Photo: Pro-government Nicaraguans during the protests against pension reform. Semanario Universidad.
The Castro Era has come to an end. Raúl Castro stepped down from the presidency yesterday, transitioning the position to hand-picked successor Miguel Díaz-Canel. The choice is significant not only because he falls outside the dynasty, but because Díaz-Canel was born after the nation’s 1960 communist revolution. As such, he has “spent his entire life in the service of a revolution he did not fight.” Many see this as the true test of the nation’s viability, as its implemented policies become more independent from the original revolutionary spirit that brought them about.
Despite this apparent ideological shift, there are no serious changes expected for the government anytime soon. In his acceptance speech, Díaz-Canel declared that he intends to continue the work and trajectory of his predecessor. As such, his commitment to the nation’s communist ideals and Castro’s continued presence as an influencer made him a comfortable replacement choice. He was elected almost unanimously by the Cuban National Assembly after serving five years as vice president to the country.
In retaliation for the recent attacks with chemical weapons on civilian populations in Eastern Ghouta, the UK, France, and the US have carried out airstrikes on strategic points to target chemical weapon development. The Pentagon reported that more than 100 missiles were launched, with specific targets including a scientific research center in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby. In the seven years since the Syrian civil war began, this is the biggest intervention by Western powers against Assad. Russia’s response to the attack was angry but measured. An initial response from Moscow warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences,” however Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later pulled back, clarifying that the strike did not actually breach Russian lines. “They were notified about where our ‘red lines’ are located, including ‘red lines’ ‘on the ground’, The results [of the U.S. airstrikes] show that they did not cross these lines.”
Reports released since the attack reveal that they may have only ‘had limited impact’ on the capabilities of the Assad government to develop and launch chemical weapons. There appear to still be stockpiles and materials in many more locations than those that were targeted, according to assessments conducted in the wake of the airstrike.
In further news regarding the chemical weapons attack, Russia’s involvement has proven incredibly problematic. Most critically, the US State Department recently announced that it has credible evidence that Russia and Syria are trying to “sanitize” the site of the attack in Eastern Ghouta. This came after reports broke that Russia was blocking access to the site from international investigators. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been attempting to reach and examine the area since April 7, recently releasing a statement on the challenge. “Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use,” said the organization’s spokeswoman in explanation for the block.
The promise of progress with North Korea, in both diplomacy and security, has grown over the past week. The South Korean government has reported discussions are underway for an official end to the Korean War, which began in 1950 but has primarily endured over a 65-year ceasefire hiatus. This could mean huge changes approaching for the DMZ and other still-militarized aspects of life and policy on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, the topic of denuclearization has also been brought to the table. South Korea reported this week that “North Korea wants complete denuclearization,” a huge departure from the typically hawkish demeanor of North leader Kim Jong-un.
Even more surprising to the international community, the leader dropped the call for US troop removal from the South as a prerequisite for nuclear disarmament. This had been one of the most complicated conditions of a possible deal, so its removal bodes well for the prospect of cooperation. There are currently 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan. The new decision could be related to recently disclosed talks between CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong-un. This top-secret meeting reportedly took place last month, in preparation for a larger summit with Donald Trump. Regarding that upcoming meeting, and sending a huge mix of signals, the US President said this week, “We’ll either have a very good meeting or we won’t have a good meeting. And maybe we won’t even have a meeting at all depending on what’s going in. But I think that there’s a great chance to solve a world problem.”
National lawmakers fear that the president is preparing to try to fire US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is currently leading the inquiry into Russian involvement in the country’s 2016 elections. A bipartisan bill was consequently introduced in the Senate this week to increase the protections of the position. Although the bill is unlikely to go into effect – to do so would require passage also though the House and approval from the president himself – its introduction is a critical indicator of the seriousness of the investigation. Even without party leader Mitch McConnell’s backing, republican support for the bill is active. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters, “If the goal — and I think it should be — is to convince the president not to take this action, I think the message needs to be that we take this very seriously.”
Continuing the push for educational improvements and reforms in the US, Arizona teachers have voted in favor of a statewide walkout on April 26. This would be the first statewide strike to happen in the US, but it builds directly on the other similar movements that have spread widely across other parts of the country in recent weeks. Although the Arizona government has already offered the concession of a 20% pay increase, the teachers will press on until funding for classrooms, support staff, and other educational programs is included as well.
The National Assembly, opposition-controlled and essentially powerless, has voted in support of the “Supreme Court in Exile” that is currently holding a symbolic trial in which Maduro is charged with corruption. The congress was split, some lawmakers objecting to the process as it is performed outside of legal jurisdiction, in Colombia, and Maduro has not had the opportunity to defend himself. More, however, hope the trial will raise awareness of Maduro’s alleged crimes, and a webcast showed some representatives chanting “liberty” as vote results were announced. Juan Guaido, one of the congressmen who voted to hold the trial, said it is necessary for the proceedings to take place outside of the country as Venezuela is governed by “a dictatorship” and Maduro’s “corruption is drowning us.”
In other news, two Chevron workers were arrested in Venezuela as part of the crackdown on the industry’s alleged corruption. Chevron is one of the few major companies still involved in the suffering oil sector, including through several projects with the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). The crackdown has largely targeted domestic ministers, leaving foreign employees of firms safe for the most part.
Venezuelan workers at PDVSA are leaving their jobs voluntarily despite low employment prospects, fleeing the slave-like low wages and the new leadership of PDVSA, headed by Major General Manuel Quevedo. Some offices have lines outside with dozens of workers waiting to quit. Many of those leaving are high level engineers, lawyers, and managers whose talents are difficult to replace in the middle of the economic meltdown.
With no clear indication of when the repatriation process will begin for the more than 650,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign, monsoon season is approaching in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Aid agencies warn that the refugees’ shelters, constructed primarily of bamboo and tarpaulin, will not survive the season.
Myanmar lifted travel restrictions on Rohingya Muslims who possess National Verification Cards (NVCs). These cards will also allegedly allow a path to full citizenship within five months. The government is urging Rohingya refugees to apply for the cards, but the refugees argue that they shouldn’t need to, as many of their parents were already citizens.
Approximately 2000 civilians are stranded in the jungle, having fled their homes during the recent resurgence in violence between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar army. The group is in urgent need of medical attention, community leaders say. It includes several pregnant women, almost 100 elderly people, and many who have been wounded by mortar shelling.
On Tuesday, Myanmar began releasing more than 8,000 prisoners under a presidential pardon. Granted by newly elected President Win Myint, the pardon coincides with traditional new year celebrations and is intended “to bring peace and pleasure to people’s heart, and for the sake of humanitarian support,” according to the Presidential Office. Around 6,000 of those to be released had been imprisoned for drug-related offences. Nearly 2,000 were military and police officers, jailed under the Military Act or Police Disciplinary Act, and 36 had been designated as political prisoners, according to a list by human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The amnesty did not extend to the two Reuters journalists involved in ongoing legal proceedings.
It was reported this week that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has opened an office in DRC with the aim to support free and fair elections planned for December 23. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) held a meeting on 17-18 April in Luanda, Angola to discuss security in the region. International observers say the SADC has worked to keep president Kabila in power, and that they must now take the reins on creating political change in the country, a call to action echoed by Amnesty International. President Kabila has dismissed 256 judges for corruption allegations and holding law degrees not fulfilling requirements to function as magistrates.
The collective Habari RDC, aiming to bear witness to violence, poverty, suppression of free speech, and corruption in the DRC, won the Index on Censorship’s digital activism award at a ceremony in London on Thursday. Habari RDC has succeeded in engaging the population in the country’s politics, encouraging voter registration in Walikale Territory, as well as bringing young people’s voices to the forefront.
The United Nations says the donor conference held in Geneva last week resulted in donors pledging $528 million, a third of the estimated $1.7 billion needed to provide emergency aid to the DRC.
The Lower House of Congress voted on Thursday to pass changes to the constitution, stripping immunity from prosecution privileges from public officials, including themselves and the president. This move is intended to help address the rampant corruption in the country. These changes must still be approved by the Senate and ratified by a majority of state legislatures before they can take effect.
A poll by the newspaper Reforma shows López Obrador still in the lead of the presidential race with 48% of voter intention, a full 22 points ahead of Anaya of the left-right coalition. Meade remains in third with 18%. The poll further showed an expectation that the MORENA party would win the most seats in Congress. Another poll by the firm Mitofsky showed López Obrador at 31% points, 11 points ahead of Anaya.
This election cycle has been the bloodiest in Mexican history, according to Reuters research and a tally by security consultancy Etellekt, with more than 80 office-holder and candidate deaths since September.
In other news, the Mexican government has banned federal and state agencies from doing business with the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which for the past few years has been at the center of the largest corruption scandals in Latin America.
Protests over social security changes led to clashes between opponents and government backers in Managua and León on Wednesday. The law will increase income and payroll taxes and a reform of pension system. Protests spread to other cities during Thursday, as the government ordered the shutdown of five independent TV channels covering the protests. In spite of this, images and video footage has spread on social media. On Thursday, protesters took over National University of Engineering, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails as the riot police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. So far, a policeman has been shot dead, as well as a male student and a young male protester have been killed. The police has not given any official figures on arrests. Amnesty International called the attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists a “disturbing attempt to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
The government has announced plans to deploy 80,000-100,000 security personnel and “village guards” to polling stations across the country. The troops are to “provide security protection services,” according to the secretary general of the National Election Committee. Observers have raised concerns, particularly that a show of force like this would serve only to intimidate voters at the polling stations. Furthermore, the “village guards” appear to be volunteers from the villages. They are not trained in election code of conduct or ethics: a spokesperson for local electoral watchdog Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia contends this may worry voters. He also points out that the large numbers are unnecessary, as the election laws provide only for one armed and two unarmed guards at polling stations. A political analyst suspects the ruling government may fear an “unexpected event” after opposition leaders called for a boycott, triggering this move.
Two journalists were denied bail on Thursday. They have been charged with espionage for filing news reports to US-funded radio station, a charge that, if they were found guilty, could earn them 15 years in prison. Previously the two has worked for Radio Free Asia, because it shut down its Phnom Penh office in September because of a “relentless crackdown on independent voices.” They have been held in pre-trial detention since November, when they were arrested just days before the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the opposition. Their case serves to compound the concerns over the country’s crackdown on dissent.
This week, 16,000 nurses have gone on strike against low salaries, and poor and dangerous working conditions, resulting in a shut-down of major public hospitals, and understaffed wards. The strike is following a month long strike by junior doctors that ended on April 2. On Tuesday, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga issued a directive firing more than 16,000 striking staff, accusing them of “politically motivated” actions. However, on Wednesday Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZiNA) said they had still not received any formal dismissal from the Health Services Board (HSB). According to vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, government has transferred $17,114,446 to the health ministry’s account, compensation he states was turned down by the striking nurses, and instead the funds will serve to unemployed and retired nurses during the strike.
Zimbabwe celebrated the country’s 38th anniversary of Independence at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Wednesday, April 18. It was the first time since 1980 that the event took place without Robert Mugabe as a leader. Thousands of people gathered for the event. In his speech, President Emmerson Mnangagwa again pledged to hold “free, fair and credible” elections and that he will tackle the country’s deep economic problems. “Let us shun hate speech,” he said, referring to ex-president Mugabe’s often harsh rhetorics. “As leaders, let us embrace the spirit of dialogue.”
20 officials had their assets seized following allegations of money laundering, fraud and theft related to a dairy farm project in Vrede, after $21 million of public funding originally earmarked to support struggling black farmers in the area disappeared in the government-backed project, managed by a business associate of the Gupta family. According to corruption inspector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, two high-ranking African National Congress politicians linked to the case are also to be investigated. It is the first high-profile case of public corruption from the Zuma presidency to lead to arrests and charges.
Large protests erupting in the North West Province this week, with people demonstrating for better jobs and housing, improved hospitals and roads and an end to corruption, led to President Cyril Ramaphosa cutting short his attendance at the Commonwealth summit in London. Clashes with police, blocking of roads, looting and violence has erupted during the so called “service delivery protests”. Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of provincial Premier Supra Mahumapelo, a member of Ramaphosa’s governing ANC. The president is meeting with provincial ANC leaders in an attempt to restore calm today.
Hungary – Protests ran through Hungary this week, in Budapest as well as in smaller cities, as tens of thousands came out to oppose the reelection of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The demonstration also came in response to the publication of a list of 200 Orbán critics’ names in a pro-government magazine. – Reuters
Turkey – President Erdogan has called for elections to be held in June, more than a year earlier than scheduled, in an apparent move to ensure and consolidate his continued power. – NYTimes
Kenya – Half of Kenya’s electoral board has now resigned with immediate effect due to lack of faith in the organization’s leadership, saying that the institution is dysfunctional, with practices such as leaking of internal documents and decisions guided by personal interests. During the last year’s general election the commission was accused by the opposition of tampering with the vote. – Al Jazeera
Kyrgyzstan – In a surprise no-confidence vote, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov outed his entire cabinet in parliament. This is the latest move in the country’s lasting power struggle, with the former cabinet members having been appointed by the opposing party. Jeenbekov’s new, aligned cabinet will help to solidify his authority and close avenues of democracy that had previously existed in Kyrgyzstan. – USNews
Senegal – A protest against the government’s efforts to raise the bar for presidential candidates elections next year was met with riot police. Around 100 demonstrators had barricaded a street near parliament and were dispersed by tear gas. Two opposition figures were among those arrested. – Times LIVE
Vietnam – Following the country’s continuous attempt to crackdown on corruption, police has ordered the arrest of several former officials and police officers linked to a tax evasion – and abuse of power case. They are suspected of revealing state secrets, violating regulations on the management of state property and land management. – The Washington Post
Fueled by fear, hope, and anger, more than ten thousand Armenians have come out in protest to oppose the appointment of Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister. The leader of the demonstration has called for nonviolence, but past instances of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters bode poorly for those out on the streets. As the situation rapidly develops, and democracy slips from the people’s hands, their measured responses will be critical for charting the course of this conflict.