Weekly Report: 18 May 2018 — CANVAS

Photo: The families of victims of the ongoing protests in Nicaragua demand justice. Reuters.

Venezuela

Presidential elections are only two days away, and the National Electoral Council says that the country is prepared, with all materials having been distributed both domestically and internationally. As of Wednesday, Bertucci still will not step down to clear the way for Falcon.

A poll conducted by International Consulting Services shows 67.5 percent of the surveyed population saying they are “absolutely certain” they will participate in the May 20 elections. Around four percent said they are certain they will not participate, and 1.3 percent remain unsure. As such, nearly 14 million Venezuelans are expected to vote.

The opposition coalition, Broad Front, is calling for abstention from the elections. On Wednesday, it called for supporters to demonstrate on the streets. Protests, however, are feeling ever more futile to the average Venezuelan. While several hundred people turned up this week to protest the “farcical election,” the crowd pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands seen in past demonstrations. But the violent repression and absolute lack of change has disenfranchised much of the opposition. Furthermore, with the countrying emptying out as citizens flee food shortages and soaring inflation, turnout is expected to be sharply reduced.

Canada has banned Venezuelan expats residing in several of the its provinces from casting their votes in the presidential election. Venezuelan embassies and consulates located in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver will not be permitted to set up polling stations for their constituents. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza took to Twitter to criticize the move, saying the Canadian government is violating the voting rights of more than 5,000 Venezuelan immigrants and instructing embassies to ignore Canada’s direction.

Prison inmates have taken over a jail in Caracas and released videos that show prisoners roaming the notorious prison freely, breaking locks and demanding their release. They also make claims of torture and human rights violations. Many of the inmates are jailed opponents of Maduro and have been held without trial. Both those inmates and American political prisoner Joshua Holt have also posted videos saying that they fear for their lives if the government retaliates with a “brutal crackdown from authorities.” The Venezuelan government had tried earlier to claim that it had regained control over the prison, but then changed its statement to having “normalized” the situation after the inmates refuted its claim. In response, an ad hoc committee was set up by Venezuela’s Public Prosecution to investigate the takeover. Attorney General Tarek William Saab has also agreed to relocate over 70 of the prisoners to other facilities.

In March, nine military officers were arrested under suspicion of plotting a coup against Maduro. This week, the families of the officers are demanding their immediate release. They argue that the evidence against the officers is circumstantial, due process was violated, and that the accused are in fact innocent.

Myanmar

A recent UN report warns that violence against ethnic minorities is increasing, perpetrated directly by the government. The report details the dangers being faced not just by the Rohingya, who have been the biggest focus of media attention, but also by the Karen, Kachin, and other peoples who are suffering under the rule of the Myanmar State.

The conflict in Kachin State saw a brutal week. On Monday, Myanmar launched three air attacks on the area around a brigade of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). That made it the third straight day of attacks on this group and one of many against the people’s independence movement overall. Although the conflict has been ongoing for approximately 60 years, 2018 has seen a massive spike in violence. Just since January, 20,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict.

Activists have taken to protest the violence and atrocities in the capital Yangon this month, calling for an end to the conflict and for aid to be provided to the displaced civilians from Karen. This week, however, the government charged 42 of these activists with violating the country’s peaceful assembly law. The government states that the activists did not obtain official permission for the demonstrations from local authorities. The peaceful protesters, along with many human rights groups and legal aides, see this crackdown on nonviolent demonstration as a threat to the freedom of expression and assembly in Myanmar.

Mexico

Independent candidate Margarita Zavala has dropped out of the race for the presidency, giving a possible boost to Lopez Obrador’s rivals. The peso jumped in response, as investors had been wary of Lopez Obrador’s leftist leanings.

Thieves managed to steal more than 300 million pesos (15.4 milllion USD) in a cyber attack targeting five major companies and banks across the country. They transferred the money to different accounts, many which then promptly withdrew cash from ATMs. The money that was not withdrawn is expected to be recovered. Mexico’s central bank said on Tuesday that it will create a new unit to create and publish guidelines on information security for the country’s banks.

Journalist Juan Carlos Huerta was executed by gunmen this week, making him the fourth journalist to be assassinated in the country this year. The news radio host had been targeted and trapped by his attackers, according to police who were catch the fleeing perpetrators. Many have noted also that this killing came exactly one year after that of acclaimed crime reporter and writer Javier Valdez, an esteemed journalist known well beyond Mexico.

North & South Korea

After a relatively positive and hopeful progression of events between North Korea, South Korea, and the US, tensions have once again begun to emerge. A statement by a North Korean official this week kicked off the shift, telling the world that Kim Jong-un would not be interested in talking part in talks where the only result would be unilateral nuclear disarmament. Rather, there is a hope and expectation for concessions on both sides. US President Trump replied with the promise of ‘protections’ in return for the removal of all nuclear weapons, but as the true negotiations have not yet begun, this is a relatively vague offer.

South Korea has downplayed the North’s threats to pull out of the upcoming talks, after it did cancel a high-level Korean meeting on Wednesday, citing the progress and promise of last months talks between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In this meeting, they had both stated a commitment to complete denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula, leading the nation to expect Kim’s concessions to come from other areas of policy. Analysts believe that this recent threat is an attempt to build leverage in advance of that negotiation. An advisor to Moon has suggested, however, that it could be time for an end to the partnership between the US and South Korea, to create a more “natural” political environment.

Despite the flurry of ongoing diplomacy, it was found this week that North Korea is continuing to use cyberattacks against defectors. Through malware on Google Play and phishing attempts through Facebook, North Korean hackers have been seeking to infiltrate the personal devices of defectors, in order to take control of these devices and steal all the data, photos, and information they contain. According to McAfee, the software company that discovered the malware, only about 100 instances of infection have been found, although the hackers have been targeting tens of thousands of defectors.

USA

The Trump administration has announced a rule that will strip government funding from any women’s health organizations that perform abortions in the US. The rule takes specific aim at Planned Parenthood, which serves 41 percent of women who receive federally funded family planning services. Executive Vice President of this organization called the new rule “outrageous” and “dangerous” for women across the country. The restrictiveness of the bill could force many clinics to shut down, resulting in a lack of any healthcare at all for women in need, especially in places where Planned Parenthood offers the only clinics within a reasonable distance to those it serves. It will likely also raise the national rates of unintended pregnancies and lead to an increase in mortality rates.

In other news from Washington, yesterday marked one year since the beginning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump called out the probe as a “witch hunt” and again denied all accounts of collusion or obstruction. Many outside the president’s close team, however, feel that the investigation is a serious threat to the Trump presidency and the legitimacy of the election results. In any case, it will no doubt continue to be of paramount focus as its second year moves forward.

Another state has felt the empowerment of teachers who deserve more pay and better funding for their classrooms. North Carolina has become the latest state to see its educators come together and make their voices heard. Here, the central issue is funding, with teachers calling it an afterthought of the budget. Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, expressed their grievances. “We have not had a textbook adoption in 15 years. We have school districts deciding whether or not to pay the light bill or buy toilet paper. We have classrooms … that are 35 students and higher in some instances. This is not normal. This is not the North Carolina way.”

Syria

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed the use of chlorine gas in an attack on a rebel-held town in early February. This news comes in the middle of the investigation into the presumed use of chemical weapons in Douma last month. The same organization is conducting that investigation as well, and parallels between conditions may now provide additional insight into the examination.

In another kind of study on human conditions, a UN official made a statement this week regarding the effects of international policy on the Syrian people. “Civilians bear brunt of unilateral sanctions, exacerbating unparalleled suffering and destruction,” asserted Idriss Jazairy, UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the Syrian GDP has fallen by two-thirds, the cost of food is eight times higher than it had been, humanitarian aid is being denied to civilians because of unintended bureaucratic consequences, and international sanctions have targeted the mechanisms and rights of average people to a critical degree. “The Syrian people should not have to suffer for what has become an international conflict of unbelievable complexity. All those seeking to meet basic human rights require our help, not our red tape.”

Regarding the conflict itself, a major development this week saw government forces take control of the Homs province- the largest province in Syria. Rebel fighters and many civilians are now evacuating the last rebel-held enclave in the region, as Syrian flags are raised throughout the area. This victory is especially significant for the Assad regime, as Homs had been one of the first places to break away from government control at the start of the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was happy to congratulate Assad on this and other recent military achievements by the Syrian army. The two leaders met this week for joined talks and a bit of self-congratulatory discourse ahead of Putin’s meetings next week with many European leaders pursuing alternate strategies for the Syrian conflict. Observers have called the meeting a way for Putin to grant more significance to Assad and to delegitimize the others’ calls for an ouster to take over in Syria.

Nicaragua

President Daniel Ortega met this week with opposition leaders and protesters in an attempt to end the weeks of unrest that have led to the deaths of at least 60 demonstrators. In these talks, Ortega said that the Nicaraguans killed in these protests were criminals, to which the opposition called him a “murderer” and read out the names of the dead. “We have come to demand you order the immediate halt of the attacks. You’re the boss of the paramilitaries, of the troops, of the mobs backing the government,” said Lester Aleman, a leader of the student coalition present. The opposition is calling for more than the end of the attacks, though. At the core of this riff is the oppression, mismanagement, cut pensions, and dictatorial disposition of Ortega and his government. The calls for democratization are therefore much more than the subject at this particular negotiating table. They are a reflection of the need for genuine concessions, that if not met, could boil over.

Outside the discussion room, the streets are still rife with protest. Thousands of people this week have gone out to call for Ortega to step down from the presidency, felling yet another of the costly Chayo trees installed by the first lady. Additionally, at least two demonstrators have been killed since the start of the week. With the ongoing talks proving less productive than the opposition had hoped, the clashes could continue to be fatal for the foreseeable future.

Zimbabwe

The High Court of Zimbabwe has banned the nation’s traditional leaders from participation in politics. Local chiefs, head persons, and village heads are no longer permitted to make political statements or to formally support any political parties. The court ruled that to do otherwise is a violation of the constitutional right to a free and fair election. One Chief has been further ordered to formally retract his publicly stated support of the Zanu-PF ruling party.

Public workers have rejected an offer from the government for a salary increase, arguing that the proposed 15% raise is not enough. This offer was already an improvement from the 10% suggested last week, but with this more recent increase still leaving recipients below the poverty line, workers are continuing to push for a better livelihood. Although the government of Zimbabwe already spends more than 90% of its national budget on salaries and pensions, the workers are confident that Mnangagwa will be trying hard to please them nevertheless, in light of the upcoming elections.

Other news:

DRC – The Ebola outbreak in the DRC has now reached a city in the northwest of the country, raising serious concerns that its spread will be much more difficult to control. The World Health Organization is treating the outbreak very seriously, deploying personnel and resources to contain the disease as well as possible. So far, 44 cases of the hemorrhagic fever have been reported in the DRC, with 23 cases having resulted in death. – CNN

Israel – Violence at the border with Gaza has left at least 60 dead and injured hundreds of others. Although Isreal has defended this use of lethal force as a necessary defense measure, human rights advocates including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and numerous UN officials, have gravely condemned it. – NYTimes

Cambodia – The garment workers’ protest continues as workers await the severance and back pay they are owed. Separately, two prominent election observers have declined to send representatives to this years elections. – Phnom Penh Post | Fresh News Asia

Thailand – An editor-in-chief at the Bangkok Post was forced to step down over his critical coverage of the military government. He had refused to “tone down” the coverage by the board of directors, many of whom have ties to the government. – South China Morning Post