The World Today for September 23, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

The Bouncing Bozo

Remember when Oliver North was on TV every day to discuss US chicanery in Nicaragua? No? That’s because the Senate hearings on the so-called Iran-Contra affair took place nearly 30 years ago.

One guy who remembers them well, however, is Nicaragua’s 70-year-old President Daniel Ortega. He was running Nicaragua then, too. And now that the Cold War is over and practically no one is watching, his pursuit of absolute control over the tiny Central American country “has become more naked and visible than ever,” writes Foreign Policy.

A lot has happened in Nicaragua since Ollie North and friends funneled money from illegal US arms sales to Iran – then under an embargo – to the Contra rebels fighting Ortega’s communist government.

In 1990, the former leader of the leftist Sandinista movement that toppled Nicaragua’s long dynasty of dictators agreed to democratic elections. He was ousted for 15 long years.

For his comeback in 2006, the one-time revolutionary allied with Nicaragua’s conservative parties.

To solidify his power, he gradually developed deeper and deeper ties to the country’s leading corporations – a major flip-flop he executed effortlessly.

He pulled out all the stops to subvert or marginalize anyone who refused to ally with him, transforming a measly 38 percent of the popular vote in 2006 to a whopping 62 percent in 2011. The opposition is now so crushed that the next election, on Nov. 6, will be “practically uncontested.” Meanwhile, Ortega’s wife is set to become his vice president.

Criticized for holding fraudulent elections and compelling the Supreme Court to bar top opposition candidates from running against him in the past – not to mention eliminating term limits – in July he induced the court to actually strip 28 opposition lawmakers of their posts.

His polling numbers have gone up and up.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly even voted to retain a longtime Sandinista Ortega ally as its speaker despite the fact that he died 10 days earlier – implying that the soon-to-be three-term president’s powers may extend beyond the grave, the Associated Press reported.

One reason for his surging popularity is that he’s delivered steady economic growth. While former stars like Brazil and Venezuela are now foundering, Nicaragua’s GDP has doubled since Ortega took office in 2006 – albeit from a low base.

His clever backroom maneuvering has allowed him to avoid the kind of brutal squashing of dissenters that’s more common in the neighborhood. And Nicaragua suffers from significantly less garden-variety street violence than Guatemala or Honduras – where endemic crime has sent a wave of refugees to the US.

Partly for those same reasons, with the Cold War over, the international community has not been overly concerned about what happens in the second-poorest country in the world after Haiti. But the U.S. Congress stepped up to the plate Wednesday, delivering what McClatchyDC called a “scathing rebuke” of his efforts to undermine democracy.

The move went beyond rhetoric. House Democrats and Republicans unanimously supported a call to restrict the Ortega government’s access to loans from international financial institutions unless it accepts international election observers and takes others steps to promote democracy.

But with the ex-revolutionary’s popularity seeming only to grow and his recent moves to expel three US officials from Nicaragua and strengthen his ties with Russia, it’s not at all clear he’ll listen.

After all, he never paid much attention to Ollie North.

WANT TO KNOW

Talk the Talk

US President Barack Obama this week announced a pledge by leading nations to accept hundreds of thousands more refugees. But the numbers are mounting much faster, and not just from Syria.

A mammoth exodus of people fleeing conflict in northern Iraq now threatens to overwhelm relief efforts there, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The flood of as many as a million new refugees comes as US-backed Iraqi security forces prepare for a massive assault to take back the city of Mosul from the jihadist fighters of the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the new refugees could quickly overwhelm the added multinational efforts at refugee financing, retraining and resettlement that Obama secured at a meeting of world leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week.

A Welcome Crackdown

This is one Chinese crackdown that the world will welcome.

Virtually the sole supporter of North Korea’s isolated regime in the past, Beijing is now investigating a local company that experts believe supplied dictator Kim Jong-un with banned materials that could be used by his growing nuclear program, according to the Associated Press.

China’s Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. is suspected of unspecified “serious economic crimes,” according to official announcements from the Chinese authorities.

The foreign ministry gave no further details, but a South Korean think tank said last month Hongxiang supplied aluminum oxide and other materials that are used in processing nuclear bomb fuel. The head of a Chinese government think tank told the AP that the crackdown signals Beijing was serious when it agreed to UN sanctions on North Korea in March – though some earlier reports said Beijing was looking the other way to allow coal exports to the pariah regime.

Blood Price

So-called “blood money” is often used to stop deadly feuds in Afghanistan. But human rights workers say the price the country is now paying for peace is too high – if peace is even the result.

On Thursday, the Afghan government signed a long-awaited peace deal with fugitive Islamist militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, hoping to begin rebuilding a country ravaged by more than a decade of war, according to the Washington Post.

But Human Rights Watch and similar organizations – who accuse Hekmatyar of war crimes – said the pact “will compound the culture of impunity that the Afghan government and its foreign donors have fostered” in Afghanistan.

Under the deal, Hekmatyar will sever ties with extremist groups and renounce acts of terrorism in exchange for immunity from prosecution for allegedly shelling civilians, torturing prisoners and assassinating his opponents.

As it was being signed in Kabul, demonstrators held up posters that read: “We will never forgive the executioner of Kabul.”

DISCOVERIES

Two Boys, a President and a Plea

This week saw two refugee summits, more politicking and populism, and a letter that stripped it all down to nothing.

The missive, written by six-year-old Alex in New York to US President Barack Obama, was inspired by an image of a desperate Syrian boy, Omran, sitting injured and silent in an ambulance following an airstrike on Aleppo in August.

Omran’s picture shocked the world. It shocked Alex, too – into action.

“Please go get” Omran and bring him to America, Alex pleaded with Obama. “We will give him a family, and he will be our brother. (My sister) Catherine will share her big, blue, stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it.”

Around the world “race-baiting bigots” have raised the specter of a flood of Muslim immigrants to make political gains, the UN high commissioner for human rights said this week. But little Alex wasn’t daunted. And Obama, moved by Alex’s missive, read the letter aloud at the Leaders Summit on Refugees this week. More than 7 million people have watched the video of Alex reading it for the president.

And, according to the comments, many of them felt shamed.

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