The World Today for September 26, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

SPAIN

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

With its own language, a history of independence dating back to the Middle Ages, and a thriving economy, the Catalonia region has plenty of reasons to dream about splitting from Spain.

But when voters go to the polls for an independence referendum Oct. 1, the result could have implications as far reaching as Britain’s vote to abandon the European Union, opines Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan.

The vote is a bellwether of sorts for independence movements in places like Scotland, Belgium, and Italy, Hallinan argues. It will also gauge public opinion on essential EU policies such as austerity, regressive taxation, and privatization of public resources as a strategy for economic recovery.

Having done its utmost to stop it, on Monday Spanish officials said the vote had been effectively discredited – though “some voting stalls may be installed and a mock vote may take place,” Reuters reported. Are they whistling in the dark?

Earlier this month, Spain’s constitutional court suspended the planned vote, which the central government has called illegal. But the autonomous Catalan parliament has vowed to proceed anyway, going so far as to squirrel away 6,000 ballot boxes for fear they will be confiscated by the police, reports the New York Times.

The country’s top prosecutor subsequently summoned more than 700 Catalan mayors for questioning over their support for the banned vote, calling for them to be arrested if they failed to appear.

The move appeared to galvanize support for the referendum. Separatists and other supporters of the region’s right to self-determination rallied in solidarity with the mayors on Sept. 16, following a separate maneuver by the central government to take over the funding of most essential public services in Catalonia if Catalans refuse to scrap the vote Sunday.

What happens next is anybody’s guess.

The Guardian points out that the secessionists’ claim to a majority is illusory, and it’s likely that a referendum could be swayed by a vocal minority – because it doesn’t establish any minimum level of participation.

The vote is almost as much about Europe’s future as it is about Spain’s, however, as the current push for independence stems directly from the country’s reaction to the Eurozone crisis.

When the 2008 meltdown burst the bubble of Spain’s real estate-fueled economy, the price of the bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Bank was a “policy of massive austerity, huge tax hikes, and what one commentator called ‘sado-monetarism’,” Hallinan writes.

Not long afterward, the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned the agreement that had granted Catalonia a high degree of autonomy, while the relaxation of labor laws to boost the economy created “an army of under and unemployed workers” vulnerable to the xenophobic rhetoric of nationalism.

Attempts to strangle the referendum without letting voters go to the polls could well backfire for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, possibly creating a standoff that forces him to offer concessions to the region like the right to collect its own taxes.

For now, though, the rest of Europe can only wait and watch.

WANT TO KNOW

IRAQ

Ripple Effect

Another bellwether referendum of sorts took place in Iraq, where ethnic Kurds on Monday went ahead with an independence vote to the dismay of the United Nations and various world powers.

Votes are still being counted, and the vote is non-binding. But the result is expected to be a resounding “yes” for independence.

The United Nations and Washington have both expressed their dismay that the vote took place at all, as it was a “unilateral” action opposed by the Iraqi government and other players in the region, the Washington Post reported.

The real problem, of course, is the UN and others fear that the independence vote could fracture Iraq just as the war with Islamic State is winding down, possibly preventing a fragile peace from taking hold in the region.

Redrawing Iraq’s borders would be contentious, and leaders in Turkey and Iran fear the move could strengthen Kurdish separatists in their countries, too.

NORTH KOREA

Slouching Toward Mayhem

In the wake of Kim Jong-un’s claim that President Donald Trump’s tweets amount to a declaration of war, North Korea has been boosting defenses on its east coast and vowed to shoot down US bombers flying near the Korean peninsula.

Reuters quoted South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency as saying that the North had taken the measures in response to a demonstration flight by US bombers over the weekend.

Since North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3, the rhetorical exchanges between Kim and Trump have grown increasingly bellicose, with Trump saying via his Twitter account that Kim “won’t be around much longer” if the North makes good on its earlier threats. That was the phrase the North suggested was tantamount to a declaration of war.

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country,” North Korea’s foreign minister told reporters in New York on Monday.

CHINA

Separate But Online

Segregation from the rest of the world hasn’t stopped Chinese internet companies from roaring ahead. Rather, it’s created a separate universe of giant rivals to Amazon, Facebook, Google and (possibly) Netflix.

Where it ends, nobody knows. But on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Baidu Inc.’s iQiyi – billed as “the Chinese Netflix” – is targeting a US initial public offering in 2018 that could value the company at more than $8 billion. That’s a fraction of Netflix’s present market capitalization of around $80 billion, and iQiyi is already a Netflix partner in China.

Meanwhile, Beijing has fined homegrown tech giants Baidu, Tencent and Sina Weibo for failing to censor banned content ahead of an important Communist Party Conference in October — signaling a renewed effort to control the domestic internet.

In July, the government pushed Apple to remove several VPN apps from its China store and clamped down on domestic streaming services for disseminating political content.

DISCOVERIES

Never Too Old

Florence Cheptoo, who lives in an isolated rural village near Chesongoch, in western Kenya, turned her first page at the age of 60.

She was inspired to do so after her granddaughter brought books home from her primary school, exposing her to a world of words.

In a letter to the BBC, she explained how learning to read and write has drastically changed her daily life, boosting her confidence, and making her feel “part of those who are in the modern world.”

She can now read newspapers, sign her own name and take care of her personal records, while enjoying reading story books and letters from her family. She said she likes maps because she likes knowing where different parts of the country lie.

She now has company – the relatives of her granddaughter’s schoolmates. One octogenarian with poor eyesight told the BBC he doubted he would be much of a reader but wanted to set an example for the village: Reading is important.

Demand has grown so high, the local teachers are now offering literacy lessons for adults.

It’s a heartwarming confirmation of an age old adage: You’re never too old to learn something new.

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