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What the World Wants from Barack Obama 2009 (Part I)
The Washington Diplomat / February 2009

By Larry Luxner

Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph first set foot on U.S. soil in 1954 — the same year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark, unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring school segregation illegal.

“I arrived in Key West, Fla., and got on a bus bound for Chicago. I wanted to experience desegregation personally, so I sat up front,” Joseph recalled. “My black brothers and sisters stared at me, but no one said anything. Finally the driver told me, ‘To the back!’

“I looked at him stupidly, raised my eyes, said, ‘Me no speak English,’ and pulled out my Haitian passport. The bus driver said in a loud voice to everybody: ‘This is a damn foreigner. We better not mess around with him because you never know what will happen in Washington with this Supreme Court business.”

More than 50 years after that distant memory, Sen. Barack Obama, a 47-year-old lawyer from Chicago born to a white mother and a black father, has been inaugurated president of the United States — and Haiti’s top diplomat here couldn’t be happier.

“Now the black brother who was sitting in the back has moved to the front and is not only driving the bus, but owns the company,” said Joseph, who recently celebrated his 78th birthday. “I feel this is a sort of poetic justice, that I have lived long enough to see such a thing happen in America.”

Not many other ambassadors in Washington feel such a strong, personal connection to Obama. But it’s clear that they, and the 170-plus countries they speak for, have extremely high expectations for the 44th president — perhaps even higher than the millions of Americans who voted for him.

In compiling this report, The Washington Diplomatspoke to more than two dozen ambassadors and experts representing every major region of the world. Here, we present their views (in no particular order) on the Obama administration and what their countries would like to see from the United States:

NORTH AMERICA

Nobody knows the United States better than the two nations that border it: Canada and Mexico. Together, the three allies form the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trading bloc that represents 26 percent of the world’s economy (compared to the European Union, which accounts for 22 percent of world gross domestic product).

Between 1993 and 2007, trade among the three NAFTA nations more than tripled, from $297 billion to $930 billion, according to the U.S. Trade Representative. Each day, NAFTA countries conduct more than $2.5 billion in trilateral trade, with Canada and Mexico now ranking as America’s two largest export markets. In 2007, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico alone accounted for 35 percent of all American exports.

In fact, the United States imports more oil from Canada than from any other country, even Saudi Arabia. Despite the trade, there is a vague fear that Obama wants to dismantle NAFTA — a trilateral accord most Canadians are quite happy with.

“Canadians were spooked during the Obama-Clinton debates, when the candidates tried to outdo each other in describing how each was going to take apart NAFTA,” said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Most Americans dismissed that as primary rhetoric, but Canadians think Obama really wants to take NAFTA apart. A lot of his discourse toward free trade has been less than friendly, so they remain concerned.”

But Biette believes that concern is unwarranted. “Canadians don’t know enough about the U.S. political system, even people who are higher up,” he said. “It’s not like the president can just undo NAFTA on a whim. You’ve got to get Congress involved.”

Although the tough talk on NAFTA may be just talk, political relations between Washington and Ottawa could definitely be better — and they very well may improve with Obama in office.

“Canada expects sort of a clean slate for the renewal of bilateral relations and the forging of deeper ties with the United States,” Biette said. “In the 1980s, President Reagan and Prime Minister [Brian] Mulroney had a good relationship, and now’s the time for [Stephen] Harper to have a good relationship with Obama,” he said, “because the people we’ve had in the past haven’t gotten on as well as they could have.”

Biette said it isn’t that Harper — also a conservative — didn’t get along with Bush, “but that it was politically difficult for Harper to be close to Bush because Bush was toxic in Canada.”

Major issues confronting the two allies concern energy, trade and global warming. But these days, the financial disaster is overshadowing everything — particularly the auto industry, which is concentrated in the Great Lakes region, with factories on both sides of the border. “It’s essentially a North American industry,” Biette said. “We share the same economic space, so there’s bound to be blowback in Canada.”

America’s neighbor to the south, Mexico, is also keeping an eye on the struggling U.S. economy, although its main concerns relate to immigration, remittances and drug trafficking.

On all these fronts, Mexico has high expectations for the new president, as well as his pick for Homeland Security secretary, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who stresses a practical approach toward immigration reform that has won her praise from governors and national lawmakers.

During his campaign, Obama specifically promised to repair U.S. relations with Mexico, which he said “have not fully recovered ever since Mexico refused to fall in line with President Bush’s rush to war” in Iraq.

In an opinion piece published earlier this year in the Dallas Morning News, Obama promised that if elected, he would increase technology and real-time intelligence sharing to allow U.S. and Mexican authorities to track and dismantle drug trafficking cartels; invest in anti-drug education on both sides of the border; make a concerted effort to disrupt arms smuggling and money laundering from the U.S. side that supplies Mexican drug cartels with weapons and funds; and partner with Mexico to enhance the professionalism of its law enforcement and judiciary officials.

“Starting my first year in office, I will convene annual meetings with [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón and the prime minister of Canada,” Obama pledged.

And on Jan. 12, Obama did just that, meeting met with Calderón to discuss immigration reform and other cross-border issues. Frank Sharry, executive director of the America’s Voice immigration reform campaign, said the new president “clearly understands that a close, working relationship with Mexico” is a foreign policy imperative.

“The best way to reduce migration pressures is to bolster job creation and the economic base of Mexico while legalizing the undocumented population in the United States,” argues Sharry, whose group opposes calls for mass deportation and the building of expensive barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border. “Today’s meeting is yet another signal that immigration reform is a priority for the incoming administration. Not only did [Obama] make a campaign promise to move comprehensive reform in his first year, but immigration was one of seven issue working groups established during the transition period. Similarly, the Senate has placed immigration reform on its list of 10 legislative priorities.”

LATIN AMERICA

U.S. relations with Latin America, currently at an all-time low, have nowhere to go but up with the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, although the area of free trade may be a notable exception.

In late 2008, both Venezuela and Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassadors to those countries as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued to heap verbal abuse on Bush and the United States in general. Washington has also seen its historic influence in the region decline substantially, with inroads by new economic powers such as Russia, China and even Iran.

In late November, Russian warships arrived in Venezuela for a series of military exercises, marking Moscow’s first show of naval force in the region since the Cold War.

At the same time, the regional powerhouse, Brazil, remains deeply suspicious of Obama’s views on free trade. The president supports taxing Brazil’s sugarcane-derived ethanol, which is more competitive than U.S. corn-based biofuels, and Obama has been openly critical of pending free trade deals with countries such as Colombia and Panama — a position that will probably be hardened by the current economic crisis.

Furthermore, chances that negotiations over President Bush’s long-cherished dream of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) will be resumed are minimal, because few South American countries seem to be interested in that process. The Mercosur trade bloc, led by Brazil and Argentina, has proven to be far more popular and effective — yet another sign of Washington’s diminishing influence throughout the region.

“With all due respect, I think it’s a mistake not to grant Colombia the opportunity of having a free trade agreement because I believe it can be a tool for peace and prosperity in Colombia,” said René León, El Salvador’s veteran ambassador in Washington. “Not to have Congress pass the Colombia and Panama FTAs would be a big mistake, both from a foreign policy and a security point of view.”

León was interviewed by phone from San Salvador, where he’s campaigning for presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila of the rightist ARENA party. The ambassador said he’s worried that political gains by Venezuela’s Chávez will reverberate throughout Latin America — particularly the populist leader’s plans to hold a referendum in February 2009.

If passed, the referendum would change the constitution to allow Chávez to seek re-election indefinitely; he’s already said he’d like to remain president until 2021.

Observers expect that soon after Obama takes office, Bolivia and Venezuela will re-appoint ambassadors to represent them in Washington, while new U.S. envoys will be sent to La Paz and Caracas to start anew after a diplomatic row last fall ,(see “Diplomatic Tit-for-Tat Imperils U.S. Influence in Latin World” in the October 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Nevertheless, Odeen Ishmael, Guyana’s envoy to Venezuela, says Obama will undoubtedly encounter “difficult policy challenges in South America, where large sections of the population have embraced the political left.”

“U.S. influence has seemingly diminished on this continent, where democratic changes, propelled by the active participation of workers, peasants, women and indigenous communities, have brought into power leaders who champion social justice and reform,” according to Ishmael, who served as Guyana’s ambassador in Washington for 10 years before moving on to Caracas.

He noted that Chávez has been actively promoting his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas throughout the region. The leftist grouping, known as ALBA in Spanish, calls itself Latin America’s answer to free trade and neo-liberalism. Established in 2004, it now includes Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and the Caribbean island of Dominica.

But at least the United States and Latin America can agree on one thing: Their most serious common problem is that of drug trafficking. Yet many countries complain the Bush administration hadn’t done enough to help them contain, if not eliminate, this scourge.

“Perhaps a change may be coming,” said Ishmael. “The president-elect has already declared that he will commit the U.S. government to increasing security measures in the region. Noting that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world, he stated recently that the attorney general and secretary of homeland security will meet their Caribbean and Latin counterparts in the first year of his presidency to produce a regional strategy to combat drug trafficking, domestic and transnational gang activity, and organized crime.”

Transnational gang activity is especially a problem in El Salvador, where the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has strong ties. To that effect, León said he expects the Obama administration “to work even more closely with the Central American countries, particularly El Salvador, in security-related matters. This means fighting common crime, gangs, drug trafficking and terrorist threats from a regional perspective.”

Jaime Daremblum, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, says it’s important for Obama to capitalize on the unprecedented enthusiasm he’s generated throughout the region, where Bush has been deeply unpopular for years.

“The incoming administration can do very positive things for Latin America,” said Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States. “The first is to support initiatives in countries that have been successful in strengthening democracy, education, transparency in elections and the rule of law. The other area is free trade — which is key for many of our countries because that’s the only way of offering real opportunities to a more educated population.”

Daremblum disagrees with those who say Washington’s concept of a hemisphere-wide FTAA is dead.

“Quite the contrary,” he said. “All this financial turmoil in the world has opened up the eyes of Latin America that they need export markets, and they need to increase mechanisms to access those markets. The protective little niches of Mercosur here and ALBA there are not going to work. That’s why we need to look toward an FTAA.”

CARIBBEAN

From the Cayman Islands to Curaçao, people throughout the Caribbean are unabashedly excited about the prospect of an African-American man in the White House — and nowhere in the region are regular folks more pro-Obama than the Dominican Republic.

That’s according to Flavio Espinal, who was scheduled to step down as Dominican ambassador on Jan. 31. But the warm feelings don’t necessarily mean it’ll be smooth sailing for U.S.-Caribbean relations.

“On the economic front, we expect that the United States will not start a protectionist era and that the approach to deepening free trade and engagement will continue,” Espinal told The Diplomat, echoing the sentiment of many Latin American envoys. “In that context, for us it’s very important that the new administration deal with the issue of farm subsidies.”

Specifically, Espinal said the United States must eliminate subsidies on ethanol “so that different countries in our region can benefit from the market in this new form of energy.”

Another crucial issue for the Caribbean is security, particularly the war on drugs. “The island of Hispaniola, which we share with Haiti, is vulnerable to drug trafficking coming from South America,” the ambassador said. “Haiti is a very weak country, and when you have weak states, they’re even more vulnerable to criminal activity. We’ve managed to get the Dominican Republic and Haiti into the Mérida Initiative and some funds have been allocated for that, but we need more help,” he said, referring to the U.S. multimillion-dollar security cooperation proposal passed in mid 2008.

Joseph, the Haitian ambassador, said his delight at seeing Obama win the White House is magnified by the president’s sympathetic feelings for Haiti — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This summer, the Caribbean nation was hammered by three powerful hurricanes that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless.

“You should know that in 2004, Obama chose Kwame Raoul — the son of a Haitian doctor — to finish his term in the Illinois [State] Senate. Then Kwame ran in his own right and won the seat,” Joseph said. “Secondly, Obama has appointed a Haitian, Patrick Gaspard, as political director of the White House. So at least we can now say that Haitian-Americans have the ear of the president.”

Expectations are also running high in another Caribbean country that has very different relations with the United States — Cuba — especially now that Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, is in charge and has made tentative gestures to the United States.

On Jan. 1, only three weeks before Obama’s inauguration, Cuba marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution that swept Fidel into power in 1959. After Castro declared himself a communist, President John F. Kennedy responded by attempting to overthrow him in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. When that didn’t work, JFK enacted a punishing trade embargo against the Castro regime that continues to this day.

Under the Bush administration, restrictions against U.S. travel and remittance payments to the island have been severely tightened, even though recent polls suggest that the vast majority of Americans — and even most Cuban-American exiles — now think the embargo is a failed policy that should be scrapped as soon as possible.

Mavis Anderson, senior associate at the Washington-based Latin America Working Group, is part of a coalition of grassroots associations focused on one goal: allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba.

“What we’re hoping for is a Congress that is open to taking action to end the travel ban, and a White House that is willing to go further than it has indicated,” she said. Nearly every country on Earth opposes the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In October, the U.N. General Assembly voted 185-3 to condemn the policy; only Israel and the Pacific microstate of Palau sided with Washington on this one.

EUROPE

The United States and the 27-member European Union are the world’s two most important economic powers — and relations between these heavyweights are actually better than most people realize, despite past differences over global warming and the war in Iraq.

“In the last two or three years, our relations have improved remarkably, but my expectation is that the new administration will take our relations to an even higher level,” said German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth.

With 82 million people, Germany is Europe’s most populous country. Its GDP of around $2.7 trillion is also Europe’s largest, but experts now predict the German economy will contract by at least 2 percent in 2009 due to the effects of the global financial crisis. John Bruton, the EU’s ambassador to the United States, said there’s no doubt the worldwide economic slowdown is the most pressing issue confronting Washington and Brussels.

“President Obama inherits a relationship that’s currently in pretty good shape but, like all relationships, will need to have its needs met,” he said. “Europeans will have to understand that his first priority will be to deal with the huge economic and financial crisis facing his country but also health care, education and energy. Europeans have been greatly heartened by his pledge to reach out to allies, and expect this to be reflected in his approach to climate change and the Middle East.”

Bruton, a former Irish prime minister who helped transform Ireland into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, said “the most pressing issue facing all of us” is how to address the gridlock in the global banking system and the associated economic downturn.

“On this, Europe expects the United States to join in designing a new regulatory system, and ensuring that the assets of the banking system are valued transparently at the earliest time. Only on that basis will credit start flowing again,” he explained.

“While trust is being restored, economic stimulus should be applied where it creates capacity for sustainable future growth,” he added. “Government spending on both sides of the Atlantic must leverage the maximum amount of further private spending, but it must not be used to prop up production or consumption patterns that are unsustainable in the long term. Nor should it be used for subsidies that create barriers to trade. A stimulus will only create confidence if it is sustainable in financial and environmental terms.”

Bruton insists that the new Obama administration must lead the drive for open trade and investment, despite the temptations of going protectionist in the face of the latest dire economic projections.

A new World Bank study said international trade will fall in 2009 for the first time since 1982. The study, released Dec. 9, predicts trade will contract by 2.1 percent this year after growing by 6.2 percent in 2008. The global economy, meanwhile, will grow only 0.9 percent this year, down from 2.5 percent in 2008 and 4 percent in 2006.

Germany’s Deutsche Bank was even more pessimistic, forecasting global growth would drop to 0.2 percent in 2009. In addition, spreads on credit default swaps — one way of telling whether a country’s government is in danger of defaulting — point to potential problems for Ireland, Italy and Greece.

“In our highly interdependent global economy, protectionism by one country could bring down the whole [World Trade Organization]-based global trading system,” warned Bruton. “Protectionist measures that introduce one-sided restrictions on trade in the name of security would be equally dangerous. So also are restrictions on exports. The WTO’s rule-based system to deal with these threats must be strengthened.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also warned against the dangers of protectionism. “Ultimately, our task is to ensure that the virtuous cycle goes on and its benefits extend as broadly as possible — most especially to those who have so far missed out,” he said. “More trade, not less, will get us out of the hole we’re in.”

Besides the worldwide recession, other issues on the Washington-Brussels agenda include climate change and joint efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With only one year until the big U.N. Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009, the United States and the EU don’t have much time to reach a global agreement on climate change (see “Optimism, Debate Heat Up Over Obama’s Commitment to Fight Global Warming” in December 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“I’m confident that the U.S. and Europe will be able to convince the rest of the world that we need a post-Kyoto agreement,” Scharioth told The Diplomat. Some Europeans remain concerned though that the United States might defer domestic climate change legislation until 2010, which will be another election year. If that happens, it’s possible neither the United States nor Europe would be able to conclude an agreement that places tight limits on carbon emissions from China and India — the main reason cited by the Bush administration for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol.

“The whole world is watching how the United States and the new administration will deal with these climate change issues,” said the U.N.’s Ban. “I am very much encouraged by the very forthcoming and engaging positions of the Obama administration.”

On the equally thorny subject of Iran, the incoming Obama administration and major European powers both agree on a diplomatic course of action, though critics warn Iran wants to engage in diplomacy in an attempt to buy time as it builds up its nuclear weapons program. Nevertheless, optimists point out that Obama — and to a degree his incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — has signaled a willingness to engage Iran instead of refusing to talk to enemies, a tactic championed by his predecessor but criticized by many foreign policy experts.

To that end, a recent report on Middle East recommendations for the new administration by the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations suggested “a comprehensive diplomatic initiative to attempt to engage our most enduring Middle Eastern foe.” It also says this approach — criticized by John McCain during the campaign as naive — “should involve direct and unconditional talks with Iran.”

According to Bruton, “the European Union has already joined with the United States in putting pressure on Iran to abandon its present course, while recognizing that ways have to be found to meet Iran’s legitimate security concerns, integrate it into the global economy, and move toward a general reduction in nuclear weapons in South Asia.”

To address the broader issue of a nuclear race, the EU ambassador said both sides must revive the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to allow the development of nuclear power for civilian purposes without the risk of nuclear weapons spreading beyond countries that already have the bomb.

“The election of Barack Obama creates an unprecedented psychological opportunity to rally moderate forces to do this,” Bruton insisted. “It will require vigorous diplomatic leadership of the kind that a European Union, strengthened by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, could help provide in partnership with the United States.”

AFRICA

From genocide in Darfur and economic collapse in Zimbabwe to worsening strife in Congo and lawlessness in Somalia, Africa will remain a troubled continent in 2009, with more than its share of hotspots.

Yet given Obama’s unique family ties to the region — his father was from Kenya — hundreds of millions of Africans have pinned their hopes on the 44th president.

“We hope the new administration will build on the excellent relationship we had with the Bush administration,” said Wondimu Asamnew, political counselor at the Ethiopian Embassy. “We are encouraged that Obama’s foreign policy direction is engagement and cooperation. Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular, will benefit from this.”

Africa is one area though where Bush received widespread praise for his in his efforts to reduce poverty and disease, devoting an unprecedented level of U.S. development assistance to the continent — something many Africans hope will continue under Obama.

“We expect that the level of commitment we’ve seen during the Bush administration toward Africa will be maintained or even increased,” said Amina Salum Ali, the African Union’s ambassador in Washington. “I believe this is the right time for greater involvement by the U.S. because we are a big supplier of raw materials, and other players like China and Brazil are all scrambling for resources. So America will have to cooperate more closely with Africa.”

Ali’s AU mission represents 53 nations — virtually every independent African state except Morocco. The continent, by far the world’s poorest, is home to 34 of the world’s 50 most impoverished nations. In fact, most of sub-Saharan Africa falls in the World Bank’s lowest income category of less than $765 in annual per-capita gross national income; Burundi and Ethiopia are the worst off, with gross national income of only $90 a year.

That’s why the AU wants the United States to help Africa in the areas of electricity infrastructure, road construction, health care and poverty reduction.

Ali, a native of Tanzania, told The Diplomat that the United States, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council, must authorize more material support for the 21,000 joint African Union-U.N. peacekeeping troops in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

“We have already done a lot as Africans, but we need the international community to provide these troops with capacity,” she complained. “They’re like sitting ducks. They can’t really function. The Obama administration is part of the international community, and when you send troops to Africa, you must give them power.”

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people have died in Sudan’s five-year internal conflict between government-backed Arab Janjaweed militias and black African rebels and civilians. Last July, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes.

During his election campaign, Obama pledged to “make ending the genocide in Darfur a priority from day one” of his new administration. As such, the Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition says it applauds a report issued by the Genocide Prevention Task Force urging Obama to set aside $250 million to boost funding for foreign assistance programs based on humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, development and diplomacy.

“While Darfur has been this constituency’s primary focus during the past five years, it hasn’t been its only focus,” said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition. “And moving forward, this movement will demand presidential and congressional leadership to end the Darfur genocide and prevent the next Darfur from occurring.”

Civil strife also continues in such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and in war-torn Somalia, where piracy has recently drawn international attention. Earlier this year, Ethiopia began pulling out its 10,000 or so troops in Somalia that would be complete by year’s end. Ethiopia’s Asamnew explained that for the last three years, his country has been trying to help the Somalis put their own house in order.

“Unfortunately, domestic political factions are not ready to be helped. They don’t have the political will to solve their problems,” he said. “They are really parochial and short-sighted, and we invested a lot of diplomatic and financial capital to help the Somalis.”

He added that “there was an opportunity for the international community to assist Somalia immediately after Ethiopian forced intervened. But the community doesn’t do much to assist the Somalis in terms of sending peacekeepers.”

The international community, or African community for that matter, doesn’t seem to be doing much about Zimbabwe either.

J. Anthony Holmes — a veteran diplomat who spent 28 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and served at seven embassies in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East — says Obama can only watch as the once-prosperous country slides further and further into chaos under longtime dictator Robert Mugabe.

“I do think Obama is extremely concerned about what’s happening, but he’s got the entire world to deal with, not just Africa,” said Holmes, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. More important, he said, there’s no international consensus on what needs to be done.

On Dec. 9, the AU rejected tougher action against the Mugabe regime, amid suggestions by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that the International Criminal Court arrest Mugabe and put him on trial in The Hague.

“Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country,” claimed Salva Rweyemamu, spokesman for Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who serves as the AU chairman. Rweyemamu said sending peacekeeping troops or removing the 84-year-old Mugabe by force were not options.

Likewise, South Africa, which still views Mugabe as a hero of the liberation war from white minority rule, said it, too, will oppose any move to send troops to Zimbabwe.

“The Africans themselves just aren’t ready for action. They’re still urging negotiations,” according to Holmes. “They seem to be content with dithering, and that makes it extremely difficult for the United States and other Western countries to do much. In the meantime, Zimbabwe is suffering incredibly. The population is largely starving, there’s a pretty serious cholera outbreak that’s impossible for the government to control, and the Africans haven’t decided what to do about it.”

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