Photo: Women protested the government’s failure to comply with a gender quota in the Kenyan government (via africanews.com)
The US announced Tuesday its intention to promote “free and unregulated” internet access in Cuba, according to a statement by the State Department. Internet access in Cuba has long been a controversial and highly restricted subject, and Cuban media has already declared this plan an “attempt to destabilize the island”. Currently, the government has approximately 500 wifi hotspots set up around the country for citizens to use, however all of them are restricted and none of them are free of charge. Furthermore, with a monthly average salary of $25 in the country, the current usage fee of around $2 per hour excludes a huge portion of the population from access.
The plan is part of US President Trump’s efforts to redefine the relationship between the countries after many changes made during the Obama era. While the plan was denounced by Cuban Communist Party Newspaper Granma as a move to “subvert Cuba’s internal order”, and covered by the Havana Times with the headline “US Wants to Force Feed Cuba with Free Internet”, articles by younger Cubans tend to see the news rather differently. An op-ed by Yudarkis Veloz Sarduy discusses the exciting developments that more widespread internet access could bring to the island. It describes the government opposition to the US’ decision as a mechanism of subversion, rather than as a benevolent protection of the people’s social order. In any case, both opinions reflect the strong control that the government strives to maintain over the society.
In other news from Cuba, a same-sex couple has been granted custody of two children. One of the women in the relationship is the children’s grandmother, the other their godmother. When the kids’ single mother passed away unexpectedly, the court had to assign guardianship. This went to the children’s grandmother, with recognition that her same-sex partner would help raise them. Cuban marriage rights group Acepto shared that this is likely the first time legitimacy of a non-heteronormative family has been legally recognized on the Communist island.
American Diplomat Bill Richardson on the Advisory Commission Board on Rakhine State quit after attempting to broach the subject of the two reporters detained in Myanmar and receiving an acerbic answer from de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi said that it was not within the mandate of the board to examine this affair. Richardson also criticized Suu Kyi for declining to denounce the military’s actions of execution, rape, and arson against the Rohingya while the country is in the midst of what the UN has strongly described as an ‘ethnic cleansing. He stated she “has developed an arrogance of power.” He remarked also on the ‘shocking’ amount of disparagement toward international media and UN efforts by Myanmar officials during his time on the board.
On another panel, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended that the government allow full humanitarian access to the state of Rakhine. In keeping with the official’s attitude toward international presence, the Myanmar government still refuses free access for UN investigators and international media to Rakhine. UN Human rights special rapporteur Yanghee Lee, who is required to visit Myanmar twice a year to monitor the situation, was banned last month from the country. She describes the risk of flooding and disease as monsoon season approaches, and stresses the need for “informed consent” – the refugees must know the situation that they would return to in their home country if they are to leave the camps/Bangladesh.
As emphasized last week, the paramount issue with returning refugees to Myanmar is whether they want to return home. At present, it seems that they do not: the Rohingya who fled state security forces do not want to return to a place where “their homes were burned, their wives, sisters and mothers raped, and their friends, relatives and neighbors slaughtered,”, not without promises of their upheld security upon returning home. A Reuters reporter was told of a petition, filled with Rohingya demands, to be presented to authorities from Myanmar and Bangladesh before a single refugee returns to Myanmar. The demands include Myanmar publicly announcing citizenship for Rohingya and adding Rohingya to the country’s recognized ethnic groups. Additionally, they want land that previously belonged to the refugees to be returned, homes to be rebuilt, and the military to be held accountable for the killings and rape.
The United States of America
The government is back up and running after a shutdown that lasted several days. The shutdown happened when the US Congress failed to pass a new national budget by midnight on the 19th. Effectively, this halted all non-essential government operations until a provisional agreement could be reached for them to continue. The shutdown ended Monday night, when lawmakers settled on a budget plan, although this deal came contingent on the scheduling of new talks over immigration policy. Although the government was able to overcome this impasse and continue operating, the agreement funds operations only through February 8, which means that in less than two weeks, these complicated negotiations will resume, and the threat of another shutdown looms.
News has recently surfaced that US President Trump attempted to fire Special Councel Robert Mueller, but revoked the order when members of the White House council threatened to quit rather than carry out the order. Mueller is currently leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the American presidential election and any possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Presidential advisors have consistently warned against the firing, warn cautioning the president that obstructing this investigation would be catastrophic for the presidency. Even though Trump did not carry out the firing, news of this attempt has nevertheless stoked the fears and doubts of many Americans.
Three weeks into 2018, there have already been 11 school shootings in the US. In the latest of these incidents, two students were killed and 18 were injured. Many Americans were shocked by the lack of news coverage of the shooting, which seems to point to the desensitization of the overall population for this type of violence. Across major US news networks, the shooting received a total of approximately 16 minutes of television coverage. US Senator Chris Murphy, representing the district where a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School tragically killed 20 children and six adults, commented, “Are we so numb to this violence that more than a dozen children getting shot in a high school barely registers in the collective conversation?”. Beyond desensitization, however, it remains incredibly important to acknowledge the powerful role that the pro-gun lobby plays in defending the ‘right to bear arms’ in the United States.
As Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa traveled to Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, BBC´s Mishal Husain was able to sit down with him for an interview. Mnangagwa claimed here that, despite the fact that no individual was granted immunity after the changes in power late 2017, Zimbabwe’s long-time leader Robert Mugabe will be “left in peace” with a “lucrative” retirement package. Mnangagwa also stated firmly that he and the ruling ZANU-PF party would accept the results of the upcoming elections, whatever the outcome. “If we lose elections, that’s it,” he said. “Whichever party wins the election will proceed to take the reins of power.” The President confirmed that the elections will be held before July 2018.
While the Zimbabwean President is looking ahead, opposing political forces are still debating the current government’s legitimacy. On Thursday, Newsday wrote about National People’s Party leader Joice Mujuru and her rekindling of an old internal ZANU-PF rivalry with President Emmerson Mnangagwa. This week, Mujura called Mnangagwa an “illegitimate coup leader” whose power rests in the military. She added that “there can be no doubt that the country is in need of genuine political transition back to the imperatives of constitutionalism and the rule of law,” according to Newsday. Meanwhile Mujuru, as the leader of the People’s Rainbow Coalition (PRC), is rolling out her own personal campaign at the end of this week, which will lead her through all of Zimbabwe’s provinces.
As for some hopeful news, two business-intelligence organizations have expressed their trust in the recovery of the Zimbabwean economy this week. The United Kingdom-based business intelligence consultancy firm, Alaco Limited, said Mnangagwa would fix the country’s economy, judging by his partial repeal of the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act and pledge to compensate and reintegrate white farmers who lost their livelihoods during the land reform program. Then, German-African Business Association and international law firm Pinsent Masons hosted a forum on Zimbabwe in Johannesburg this week, where organizers heard that the government of president Mnangagwa was showing signs of a willingness to re-engage international investors to boost the ailing economy. Finally, Newsday reported on Tuesday that exiled Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo is to return home for his first performance in the country since 2004.
The opposition in Venezuela further fractures in the wake of Maduro’s announcement that he will run for re-election. This period in time would call for greater unity, as Henrique Capriles urges, to put forward a strongly-backed presidential candidate for the opposition. Yet, since the municipal elections, the opposition has been divided over whether to participate in the elections or to boycott them altogether. The allegations of fraud in the regional elections and the crackdown on political protests have led the Lima Group to release a statement declaring that the early elections contradict democratic principles and lack legitimacy.
For the past three months, opposition and government representatives have been engaged in negotiations, in an attempt to set minimum election guarantees, but these have not yet been reached. The opposition has emphasized the need for an international monitoring body to oversee the election process and ensure legitimacy. The government’s announcement of the elections before an agreement demonstrates that these guarantees will never be realized (or will be ignored if they are). Maduro has encouraged the National Electoral Council to “fix the earliest possible date” for the election, saying further, “if it were for me, the election would be held next Sunday.” No date has yet been set, merely an official expectation to hold the election before the end of April.
Prominent opposition member Capriles declared that even with the possibility of voter fraud and manipulation, the administration is so unpopular with Venezuelans that Maduro could lose, despite his confidence. Capriles cannot run for the presidency, having been banned from public office for 15 years after mismanaging funds.
Venezuela has expelled the Spanish Ambassador following the EU instituting a travel ban and freezing the assets of a number of officials. President Maduro has accused Spain of ‘plotting to oust him’ and of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
While some have been reflecting on the prospects for Cambodia’s opposition after the formation of the new Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), jailed and former CNR Party leader Kem Sokha has stated that even though his name had been mentioned in the CNRM manifesto, he did not support the movement. After signs of divisions became apparent last week, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng told Reuters that the opposition politician did not want to join or support any movement, but will continue in line with the CNRP, which more than three million Cambodians voted for in recent elections. Wednesday, The Phnom Penh Post reported on different comments by government officials. By some, the movement has been called ‘illegal’, ‘just a front to raise money’ and even labelled a ‘terrorist organization’, besides being ‘under observation’.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen paired the gathering of over 3,000 journalists and media representatives on Sunday with accusations of ‘a media mafia’ cooperating with illegal logging activities, spreading fake news, and avoiding tax payment and registration. Alongside the shutting down of one of Cambodia’s last remaining independent newspapers, other news outlets had to cease their work as well. Also on Sunday, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) held an extraordinary party congress, expanding its central committee by 342 members to 865 and setting strategic political goals and policies for the party in the next five years.
On Friday, a Cambodian court sentenced two environmental activists to one year in prison with a suspension of seven months, after they had allegedly filmed an illegal sand export activity. Their defense lawyer considers them ‘innocent all along’ and Amnesty International says they are ‘prisoners of conscience’, reported Reuters. A former Cambodian deputy prime minister who had served in Hun Sen’s government for 15 years, now living in exile, was ordered to pay about US$125,000 for defamation on Thursday, after alleging “Hun Sen [had] bribed a minor political party to help him dissolve the opposition.” Radio Free Asia further explained that “Hun Sen’s government has used defamation cases to hobble opposition figures.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who lives in self-imposed exile, accused China of a land grab in the Maldives, threatening peace and stability in the whole region. This comes in the context of a new trade agreement signed by the two countries late 2017 and the Maldives’ increasing pull towards China to realize ambitious infrastructure projects. Speaking to reporters in neighboring Sri Lanka, Nasheed said, “’We definitely subscribe to FDIs [foreign direct investment]. We subscribe to international trade. But we will not subscribe to relinquishing our sovereignty‘“, wrote Avas. The Maldivian government then responded by stating that they were opening their economy to encourage free trade and were seeing positive outcomes of the changes made.
Meanwhile, a letter signed by the four Maldivian opposition leaders to the Indian Prime Minister reported unlawful actions ahead of this year’s presidential election. This comes amidst heightened tensions between the two countries. The document was delivered to the Indian embassy by secretary general of the Maldivian Democratic Party and secretary general of the Jumhoree Party. Two other letters were sent to the Supreme Court and the Elections Commission, reported Rajje. Speaking on a TV program, chief opposition lawmaker Solih opposed the notion that the incumbent president Yameen would not hold elections at all if his victory was not guaranteed. However, he did not rule out that Yameen might seek the delay or rigging of elections later this year, according to Avas. Solih asserted the opposition would have to put in more effort to ensure free and fair elections, like ‘freeing’ the parliament, having dozens of disqualified lawmakers returned to parliament and freeing the election commission and judiciary from political influence.
Syria is stressing the importance of international respect for its sovereignty as Turkey commits aggressions within its borders. Foreign fighters in Syria have moved to turning their weapons on Turkish forces that infringe on Syrian territory.
As conflict persists in Syria, peacemaking efforts continue, and plans are being formed to redevelop the country after all the destruction. At the UN headquarters in Vienna, the Delegation of the Syrian Arab Republic met with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. This was a critical meeting, revolving around intra-Syrian dialogue as part of the political process in Geneva.
There is discussion between Syria’s Information Minister, Imad Sarah, and the Iranian Ambassador in Damascus, Javad Turk-Abadi, about prospects of media cooperation between the two countries. The intention is to “develop and support media work in a way that would serve the two countries’ interests”. Moreover, through Syrian media, the aim is to eradicate any practices of falsification and media misleading which target the resistance axis in the region.
On Sunday, the Syrian Public Works and Housing Ministry signed a memo of understanding with the Russian Story Expert Company on cooperation regarding public construction and the implementation of housing projects. The memo “aims at enhancing cooperation between the two sides in the domains of rapid construction technology, unified construction systems, and the strategies of implementing and rehabilitating public constructions, in addition to the strategies of planning, funding, and implementing housing projects”.
People Power – Women’s Marches Around the World: January 21st, 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March in Washington DC last year. Over the weekend, thousands of women, men, and children around the world marched in solidarity this weekend at over 500 events across six continents including in: France, New Zealand, Kyrgyzstan, Zambia, Spain, Ecuador, Italy, the United Kingdom, the US, and more. Their mission: to “Look Back, March Forward and launch [their] collective 2018 Women’s March agenda: #PowerToThePolls”.
Public transport moves – also in nonviolence: Public transport concerns virtually everyone and it has mobilized people in both the past and present to raise their voices throughout the world. This week in India, other times in the UK, Peru and oftentimes in Brazil. Could this be a chance for nonviolent campaigns?
Kenya – On Monday, hundreds of mostly female activists took to the streets of the capital Nairobi, protesting the government’s repeated failure to apply laws for the minimum number of parliament and executive posts held by women. After last year’s contested elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta has so far named only male cabinet staff, though vacancies remain. – africanews
Vietnam – A court in Vietnam sentenced the former chairman of a PetroVietnam subsidiary to life in prison for embezzlement and mismanagement. Germany accuses Vietnam of kidnapping him while in Berlin last year and forcibly returning him to face a trial in Vietnam, which could have brought him the death penalty. In the context of the corruption crackdown, critics have accused the Vietnamese government of pursuing politically motivated charges. – DW
Honduras – Last weekend, almost two months after the controversial presidential elections in Honduras and subsequent demonstrations, Honduran security forces again clashed with protesters and center-left Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship supporters in the capital, resulting in at least one death. – Reuters
Bolivia – As Bolivia celebrated the 12th anniversary of their Plurinational State this week, opposition sectors in the Bolivian cities of Santa Cruz, Sucre, Potosi, Oruro, La Paz and Tarija took to the streets Monday, calling for the elimination of the Penal Code and expressing opposition to President Evo Morales’ 2019 presidential run. – Telesur
Romania – On Saturday, an estimated 50,000 people marched in Romanian capital Bucharest after the ruling party had passed new legislation last month that could hamper the persecution of crime and high-level corruption, according to critics. It now awaits the signing in by President Klaus Iohannis who criticizes the bill. – Al Jazeera. Some activists have been getting more creative, wrote Balkan Insight. The EU stated it was closely following the latest developments in Romania, and that the country should rethink the controversial reform. – DW
Poland – Three people have been arrested this week for propagating fascism. A news program recently revealed details about a neo-Nazi group that celebrated Adolf Hitler in a ceremony last year. Prime Minister Morawiecki, an anti-immigration conservative, spoke out against the demonstration, saying, “In Poland we cannot have the slightest tolerance of Nazi, fascist or communist symbols”. – ABC
Egypt – The last main challenger to incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi dropped out of the coming presidential election, effectively clearing the field for him to run virtually unopposed. – NYTimes
Mexico – This week, Reuters released a special report on the link between Mexican drug cartels and fuel theft. The report describes the threats made against refinery employees to extort information about the fuel lines. Authorities say that gangs target storage facilities and fuel trucks, not just pipelines, and unauthorized taps have almost quintupled in the last few years. – Reuters
Ethiopia – Local media has again reported on violent protests in the Northern Ethiopian Amhara region, where a crackdown by security forces left seven dead last Sunday. From late 2015 onwards, Ethiopia has seen a number of protests, often accompanied by the army clashing with civilians, with the most prominent wave of protests taking place in 2016. – africanews
Democratic Republic of Congo – Six people were killed Sunday as the authorities cracked down on a banned protest against President Joseph Kabila. 57 were injured nationwide in the rallies and 111 people were arrested across the country. The demonstration, a peaceful one, called for by Catholic church leaders, was against Kabila’s 17-year rule. – eNCA