The World Today for February 23, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

A Deepening Chasm

Hefty American sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami last week came out of the blue.

For more than a year, the world has been focused on the economic crisis that has struck the far-left, socialist country. Vox on Wednesday reported that Venezuelans have lost 19 pounds on average due to food shortages, for example, a shocking development in a lush, tropical country.

Classifying El Aissami as a drug kingpin, American officials froze the vice president’s American assets and barred him from entering the US. Intelligence officials allege he played a crucial role in smuggling mass amounts of cocaine Stateside via Colombia and Mexico, the Associated Press reported.

El Aissami isn’t the only Venezuelan official the US has accused of cozying up to drug cartels, but he’s certainly the most high profile. Analysts suggested that guys like him are getting creative about where they steal from given how the price of oil, Venezuela’s most important export, has plunged.

“There is no more money to rob from state coffers, so the wheels of corruption may need to turn to other sources of income, like drug trafficking,” Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a think tank studying organized crime in Latin America, told the Guardian.

The price of oil has made life hard for President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded departed socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2013. Maduro no longer has the means to continue Chavez’s ambitious social welfare programs.

The International Monetary Fund estimated that inflation would soon jump to 1,600 percent. Meanwhile, the economy continues to contract and citizens are struggling to buy even the most basic goods, Reuters reported. Medical supplies are also scarce, ushering in a resurgence of deadly diseases once thought eradicated.

Maduro has jailed prominent members of the opposition seeking relief for the nation.

US President Donald Trump personally met with imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez’s wife at the White House over the weekend. The State Department also called for Venezuela to release over 100 prisoners of conscience imprisoned by Maduro’s regime soon thereafter, the Miami Herald reported.

But it looks like those calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Lopez’s last appeal against his 14-year prison sentence was denied by Venezuela’s high court soon after his wife’s meeting with President Trump, a ruling she sees as the illegitimate ploy of a dictatorial regime.

With the new US administration throwing its hat into the Venezuelan political ring, it seems the chasm between the two nations is only widening. But it remains to be seen whether new political pressure can alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering.

WANT TO KNOW

A Broader Sweep

Pakistan broadened its nationwide crackdown on terrorism in what appears to be the country’s most serious effort to root out the jihadists who have long used it as a base of operations.

The Pakistani army launched a countrywide offensive against militants on Wednesday that it said was aimed at eliminating the terror cells once and for all, the Times of India reported.

More than a 120 people have been killed by terrorists in the last month in Pakistan – the latest from a blast in an upscale market in Lahore Thursday – while the authorities killed more than 100 alleged terrorists and detained 350 suspects earlier this week in the first stage of the crackdown. Since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Pakistan has also placed Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, under house arrest and added him to its terror watch list for the first time.

It remains to be seen whether the army will crack down on all terrorist groups or attempt to distinguish between cells that launch attacks inside Pakistan and those that target India – which New Delhi alleges enjoy the support of Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence agency.

Let’s Talk Peace

After the Moscow-brokered talks in Kazakhstan failed to generate even a joint statement, United Nations-sponsored peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are to get under way in Geneva for the first time in nearly a year.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special Syria envoy, said on Wednesday he was “not expecting a breakthrough,” the BBC reported.

That’s an understatement. The rebels have once again insisted that the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad is on the agenda, which the government has refused to discuss from the outset. Meanwhile, the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey is barely holding, with rebels saying that an escalation of attacks by pro-government forces on Damascus suburbs held by rebels threatened to derail the Geneva talks.

According to the UN, the goals of the talks are to establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance; set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution; and put in place plans to hold free and fair elections within 18 months. But the rebels say none of that’s possible with Assad in the race and the government insists he has to be.

A Discordant Note

Cuba said it foiled a serious plot to destabilize the country by blocking the visit of a foreign dignitary who planned to attend an awards ceremony sponsored by political dissidents.

The opposition group, which the government called “anti-Cuban and illegal,” had invited Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro to Havana to honor him for shining a light on violations of human rights in the Americas, Reuters reported.

While Cuba considers OAS to be a tool of the US government, its anachronistic reaction struck a discordant note as US President Donald Trump considers whether to continue normalizing relations with the Caribbean island.

“The plan … consisted of mounting in Havana an open and serious provocation against the Cuban government, generating internal instability, damaging the country’s international reputation,” Cuba’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Cuba had earlier stopped a Chilean minister and an ex-president of Mexico from traveling to Cuba to attend the award ceremony as well.

DISCOVERIES

New Kid on the Block

School children have long learned of the world’s seven continents in geography class.

But with science, consensus never lasts.

Scientists are now advocating for the acknowledgement of an eighth continent: Zealandia.

The new continent on the global block isn’t as foreign as one might think. Although 94 percent of its landmass is submerged, Zealandia’s highest mountain range is the island nation of New Zealand.

But think again if you believe that admission into the continental club hinges on large swaths of dry land, the BBC reported.

In their paper published recently in the Geological Society of America’s Journal, researchers explain that Zealandia, which measures about 1.9 million square miles, ticks off every requirement to be classified as a continent, including distinctive geology, a well-defined area and a crust thicker than the ocean floor.

Researchers also believe that promoting Zealandia’s geological classification could help scientists better understand continental drift.

“The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

If we accepted getting rid of Pluto’s place in our solar system, maybe we can accept Zealandia, too.

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