December 15, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Italian Baggage

New Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni is already facing a gauntlet of political obstacles to his hastily assembled government’s success – and he hasn’t even received a vote of support in parliament yet.

Gentiloni, 62, was foreign minister before he took over the prime minister’s job after his predecessor, Matteo Renzi, resigned in humiliation in the wake of voters rejecting his proposed constitutional reforms in a Dec. 4 referendum.

The vote was largely viewed as a success among the populists who have applauded Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and other far-right, anti-global victories.

But Renzi hasn’t disappeared completely from the ever-revolving door of Italian politics. He remains head of the Democratic Party and leads the center-left coalition with a thin majority in both houses of parliament. Gentiloni has retained most of his former cabinet, Voice of America reported.

Gentiloni, a respected former journalist and political figure in his own right, isn’t sugarcoating the political crisis he’s facing. “I won’t hide the political difficulties that derive from the referendum’s outcome and the political crisis that followed,” he said.

Those difficulties are many.

The Italian economy is stagnant. Growth is expected to grow by only one percent over the next two years, as the result of an anemic economic recovery following Europe’s financial crisis and lasting austerity measures. Unemployment rates are still high, especially in the underdeveloped south, where youth joblessness affects one in two.

Italy’s banks are also struggling under $200 billion in crushing debt, raising the specter of public-sector bailouts. The Mediterranean country remains on the frontlines of a persisting migrant crisis, too.

Although Gentiloni has vowed to triage Italy’s pressing issues and set the stage for growth, he lacks time, the Guardian reported.

The parliamentary term ends in 2018. But President Sergio Mattarella’s call for Gentiloni to form a new government presents a de facto continuation of Renzi’s reign and almost certainly means early elections in 2017 as Renzi’s coalition fractures and the opposition grows more emboldened.

The Democrat Party’s rivals have dubbed the new arrangement a “Renziloni” government. The Democrats face particularly strong opposition from the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has become an electrifying force in Italian politics – even winning Rome’s mayoral race this summer. The Movement has abstained from giving their vote of confidence to Gentiloni’s “photocopy” cabinet.

Some members of the Democratic Party’s coalition also said they wouldn’t vote for Gentiloni when he presented his government in the Senate on Wednesday, illustrating the new prime minister’s precarious situation.

“It’s a government identical to the last one,” said Liguria Governor Giovanni Toti of the center-right Forza Italia party. “[But] more fragile.”

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WANT TO KNOW

Hatred Flares

South Sudan is on the brink of “all-out ethnic civil war.”

A conflict between the supporters of President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar has escalated and now “could destabilize the entire region,” the head of a team of United Nations investigators said Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

Chief investigator Yasmin Sooka said gang rape was occurring on an “epic” scale and warned that swift action was required to prevent a genocide like the one that resulted in the killing of nearly a million people in Rwanda in 1994, the Guardian reported.

Sooka suggested targeted sanctions and the deployment of a 4,000-strong protection force to separate the warring parties, the paper said.

Violence erupted in South Sudan in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup. Machar is currently in detention or a “guest” in South Africa, which is trying to prevent an escalation of the war.

It’s Over, Again

After a failed ceasefire that some have criticized as a “bait and switch,” a deal to evacuate Aleppo is back on.

Officials representing the rebels and the Syrian government said late Wednesday that the evacuation would resume early Thursday, Reuters reported. But past experience suggests it’s hard to predict how things will play out.

After Russia said the fighting was officially over earlier this week and an agreement was forged to evacuate rebels and civilians from the besieged eastern part of Aleppo, government forces continued to bomb the city on Wednesday after the evacuation was meant to begin, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Iran, one of Assad’s main backers, has since said wounded people must be evacuated from two villages besieged by rebels at the same time, Reuters said. According to a rebel leader, the evacuation of Aleppo is slated to begin at 6 a.m. local time Thursday.

Austere Brazil

Another one-time spendthrift has put a cap on government spending – for a long time to come.

In the wake of heavy spending on social programs funded by a decade-long commodities boom, Brazil’s Senate on Tuesday voted to amend the country’s constitution to cap government spending, effectively freezing expenditures on health and education for the next 20 years, the Guardian reported.

President Michel Temer, who took over after the impeachment of predecessor Dilma Rousseff, has staked his political future on reducing public spending in order to bring Brazil out of recession. But one UN official called the latest measure – which limits increases on health and education spending to the rate of inflation over the next two decades – the most socially regressive austerity package in the world.

Meanwhile, a poll published Tuesday found that 60 percent of Brazilians opposed such a rigid cap. Others suggested looking to the tax system for a solution – noting that despite the huge gap between Brazil’s rich and poor, the highest income tax slab is just 27.5 percent.

DISCOVERIES

Monkey Speak, Monkey Do

The idea of a talking monkey may seem like something out of Planet of the Apes. But new research suggests that primate anatomy may actually cater to human-like speech.

A study published Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that primates lack human-like control of the vocal apparatus, not the anatomy, to produce speech.

Scientists have been investigating primate speech since the 1960s using monkey cadavers. Unsatisfied, researchers recently set about to see speech in action – using live macaque monkeys.

They used x-ray video of macaques vocalizing, then rendered a computer model that outlined the monkeys’ vocal limitations. One of the study’s authors, Asif Ghanzanfar, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, was floored by the results.

“The range of different sounds that a living macaque can produce actually overlaps quite a bit with the sounds that a human can produce,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. Research suggests that it’s the monkeys’ substantive neural pathways that prevent them from learning to speak.

Despite advances in research, scientists still dispute the study’s greater impact: monkeys still can’t articulate the same vowel and consonant sounds as humans.

“We could talk without these sounds,” said Philip Lieberman, a pioneer in the field. “But it wouldn’t be an effective means of communication.”

Still, the new model suggests that monkeys and apes may possess the physiological capabilities to one day produce speech – if they can’t do so already.

“There is a growing body of evidence from ALL great ape species that there are little neural limitations,” said Adriano Reis e Lameira, a cognitive scientist at England’s Durham University not involved in the study. “Our closest relatives can vocally learn new vowel-like and consonant-like calls, both in the wild and captivity!”