while Maduro tries (and fails) at distracting us with some showdown with neighboring Guyana.

ISIS maligneThe part of my brain that usually lights up while blogging seems to be dealing with a power shortage though and all my little writer gnomes are sitting around with candles, struggling to find their way around. The only flashlight in the room is being used to read the pages on matters in the Middle East…

But I’m going to press the “Publish”-button anyway and let all of this marinate for another while and then try again in < fill in an acceptable amount of time >.  In the meantime, feel free to fill me in if you have any thoughts on any of this…

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Yemen & me

Dear Yemen,

You and I never met, all though for a bit I thought we might be together for at least some years. My dad is a restless soul and his work has always involved visiting countries like you. He is always juggling several projects at once and sometimes during dinner he would tell us we might be moving this way or that. But you know how things go. You think you can plan things but it’s a fickle world and my father decided otherwise. Or maybe it was decided for him, I don’t remember, I was quite young. But I’ve always remembered your name and hearing about you always makes me wonder about what could have been…

And now I hear they have been calling you a failure. The fact that it is true doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. There’s a big chance the majority of your people doesn’t even know you are often mentioned as an example to demonstrate the definition of “failed state”.

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government.

yemeni men 2You rank 8th on the 2014 list of countries according to the Fragile States Index. I recognize your people for their middle eastern looks, in combination with a tad of malnourishment you don’t see elsewhere in the region. Skinny men with anger in their eyes. Or is it hunger? Or is it just a qat-induced haze I see?

The BBC said it only weeks ago but it’s been this way for years, hasn’t it? What I am trying to understand is why. You seem to have a lot going for you. What curse rests upon you that stops you from blooming? You have some oil, as your neighbors do. Who are these people living within your borders and why are they so divided?

When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than 33 years, finally stepped down and a new president was elected in February of 2012, I thought you were ready to change and perhaps step into the modern world. You chose a president that was able and willing and seemed to have the acceptance of different important political actors.

And now I hear this hopeful newcomer, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has stepped down and you are once again spiraling down into chaos. What happened? It seems president Hadi was not the right person to guide you after all.

It saddens me, Yemen. You are being compared to Iraq and Afghanistan even though these two countries have been scarred by wars to an extent you have (luckily) not had to endure in recent centuries. Where Afghanistan can blame its invaders (i.e. Britan in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th and the US and its allies in recent times) or perhaps its difficult neighbors or the fact that they are completely landlocked for some of its troubles, you can only blame yourself.

PJ Crowley, former US Assistant Secretary of State, wrote about you last week and is not very optimistic. He says you need help but that it will take decades to get you on track. The problem is, that it is very difficult to sympathize with you and donors prefer investing in more likeable empty stomachs / pockets.

In that sense I wish I had gotten the chance to know you, back then. Perhaps then I could explain that deep down you really are quite loving and that your people are just misunderstood. I’m afraid I really don’t know where to start now. You must help yourself.

Good luck!

Hug, Epi

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This blog has been sitting in my drafty drafts-file for a long time. For a while, all it contained was a general topic, some keywords and a title. I started writing it back in the day when we still saw Assad as the main problem in Syria. Remember those days? Ah, the times when all we thought we had to do was get rid of one cruel Syrian chief and help the people “choose” a new one and get that Arab spring train on its tracks again.

assad self defenseAnd then things started to shift…

During the final months of 2014, I saw the year-review shows passing by on the different news channels and was reminded of my intention to write this blog. I remember seeing Bashar al-Assad in the year’s review and hearing him declare that he was not bombing innocent people (despite the images of bleeding children in hospitals we kept seeing on the news) but that they were terrorists, related to Al Qaeda or worse. I can still remember my smug reaction to his words at the time, shaking my fist at the TV-screen and cursing his callousness.

Speaking of Assad, where is he these days? Did he ever take the chance to say “I told you so”?

Jolie refugeesAnd then today, I saw some of my Facebook friends posting this NY Times article, that caught my attention. In all honesty I must admit I clicked on the link because I was fascinated to see a picture of Angelina Jolie with zero make up on and wanted to zoom in. But then I started to read. The images being described sent shivers running up and down my spine. It was only later that I noticed that the opinion piece was actually written by Angelina Jolie. She describes her encounters with refugees and their stories. It’s an incredibly moving article and it drove me straight to my neglected blog and started up the word flow that had dried up months ago and I decided to re-write the whole thing.

But back to Assad. While trying to find an image to accompany my blog, I ran into a recent article by Jonathan Tepperman in the Washington, who apparently spoke to the president about two weeks ago. I quote:

Superficially, Assad said many of the right things, appearing conciliatory and eager to involve Western governments in his struggle against Islamist terrorism. But underneath the pretty words, he remains as unrepentant and inflexible today as he was at the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. Assad seems to have no idea how badly the war is going, how impractical his proposals sound and how meaningless his purported overtures are. Which means that, whatever Western leaders might wish, the fighting in Syria will end in one of two ways. Either Assad will defeat the rebels. Or the rebels will defeat him — and string him up by his toes.

A pretty grim conclusion there …and as if the situation wasn’t bad enough already, Mr Assad seems to be heading down Michael Jackson Road. He has created his own DisneyLand reality and everyone around him helps him uphold that delusion. He has decided that the groups that revolted against him are Al-Qaedaoids sponsored by his opponents and that his army is still almighty. The fact that there are areas being occupied by IS is merely because the Syrian army doesn’t feel the need to go there…. I want to role my eyes in disbelief, but then again… you never know….

As Tepperman says:

Either Syria’s president is an extremely competent fabulist — in which case he’s merely a sociopath — or he actually believes his lies, in which case he’s something much more dangerous (like a delusional psychopath). For why would he ever strike a deal to end a war he thinks he’s winning?

In the meantime, imagine being a Syrian! Nearly half of Syria’s population has fled their home and is on the move, either within Syria’s borders or in neighboring countries. Winter is upon them. A dire situation for the people involved and a tremendous challenge for the countries providing these displaced Syrians with refuge. In Angelina Jolie’s words:

Who can blame them for thinking that we have given up on them? Only a fraction of the humanitarian aid they need is being provided. There has been no progress on ending the war in Syria since the Geneva process collapsed 12 months ago. Syria is in flames, and areas of Iraq are gripped by fighting. The doors of many nations are bolted against them. There is nowhere they can turn.


There is a great temptation to turn inward, to focus on our own troubles.

But the plain fact is we cannot insulate ourselves against this crisis. The spread of extremism, the surge in foreign fighters, the threat of new terrorism — only an end to the war in Syria will begin to turn the tide on these problems. Without that, we are just tinkering at the edges.

To just put things into perspective real quick, this is a recent quilt… I mean map of Syria:

map syria jan 2015

As good ol’ MJ once said/sang: “If you wanna make the world a better place you gotta look at yourself and then make a change”. In a way, my blog is a way to open that dialogue with the woman in the mirror. So, what can I do?

  • Maybe I should check out what my political party of choice says about this and if I really agree with them on this. That is a way for my voice to be heard, but only when the next elections arrive and I don’t even know when that will be (which means it is more than a year from now because otherwise they would have been in my face by now and I would have noticed).
  • I don’t really believe in donating money to the big organizations like Unicef or the Red Cross. It’s not that I don’t think my money will be spent well but I just like being able to track my feeble pennies. So maybe I should support a smaller organization, with clear and specific projects and actual boots on the ground and progress I can follow.
  • I could organize some sort of event in my community and make a shipment of my own; blankets, canned food, clothing, stuffed animals… But then again, I have no idea how to get these things where they’re actually needed.
  • So then what, should I go myself? Am I willing to risk my skin (and head) to lend a hand? And how much of a difference will I really make or will I only be in the way of the “real development workers”?
  • Maybe I should pay refugees within my own borders a visit and see if I can help them settle in here? Or perhaps they have relatives who are in need of something back home?

Once again, there is no definitive conclusion but I will definitely be looking into all of these options.

My thoughts are with the people facing freezing conditions in the refugee camps scattered around the region and bow my head in shame for my initial reluctance to receive refugees closer to home……

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Getting the needle in a Belgian prison

A convicted serial rapist in a prison in Bruges will be put to death by lethal injection on January 11th

Contrary to what you might think while reading this, Belgium has not reinstated the death penalty. This man, called Frank van den Bleeken (52 years old), received a life sentence for his crimes and now, after serving over 30 years in prison has finally been granted the right to die

I don’t really know why out of all the news, this item stuck with me and compelled me to rush to my blog. It hardly caused a ripple in the news of the world but it’s still a historic decision and it leaves me in doubt about where I stand in this…

lethal-injectionWhen van den Bleeken requested the same thing in 2010 the judge did not grant his wish. What changed? Different psychologists concluded independently of each other that van den Bleeken suffers from great psychological anguish and that this is not likely to improve. Some might argue it is what he deserves and letting him die is an easy way out, a form of absolution if you will.

An interesting question posed by Servaas van der Laan in his opinion piece in Elsevier was the following: What right does a murderer and rapist have to choose between life and death when he showed the 19-year old woman that died by his hands no such mercy? At least he gets to say his goodbyes…

conscienceSo he says he is suffering. Not only is he suffering, it is unbearable. What does that mean? And does it matter what exactly is the cause of his depressed state? Is his life unbearable because being a sex offender made him the least popular guy on the block and has this constant fear for his life brought him to despair? Or is he tormented by the evil he carries inside him? Does he disapprove of his own demons and wishes to silence them once and for all by taking them to the grave?

If prison bullies giving him a hard time is what drove him to this extreme request, the solution is not death but a transfer to another jail or better security or what not. I suppose that has already been considered and tried out, so I’m guessing that’s not what’s going on.

prison-bars (1)From what I read, he does not wish to be considered for early parole, as he believes himself to be a menace to society but considered the conditions of his detention unbearable. So remind me, why do we put people in prison? As a punishment or to protect people in society from people with nasty tendencies? A bit of both probably, but I believe firstly it is a punishment or a payment to society for a crime committed. So not liking being locked up is kind of the point.

And that is precisely what the family of van den Bleeken’s victim says. They don’t want to grant him any easy way out and believe he should spend the remainder of his days locked up rather than be allowed to RIP six feet under. A sister is quoted: “Commissions, doctors and other experts have all investigated our sister’s killer but during all these years, not a single commission has examined OUR case. Not a single doctor or expert has asked us how we’re doing now.”

So what have they done to make life bearable for this man? Could it be he is just depressed from spending so much time indoors? Just a lack of Vitamine D, perhaps? Have they tried giving him an extra hour outdoors, some group sessions, a prescription of happy pills, a weekly talk with a therapist…

Ah but that is where things get interesting… Apparently, the prison this inmate resides in is the most specialized in psychiatric cases within Belgian borders. That is to say, there is one psychiatrist for every 400 prisoners. It turns out van den Bleeken even requested to be transferred to the Netherlands where there are more possibilities as far as involuntary commitment is concerned in so called TBS-clinics but was not granted this option.

tumblr_mz3zqyfE8V1sovq1bo1_1280So in the first place, he did want to feel better and believed he could reach a tolerable level of life with the right therapy and care. So what this really is, is a reflection of the poor mental health services available to Belgian inmates. Van den Bleeken grew up in a violent home, was molested himself and spends his days with the demons inside him tormenting him in his lonely cell. I do see why he would want to die.

So did this guy just not have the balls to kill himself in the 30 years he has been locked up and now want someone to kick the bucket for him? Or is the suicide watch just really efficient in Belgium? Is he afraid he won’t go to heaven if he commits suicide? Is there even a difference between euthanasia an assisted suicide?

And it also makes me think about the practical side of this…. Who do you call in to grant this man his wish? How many doctor’s in Belgium have experience with aiding a man in perfect physical health to die? Or do you fly in wardens from American jails who deal with this more regularly (albeit not very successfully lately)?

And how do we as a people feel about this? Apparently at least a dozen prisoners in similar circumstances have already made a request to be euthanized since the judge ruling in this case. Are we happy they are relieving us of the burden of their existence? Or should we feel bad that we are not trying harder to make their life bearable at the least…

I’m still a little undecided but do hope Mr van den Bleeken finds the afterlife to be either non-existent or pleasant enough to spend eternity in…


UPDATE: Frank van den Bleeken, who was due to be euthanised on January 11th in Belgium after pleading to end his “unbearable suffering” in prison will not be allowed to die. I guess Belgium wasn’t ready for this after all…

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Azerbaijan – light your fire

The situation in Azerbaijan has been on my to-blog-about list for quite some time, ever since I read how the country’s elections were tainted by claims of fraud and even after the results were accidentally released the day before everyone actually voted, they were not disputed by the people in the highest seats (or they were out of a job soon therafter). The country’s politics were brought to my attention again recently by an opinion piece by Arzu Geybullayeva on the Al Jazeera website. The piece gave to the issue gave me the final push I needed to make this blog happen.

So, Azerbaijan… let start with a small introduction.

Azerbaijan at a glanceAccording to the tourism website of Azerbaijan, it is “located in the south-eastern part of the Transcaucasian region, western Asia. It borders to the north – with Russia, in the north-west – with Georgia in the south – with Iran, in the west – with Armenia, in the extreme south-west – with Turkey. In the east it is washed by the Caspian Sea. Its area is 86 600 sq. m. km. In addition to the mainland it composes of numerous small islands of the Caspian Sea (Baku and Absheron archipelago).”

When looking through its history, one can not help but notice that it is a region marked by conflict involving a variety of parties, such as Arabs, Russians, Armenians and Turks. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Azerbaijan declared its independence from Russia in May 1918. The republic was reconquered by the Red Army in 1920 and was annexed into the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. It was later reestablished as a separate Soviet Republic on Dec. 5, 1936. Azerbaijan declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union on Aug. 30, 1991.

So, the country, as it is now, is relatively young. Since its independence it has seen presidential elections eight times, and at least three (attempted) military coups. The current president, Ilham Aliyev, all though re-elected for a third term in October of 2013, is often referred to as a dictator. His father came to power through a military coup in 1993 and the family never looked back.

Geybullayeva refers to her homecountry as a “country of amputated spirits”, as its leader slides further down the slippery slope of tyranny. She describes how “in 2013 there were at least 19 prisoners of conscience behind bars in Azerbaijan” and “[what] all of these people have in common is their critical approach to the government’s policies, budget spending, election transparency and overall crackdown on dissent. For the government, however, they are dismissed as “hooligans” and “instigators of hate”, “liars” and “drug addicts”.”

Strange as it may sound, the tragedy for the Azerbaijani people is that country is doing quite well economically and contributes greatly to the  world’s energy supply. As Gebullayeva writes:

It’s not that the international community isn’t aware of blackmail, harassment, circus trials and routine crackdowns, but a decision to take certain measures is lagging – if not completely absent – from the discussion table. So the question arises: Is energy security more important than human life? So far, this certainly has been the case.

Such an ugly side of international politics. Apparently, Aliyev has found the right balance between just the right amount of oppression on the one side and on the other side a significant enough contribution the the world’s economy to keep people in high places satisfied. They are handfed information and nice gifts from Azerbaijani officials to look the other way when the critical reports are handed out. What is more, the country has assumed its six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 14 May 2014, without anyone even giving it’s human rights situation a second thought.

Amnesty International justly asks:

So who is the criminal in this case? The authorities who fear a different voice, or the young, educated activists who care about the country they live in. Or perhaps the responsibility is in the hands of those who intentionally turn the other way in return for presents and deals? The situation at present in Azerbaijan suggests one thing – the burden of democracy is heavy and not all are willing to carry its weight.

A tragedy indeed, and one so close to home it is hard to believe we know so little about it. Azerbaijan’s slogan during the Eurovision contest in 2012 was “light your fire”. I encourage its people to do just that!

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Europe – Pickle in the Middle

The other day I saw an item on a Dutch news show called Nieuwsuur, with Dutch senator and former military advisor to the UN Secretary-General Frank van Kappen that really struck me. I am usually one of the first to downgrade a statement being presented as an enormous threat  to “life as we know it” and am always telling people to hurry up and relax already. This interview however, really gave me a sense of urgency I have never felt before. Not only because this man did not strike me as a populist fear mongerer, but also because it confirmed an uneasy feeling I have had for quite some time now and couldn’t really explain.

I have always been a politically interested person. Always read the news in the mornings and tried to be informed on the big issues in the world. Lately though, the news has left me highly frustrated and annoyed. Problems seem to be getting bigger and solutions more out of reach. I even admit to skipping the news all together on some days. Mr van Koppen was able to hold my attention though. His urgent message was somehow easier to swallow, and opened my eyes to the worrisome position of Europe and the turmoil growing all around it

For those of you who understand Dutch, I recommend you to watch the interview, which can be found here. For the rest of you, I will summarize what it was about and share some of the quotes that I translated.

The item starts with Obama announcing that the US wil send 300 military advisors to Iraq to help organize the Iraqi army resistance against the aggressively advancing ISIS. Frank van Kappen is asked to explain Obama’s dilemmas and what good 300 US military men can do in such an explosive situation. He speaks of the precarious balance Obama needs to keep to avoid being viewed as the “airforce of the shias” and with that, losing any support he had amongst the Sunni and other muslim groups.

Seeking to solve these issues diplomatically, steers them onto another tight rope. Van Kappen says:

 What we need is a connecting figure that can unite the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. You need a unifying figure for that. El Maliki has proven he is not the figure. The problem is that you not only need to find someone that CAN [but] he would have to leave first, and that is not up to Obama.[…]

If you want to do this, you will have to talk to the neighboring countries as well. The Saudis, the Qatari, the Iranians; they all have their cards in the game. You need time for this kind of thing, time that he may not have because if ISIS runs over Baghdad, or if the Iraqi army falls apart […] there would be no more time for diplomacy to run its course. […]

I think that is the scenario he dreads, which is the reason why he wants to strengthen the effectiveness of the Iraqi army by providing them with good advisers.

Even though the Iraqi government is the one calling on the US for military help to help fight this threat, it is evident that “helping out” will always be an uphill battle for the Americans and never an open armed reception.  Just days after Obama’s press conference, iranian ayatollah Khamenei reacted alarmed by rapid territorial gains made in Iraq by the militants of the Isis. At the same time though chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces ruled out working with the US to battle back ISIS.Tony Auth

Besides Iran, Iraq also shares a long border with Syria- which has its own major issues to deal with at the moment-, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. As Anthony Cordesman says on the CNN website, in an analysis of how to respond to the ISIS threat:

This highlights the risk Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al Qaeda will create an extremist enclave in both Iraq and Syria. This could make any hope of a serious moderate rebel force emerging in Syria impossible. It could create an extremist sanctuary that could threaten Jordan and the other Arab Gulf states, make the conflict between Sunni and Shiite even worse, and push the Iraqi regime closer to Iran in self-defense.

Van Kappen’s deep voice and calm demeanor helped level out the potential panic one could feel, coming to grips with the idea that we seem to be completely surrounded by madness, or as he puts it:

We are in the middle of some major shifts in power all around Europe. If you would look at the map today, you would see Europe is surrounded by instability, probably long term instability.

That is, from the Ukraine, to the Middle East, which is an area of vital importance to us, but also Nothern africa. If you see what is happening in Northern Africa, with Boko Haram and Al Shabab, these are all parties with ideas affiliated to the principles of ISIS. You can see that it’s not just northern Africa either, but that it is crawling south and that it almost touches the areas of instability in the area of the African great lakes. If that happens, then Europe is effectively surrounded by a ring of instability. That means that we haven’t seen the beginning of the flows of refugees that will reach us. All sorts of uncontrolled refugeestreams with all the consequences that go with it.

But also the economical consequences must be taken into account. If the Middle East falls into a large regional conflict, well then we will have to sail around the cape with our oil and there will be a situation that will be truly unpleasant. I am very worried about this and I wonder if it has the attention it deserves, on a political level.

I notice that we all look to the United States. The USA has the lead, but you can see that the Americans are weary of war. They really don’t feel for it and Europe, well, Europe can’t hit a dent in a pack of butter [Dutch expression]. We have a lot of soft power but we have absolutely no hard power. And soft power with no hard power to back it up has never startled anybody. So we are sitting here, looking at the Americans, but the Americans have had enough. However, you can’t afford to do nothing because it is a situation that is dangerous to an extent, – for the world as a whole, but especially for Europe- that we can not stand there with our backs turned to it.

We really will have to start thinking about what we are going to do about this….

Hmm…. I’m thinking about it alright, and I wonder if we have already reached that point of no return. I already feel the fear around me here in the Netherlands. The fear is intertwined with xenophobia and fueled by populists like Geert Wilders, which makes it all confused, but it doesn’t mean there is no threat to begin with. Where are we headed? In what way are these changes going to affect our day-to-day lives? Is there anything I can do, or is it really all up to the suits on the highest level of government? Not sure if that is more or less worrisome… It does take the matter out of my hands though. Any thoughts?


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Watch it, Vladimir!

Putin Ukraine Purse Bandit political cartoons.

Hey Vlad, Watch out or I may choose to do business with you on much less favorable terms!

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