The World Today for November 22, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

VENEZUELA

A Drizzle, then a Storm

Venezuela hasn’t bottomed out just yet – but it’s close.

Last week, the country failed to make about $280 million in loan repayments, triggering Standard & Poor’s to categorize Venezuela as a nation in “selective default,” the Washington Post reported.

That’s just a fancy way to say it’s broke.

“This is the first drizzle in a huge thunderstorm,” Jose L. Valera, an international energy lawyer, told the New York Times. “The whole country of Venezuela is bankrupt.”

Venezuela’s rapid decline over the past 20 years from the rich man of South America to one of the world’s most troubled economies is a tale of two factors, tanking oil prices and excess government spending, writes Henkel Garcia U., a financial instructor at Venezuela’s Andres Bello Catholic University, for the Conversation.

It’s a deadly combination for a country whose economy depends on the oil business. Since 2006, the nation’s debt has increased nearly ten-fold, and inflation is expected to rise to 2,300 percent in 2018, CNN Money reported.

Venezuela’s economic crisis was only exacerbated by the nation’s political one. Hugo Chavez and his successor, current President Nicolas Maduro, chipped away at Venezuela’s last vestiges of democracy by consolidating power, fixing elections and silencing defectors, the Wall Street Journal reported.

This summer, Maduro moved to rewrite the nation’s constitution to dissolve any formal institutions that may stand in his way, something citizens have described as embodying the “worst style of Mussolini and Hitler.”

Both the EU and the United States have sanctioned and embargoed Maduro and his henchmen in attempts to buckle the regime through economic pressure. But with Russia and China – Caracas’s largest foreign backers – allowing Maduro’s regime breathing room in its debt repayments, a new lifeline has been extended, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The question now is how long the regime can endure.

The nation’s dire economic situation has caused Caracas to cut the nation’s imports of vital food and medicinal supplies. As a result, 54 percent of children are malnourished and curable illnesses are metastasizing into deadly diseases, CNN reported.

“It really hurts knowing that you bring your son (to the hospital) for one thing, he gets worse from others, then you get him back in a box,” said Sandra Galindez, whose son died recently in a poorly equipped hospital in Caracas.

For now the military, which remains loyal to Maduro, is preventing restless citizens from ousting him, writes Ozan Varol for the Washington Post.

But with wages slashed even within their own ranks, a coup may be imminent – either pushing this crippled nation over the brink, or ushering in a new era of democracy, Varol opined.

“The Venezuelan military is the levee that’s keeping the democratic movement at bay to protect the Maduro regime,” wrote Varol. “Only if the military breaks can the river of democracy jump the banks.”

That’s highly likely. As the government starves its people, and there is no chance of comeback – because of no change in policy – desperation will only grow.

And that leaves people who already have little with even less to lose.

WANT TO KNOW

RUSSIA

Cloud 9

Russia confirmed for the first time that it had detected a radiation spike of about 1,000 times normal levels over the Ural Mountains, close to a massive Soviet-era nuclear plant. But Moscow denied that it was connected to a radioactive cloud that drifted over Europe this fall.

The spike occurred in the Chelyabinsk region near the border with Kazakhstan, and has been identified by French and German nuclear safety institutions as a potential source for the concentration of a radioactive isotope called ruthenium 106 that was detected in the air in late September above several European countries, the New York Times reported.

However, Russian nuclear energy authorities said they’d noted even higher levels of atmospheric contamination in Romania, and Rosatom, the state company that runs Russia’s nuclear industry, said there had been no accidents at its plants that could explain the high radiation levels.

The acknowledgment of the spike in the Urals comes after weeks of Russian denials.

Earlier, France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety said the radioactive cloud is not a health hazard.

NIGERIA

A Nagging Problem

Nigerian authorities continue to insist that Islamist militant group Boko Haram is on the brink of defeat, but the country suffered its largest terrorist strike of the year on Tuesday when a suicide bomber killed at least 50 people at a mosque in the northeastern town of Mubi.

No group has yet claimed authority for the attack, which brings the number killed in 2017 to at least 278, Reuters reported. Because a number of people also suffered serious injuries, the death toll could well increase, police said.

Boko Haram was pushed out of power in Adamawa state, where Mubi is located, in early 2015. And while the group still carries out terrorist strikes on mosques and markets, this was the first such attack in Mubi since government forces recaptured the town in in 2014.

In its wake, Aisha Yesufu, BringBackOurGirls, BBOG co-convener, blasted the government via Twitter for claiming the group was defeated.

Fighting to overthrow the government since 2009, Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 and forced around 2 million people to flee their homes.

LEBANON

Surprise, Surprise

Lebanese leader Saad Hariri returned to Beirut Tuesday, following speculation that he was destined for exile in France and accusations that Saudi Arabia was detaining him against his will.

Hariri arrived at the Beirut airport shortly before midnight and drove to Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut to pray at the tomb of his father – a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005, the New York Times reported.

He left without making a public statement except to say “thank you” to the Lebanese people – leaving the world wondering whether he will rescind the unexpected resignation that precipitated a political crisis and fears of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said Hariri’s resignation – which was issued in a televised address from Riyadh, possibly under pressure for Saudi Arabia – is not official until he repeats it in person.

While his return to Beirut is a good sign for the stability of Lebanon and the region, if he does confirm his resignation it would force a “contentious reshuffle” in the government, which is less than a year old.

DISCOVERIES

An Ancient Toast

Your nightly glass of red wine with dinner has older origins in human society than was once thought. New research reveals that wine production likely began in the South Caucasus in what is now Georgia about 8,000 years ago – nearly 1,000 years earlier than previous estimates.

As with most scientific breakthroughs, researchers stumbled upon the discovery by accident, the Washington Post reported.

By carbon dating ancient pots and jars from the region, researchers were able to pinpoint when they were kilned. But analyses also unearthed trace amounts of tartaric and succinic acid inside the jars – compounds present in grape and fruit fermentation – as well as bits of starch and grape skin.

Despite having found no traces of alcohol, scientists posit in their study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, that the jars likely contained wine.

Grapes are the only fruit that produces tartaric acid in the region, and it’s unlikely ancient Georgians were producing vinegar.

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