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Make Sense of the World: Weekly Report

Fair Observer's extended report of the week's events. [Note: Click here for the summary version.]

Weather patterns across the world are becoming increasingly erratic. After the floods in Brazil, comes the “polar vortex” in North America. Temperatures have dropped to -51°C, flights have been canceled and people have died as a result of the cold wave. This weather might just be a freak incident, but it is clear that the regularity and intensity of such incidents has been increasing. Climate change is getting ever more real.

North America

After 12 years of Michael Bloomberg, New York has sworn in Bill de Blasio as mayor. Elected to office with over 70% of the vote, de Blasio has promised to fight what he calls the “tale of two cities,” one affluent and the other struggling to get by. He proposes universal access to pre-kindergarten and middle school after-school programs to promote education and social mobility. This will be paid for by an income tax increase on the city’s highest earners. The era of Bloomberg, with its billionaire funding projects in the city out of his own pocket, is over. It remains to be seen if de Blasio can keep the streets safe, the infrastructure in shape and the economy dynamic whilst mitigating the inequality that led to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

Colorado, the fittest state in the United States, has allowed the recreational use of marijuana starting January 1 to anyone who is 21 or older, and decriminalized use of marijuana for those under 21. They will now be fined and not sent to jail if caught with less than an ounce.

Marijuana, or “pot,” is the third most popular recreational drug in the US. It is technically illegal but widely available. Enforcement costs billions of dollars. Colorado is charging a 25% state tax on pot along with the usual state sales tax of 2.9%. The revenue is expected to be $67 million per year, with $27.5 million designated as funding for schools. The state of Washington is following suit and New York is set to become the 21st state to allow the use of “medical marijuana.” This simply means that hospitals will be able to prescribe marijuana to patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.

This is a most positive development in the US. The War on Drugs is a Himalayan failure. Not only has it been expensive and ineffective, this war has wreaked havoc south of the border in countries like Mexico. Both Colorado and Washington will be models that other states will study closely in the coming years.

Two other trends in the US are most interesting because they capture the deep divide between conservatives and progressives.

First, gay marriage is now legal in an increasing number of states. A federal judge in Utah scrapped the state’s same-sex marriage ban that had been approved by 66% of its voters in 2004. The day before this ruling, New Mexico’s Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage. Judges have now legalized gay marriage in seven states. Voters or legislators have allowed it another 11 states, making the practice legal in 18 states that comprise 39% of the US population. 

Second, access to abortion is falling as more than half the states have brought in new restrictions that make the procedure increasingly difficult to obtain. In 2013, 22 states enacted abortion restrictions. In much of the world, including Latin America, the doctrinaire Christian opposition to abortion is being replaced by an emphasis on sex education and reproductive health. The fact that US states are still hung up on abortion demonstrates the unsavory hold of religion on public life, something that Washington DC decries in other parts of the world.

Latin America

While Uruguay has announced legalization of marijuana, Paraguay has announced record seizures. In 2013, authorities claimed that they seized 461 tons of marijuana and 3.3 tons of cocaine, up from 176 and 3.1 tons in 2012. Landlocked Paraguay is the biggest producer of cannabis, which is smuggled through Brazil. The US State Department has deemed it a “major drug transit country and money laundering center.” Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes has been accused of links with drug traffickers. In 2000, a small aircraft laden with cocaine and marijuana landed at one of his ranches. The announcement might be an attempt by Cartes to counter Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana. He might be fearing a downward pressure on the prices of narcotics, hurting the interests of Paraguayan cartels.

Gangs set fire to four buses and attacked a police station in the Brazilian state of Sao Luis. The attacks were suspected to be ordered by gang leaders in the notorious Pedrinhas jail. In 2013, 59 inmates died during gang wars inside the prison. A video of torture and beheadings in the jail created a scandal and the judge who wrote a report on Pedrinhas called it the “most barbarous scene” that he had ever witnessed.

Brazil has the world’s fourth largest prison population with 500,000 people occupying spaces designed for only 300,000. Prisons have few resources and are largely run by gangs. Torture, sexual abuse and murder are rife. At the heart of the issue is what Jose Eduardo Cardozo, Brazil's minister of justice, calls “a medieval prison system” that is part of a failed criminal justice system. Brazil has jailed those in high office for corruption for the first time. Now it needs a full-scale reform of its criminal justice system to control the violence that has become endemic to the country.

Two canals are in the news. One is the Panama Canal and the other is the proposed canal in Nicaragua. Under Theodore Roosevelt, the US put in prodigious effort to connect the two oceans in the previous century. Today, a Spanish consortium is working to expand the Panama Canal so that ships carrying 12,000 containers can pass through the locks. Currently, only ships carrying 5,000 containers can pass through. Even so, the Panama Canal carries 5% of the world trade. The Spanish consortium has just stopped work, claiming that Panama owes it $1.6 billion in added costs. Spain’s public works minister is in Panama to resolve the dispute.

This resolution assumes importance for Panama because a Chinese company is planning another canal through Nicaragua. The construction of this canal has been delayed by a year and will only begin in 2015. Feasibility studies will be carried out in the coming months before a route is chosen. Although the Nicaragua canal will be three times longer than the Panama Canal, the Chinese have a successful track record of grand infrastructure projects. The new canal will cause massive environmental damage. It will also provide competition to Panama and cause a huge lift to trade between Latin America and China.

Europe

From January 1, Romanians and Bulgarians can move to Britain, Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, and four other European Union (EU) countries for work. This is causing consternation in these nations and in Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands in particular. British tabloids are painting grim scenarios of a flood of immigrants sponging off state benefits. The truth is that such a mass movement of workers will not happen. Not one of the rich countries is in rude economic health, claiming benefits is not that easy, and employment is hard to come by even in Germany. Freedom of movement of goods, services, and people makes the EU an attractive proposition to those who fume against its bureaucracy, its penchant for arbitrary regulation, and its democratic deficit. The addition of Romanians and Bulgarians will make the EU a more dynamic economic zone with the addition of dynamic and hardworking new entrants into its labor force.

Talks to resolve long-standing issues in Northern Ireland broke down without any agreement. Backed by the British and Irish governments, Richard Haass, the suave US envoy, proposed a code of conduct for parades and an information commission to resolve historical grievances. The nationalists, including the hardline Sinn Fein, agreed, but the unionists did not. Both the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remained intransigent. The issue of national flags proved to be the toughest to resolve. Since the history of Northern Ireland is one of religious conflict, commemoration of past events can lead to conflagration. In 2013, the worst riots in years broke out and Haass has been trying to avoid a return to the bad old days of sectarian conflict and mindless violence. Although negotiations broke down, conflict is unlikely to flare up again. No one wants a return to violence and both the DUP and UUP will feel the pressure from their supporters to compromise.

After releasing prisoners such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin has eased curbs on protesters in the run-up to this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Putin is going all out to use the Olympics as an event to mark Russia’s return as a world power. He has wrested Ukraine back into Russia’s arc of influence, pushed through a free trade agreement with former Soviet countries, and is now pulling out all stops to produce a good show at Sochi.

Middle East & North Africa

As mentioned in the previous report, the Syrian Civil War is now engulfing Lebanon. Lebanese Shi'as support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while Sunnis support their battered brethren in Syria. A leader of the Salafist jihadist movement in Jordan made a major announcement on Thursday. He declared that the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have decided to enter Lebanon to fight Hezbollah, the well-trained Shi'a militia of Lebanon. Abu Mohammad al-Golani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leaders of the two Sunni organizations, want to be militarily present in Lebanon until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria. Lebanon’s ethnic rivalries have long been papered over by nominally democratic politics. Now, assassinations and bombings at increasing regularity seem to indicate that Lebanon is perilously close to a full-blown civil war. If conflict breaks out, the brutal 1975-1990 civil war might appear tame in comparison.

The Syrian tensions have also spread to Iraq. For a while, the Shi'a Iraqi government has been marginalizing the country’s Sunnis. In Anbar, the western province bordering Syria, ISIL fighters have taken over the town of Fallujah. ISIL aims to create an Islamic state across the Iraqi-Syrian borders and has been growing in strength over the past few months. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has urged residents and tribes to throw out the al-Qaeda-linked ISIL, but he has little credibility with the Sunni population. Maliki’s dogged pursuit of Sunni politicians and the use of the military for extra-judicial killings have removed any possibility of compromise. An Iraqi civil war will only escalate in the coming days.

In Syria, the civil war has become even more fractious. Some rebels fighting the Assad regime stormed ISIL headquarters. ISIL has been accused of abuses such as torture and public executions. The group is also reported to hold hundreds of prisoners. This makes the forthcoming Geneva peace talks more complicated because of the multitude of internecine conflicts that have now broken out in Syria. Unsurprisingly, US Secretary of State John Kerry is countenancing a role for Iran in the talks. He has put in a lot of “ifs” and “buts” in his statement, however, the fact of the matter is that peace anywhere in the Middle East is impossible without the active participation of Iran.

Yet again, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has given Kerry a sock in the eye. During Kerry’s tenth Middle East trip to revive the moribund peace process, Netanyahu has proved intransigent. Netanyahu keeps allowing settlements in West Bank while refusing to countenance the return of some Palestinian refugees who fled when Israel was created in 1948. Kerry is flogging a dead horse. Interlocutors do not exist on the Palestinian side, with Fatah discredited and Hamas marginalized. The latter has allowed Fatah back into Gaza for the first time after 2007, but Fatah has dismissed the Hamas gesture as “superficial” while the dispute between the two Palestinian factions continues.

Meanwhile, African migrants are protesting in Israel. On December 10, the Israeli parliament passed a law permitting authorities to detain immigrants without valid visas indefinitely. Africans claim they are refugees, while Israel deems them “infiltrators” who are seeking jobs. A new detention center has been built for Africans and an open prison already exists in the southern desert. Israel’s treatment of Africans involves beatings, looting and stabbings. A 2012 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an Israeli human rights organization, called the Israeli attitude towards Africans as “once of racism and xenophobia.”

Africa

In South Sudan, the warring factions have held direct talks. President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar are discussing a ceasefire and the release of political prisoners. At the same time, South Sudan and Sudan have been in talks to set up a joint force to protect vital oilfields. President Omar al-Bashir visited Juba to meet Kiir because Sudan does not want a disruption in oil flows that would weaken its struggling economy. Until not too long ago, South Sudan was part of Sudan and Kiir and al-Bashir did not see eye to eye. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Now, Kiir and al-Bashir have united against Machar. The conflict in South Sudan will abate because the outside world cares too much about its energy supplies. Both China and the US have called for an end to the conflict and are putting pressure on the parties to negotiate.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the conflict continues unabated. Over a million people, comprising a fifth of the population, have been displaced. As mentioned in the previous report, the Christian-Muslim aspect of the conflict is exacerbating tribal divisions and increasing brutality. The UN reports that more children are being targeted.

Conflict is also continuing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the man credited with the victory over the rebel M23 group, has been killed in an ambush. Attacks were carried out in capital Kinshasa by followers of a televangelist who opposes President Joseph Kabila. Further attacks on an airport in Maniema province and in the mining city of Lubumbashi, the capital of the resource rich Katanga province, have followed. Kabila’s hold on power is increasingly tenuous, and the planned decentralization is further expected to marginalize him.

Over 30 people have been killed and houses have been torched in a village in Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt. Here, the country’s majority Muslim north meets the predominantly Christian south. Land disputes are often the reason for violence. More than 10,000 people have died over the last two decades and the government has lacked both the capacity and the will to control the violence that takes place far away from economic centers and oilfields.

Senegal has seized a Russian ship for fishing illegally in its waters. West African states are striving to curb illegal fishing to protect depleting fish stocks. France is helping Senegal to tackle the problem. This new assertiveness will surprise many and cause tensions with Russia. It might help protect fish stocks on which coastal communities depend.

Central & South Asia

Gulnara Karimova, the once all-powerful daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, suffered further embarrassment when exiled Uzbek dissidents broke into her house and published images of gold, silver, jewelry, art and other valuables that decorate her $20 million villa overlooking Lake Geneva. Many items have purportedly been stolen from the Uzbek national museum and the incident highlights the entrenched corruption in Central Asia.

Recent developments in Afghanistan exceed the imagination of any film director. First, President Hamid Karzai released 88 prisoners from Parwan Detention Facility that is next to the Bagram Air Base. The US had only recently transferred the base to the Afghan government and opposed the release on the grounds that prisoners posed a serious threat to security. Second, Karzai went ahead with the release despite objections from the Obama administration and the warnings of US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Barrasso. They were visiting Kabul and met Karzai over lunch, painting a picture of future chaos as in Iraq to change his mind. Third, Dr. Muhammad Hashem Esmat Ilahi, the media advisor to Karzai, has called for a national uprising against the US in the same manner as the one against the erstwhile Soviet Union. These developments indicate that Karzai has given up on the US, and is trying to build bridges with the Taliban and shore up his Pashtun base.

Meanwhile, 2014 has begun with ferocious attacks by the Taliban in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. It is the year NATO forces are supposed to withdraw and the Taliban seems determined to give them a fiery sendoff. The rise of the Taliban has been accompanied by a dramatic spike in violent crimes against women. Sima Samar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has listed heinous crimes that include public stoning, mass rape, and cutting of the nose, lips and ears. Finally, another factor in Afghanistan is Pashtun Pakistani politician Imran Khan. The former cricketer has blocked NATO convoys that have to pass through northwest Pakistan to reach Afghanistan. He is demanding an end to drone strikes because they lead to unjustifiable civilian casualties and leaves the Pakistani military facing blowback. NATO and the US are close to the end of their tether in Afghanistan.

Bangladesh held an election that was shunned by international observers and boycotted by the opposition. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who led the independence struggle against Pakistan. Begum Khaleda Zia is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, the man who ascended to power after Rahman and his family had been murdered. Hasina seeks to create a more Bengali identity and is close to India. Zia is more Islamic and, therefore, viewed more favorably by Pakistan. The struggle for Bangladesh’s soul continues and shows no sign of abating.

Recently, India launched its first Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) into space. India has become the sixth space agency in the world to do so, joining the US, Russia, China, Japan and France in an elite group. India's GSLV launch is striking because it required a mastery of complex technologies. Operating on a shoestring budget forced India to innovate and it is now a space power to watch out for in the future.

Asia Pacific

For the first time, China has destroyed a large quantity of confiscated ivory. Six tons were destroyed in Dongguan to “to discourage illegal ivory trade, protect wildlife and raise public awareness.” It might mark a new phase of environmental consciousness in the country and potentially curb the demand for ivory that is putting elephant populations at risk. In any case, as air, water and soil pollution have reached dangerous levels, the environment is increasingly becoming an issue.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has launched a crackdown on corruption. It has also banned its officials from smoking in public. Now it has launched a crackdown on drugs. Over 3,000 police used helicopters, motorboats, and dogs to destroy 77 drug-production sites in Boshe, a village in Guangdong province. They seized three tons of crystal meth that the Chinese call “ice” in the largest anti-drugs operation in Guangdong’s history. China’s repressive measures to curb supply might work in the short-run. In the long-run, it will have to address its demand problem. After the Cultural Revolution and the rampant materialism of the last three decades, China suffers from a poverty of spirit. This is making people turn to nationalism, Christianity and drugs in an attempt to fill the void. Until China finds its moral and spiritual compass, drugs will continue to be a growing problem.

Fears of a slowdown in the Chinese economy are gaining ground. A tough first half of 2013 led Beijing to launch a mini-stimulus over the summer. George Soros, the legendary investor who bet against the pound in 1992 and won, has declared that the Chinese growth model “has run out of steam.” Public sector debt has ballooned and, by some estimates, has reached $3 trillion. China has to institute structural reforms while avoiding a severe slowdown or even a recession.

Cambodia’s fragile democracy is in peril. Protests broke out in the country when textile workers demanded a doubling of wages to $160 per month. Soon, a nationwide strike by unions broke out. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) joined in because it believes that it was cheated out of 2 million votes in the July election. For the last 28 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule has delivered economic growth to Cambodia with Gap, Adidas, Nike and Puma moving manufacturing to the country. This growth has come at the cost of increased inequality, curtailed liberty and weakened institutions. As protests have broken out, the regime has lashed out by dispatching troops to the streets, arbitrary arrests and persecution of political opponents.

The China-Japan war of words continues after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe followed up his visit of the Yasukuni Shrine with a new year’s speech predicting an amendment to Japan’s post World War II pacifist constitution by 2020. This author repeatedly deplores the rising nationalism in East Asia week after week and can only observe uncomfortably as the tit-for-tat game of mutual provocation continues.

As street protests continue in Thailand, the region has cause to celebrate the completion of the Fourth Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge over River Mekong. China’s Yunnan province, Laos and Thailand are now interconnected. This will drive regional trade, tourism and investment, and increase cooperation between the three countries, and in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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