Make Sense of the World: Weekly Roundup


January 07, 2014 05:28 EDT

Fair Observer's roundup of the week's events. [Note: Click here for the full report.]

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.

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.

Latin America

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. At 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.


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 hard-line 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. 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.

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 the country 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. 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 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.

Central & South 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 the 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.

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.

Asia Pacific

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 occurred 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.

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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