Posted on

You want your vote counted. Does ‘safe harbor’ day protect it?

Imagine this scenario: It’s been weeks since election day, and in one state, it’s not clear which presidential candidate won.

In an initial count, the Democrat won by roughly 100 votes. Then an audit found a counting error that put the Republican ahead. Officials launch a recount, but it’s not finished by the December deadline for the electoral college to cast votes. So the state’s Democratic and Republican electors each declare victory and cast competing sets of electoral votes for their candidates.

Outlandish? Not really. This happened in Hawaii in 1960, when John F. Kennedy faced then-Vice President Richard Nixon in a high-turnout election marked nationally by voting irregularities and allegations of fraud.

This year, as millions of Americans mail their ballots or stand in line well before election day, Nov. 3, to make sure their votes get counted, few may be aware of the legal machinery that exists to select the next president if things go wrong at the ballot box.

It’s a complex system of electoral fail-safes that starts and ends with the calendar. It’s also a system in which voters don’t necessarily get the final word, at least not directly.

For the 2020 election, the states have until Dec. 8 — six days before the electoral college must meet — to count votes and settle all election disputes. If states can’t figure things out by that “safe harbor” day, the newly elected Congress gains the ability to determine the state’s winner when lawmakers meet to count electoral votes Jan. 6.

These guardrails were erected after the disputed presidential election of 1876, in which multiple states in the Reconstruction South cast competing sets of electoral votes. To sort out the mess, Congress formed a bipartisan commission of representatives, senators and Supreme Court justices, who awarded the votes to popular-vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes won the electoral vote 185 to 184.

Hoping to avoid a repeat, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which gave states the safe harbor deadline by which they could resolve their own disputes without Congress getting involved. After that deadline, if state officials submit multiple sets of conflicting electoral votes, the U.S. House and Senate must agree on which set to accept. (If the chambers don’t agree, the votes certified by the state’s governor prevail.)

That’s what happened with Hawaii in 1960, with little fanfare. Congress chose to accept and count a third slate of electoral votes, for Kennedy, submitted by the state’s governor in January. By then, a recount had shown Kennedy won the state’s popular vote. Kennedy, who already had a clear majority of electoral votes from elsewhere, became president.

When it comes to preventing postelection chaos, “the best protection is the timetable,” said Jeffrey Davis, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The president’s term ends on Jan. 20, regardless of what he says and what happens with the election. He cannot get a second term without winning the election or without Congress saying so.”

President Trump has, at various times, claimed baselessly that mail-in ballots are fraudulent, opposed funding for the U.S. Postal Service in order to hamper election mail, refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, suggested delaying the election, instructed some voters to potentially vote twice, called to “lock up the Bidens” and suggested the Supreme Court seat he just filled might decide the winner.

“Now, we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins. Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later,” Trump told a crowd in Fayetteville, N.C., in September.

Many critics are worried about how Trump might act on election night and immediately afterward; polls show him well behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“It’s very likely that the president will be making claims about the validity or invalidity of the vote counting process as it’s happening,” said Adav Noti, an elections expert at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voting advocacy nonprofit. “But the president has no control or authority over that process at all. Literally zero. And so as long as state officials and the courts all abide by their legal obligations, regardless of the rhetoric, the election will be resolved peacefully and in a timely manner.”

Just because there’s a process for legally sorting out electoral problems doesn’t mean that process will go smoothly or uncontroversially. If there’s recount drama, a lot of it is likely to happen before the Dec. 8 safe harbor deadline, before which the states remain in full control of how to award their electors, who are normally chosen by the candidates’ parties. (Electors are supposed to cast their votes based on how their states vote; in all but two states, the candidate who wins the most votes in the state wins all the electoral votes.)

Consider Florida in 2000, when the race between the Republican, George W. Bush, and the Democrat, Al Gore, was unbelievably close, leading to an infamous recount as Florida’s Republican secretary of state initially certified Bush as the winner.

The race ended after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling, Bush vs. Gore, on safe harbor day, that ended the recount. Part of the court’s logic was that the recount was not sticking to the procedures that existed before election day and jeopardized the state’s ability to pick its own winner before Congress took over.

“The court basically argued that if the recount couldn’t be finished by that [safe harbor] date, they would risk disenfranchising Florida’s voters,” Davis said.

The court’s liberal minority disagreed vehemently.

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a dissent. “It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

Congress never got involved. It was obligated to accept the results presented by Florida in favor of Bush because the state met the safe harbor deadline.

In North Carolina, a key 2020 presidential battleground, a state law enacted in 2001 actually spells out how the state would avoid another Bush vs. Gore scenario and ensure that Congress doesn’t meddle with its results.

If there’s no certified winner by safe harbor day, the state’s currently Republican-controlled Legislature picks the electors “in accord with their best judgment of the will of the electorate.” The statute adds that “the judgment itself of what was the will of the electorate is not subject to judicial review.”

In other words: We’ll be picking the electors, thanks.

“As far as we know, there is no other similar law in the country,” Noti said, noting that “it’s never been applied, never been tested.”

A recent Atlantic article quoted an unnamed Trump campaign legal advisor as saying the campaign was already game-planning scenarios in which GOP-held legislatures might move to directly appoint the electors in case of murky voting results: “The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power. We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state.’”

The Trump campaign declined to comment on the record.

Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin, asked about the scenario raised in the Atlantic article, declined to address it head-on.

“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure the election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to create fear and confusion with our voting system, or interfere in the democratic process,” Gwin said in a statement. “We’re confident that we’ll have free and fair elections this November, and that voters will decisively reject Donald Trump’s erratic, divisive, and failed leadership at the ballot box.”

But at least how the law is written, only time will really tell.

Posted on

The pastor thought Trump was ‘evil.’ So he quit his church

It was going to be a hard day. Keith Mannes prayed he was doing right. He got into his car and drove past harvested cornfields and “Keep America Great!” signs. He parked, walked a few steps and opened the door to his church.

A pastor for decades, he stood before a few dozen congregants. He knew them all, their histories, struggles and joys. That is the way of things here. He told them he loved them and asked for forgiveness. But he couldn’t go on as before. Most church members supported President Trump, he said, and Mannes could no longer hide his repulsion for the man he considered incompatible with Christianity.

“I am to follow the call of my heart to speak into the world as small as my voice may be,” said the 59-year-old lifelong Republican. It was a voice, he said, that was too controversial, too divisive, for this small house of God. He gave his two weeks’ notice and quit East Saugatuck Church.

In this conservative region of western Michigan, a GOP stronghold where pastors and party have long united as one, Mannes’ decision rippled through this city of 33,000 in a battleground state ahead of a bitter presidential election.

Mannes became front-page news in the 10,000-circulation local paper. His Facebook page, long inactive, flooded with comments from strangers labeling him a “baby killer,” “heretic,” and a man who was “more worried about the social gospel than the real gospel.” Websites covering his denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, suddenly were plastered with the name of a rural pastor who until then was little known outside of his flock. He received emails of support from some seminarians and ministers calling him “courageous” for speaking the words they couldn’t.

The pastor, long filled by his faith yet fearful of sharing his beliefs as the nation was at a crossroads, felt a freedom like never before, the nervous excitement of a new path taken, and the doubt of man who wondered if he could make any difference.

But unburdening oneself comes at a cost. After he left church that Sunday a month ago, he stuck a blue “Biden-Harris” sign in his yard. It was a small act of defiance, but it was who he was. He went inside, slumped on the couch, and held back tears.

The Rev. Keith Mannes speaks at a rally on Oct. 23 in Canton, Ohio, for Vote Common Good, a coalition of evangelical Christians that has traveled to swing states this summer to speak out against President Trump.

(Tim Gilman)

“There goes early retirement. My pension. My friends,” said Mannes, who had spent nearly 30 years pastoring churches across Michigan and Florida. “Is it worth it?”

Across the U.S., Trump has almost unwavering support from evangelical and conservative Christians like those in Michigan, where he won by 10,704 votes four years ago. With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the faithful have cheered the president for delivering on a promise to appoint conservatives who might strike down abortion rights, an issue billboards advertise here as the true sign of a politician’s Christian core. Trump won more than 80% of the white evangelical vote in 2016, and is expected to win a similar share this year.

But a smaller group of Christians, many of them Republicans like Mannes, has crossed party and faith lines recently to stand against the president in hopes of persuading believers in places like Holland — in a county that went 62.2% for Trump in 2016 — to vote differently.

Two major evangelical figures, the former president of Pasadena-based Fuller Seminary, Richard Muow, and former Orlando, Fla., megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, joined thousands this month to launch Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. They say the former vice president has a more “biblically balanced agenda” than Trump despite the Catholic candidate’s support for abortion rights.

In an essay published last week, prominent Minneapolis-based theologian and preacher John Piper described Trump as leading to “destruction of more kinds than we can imagine,” though he said he would not vote Democrat, either. Months earlier, Christianity Today, a magazine founded by the Rev. Billy Graham, inflamed tensions after an editorial criticized evangelicals for supporting a man with a “blackened moral record” and “bent and broken character.”

The nature of Trump’s character was becoming more apparent to Americans four years ago, about the same time elders and deacons recruited Mannes to East Saugatuck Church. The delicate pairing of preacher to congregation seemed a good match. Mannes had spent 18 years as pastor to a rural congregation in McBain, a town of 656 in northern Michigan, after shorter stints at churches in Orlando, Fla., and Muskegon, Mich.

Congregants at East Saugatuck worshipped in casual dress to the rhythm of contemporary music played live on guitars. Yet they believed steadfastly in the conservative traditions that could be traced to the church’s founding 150 years ago. Although those at “E.S.,” as locals call it, faced the same issues roiling other conservative Christians — questions of racial diversity, the role of LGBTQ people and faith’s place in politics — it was not a community that made headlines in Holland, dubbed the “city of churches” for its more than 170 congregations.

The church was a typical member of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination stretching back to Dutch immigrants who settled in western Michigan and Midwestern states in the mid-19th century. East Saugatuck had a thriving Cadets program — similar to Boy Scouts — a booming Sunday school, and ran a longstanding Wednesday night free dinner series where Dutch apple crisp was always for dessert.

For Mannes, it was also a return to the area where he grew up and went to seminary, where his mother and relatives still lived, and where he could plan to retire with his wife, a mental health counselor, a short drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

“Trump’s election threw it all into question,” he said.

The Rev. Keith Mannes and wife with another pastor and his wife in a room lined with bookshelves.

Mannes and his wife, right, meet with the Rev. Bryan Berghoef, second from left, pastor of the Holland United Church of Christ, and his wife.

(Jaweed Kaleem / Los Angeles Times)

The president instituted a travel ban that largely targeted Muslim-majority countries. He cut refugee resettlement levels to the lowest in American history. He promised to build a wall to block illegal border crossings and painted immigrants as criminals. He stoked support for white supremacists by retweeting their memes and, at times, seemed to support their causes before backtracking to say he was maligned and misunderstood. He told a trio of Latina, Black and Arab American congresswomen to “go back where you came from.”

In a church where congregants saw serving refugees and the poor as inherent to their biblical mission, where anti-racism was a core value, and where farmers sent proceeds to anti-hunger nonprofits, the only celebrations of the president were the times he condemned abortion. MAGA hats or shirts were seldom spotted in the building; a church service would never be mistaken for a Trump rally.

As he would with any president, Mannes offered prayers for the nation’s leader each week, as well as for the state’s Democratic governor. He visited the ill and presided over baptisms, weddings and funerals.

But he noticed the Trump bumper stickers in the church’s lot, and the Facebook banners of congregants hailing the president as a hero. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Trump initially resisted wearing a mask and tweeted to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” Mannes saw “faith over fear” signs go up around town, a message that belief in Jesus alone was enough to protect from the virus. This summer, as he watched protests in response to George Floyd’s killing engulf the nation’s streets and the Secret Service pepper spray crowds so the president could be photographed with a Bible in front of a Washington, D.C., church, Mannes decided to speak up — in biblical code.

One Sunday, he contrasted Trump to a part of the Heidelberg Catechism, a pillar of the church’s faith, which expanded on the Sixth Commandment against murder: “I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor — not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture.”

Some in the crowd scoffed at the mention of the president.

In a sermon on “Christian unity,” he told the church he knew most were Republicans who supported the president. Democrats, Mannes said, were “brothers and sisters in Christ, too, as Christ is bigger than us, and bigger than party.”

A couple quit church via text message, upset that a pastor believed a Christian could be a Democrat.

In another sermon, he told the story of the prophet Jeremiah, who argued with God and lamented the mockery he endured for sharing the Lord’s message. “His word burns in my heart like a fire. It’s like a fire in my bones,” the prophet said.

Mannes, unable to avoid speaking out on how his faith spurred him to oppose Trump, knew how Jeremiah felt.

In late August, he made an agreement with church leaders and deacons to go on “vacation” and travel solo to Charlottesville, Va., to take part on a 10-day walk to Washington, D.C., with Vote Common Good, a group of progressive evangelicals who aim to convince the faithful to vote against the president. The pilgrimage marked two years since the nation saw white supremacists with torches converge on Charlottesville, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil.”

Mannes promised church leaders to keep his attendance at the event a secret, and tried to block his face in photos. Walking 15 hours a day on rural Virginia roads, it was his first protest, his first time holding a sign that said “Black lives matter.”

The Rev. Keith Mannes, in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, walks with protesters.

Mannes took part in a 10-day walk this summer from Charlottesville, Va., to Washington, D.C., with Vote Common Good, a progressive evangelical group.

(Tim Gilman)

When he returned, a member of his congregation confronted him.

“You’re supporting a terrorist organization,” he said to Mannes.

“I disagree,” the pastor replied, later feeling cowardly for not saying more.

The man and his wife quit the church.

At a tense church meeting not long after, Mannes knelt to pray with the elders and deacons who had hired him.

They agreed to part ways.

Mannes wrote a letter to the congregation that was sent to each person’s home.

“For the past four years, I have felt deep concern in my heart and soul over our current political situation. My views differ, powerfully so, from those of most of the people in our congregation. … Though we love and respect each other, it does get difficult sometimes for all of us. Also, my views flow out into my sermons, and sometimes that is discomforting to people. … It has everything to do with what I believe the Bible teaches about Jesus and what it means to live before Him as the Lord, and what it means to advance His Kingdom.”

The elders and deacons wrote their own letter. Their president, Cindy Brink, read the words aloud on one of Mannes’ last Sundays, praising the pastor who had “served our church with integrity and honor” and promising to “always speak well of him.” She declined an interview request.

Since Mannes said his goodbyes, he has begun to share his opinions. He penned an essay for a blog, Reformed Journal, titled, “Why Are Christians So Mean?” He wrote another for the Banner, a newspaper covering his denomination, called “Conduct Becoming the Body of Christ,” about the “abysmal stories” he’d heard of other congregations turning against their pastors. He no longer looks over his shoulder when he describes the president as “evil.”

He meets with a group of pastors like him — ones who left their churches or have considered it.

There is the man from a rural Zeeland church, the nearby city where Mannes was born, who quit his job because congregants refused to worship with masks. There is the Holland pastor who faced backlash after writing a letter to the local paper saying, “No matter how many people are murdered by white supremacists, the Republican Party always chooses to defend guns over God.”

A former minister who years ago left the denomination to join the United Church of Christ is now running in a long-shot race as a Democrat for Congress. He had acted as a guide of sorts to others facing the same transition. Mannes would often text him and his wife for advice.

“I love our people; they are beautiful Christian people. But I could never get to them,” Mannes said recently while meeting with those pastors, reflecting on their journeys. “It’s like in the story of the Titanic — the orchestra that played as the ship was going down,” he said of the church in America. “I feel, in this case, like I’ve been playing a violin as the ship is heading to the iceberg.”

At East Saugutuck, they still pray for Mannes and his wife, for God to “guide them and direct them,” as a service leader said the week after his departure.

“We may not see eye-to-eye on political values but both see eye-to-eye with the Lord. I wish politics could have been left out of the church and we could have just praised the Father as a loving congregation,” one churchgoer, Kenny Shelton, recently wrote on Facebook.

At home, Mannes — who is taking a chaplaincy class and recently interviewed for a part-time job to counsel younger, less experienced pastors — also prays. He asks God to take care of the congregant who had hip surgery, the couples in church struggling to find jobs, the elders and “the extra burdens they now carry.”

Sitting in his basement with his face to the ground, Mannes reruns Acts 9 in his head, the story of Saul, who was blinded after persecuting Jesus’ followers. As he repented, the scales fell from his eyes so he could see again. He later became the Apostle Paul.

Mannes thinks of the church in America that has aligned itself with the president.

“I pray that it will separate itself from Donald Trump,” he said. “I pray that the scales will fall from its eyes.”

Posted on

Immigration fact check: ‘Who built the cages?’

After months of seemingly ignoring the issue of immigration, President Trump and Joe Biden faced tough questions in last week’s debate about their past policies.

One moment that stood out was an extended discussion of the Trump administration’s fraught “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of an estimated 4,000 children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.

Prior to the debate, news reports surfaced that the federal government still couldn’t find the parents of 545 children separated during a pilot program that predates the “zero-tolerance” policy the Trump administration put into effect in May 2018.

During the sharp exchange, which was prompted by a question about the missing children posed by moderator Kristen Welker, Trump and Biden fired allegations at each other about which administration started the family separation process, who “built the cages,” and others.

The back-and-forth left many viewers confused. Here are the facts.

When asked about the 545 parents separated from their children, Trump said the “children are brought here by coyotes [human smugglers] and lots of bad people, cartels — and they are brought here and they used to use them to get into our country.” Is he correct?

No. Federal court filings show that their adoptive or biological parents brought the children in question to the United States. Children who are brought over without their parents, by smugglers, are often classified as “unaccompanied minors” and are not included in the group the moderator asked about.

“They did it. We changed the policy and they built the cages. We did not build the cages.” Did the Obama administration build the cages?

The Obama administration did build the cages Trump alluded to. The facility Trump mentioned was built with chain-link fencing by the Obama administration in 2014 in a warehouse in Nogales, Ariz. The makeshift shelter was built in response to an exodus of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America. But those children did not arrive with their parents; they were unaccompanied. The shelter was not being used as part of a child separation policy, and U.S. border agents did not separate those children from their parents.

Did the Obama administration separate families at the southern U.S. border?

Yes, U.S. border officials did separate children from their parents on occasion, but it was not as widespread or systematic as it became under the Trump administration, particularly during its “zero-tolerance policy,” which was meant to deter migrants from seeking refuge in the U.S.

What was the “zero-tolerance” policy?

The policy directed U.S. prosecutors to criminally charge everyone who crossed the border without inspection. Parents were then separated from their children when they were taken into custody. Many of these parents were deported to their countries of origin — mostly to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Trump scrapped the policy in June 2018 after a massive public outcry. But separations still occurred under other policies (see below).

Who is looking for the 545 parents separated from their children? Trump said the U.S. government is “working on it” and “trying very hard” to find the parents. Is that true?

No. Although a federal court compelled the administration to provide contact information for the parents, U.S. officials are not doing the searching. Instead, the court appointed a steering committee of nongovernment organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Justice In Motion, because the U.S. government refused to conduct a search. The Trump administration kept poor records, which exacerbated the situation, according to a Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general report.

Where are the children of the more than 500 parents who are being sought? Biden said the “kids are alone” with “nowhere to go.” Trump said they are in clean facilities and well taken care of. Who’s right?

Neither. The children are no longer in U.S. detention centers; they are with extended family members in the U.S. or with foster families.

Did family separations at the southern border stop after Trump did away with the “zero-tolerance” policy?

No, between 1,100 and 1,200 children were separated after the policy was scrapped in 2018. Federal officials still separated children from their parents for different reasons, such as doubt about the familial relationship between a child and their parent or if the accompanying adult had any sort of criminal record — including minor violations and arrests — in the U.S. or their country of origin.

Immigration rights activists and lawyers argued in court in a 2019 lawsuit that the separations were unlawful and accused the administration of exploiting loopholes to continue to separate families. In court filings, the ACLU said the administration used allegations of criminality or even mere suspicion to justify family separations.

Posted on

The Nepalese man who came back from the dead

Santoshi Tamang’s nightmares repeat.

Someone brings her deep into the tangled woods outside her small town in southeastern Nepal and leaves her there, alone.

Then she sees the pyre where the body is burning. The body reaches for her, pulling her into the flames.

It is the body she burned in these same woods — the body shipped home after her husband, a migrant worker named Subash, was declared dead in Saudi Arabia more than five years ago.

Santoshi remembers only flashes of the funeral she saw between blackouts.

The body, wrapped in a white shroud. The line of Buddhist monks, neighbors and relatives, slowly carrying the body into the woods. Her young daughter and son, trailing behind.

They believed that setting the body aflame would free the soul. Instead, it now haunts two families, forever connected by the macabre events that began unfolding in a desert 4,000 miles away.

Santoshi said she always held onto the hope that somehow Subash would come back to life.

“But then I’d remind myself — I watched his body burn,” she said. “It’s not something that could happen.”

Until it did.

::

On July 9, 2015, 33-year-old Subash Tamang and three Nepalese co-workers hired a taxi outside the power plant where they lived and worked on the outskirts of Jidda, Saudi Arabia’s largest port city.

Vehicle barriers in front of the twin smokestacks of the Jidda South Thermal Power Plant, now operated by the state-run Saudi Electricity Co.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

All four worked for Hyundai Heavy Industries, the Korean shipbuilding and construction behemoth (a separate company from the car manufacturer) that built the Jidda South Thermal Power Plant. From miles away, the plant’s smokestacks stick out like lit cigarettes against the aquamarine Red Sea.

Under Saudi Arabia’s system of kafala, or sponsorship, the legal status of migrant workers is tethered to employers. Rights groups, labor experts and international organizations call the system abusive and exploitative — the United Nations said it “facilitates contemporary forms of slavery.”

Kafala is incompatible with international law,” said Felipe González Morales, the United Nations special rapporteur for migrants.

In practice, Saudi labor law means that sponsors control most aspects of workers’ lives. Most foreign laborers aren’t allowed to leave the camps where they work, eat and sleep — much less the country — without the permission of employers like Hyundai, and often for years at a time. This de facto indentured servitude has only been worsened by the coronavirus.

Nepal, squeezed between India and China, is a nation of 30 million that exports more workers per capita than any other country in Asia, many of them headed to the Persian Gulf. In recent years, remittances from wages earned outside Nepal have represented up to a third of its gross domestic product — the most of any country in the world.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

That day in Jidda, Subash and his co-workers were headed to a money-transfer service where they sent earnings home to their families. It was a familiar ritual for the taxi driver, 25-year-old Tejendra Bhandari, another worker from Nepal.

Sepia desert and warehouses ticked by as the taxi approached a traffic circle about 20 miles from the power plant. Then the taxi slammed into a tractor-trailer, crumpling like foil. Three of the men died on impact.

Reports of twisted wreckage and body parts on the asphalt spread quickly through Jidda’s labor camps, filled with Nepalis and other workers from across South Asia who make up most of Saudi Arabia’s more than 13 million foreign laborers, nearly 40% of its population.

Only Subash and Tejendra, the driver, survived the crash. Unconscious and critically injured, they were airlifted to King Abdulaziz Hospital, where one died the next day.

The dead man had yet to be officially identified when word of the crash reached the Hyundai plant and Subash’s nephew Bhupal Tamang, who worked there under the same manager as his uncle. Bhupal had meant to go with Subash to the remittance shop, but he ran late, so the group had left him behind.

Bhupal said he asked his manager for permission to go to the hospital and determine whether his uncle was among the living or the dead. He said the manager wouldn’t allow it, saying it was his job to identify Subash.

Tejendra Bhandari, in a photograph shared by his mother, Subitra, taken before he went to Saudi Arabia for work.

Tejendra Bhandari, in a photograph shared by his mother, Subitra, taken before he went to Saudi Arabia for work.

(Tim Bowden / For The Times)

The manager went to the hospital, looked at the body and confirmed Bhupal’s fears.

It took Hyundai more than a month to send the bodies back to Nepal. Bhupal said the company wouldn’t give him leave to accompany his uncle home or to pay his last respects.

Years later in Jidda, a burned-out hull of another car was left half-buried in sand at the roadside along the route taken by Subash and Tejendra, as if in warning of dangers past and future.

I have traced Subash and Tejendra’s odyssey from Nepal to Saudi Arabia and back, initially obsessed with solving the mystery of a real-life resurrection. But behind the quest was a larger, darker truth: The kingdom’s modernization push relies on a labor pipeline from South Asia to the Persian Gulf that reduces workers to expendable, indistinguishable bodies.

::

The day that Hyundai had said Subash’s body would arrive home in Nepal, Santoshi waited for hours at the country’s lone international airport, just one short strip of runway before the looming foothills surrounding Katmandu, the capital.

Every day that had passed already was an affront to Buddhist tradition, which dictates that a person be cremated as soon as possible after death.

When night fell, and the body still hadn’t come, Santoshi’s relatives had to trick her to get her to leave. They spent a fitful night in a nearby hotel room they couldn’t afford.

Family wheels the body of their relative, a migrant worker who died in the Gulf, through the arrivals section at the airport.

A family wheels the body of a relative, a migrant worker who died in the Persian Gulf, through the arrivals section of Tribhuvan International Airport in Katmandu, Nepal.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

Workers’ cardboard coffins regularly appear at Tribhuvan International Airport in Katmandu, among the tourists headed for the Himalayas, shipped like any other cargo. One airport official told me as many as five to 10 bodies come from the Gulf and Malaysia each week.

Relatives wheel those remains past other Nepalese workers waiting to board departing planes to replace them, foreign employment licenses in hand. There are so many laborers leaving Nepal every day — more than 1,000 on average for the last decade, according to the government — that they have a dedicated departure line. And despite a global economic downturn due to the coronavirus that has left thousands of Nepalese laborers stranded in Persian Gulf nations, Nepal recently lifted a several-month pause on work abroad.

Often, all the men in a Nepalese family go, and many women as well. Many of them take on what international watchdogs, labor advocates and researchers call predatory debts to secure a job abroad, because even if they are low-paid by global standards, they can still earn more than they can in Nepal. Hyundai paid Subash roughly $7 a day to inspect building materials at the power plant — more than three times the average of $2 a day in Nepal.

Bhupal Tamang, Subash's nephew, at his home back in Laxmimarga, Nepal, after an early morning of harvesting.

Bhupal Tamang, Subash’s nephew, at his home in Laxmimarga, Nepal, after an early morning of harvesting.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

Many workers never come home.

Of the millions of Nepalis who have gone overseas for work in the last decade, roughly 7,500 have died, mostly in the Persian Gulf. More than 2,000 Nepalese laborers have died in Saudi Arabia alone, roughly one every two days, according to the most recent data from Nepal’s Foreign Employment Promotion Board.

When Subash’s body finally arrived at the airport, Santoshi fainted. At first her relatives couldn’t find a truck to fit the coffin. Then someone had to go get ice.

With Nepal’s sparse web of almost impassable roads and bridges, it took days to drive the corpse halfway across the country to Laxmimarga. When Santoshi and her relatives pulled up to her small, cinder-block house, it was crowded with Buddhist monks waiting to receive the body, Santoshi recalled.

She and Subash had been able to build the four-room home with his earnings abroad and by borrowing the rest. Santoshi painted it bright pink and blue.

Subash’s death left Santoshi a widow at 26, in a country where such women are shunned, with a 9-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter and a debt on their home that she had no idea how she’d pay off alone.

::

Months after the taxi crash in Jidda, in September 2015, the lone survivor woke up in King Abdulaziz Hospital with a metal plate in his head, a rod in his arm and jumbled memories.

But he remembered one thing clearly: His name was Subash Tamang.

Santoshi Tamang, Subash's wife, stands in back of the small cinder-block home in Laxmimarga, Nepal

Santoshi Tamang stands in back of the small cinder-block home in Laxmimarga, Nepal, that she paid off with her husband’s accidental death benefits.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

The day of the accident, Subash had eaten at Jidda’s only Nepalese restaurant, tucked into a strip mall. Tejendra, the taxi driver, also frequented the spot, so often that the staff considered the driver a good friend, Anand Karki, the manager, would recount later.

After the crash, when Karki and the restaurant’s owner went to the hospital to visit Tejendra, they noticed that his signature snake tattoo was gone from his arm.

Impossible, they thought. But what if?

Knowing Subash had also been in the crash, they used the tight-knit network of Nepalese laborers in Jidda to track down Bhupal, Subash’s nephew, and share their suspicions.

When Subash awoke, they sent Bhupal the living proof: a photo of his uncle, bleary-eyed in his hospital bed.

By then, the tragic mix-up was clear. It was Tejendra who had died the day after the crash, while Subash remained in a coma. The Hyundai manager had misidentified the body, and the company had sent Santoshi the wrong man, according to company email correspondence at the time and a recent statement to The Times. In the aftermath, Hyundai says, it met its obligations under Saudi law.

Santoshi’s relatives had pulled back the shroud a final time before the pyre, she recalled, but the body had been disfigured in the crash — and who would suspect that Hyundai and Saudi officials could make such a mistake?

Still, days passed before Bhupal told anyone back home in Laxmimarga — he was afraid of what Hyundai might do.

Subash Tamang in his hospital bed once he regained consciousness following being declared dead.

Subash Tamang in his hospital bed once he regained consciousness following the 2015 accident in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

(Tim Bowden / For The Times)

“He was already pronounced dead,” Bhupal said. “Maybe the company would ask the hospital to kill him to cover up their mistake.”

Soon after the revelation, Tejendra’s wife, who lived 400 miles away from Subash’s family in the tiny village of Adhikarichaur at the edge of the Himalayas, was shown a photo posted to Facebook of the crash survivor: a man she did not know, in a hospital bed.

Later, the Nepalese Consulate sent her another photo: a white cloth, pulled back, revealed a heavily scarred corpse, but Tejendra’s wife recognized her husband’s still-boyish face.

That’s when Tejendra’s family, who are Hindu, understood for the first time that he hadn’t survived the crash, they said. And in fact, he’d been cremated as someone else, in a Buddhist ceremony.

After Subash woke up, Bhupal said, Hyundai finally permitted him to visit the hospital. He called Santoshi.

When she saw Subash, alive, through the cellphone screen, she choked on her sobs.

At first, Subash didn’t remember the crash, how he’d gotten to the hospital, even what country he was in. But he recognized his wife immediately.

“Why is she crying?” he asked Bhupal.

His nephew told him the truth: “Because you died.”

::

In late November 2015, Nepal’s consulate in Jidda informed Hyundai that Tejendra’s family wanted a formal investigation into how the company had swapped the men’s identities.

Gil Tae-Gun, a Saudi-based HR manager for Hyundai, wrote back asking Nepalese officials to contact the family regarding compensation.

Hyundai Heavy Industries, a $40-billion company, ultimately offered the family about $4,000, which Tejendra’s family reluctantly accepted. Advocates at the Center for Migration and International Relations, a Katmandu-based nonprofit, advised the family that they were unlikely to get more from Hyundai.

Gil told the Nepalese Consulate that a Hyundai manager would visit Subash in the hospital to determine who would pay his medical bills. But he stressed: “This decision doesn’t mean that HHI takes the full responsibility for the corpse change.”

Nepal’s consul in Jidda wrote to Saudi officials, explaining that Hyundai mistakenly had declared Subash deceased, an error compounded by Saudi officials issuing him a death certificate. The consul requested that the Saudi government issue Subash exit papers allowing him to return to Nepal.

Instead, when the hospital released Subash in December 2015, Hyundai took him straight back to the labor camp at the Jidda power plant.

Days after, Park Byung-Ock, Hyundai general manager for the power plant project, wrote to Nepal’s consulate. He explained that Hyundai had signed a contract with the state-run Saudi Electricity Co. to take over the plant and didn’t want to hold Subash there.

“His medical condition is not that good so he should go back to Nepal and be taken cared by his family,” the manager wrote in English.

The $3.12-billion power plant is emblematic of “Vision 2030,” the ambitious economic redevelopment plan that’s the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The millennial king-in-waiting, better known as MBS, said the plan would modernize Saudi Arabia by reducing its reliance on oil wealth, government subsidies and foreign laborers like Subash and Tejendra.

Mohammed’s visage adorns billboards and storefronts across Jidda and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, pushing Vision 2030. Other advertisements feature a futuristic evergreen skyline, an Emerald City in the Persian Gulf.

The prince has levied increasing penalties on companies employing migrant labor to compel them to hire more Saudis instead, but unemployment for citizens has remained around 12%. Under the crown prince’s initiative, the country has become more authoritarian, and Vision 2030 has fallen far short of many of its 2020 benchmarks. It’s now being scaled back.

Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said in a statement to The Times that the “Saudization” program was “being implemented as planned” but added that Vision 2030 was intended to “undergo regular evaluation,” and parts of the plan “might need to be modified periodically.”

Rather than hiring more Saudis, a construction industry dominated by foreign employment and decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and tanking oil prices is instead pushing the rising costs onto its migrant laborers, forcing them to work more for even less or, according to interviews with dozens of Nepalese and other South Asian laborers in Riyadh and Jidda, nothing at all.

As for Hyundai, it exemplifies the inherent contradiction in Vision 2030. The company employs thousands of foreign workers yet remains one of the kingdom’s favorites for Vision 2030 efforts.

After he was released from the hospital, Subash’s confinement at the labor camp accounted for roughly half of his three-year employment with Hyundai.

It was almost impossible to send Mr. Subash Tamang to his home.

Ha Jeong-su, corporate affairs officer for Hyundai Heavy Industries

Another of Subash’s nephews in Saudi Arabia, a jovial long-haul trucker named Bhawindra Tamang, said he saw Subash once during that period. They spoke through the power plant’s barbed-wire-topped fence.

The only times Subash was allowed to leave the camp, he said, were when Hyundai officials took him to meetings with company lawyers and Saudi authorities that no one translated for him as they tried to bureaucratically “un-dead” him, get him an exit visa and rid themselves of responsibility for the injured Nepali. Subash said that when he asked why he couldn’t go home, or even leave the plant site, all Hyundai would tell him was: “If Saudi authorities got ahold of me, the company would get in trouble, and I would get in trouble, and there would be no way I could get my proper papers in place so I could leave.”

Ha Jeong-su, a Seoul-based corporate affairs officer for Hyundai Heavy Industries, told The Times that Hyundai “tried to correct” the situation, but with all the Saudi government records saying Subash was “dead and sent home,” the company got “totally stuck into the system.”

In May 2016, a Saudi Interior Ministry public security official wrote to the director of the King Abdulaziz Hospital, according to a letter provided by Hyundai, asking that a death certificate issued in Subash’s name “by mistake” be corrected to Tejendra’s because Subash was “still alive.” (It was not corrected.) In late 2016, Hyundai elevated the issue to the crown prince, Mohammed’s predecessor, “to get his special order to resolve this case,” Ha said, but there was no response.

Bhawindra Tamang, another of Subash's nephews, pictured next to his truck at a rest stop outside Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Bhawindra Tamang, a nephew of Subash, pictured next to his truck at a rest stop outside Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Bhawindra saw Subash once during his uncle’s house arrest — he spoke to him through the Hyundai plant’s barbed-wire-topped fence.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

“It was almost impossible to send Mr. Subash Tamang to his home,” Ha said.

The Saudi government ordered its own investigation into how Subash and Tejendra’s identities were swapped and concluded that it was human error, rather than a cover-up, according to Revati Raman Paudel, the acting Nepalese consul general in Jidda. Hyundai’s hold on Subash for months afterward was a simple bureaucratic impasse, Paudel added. His detention was overlooked, because “the more powerful, the more mighty, are given more attention.”

In May 2017, during a rare amnesty period that the Saudi government offered to alleged violators of the kingdom’s residency and labor laws, Hyundai officials took Subash to a police station, where he saw hundreds of other migrant workers.

Company representatives told him he’d be on a plane home in two days, nearly two years after Hyundai and Saudi officials declared him dead.

::

Life just started here. I still feel like my body is not strong enough, like even now, my body is being pushed down by a 200-pound weight. … I really can’t explain it.

Subash Tamang

A few weeks after his return to Nepal, Subash sat on the porch of his cinder-block house, holding his death certificate from Saudi Arabia.

The sun emerged from the afternoon’s monsoon rain and lit the scars covering the right side of his face. Suddenly, he started laughing and crying at the same time, hitting himself in the forehead over and over — a tic that has persisted since the crash.

Subash Tamang holds his own death certificate from Saudi Arabia, sitting on his porch in Laxmimarga, Nepal.

Subash Tamang holds his own death certificate from Saudi Arabia, sitting on his porch in Laxmimarga, Nepal, on June 27, 2017. Under cause of death, it reads: “Road Traffic Accident led to multiple injuries.”

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

When Subash got back to Laxmimarga, Buddhist leaders prevented him from reuniting immediately with his wife, Santoshi, and two children. They said he first had to be reborn and remarried.

In photos of a rebirthing ceremony, a shirtless Subash emerges from a large basket, typically used for hauling the harvest, which represents the womb.

In another shot, he and Santoshi sit side by side during their second marriage ceremony, dressed in bright satin scarves and ornate caps. Santoshi leans toward Subash, smiling slightly, but other hands hold her back, as if to keep them from touching.

During the rites, the monks gave Subash a new identity. Asked what her father is called, Sabita, their mischievous daughter, now 12, answered matter-of-factly, “Rinchen — that’s his new name.”

Santoshi and Subash Tamang at their "rewedding" ceremony in May 2017.

Santoshi and Subash Tamang at their “rewedding” ceremony in May 2017. Per Buddhist tradition, Subash had to be “reborn” and married again before he could rejoin his family and community.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

No one uses it; he’s still Subash. But he’s not the same.

“Life just started here,” Subash told me. “I still feel like my body is not strong enough, like even now, my body is being pushed down by a 200-pound weight. … I really can’t explain it.”

Santoshi looked on, slender arms folded, a spray of girlish freckles across her nose.

She has a simple explanation for what happened to Subash and Tejendra and the fallout for two families bound together by the absurd consequences of Saudi Arabia’s deeply ingrained system of indentured labor: No one is technically bought or sold, but to her, it felt like “slavery.”

::

A few weeks later, in the misty Himalayan foothills of central Nepal, Tejendra’s family crouched around an iPhone image of Subash, Santoshi and their two kids, sitting on their porch.

“I am glad they got him back,” Tejendra’s sister, Him Kumari Bhandari, said of Subash’s family. “But we have lost everything.”

Him Kumari Bhandari and other relatives look at an iPhone photograph of Subash Tamang and his family.

Him Kumari Bhandari, left, and relatives look at a photograph of Subash Tamang and his family on July 15, 2017, at their home outside Adhikarichaur, Nepal.

(Tim Bowden / For The Times)

A dozen of Tejendra’s relatives live in one dirt-floored home in Adhikarichaur. The village is practically inaccessible during the monsoon, save for yellow Hyundai backhoes clearing landslides from cliff-clinging roads. Not that the roads are of any use to them, said Him Kumari, Tejendra’s only sibling.

“It’s just for the ones who have money to go anywhere,” she said.

The family said they still owed more than $4,000 to cover the debts Tejendra took on to go to Saudi Arabia, as well as the cost of the closest thing to a funeral they could give him, without his remains. Tejendra’s widow had left the village, taking their daughter with her, and had not been heard from since.

Because Tejendra’s labor permit expired just weeks before the crash, and because Saudi officials have yet to formally acknowledge his death with a death certificate, his family has not only missed the window to qualify for compensation from the Nepali government but cannot file an appeal.

Everybody’s son goes abroad and sends money back — neither my son came back, nor his money. I could not even see his dead body.

Subitra, 74, mother of Tejendra Bhandari

Instead, it was Santoshi who received about $8,000 from the Nepalese government after burning Tejendra’s body. She promptly spent the money paying off the debt on her cinder-block house. Nepal’s Foreign Employment Promotion Board, which handles the payouts, says the government won’t ask for the money back.

To this day, the agency’s records still show Subash as the one who’s dead.

In Adhikarichaur, Tejendra’s mother, Subitra, now 74, took a cigarette from the folds of her sari and looked away from the photo of Subash’s family.

“Everybody’s son goes abroad and sends money back — neither my son came back, nor his money,” she said, tears falling. “I could not even see his dead body.”

::

Four months after visiting the families in Nepal, I traveled to Saudi Arabia. Over a week in late 2017, Hyundai, the Saudi Electricity Co. and Saudi royal court representatives declined my repeated requests for interviews or a visit to the power plant in Jidda.

In Jidda, Ko Yeon-Joo, deputy manager of Hyundai’s administration department at the plant, also said I couldn’t visit Hyundai Heavy Industries’ office. “Our Jidda office is no more functional,” he said in an email.

Ko’s message arrived shortly after I visited what turned out to be a fully functioning office in Jidda, having interviewed Brince Ali Azlan, Hyundai’s head of human resources there.

Azlan said that even though Hyundai had not sanctioned Subash’s leave of the labor camp the day of the crash, the company had exceeded its obligations by paying Subash’s hospital bill and salary in full. Tejendra, he pointed out, was not a Hyundai employee and had been driving on a recently expired labor permit.

Subash was held at the camp for his own safety, given his spotty memory, Azlan added. He blamed Saudi authorities for dragging their feet on issuing him an exit visa.

Perhaps 1,000 of Hyundai’s roughly 16,000 employees in Jidda are Saudi citizens, and the rest are foreign workers, said Azlan, who is Pakistani. The company prefers Nepalis, Indians and Filipinos, he said, because “any kind of job, any kind of salary, they will accept, no problem.”

Santoshi and Subash Tamang return the woods outside Laxmimarga, Nepal, where she burned what she thought was his body.

Santoshi and Subash Tamang return for the first time to the woods outside Laxmimarga, Nepal, where she burned what she thought was his body.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

“Many companies don’t like Saudis because they’re not working properly,” Azlan added. “The office starts at 8, they come in at 11 o’clock, spend half an hour, then leave.”

Ha, the Hyundai Heavy Industries spokesman, pushed back on Azlan’s assessment, saying some of those foreign workers “belonged to the different subcontractors” — in other words, they didn’t count against Hyundai’s total.

As for Subash and Tejendra’s case, Hyundai was “shocked” when the families discovered the swap and “rushed” to find the “glitch,” Ha said. He blamed Saudi first responders at the crash site and claimed Bhupal hadn’t stepped forward until later, but acknowledged that the official misidentification was made by the Hyundai representative at the hospital.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has undertaken reforms in recent years to better protect foreign workers, from prohibiting confiscation of passports to penalizing withholding of wages. New Saudi labor laws carry fines up to $260,000 and prison terms up to 15 years. But according to interviews with dozens of South Asian laborers across the country, employers routinely ignore those laws without consequence.

And while other Gulf countries have recently ended their kafala systems, Saudi Arabia has been slow to address it.

Saurab and Sabita Tamang stand on their shared bed next to a photo of their parents, Santoshi and Subash

Saurab and Sabita Tamang stand on their shared bed next to a photo of their parents, Santoshi and Subash, taken separately but photoshopped as one so they could be pictured together during the years he worked abroad.

(Molly O’Toole / Los Angeles Times)

“Enforcing labor protection laws is an important element of the kingdom’s economic reforms,” said Nazer, the embassy spokesman. He added, “The kafala system is undergoing evaluation.”

Back in Katmandu, I visited the headquarters of Nepal’s largest labor contractor, SOS Manpower Service, the agency that sent Subash and Bhupal to Hyundai.

Loka Pani Agnihotry, SOS Manpower’s chief executive officer, argued that stricter enforcement of worker protections will collapse the booming labor export industry on which both Nepal and Saudi Arabia depend.

“If there are no migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, even in Qatar or Dubai,” Agnihotry warned, “it will be like a museum.”

::

Outside Laxmimarga, Subash and Santoshi brought me to the woods for the first time since she burned Tejendra’s body there. She’d returned only in her nightmares.

“His soul is maybe now wandering in some other place,” Santoshi said with a shiver, hugging herself. “What bad happens to us because of this?”

Subitra Bhandari, crouching in her one-room home where she lives alone, holds a photo of her son Tejendra and family.

Subitra Bhandari, crouching in the one-room home outside Adhikarichaur, Nepal, where she lives alone, holds a photo of her son Tejendra, his daughter and his wife, taken before he died in a 2015 car accident in Saudi Arabia.

(Tim Bowden / For The Times)

In February 2018, Tejendra’s mother, Subitra, and her son-in-law journeyed to Laxmimarga. Subitra had told Santoshi that Tejendra had complained to her in a dream that he was not properly put to rest.

Santoshi and Subash led them into the woods, to the riverbank. Subitra gathered mud where her son’s ashes had fallen and recited Hindu prayers.

Six months after Subitra’s visit — and nearly three years after haggling over the compensation — Hyundai paid Tejendra’s family: about $3,500.

To date, neither Hyundai nor Saudi authorities have admitted full responsibility to either family — one mistakenly told their loved one was dead, the other mistakenly told he was alive.

Last year, Subitra, Subash and Santoshi attended a screening in Katmandu of a documentary made about their case, attended by several senior Nepalese officials. As she gave a speech, Subitra, crying, asked the officials how she was supposed to take care of herself with the family’s earner gone.

But she blamed everything on Santoshi and Subash: not being able to see her son one last time, burning his body, taking money from the government she believed belonged to her.

“You killed my son,” Subitra told Subash over and over at the event. “You shot him in the back.”

Subitra Bhandari, who is now 74 years old, prepares to walk toward the nearest town outside Adhikarichaur, Nepal.

Subitra Bhandari, now 74, prepared to walk the monsoon-worn path toward the nearest town on July 15, 2017, outside Adhikarichaur, Nepal.

(Tim Bowden / For The Times)

Santoshi says she understands Subitra is still struggling to cope with the loss of her son. That was the last time they spoke.

Both families fear their futures are cursed because of Hyundai’s mistake and Saudi Arabia’s indifference.

Subitra has gone blind in one eye and is going deaf but insists on living alone. Shortly after the documentary screening, a little over $2,500 was sent to Subitra, according to her daughter Him Kumari. They’re not sure where it came from. Still, Subitra had to sell most of the family’s land to satisfy moneylenders; all that’s left in her name is a small patch of cornfield.

Santoshi and Subash borrowed a bit of money to buy him an electric rickshaw to work as a taxi, but they can’t afford the upkeep because he keeps crashing it, she said. They took on more debt when Santoshi needed emergency surgery. Then they leveraged their cinder-block home to start a small eatery. Business was barely holding on before COVID-19 emerged in Nepal, dragging the families deeper into debt.

With Subash’s lingering disabilities leaving him mostly unable to work, Santoshi has thought about going abroad herself, but he tells her: “If you’re going to leave me here, you might as well just shoot me.”

Now, they’re surviving on one meal a day since they ran out of government-rationed rice amid the lockdown. Santoshi worries that soon, they might lose the house, and their son Saurab, still a shy boy at 14, may have to drop out of school and go work abroad, too. “It seems like he’s our only way out,” she said.

“We had dreams of more, but those dreams have been shattered. Poor people like us, we can’t really dream so much.”

For more, see Behind the story: From Nepal to Saudi Arabia, reporting how a dead man came back to life.

Bhrikuti Rai, Nikita Tripathi and Meena Bhatta in Nepal contributed to this report. Times video journalists Nani Sahra Walker and Claire Collins contributed from Los Angeles. Staff writer Don Lee contributed from Washington.

Posted on

Column: Trump’s closing argument is a loser

As President Trump has barnstormed battleground states in a frenzy of final campaign rallies, he hasn’t offered voters much of a plan for defeating the coronavirus (“We’re learning to live with it,” he says) or reviving the economy (“We’ve recovered”).

Instead of offering solutions for the disasters on his watch, most of his message focuses on fear of the catastrophes he predicts if Joe Biden is elected.

“Biden and the Democrats will offshore your jobs, dismantle your police departments and dissolve your borders,” he claimed in Ohio. All three charges are false; those aren’t Biden’s positions.

My favorite: “If Biden wins, the flag-burning rioters on the streets will be running your federal government.” Even red-hat-wearing Trump fans might not swallow that one.

And he’s telling voters — again without foundation — that their retirement savings will vanish if Biden is elected.

If the Democrat wins, he said in North Carolina, “Your stocks, your 401(k) and pension will be demolished.”

“Your 401(k)s will be cut in half and much worse,” he warned in Arizona.

“Throw them away,” he added in Ohio.

It has become one of his favorite arguments — a way to appeal to retirees and affluent suburban voters, groups where polls suggest his support has eroded over the last four years.

But no matter how often he repeats it — and he repeats it at every stop — it’s as flimsy as his other claims.

Trump has offered two reasons for his prediction of a falling stock market if Biden is elected: The Democrat has said he may call for renewed lockdowns in some parts of the country if the pandemic doesn’t abate, and has proposed higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners.

Neither scenario necessarily leads to a stock market crash.

Last spring, when the pandemic first hit, a nationwide lockdown produced a sudden recession and a sharp dip in the stock market — but by June, the markets recovered and went on to record highs.

As for Biden’s proposed tax hikes, financial markets often don’t react negatively at all to such changes.

The last significant increase in income tax rates, in 2013, was followed by a 30% rise in the S&P 500 index — the best return for stocks in more than a decade. The president at the time was Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Trump often brags about the stock markets’ performance during his presidency — and he can. Since he was elected, the S&P has risen about 58%. That’s better than Obama’s first term, when the same index rose 40%.

Here’s the other problem with Trump’s pitch: Not as many voters own stocks as he seems to believe.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Stocks, oh, it’s rich people,’” the president said in Arizona. “Everybody owns stocks.”

Except they don’t.

According to the Federal Reserve, about 53% of American households own stocks, mostly in mutual funds held by retirement accounts like a employer-sponsored 401(k). But 401(k) balances are often modest; half of all accounts hold $65,000 or less.

The vast majority of stocks are owned by the richest 10% of Americans.

Those numbers reveal a serious public policy problem: Most Americans aren’t saving nearly enough for retirement.

Biden has offered a proposal to make individual retirement accounts more widely available and encourage lower-income workers to contribute more. Trump, for all his talk about 401(k)s, hasn’t addressed the problem.

But the biggest problem with Trump’s argument is that he’s asking voters to overlook the pandemic, forget the public good, and think mostly about their investments.

It’s a model of political behavior that reduces voting to an exercise of narrow self-interest.

The president appears to believe that’s how most voters think. In a television interview last month, he predicted that even liberals in Beverly Hills will vote for him to protect their wealth.

“They’re greedy people,” he said. “So they will talk one way, but they’re going to vote another way.”

I think he’s wrong on that count, too. Polling from 2016 and other elections shows that ideology, religion, education and geography are all greater influences on the way people vote than wealth.

Wealthy liberals tend to vote Democratic; low-income conservatives tend to vote Republican.

But not in Trump’s view of the world. At last week’s presidential debate in Nashville, the president was asked, as his closing argument, to describe how he would reunify a divided country.

His answer was solely about dollars and cents — and Biden.

“Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success,” he said. “If he gets in … your 401(k)s will go to hell.”

It’s not much of an argument.

Posted on

A year after protests, Chile votes on new constitution

More than three decades ago, Chileans went to the polls in a landmark plebiscite and voted to end the dictatorial rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

On Sunday, Chile votes on another referendum aimed at erasing a key pillar of Pinochet’s legacy — the 1980 constitution approved under the strongman’s rule.

Sunday’s vote, originally scheduled for April but pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic, was the government’s major concession to civil unrest last year that largely paralyzed this South American nation of 19 million.

Protesters attack a police armored vehicle on the one-year anniversary of the start of anti-government mass protests over inequality in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday.

(Esteban Felix/AP)

Student protests against a transit fare hike soon escalated into a broader movement targeting inequalities in a country long hailed as a regional beacon of economic progress and political stability — but in reality deeply divided, with half of its workers earning the equivalent of $500 a month or less.

Clashes with police and rioting last year left at least 31 people dead and caused $1.4 billion in damage — including torched shopping malls, supermarkets and subway stations.

Billionaire President Sebastián Piñera, who initially declared that the government was “at war against a powerful enemy,” in dealing with the unrest, backed down after weeks of turmoil and declared: “It’s time to listen to the people.”

Last November, leaders of almost all of the country’s political factions signed on to a deal calling for a vote to rewrite the constitution to reflect protesters’ demands for reform.

Polls have indicated that around 70% of Chileans will vote in favor of the rewrite.

“Let’s hope now we get a fair democracy,” said Valentina Seguel, 22, a veterinary medicine student who, like many of her generation, had to take out a loan to go to college. “We don’t have decent healthcare. There’s no quality education for people with fewer resources. … We need a change.”

A worker wipes a chair during a disinfection operation at a gymnasium that will serve as a polling station.

A worker wipes a chair during a disinfection operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at a gymnasium that will serve as a polling station for a constitutional plebiscite, in Santiago, Chile.

(Esteban Felix/AP)

Sunday’s balloting takes aim at a constitution that was already amended after democracy was restored in 1990, with Pinochet’s signature removed in 2005.

The new referendum is not really about Pinochet — more than half of eligible Chilean voters were younger than 20 when he left office in 1990, and about one in five hadn’t born by then. Rather, the debate targets the charter’s emphasis on protecting business and markets. It is a model that, critics say, does little to address economic inequities, while ignoring environmental concerns.

“What’s at stake here is the preeminence of the market over the state on issues of social rights like pensions, health, education, housing … the protection of natural resources, including water, and the recognition of indigenous people,” said Claudio Fuentes, a political science professor at Diego Portales University. “And symbolically, it is Pinochet’s constitution, which is its original sin.”

Opponents worry that constitutional reforms could dampen prospects for growth and heighten pressure on state finances already stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic. Chile’s economy is expected to shrink by more than 5% this year.

“It’s ridiculous to waste millions changing a constitution in the midst of a pandemic,” said Daniel Sagredo, 65, a helicopter pilot. “It’s with this constitution that the country has grown enormously in the last decades.”

Others voice fears that a new constitution could send the long-stable country down a path of lawlessness and anarchy.

Firemen battle flames at La Asunción Church after it was attacked and set on fire.

Firemen battle flames at La Asunción Church after it was attacked and set on fire Sunday.

(Esteban Felix/AP)

Last Sunday, on the anniversary of last year’s demonstrations, otherwise peaceful rallies in Santiago devolved into violence when masked vandals struck two churches in the capital, looted stores and attacked police stations.

“I was going to vote for rewriting the constitution, but now I’m scared to think about what’s to come,” said Valeria Krutmeyer, 50, as she scooped up debris downtown at the landmark Roman Catholic La Asunción Church, burned to the ground in last Sunday’s violent outburst.

“This is not protesting,” said Krutmeyer, a member of the church choir. “These are thugs.”

On Sunday, voters will be asked not only if they favor a new national charter but, if so, who should do the rewrite — a constitutional convention fully elected by popular vote, or a mixed assembly composed of sitting lawmakers and elected citizens.

Once a new constitution is drafted — after up to a year of work — the document would be submitted to voters in yet another referendum scheduled for 2022.

Among those participating in a recent rally here in favor of scrapping the current charter was María Paz Grandjean, 45, a well-known actress who has recovered after being shot in the face, apparently by a rubber bullet, during last year’s protests. She recalls the elation of the 1988 referendum that ousted Pinochet, but regrets that a more equitable society did not emerge.

“Those of us who innocently lived that joy are now adults,” she said. “But we cannot let the politicians assure us once again that, yes, justice will be served — but only to the extent possible.”

Special correspondent Poblete reported from Santiago and staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City.

Posted on

Voter suppression: An ugly tradition clouds presidential race

A Memphis, Tenn., poll worker turned away people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, saying they couldn’t vote. Robocalls warned thousands of Michigan residents that mail-in voting could put their personal information in the hands of debt collectors and police. In Georgia, officials cut polling places by nearly 10%, even as the number of voters surged by nearly 2 million.

The long American tradition of threatening voting access — often for Black people and Latinos — has dramatically resurfaced in 2020, this time buttressed by a record-setting wave of litigation and an embattled president whose reelection campaign is built around a strategy of sowing doubt and confusion.

Voting rights activists depict the fights against expanding voter access as a last-ditch effort by President Trump and his allies to disenfranchise citizens who tend to favor Democrats. The administration insists — despite no evidence of a widespread problem — that it must enforce restrictions to prevent voter fraud.

“We have an incredibly polarized country and we have a political party whose leader thinks it’s to the party’s advantage to make it harder for people to register to vote and to vote,” said Richard L. Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and authority on voting. “So that is where we are.”

Trump’s efforts to tamp down turnout, particularly among voters of color, stands in stark contrast to other recent GOP presidential candidates, including John McCain and Mitt Romney, who spoke of a “big tent” party and expanding support among Black, Latino and Asian American voters.

“There are two strands in the Republican Party,” said Hasen. “There is one that has tried to be more inclusive, as a means to win elections and there is a voter-suppression wing. With Trump in office, it’s clear the voter-suppression wing is dominant right now.”

Republicans reject the notion that strict adherence to the rules is intended to quash voting. The party’s poll watchers are being trained to be “respectful and polite” and to follow the law, said Mandi Merritt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

“The poll watching program is designed to ensure that no legally eligible voters are disenfranchised, that all votes are accurately and legally tabulated, and that voters are not confused about laws and procedures,” Merritt said. “It’s about getting more people to vote, not less.”

Although that may be the official GOP position, skeptics hear something different in Trump’s repeated insistence that he will be cheated and that his followers must watch the polls “very closely.” Critics worry the president’s false claims of fraud could lead to intimidation or violence.

“Many heard a call for voter intimidation …a fear bolstered by the actions of armed white right-wing militias that have garnered support from the president in recent months as they confronted anti-racist protesters,” the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote in an early October letter to Atty. Gen. William Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

One longtime Republican voting expert has debunked the fraud claims powering his party’s efforts. Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who spent nearly four decades representing the national Republican Party and multiple GOP candidates, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month that a “lack of evidence” renders Trump’s claims “unsustainable.”

“The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud,” Ginsberg wrote. “At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots — different states use different labels for the same process.”

One judge who Trump nominated to the federal bench, J. Nicholas Ranjan, recently came to a similar conclusion. In a ruling this month, Ranjan rejected Trump campaign and Republican Party attempts to limit ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania and require signature-matching for would-be voters.

“At most,” the judge wrote, “they have pieced together a sequence of uncertain assumptions.”

State and federal courts have rendered mixed verdicts in voting access cases this fall. Judges have consistently rejected allegations of fraud, but some have ruled against broader voting access or extended ballot tabulations, in order to avoid altering the rules close to election day.

Democrats and voting rights activists have won a string of victories in U.S. district courts that impose less stringent requirements for mail-in ballot signatures and witnesses, and that permit the counting of mail-in ballots postmarked by Nov. 3. But a number of those rulings subsequently were overturned by appellate courts or the U.S. Supreme Court, with Trump’s judicial appointees often casting the decisive opinions.

The result has been a series of court actions that make it harder to complete a ballot or limit the counting of ballots received after Nov. 3. Among the cases:

  • The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturning a lower court, refused to give Arizona voters a second chance to sign mail-in ballots. Without a reversal, unsigned mail-in ballots will now be discarded.
  • Another federal appellate court also reversed a lower court and prohibited voters in Texas from clearing up signature mismatches. Voters will only learn after the election if their vote didn’t count.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court stopped a South Carolina court order that said mail-in voters should not be required to have a witness sign their ballot. All mailed ballots will now have to include a witness signature, despite concern that the requirement is overly burdensome during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling also prohibits voters who forgot to get a witness from fixing — or “curing” — their errors.
  • The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling that allowed Alabama counties to offer curbside voting, in a bid to lessen voters’ exposure to the coronavirus. In a 5-3 ruling, the court’s conservative majority blocked drive-up voting. The decision was criticized as harmful to Alabama’s Black voters during a health crisis that has disproportionately affected Black and Latino Americans.

Republicans are trying to prevent changes to allow the counting of ballots that arrive after Nov. 3. in three other battleground states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Georgia, another closely contested state, an appellate court rejected a plea to allow ballots received after 7 p.m. on election day to be tallied. The court cited a past high court ruling that admonished against late electoral changes.

And the litigation promised to continue every day until Nov. 3 and beyond. On Friday, the GOP went to court to try to stop the counting of mail-in votes in Nevada. The party said it needs observers to scrutinize the process, in a state where Democrats have mailed in more than two times as many ballots as Republicans.

Several rulings this year have been premised on the “Purcell principle,” a doctrine stemming from a 2006 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that federal judges typically should not alter rules close to an election, lest they confuse voters and confound the rules made by state election officials.

But in a measure of the topsy-turvy nature of the eleventh-hour rulings, the high court produced a different result in a Pennsylvania case. With the court deadlocked 4 to 4, it fell one vote shy of the majority needed to overturn a decision by the state Supreme Court. That means absentee ballots from Pennsylvania, mailed before Nov. 3, will be counted even if they are received up to three days after election day.

Democrats say extended deadlines for late-arriving ballots assure that the maximum number of legal votes are counted. Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said extraordinary measures are required to allow people to vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans insist that the extensions break the rules and increase the chances of fraudulent votes being cast.

The most visible signs of voting obstacles emerged not in the courts but in the streets outside hundreds of early voting centers. Several states have not opened enough early voting locations to accommodate an unprecedented surge that saw more than 52.7 million Americans cast their ballots — by mail or in person — by Friday afternoon.

Photos from Florida have shown voters lined up in the pouring rain waiting for their turn inside a polling site. In Georgia, voters have queued up for blocks, with some reporting they waited as long as 11 hours.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that waits were substantially longer in poor and Black neighborhoods, where many polling places were overcrowded and understaffed. A review by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica found 10% fewer voting locations statewide since 2013, even as the number of younger, nonwhite voters climbed in recent years.

“Voter suppression is preventing many from casting their ballots,” Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights icon, wrote on Twitter, including a link to voting information. Added the Atlanta resident: “Be prepared to protect your rights.”

A sense of anxiety and fear of tumultuous conclusion hung over the balloting, like no election in memory.

In Philadelphia this week, state officials chastised Trump operatives for videotaping voters while they deposited their ballots in drop boxes; Pennsylvania’s attorney general warned that the filming could intimidate voters.

In Florida, sheriff’s deputies arrested a 33-year-old white man who was yelling racial slurs and talking about terrorism outside the African-American Research Library & Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, an early-voting location in a largely Black neighborhood.

Wariness has been fueled by Trump, who has hesitated to say he will accept the results of the election if he loses.

After his electoral college victory in 2016, Trump declared he could only have lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton — by nearly 3 million — because of rampant fraud. Once in office, he formed an electoral integrity commission aimed at proving his claims. (The panel disbanded after turning up no evidence of substantial irregularities.)

He now spins out a false narrative that suggests only cheating can cost him reelection. “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!” Trump tweeted in April. He claims, again without evidence, that cheating is inevitable with mail-in voting. On Wednesday, the president tweeted: “Rigged Election!”

Some critics suggest that the president is merely trying to make excuses for a defeat that seems increasingly likely, or that he is trying to build a case in hopes that he can somehow force the election outcome into federal courts, where he may have the upper hand.

But Ginsberg, the veteran GOP lawyer, cautioned Republicans to steer away from a vote-stifling crusade.

“Otherwise, they risk harming the fundamental principle of our democracy: that all eligible voters must be allowed to cast their ballots,” he wrote. “If that happens, Americans will deservedly render the GOP a minority party for a long, long time.”

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

Posted on

Evo Morales’ party wins Bolivian election, but does he fit?

As three-term Bolivian President Evo Morales’ political party sought to return to power a year after his resignation, the exiled ex-leader had vowed to return home the “next day” if it won last Sunday’s national election.

Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, known as MAS, earned a landslide electoral victory, propelling Morales’ former economic minister, Luis Arce, into the presidency without the need for a runoff vote.

But Morales — still the formal leader of the MAS — has yet to set out on his homecoming, and the new government is grappling with how to handle the prospective return of the iconic 60-year-old, who is beloved by many Bolivians but loathed by others. If, or when, he does return, Morales faces sundry criminal charges, including allegations of terrorism stemming from electoral fraud in last year’s balloting — charges he denies.

Morales, who views himself as the ideological heir of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, the now-deceased former leftist leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, has long been a vociferous critic of U.S. “imperialism” in Latin America. When he resigned amid the disputed election, he called his departure, under pressure from the Bolivian military, the result of a U.S.-backed, right-wing coup.

The Trump administration celebrated it as a victory for democracy.

But on Wednesday, ., U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo joined with leftist governments in Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba in sending congratulations to Arce. Pompeo also declared that Washington “looks forward to working with the new, democratically elected government.”

Bolivian electoral officials released final results on Friday showing that Arce, now officially the president-elect, had garnered more than 55% of the vote. Key to his support was backing from the country’s poor, working-class and indigenous masses, long the base of MAS.

The majority margin avoided a runoff in which Arce would have faced a united opposition under the banner of former President Carlos Mesa, who finished second with about 29% of the vote. MAS candidates also appeared headed for a majority in the Legislative Assembly.

To date, President-elect Arce has tried to sidestep questions about Morales’ possible return, pointedly, if uncomfortably, distancing himself from his long-time mentor. Few here can envision Morales being anything but the top guy.

“If Evo Morales wants to help us, he will be very welcome,” Arce told the BBC. “But that does not mean that Morales will be in the government. … I am not Evo Morales.”

Moreover, officials have so far insisted that Morales will have to fight the pending criminal charges— including allegations that he sexually molested a minor female while in office, an accusation that Morales’ spokespeople have dismissed as part of a “dirty war” against him.

“Our brother Evo will be in charge of cleaning up his image from all the defamation he has faced,” Sen. Monica Eva Copa, who leads the MAS contingent in the Senate, told reporters.

The comments appear to reflect an effort to distance MAS from Morales, a one-time leader of the union representing growers of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine. Morales was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005 and remains a legend of the international left. But his legacy here is more mixed. Even many of his defenders were alienated by corruption scandals during his administration and what they perceived as his apparent determination to be president-for-life.

In the past year, MAS has presented itself as a reformed body distinct from Morales. In fact, observers say the party was long more heterogeneous than the Morales-dominated monolith depicted by its foes. A generation of grass-roots activists helped propel MAS to victory this year in both rural and urban areas.

Sunday’s election results “demonstrate that the changes of the Movement Toward Socialism have had good results, with new leaders from different perspectives,” said Sergio Choque, president of the MAS delegation in the lower house of the legislature.

Arce, 57, faces a plethora of daunting challenges — chief among them restoring trust in a deeply polarized nation of 11 million and rebuilding an economy ravaged by depressed commodity prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.

He and his allies have vowed to rule in a spirit of national unity, even as right-wing protests against the electoral results flared this week in the eastern region of Santa Cruz, a bastion of opposition to MAS. Representatives of the country’s newly elected leadership have reached out to middle-class and other Bolivians long alienated by Morales.

“We will govern without hatred or resentment,” vowed Sebastián Michel, MAS spokesman. “The first thing to do is heal the economy to recover from the crisis.”

For the newly re-empowered MAS, Morales may now represent more of a liability than an asset. Arce, a British-educated banker, is a low-key technocrat whose style is distinct from Morales’ polemical bravura — though Arce has said that Bolivia plans to resume diplomatic ties with Venezuela and Cuba.

During the heated electoral campaign, opposition parties of the right endeavored to make the voting a referendum on Morales, denouncing Arce as a puppet.

“If we are not united, Morales will return,” warned Jeanine Añez, Bolivia’s interim president and an archrival of Morales.

Arce and MAS, in contrast, de-emphasized Morales and cast their campaign as a prelude to the resumption of democratic rule following almost a year of repressive, right-wing leadership under Añez. MAS accused her government of violently stifling the opposition and the press, and it also emphasized the economy during the campaign.

Arce promised a return to the good times that had characterized much of Morales’ almost 14 years in power, a period during which high commodity prices and government largesse helped lift multitudes from poverty in what has long been one of Latin America’s poorest and most politically volatile nations. As Morales’ economic wingman, Arce presided over the era of progress. Whether he can duplicate that amid contracted growth, high unemployment and slumping commodity prices remains a question mark.

Morales sought his fourth consecutive presidential mandate last year despite a 2016 plebiscite imposing term limits. Morales went to court in a successful effort to allow him to run, and he was leading in the count in 2019 when the process deteriorated into mass protests, violence and allegations of fraud. He said he was leaving the country at the demand of the military, the victim of a coup, a charge echoed by supporters worldwide. Others criticized Morales for insisting on running again.

“Evo could have not run last year and left office a hero,” said Jim Shultz, a long-time observer of Bolivia and head of the Democracy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Morales initially fled to Mexico, where he thanked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for having “saved my life,” before moving on to Buenos Aires. Argentina’s left-wing leadership granted him political asylum.

President-elect Arce is scheduled to be sworn in next month for a five-year term. Global leaders are expected to be on hand. But many wonder: Will Evo Morales, the one-time llama-herder and trumpet-player in an itinerant band who revolutionized Bolivian politics, be among the dignitaries in attendance?

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Padilla from La Paz.

Posted on

Review: Final Trump-Biden debate, a study in exasperation

Melania wore a mask. Donald (mostly) followed the rules. Joe spoke uninterrupted.

The second and final debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden was an orderly affair compared to the last time the men shared a stage to argue their case for the presidency.

The relative calm was in itself a surprise since Thursday’s showdown was poised to be a real humdinger, as Biden might say. The taunts and bullying started well before the president and the former vice president met Thursday in Nashville for a live telecast that lasted 90 minutes.

Trump used every opportunity possible — his “super-spreader” rallies, Fox News, social media — to discredit and debase his “extraordinarily unfair,” “no good” and “radical left Democrat” opponent. And he wasn’t referring to Biden.

The target of his attacks, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, may as well have been wielding Wonder Woman’s protective shield when she finally faced off with her tormentor. The seasoned Washington reporter appeared unscathed by his attacks. A picture of composure and professionalism, she clearly had no intention of being anyone’s scapegoat and Trump got the message.

Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC mostly kept the debate on track.

(NBC News)

It was a drastic change of tone for the president who during the first debate bellowed over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace for 90 ear-bending minutes. This time around he’d perhaps been chastened by the scathing reviews of his performance or the poor ratings and poll numbers that followed.

The comparative order meant Biden was finally free to talk policy and character, while Trump delivered the usual whoppers — we’ve been rounding the corner on COVID-19 for so long we’re going in circles — and at least one head-scratcher to most viewers when he accused Biden of growing rich off “pillows and sheets.” (It was a sideway accusation that the Obama administration didn’t send Ukraine lethal weapons.)

But for those of us who’d hoped to witness the almighty power of a new onstage referee, The Mute Button, the regulated proceedings were a bit of a letdown. We’d been primed to expect something tantamount to a cone of silence, or the sonic equivalent of a trapdoor, when Trump shouted over the other folks on stage.

The silencing measure was implemented by the Commission on Presidential Debates after the last disastrous show, but it was rarely used during the six segments discussed on the Belmont University debate stage.

Each candidate was allotted two minutes of uninterrupted time at the beginning of each 15-minute segment. After they answered, both microphones were open for a two-way discussion, or a 30-second follow-up.

Trump did interrupt, but rather than flip the switch, Welker cut through the noise as best she could.

“We are going to move on.”

“Let me move on.”

“We have to move on.”

Her efforts were for the most part effective against a toned-down Trump. One can only imagine how infuriated Wallace must have been watching her steer the sort of debate he never had a chance to moderate.

In television terms, it was less of a show and more of a political event, which again was unexpected given the erratic behavior of the president earlier in the day. He’d posted his own raw footage of a “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl that is scheduled to air Sunday. He wrote: “Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse!”

Welker was likely worse for Trump than Wallace. She opened up the space for Biden to go after the president on his tax returns — “What are you hiding?” he asked — and for his immigration policies that caused children to be separated from their parents at the border. It was recently reported that more than 500 kids are still in custody and authorities have lost track of where their parents are.

Trump may have fared better than during the last debate, but then again, the bar is pretty low. Biden also outperformed himself, but at times appeared exasperated by the whole charade of a lifelong public servant debating a showman. When Trump proclaimed no one had done more for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln than him, Biden dropped his head, shaking it side to side, and muttered, “Oh God.”

When both men were asked about the realities of the coronavirus, their answers were the most telling of the night. Trump said, “We’re learning to live with it.”

“Learning to live with it? Come on,” Biden responded. “We’re dying with it.”

Posted on

War over Nagorno-Karabakh defines both Armenia, Azerbaijan

The “line of contact” separating Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers threads a meandering 120-mile-long path between the military trenches scarring the plains of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The boundary marks the two sides of a war that has solidified grievances as uncompromising and storied as the trenches themselves, whose gun emplacements, mines and rust-crusted barbed wire make up one of the world’s most militarized zones.

That zone has been drenched with yet another vicious bout of bloodletting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the most violent since the conflict over this disputed mountainous territory — which is ruled by ethnic Armenians but considered part of Azerbaijan under international law — faltered into an uneasy cease-fire in 1994.

In the last three weeks, despite repeated Russian-brokered attempts to stop the violence, dozens of civilians and hundreds of soldiers have been added to the growing roster of the dead in a clash whose tragedies suffuse daily life.

Armenian soldiers transport the caskets of Kristapor Artin and Suren Vanyan to their burial sites at the Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Family, friends and community members gather to mourn the loss of Kristapor Artin and Suren Vanyan.

Family, friends and community members gather to mourn the loss of Kristapor Artin and Suren Vanyan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s become a total war in a way that it wasn’t before,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on Nagorno-Karabakh who has written a book on the conflict.

“Both sides have been locked in this impossible struggle where Karabakh is essential to the nation-building project of both countries, so neither side can afford to lose it.”

Whether here on the front line, in the towns and villages of Nagorno-Karabakh or in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the on-off war is an inescapable reality, spurring a community-wide mobilization that defines both nations.

For Azerbaijanis, said Javid Aga, an expatriate writer based in Turkey, the war has become “an endpoint of the formation of the Azerbaijani identity” — a way to erase the enduring shame of the country’s loss of control of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“To this day they thought their pride was stolen,” Aga said, “and now, by regaining those territories, they feel they will get it back and shake this image of themselves as a losing nation.”

Armenians view the conflict as an existential one, about their survival as a people, not just as a nation-state, after generations of persecution and pogroms. The feeling ripples out far beyond Armenia’s borders, inspiring members of the diaspora, from Los Angeles to Beirut, to join the war effort here.

That can have grievous results, which came sharply into focus one unseasonably warm afternoon this month when a crowd of about 1,000 people massed in somber, sweaty discomfort in the Yerablur military memorial cemetery. It lies on a hilltop on the outskirts of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, more than 130 miles away from the front lines — a picturesque burial ground for soldiers killed in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh.

Soldiers spend time together during a coffee break at an outpost outside of Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Soldiers take a coffee break at an outpost outside Martakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory controlled by Armenia-backed forces but internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Soldiers guard an outpost against attack from Azerbaijan outside of Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Soldiers guard an outpost outside Martakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh, against attack by Azerbaijan’s forces.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In its central courtyard, a military guard in full regalia stood at attention before a 20-member military brass band. They were there for the funeral of Kristapor Artin, a 48-year-old business owner and chinchilla breeder who had moved from Toronto to Armenia in 2011. He had joined a regiment of volunteers organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist party that has brought far-flung members of the Armenian diaspora to Nagorno-Karabakh to fight.

Artin was killed in early October on the northern section of the line of contact.

“He was one of the first people to teach me about Artsakh and the ongoing struggle for Armenian rights,” said Rupen Janbazian, a Toronto-based editor at h-pem, an online Armenian platform, who met Artin in Toronto and plans to move to Armenia with his partner later this year. Janbazian has lost two friends in the recent violence, including Artin.

“They weren’t full-time soldiers — this wasn’t their jobs. They volunteered because they felt their compatriots were facing an existential threat,” Janbazian said.

Soldiers show off religious decorations on their rifles.

Soldiers show off religious decorations on their rifles they say are to guard against attack from Azerbaijan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Near Artin’s grave, another group gathered to bury Suren Vanyan, who had also recently been killed on the front line.

“Suro, why did you leave us so soon? Why was this your fate?” cried his mother, wailing his nickname over and over. When the band began to play a funeral dirge, her voice crescendoed to a fever pitch with the swelling of the music as white-gloved soldiers picked up her son’s coffin. It was the cue for most of the men to filter away to the burial area, leaving behind a clutch of women to comfort Vanyan’s mother.

As the coffin was lowered into a gash of freshly dug earth, the crowd began to sing an all-too-common anthem here:

“Tell my beloved I do not sleep peacefully in the fight.… Let the blood I lost become an example for the Armenian soldier.”

Armenians root their claim to Nagorno-Karabakh in demographics, saying they’ve constituted a majority in the area for centuries. Although ethnic Armenians once lived peacefully with their Azeri neighbors during the Soviet era, a move by those living in the territory toward independence and unification with Armenia in 1988 erupted into all-out war.

Six years later, after expulsions and massacres committed on both sides, Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the mostly Azeri-populated provinces surrounding it, became Armenian-controlled territory, and the line of contact, establishing a supposedly neutral zone, was drawn. The conflict gave rise to more than a million refugees, most of them Azeris, while rendering the area a yin-and-yang of enclaves and exclaves that have locked the two peoples in an unwanted embrace since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Family, friends and community members mourn around the casket of Kristapor Artin.

Family, friends and community members mourn around the casket of Kristapor Artin, a Toronto man and volunteer fighter killed in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Dirt is scattered onto the casket of Kristapor Artin.

Dirt is scattered onto the casket of Kristapor Artin.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Suleyman Hajizade’s family was forced to abandon its home in the town of Shusha (Armenians call it Shushi) during the war in the ‘90s and settled in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. He and his family are part of the roughly 10% of Azerbaijan’s population displaced from what is now Armenian-controlled territory.

“The loss of Shusha and Nagorno-Karabakh … every day we feel it — in our every conversation, in every family gathering,” said Hajizade, 25. “We suffered from that loss for many years, and many of our relatives, including my father and grandfather, died with the dream of returning in their hearts.”

Hajizade and his family staunchly support the current military campaign.

“Until these days, my family thought they would never be able to return home, see the lands where they grew up. But now we observe the liberation of some occupied territories and it gives us hope,” he said.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling
from the Los Angeles Times.

“War is not a good thing, but we saw in 28 years that peace can’t be reached, and our violated rights and hopes and dreams will only be restored or achieved in this way.”

The same land exerts an equally talismanic hold on Tom Sarkisian, an 18-year-old Armenian on the front line who, like Hajizade, was not even born when the 1994 truce was called. Sarkisian is a few months into his two years of mandatory military service.

“It’s hard to be here. But these are our brothers, and this is our soil,” he said.

Keeping hold of it has come at a grim cost. Armenian officials on Tuesday put the death toll at 773 servicemen and 30 civilians.

A man stares at an empty grave awaiting a casket at Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery.

A man stares at an empty grave awaiting a casket at Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Azerbaijan does not disclose military losses, but officials there said Wednesday that 63 civilians had been killed since hostilities began in September, with a further 292 wounded. Armenian artillery has targeted major Azerbaijani population centers, including Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city.

Despite those losses, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a televised address to the country Tuesday that he had no intention of stopping the hostilities.

“The victorious Azerbaijani army is gaining new victories on the battlefield,” he said. “We are fighting on our own land, defending our own land, and we will continue to drive the invaders out of our lands.”

Azerbaijan’s fleet of high-tech drones — it has spent billions on arms from Israel and Turkey — have made quick work of Armenia’s Soviet-era defense systems, even as Armenia has dispatched soldiers, reservists and volunteers to hold the line.

One such reservist was Arman Gevorkyan, 41, from the lakeside town of Sevan in Armenia, who had been stationed at the Mataghis front line but was now at a base in the town of Martakert. It had been 20 years since Gevorkyan last held a Kalashnikov, but he spoke with the earnestness of the priest he was and the rhetoric befitting the fighter he hoped to be.

“I have the Bible in one hand and the gun in the other,” he said, adding that his position near the front line had been subjected to a merciless barrage of shells.

“But all of us were safe, and the people in my position said it was because of me,” he said, “because there was a servant of God there.”

Near him, young conscripts kept an eye on the sky for drones as they lounged around a sign informing them that, just like bullets, smoking kills. Almost all smoked.

“We’re waiting. We don’t know why,” said Arsen Mosherghyan, a pasty-faced 18-year-old recruit. It was his first time in Nagorno-Karabakh, he said.

“It’s boring. But not when the shells are falling.”

Pictures of soldiers in scenes of battle smiling at the camera plays on a video screen at Tashir shopping gallery.

Pictures of soldiers smiling triumphantly at the camera play in a loop on a video screen at Tashir shopping gallery in Yerevan, Armenia.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

There was little of that ennui in Rafael Vermichian, a 61-year-old volunteer sitting in the World War I-like confines of a trench on the line of contact.

“I’ll stay here as long as the war continues,” he said, adding that he had three grandchildren waiting for him in Yerevan, where he worked as a van driver.

“The only goal for us all is victory, so our children won’t have to come here and continue this war again.”