The World Today for December 12, 2017



Meeting Minds

The discovery of brain damage in diplomats formerly posted in the US embassy in Cuba has reopened arguments about the risks associated with the communist island.

A “high-pitched chirp or grating metal” sound sometimes accompanied by vibrations woke up American officials in the embassy starting last year, the Associated Press reported, citing doctors who have treated the victims and expect to publish their findings in a medical journal soon.

The alleged sonic attack altered the white matter that carries communication signals in the embassy staff’s brains, harming their hearing, memory and vision.

Denying any role in the sicknesses, the Cuban government released a report claiming the damage was technically impossible. Instead, Cuban researchers posited that staffers suffered a “collective psychogenic disorder” stemming from stress. Columbia University neurologist Stanley Fahn thought that argument was compelling, telling Science magazine that “it could certainly all be psychogenic.”

But whether American diplomats fell victim to a James Bond-like tech attack or not, the incident has likely fueled President Donald Trump’s skepticism toward his predecessor’s openness toward Cuba.

Trump has appointed a new ambassador to Cuba. But only a skeleton crew of workers remain behind in the embassy in the wake of the alleged attacks. Administration officials have even discussed closing the facility entirely.

More American antagonism is bad economic news for Cuba, whose main trading partner, Venezuela, is suffering economic collapse. As Venezuela has demanded more money for its oil, Havana is facing a cash crunch and an onerous debt burden, forcing the island to import less from China, its other important trading partner, Voice of America explained.

Cruise lines that have announced expanded service to the island provided an economic uplift, USA Today reported. Those ships’ passengers have plenty to do onshore. A travel piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail described a thriving Centro neighborhood as a must-see for tourists. VICE also published an electrifying photo essay on Cuba’s music scene.

But more tourists might exacerbate tensions, too.

The Washington Post recently told the story of an American woman and a Cuban man who fell in love when she visited the island on vacation. The couple wanted to obtain a K-1 visa, which lets fiancés into the US for 90 days so they can marry and apply for a green card. But the shortage of diplomats has forced the US embassy to halt issuing visas, preventing Cubans from receiving permission to visit the mainland.

It would be a shame if differences between high-level leaders prevent ordinary people from forging peaceful ties on their own.



Locking Down Power

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to begin withdrawing his country’s troops from Syria on an unannounced visit to the war-torn country on Monday.

Russian intervention was vital in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the height of the conflict, in which both US-backed rebels and Islamic State militants sought to unseat him.

Though Putin made a similar announcement last year, and Russian troops mostly remained in place, this time Moscow has begun withdrawing some of its troops from Syria, the BBC cited Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying on Monday. As to how long a total withdrawal would take would “depend on the situation” in Syria, he said.

The BBC’s Moscow correspondent notes that it’s probably no accident that the move closely follows Putin’s announcement that he will stand for re-election in 2018, and characterizes the intervention as a success for Moscow. Not only did Putin succeed in keeping Assad in power as an ally, he also averted the risk of international isolation due to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.


The New Normal

French President Emmanuel Macron made another pitch for the American president’s longtime moniker as “leader of the free world” by luring top US scientists to France with millions of euros in grants on the eve of a so-called “One Planet” summit to raise funds to help developing countries switch from fossil fuels to greener energy sources and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Dubbed “Make Our Planet Great Again” grants, the financial awards to US scientists are an unsubtle shot across the bow, noted the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Macron announced a contest for the projects in June, hours after Trump declared he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

“We will be there to replace” US financing of climate research, Macron told the winners – 13 out of 18 were US scientists – on Monday.

It’s debatable whether the One Planet summit will have the same concrete results. So far, rich countries are behind on the pledge to spend $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations go green, and though some 50 world leaders are due to attend the Paris meeting, no internationally binding commitments will be announced.


On the Move

While migrants fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have drawn most of the world’s attention, tens of thousands fleeing the economic meltdown and political turmoil in Venezuela also threaten to overwhelm Brazil.

Already, as many as 40,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil, a bit more than half of whom have applied for asylum, said George Okoth-Obbo, operations chief for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

“Shelters are already crowded to their limit,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “It is a very tough situation.”

Hundreds of thousands have also fled to Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia. There are no official numbers on the total number of migrants. But some sociologists put the figure as high as 2 million of Venezuela’s 30 million residents.

The city of Boa Vista is struggling to accommodate the flood, housing some migrants in impromptu facilities like a local gym, while others remain homeless or turn to prostitution and other crimes to survive, the agency said.


Locally Sourced

Toyota’s newest power plant in California will be specializing in a new kind of fuel: cow manure.

Powered by renewable methane gas produced by local agricultural waste, Toyota’s Tri-Gen project is thought to be the world’s first commercial, 100-percent renewable power plant, USA Today reported.

“Tri-Gen is a major step forward for sustainable mobility and a key accomplishment of our 2050 environmental challenge to achieve net zero CO2 emissions from our operations,” said Doug Murtha, VP of strategic planning for Toyota’s North America group.

The plant will source enough manure from local dairy operations to generate 2.35 megawatts of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen per day – enough to power nearly 2,350 average-sized homes and 1,500 vehicles.

Hydrogen produced by the plant will also lend itself nicely to developing fuel cells for Toyota’s high-tech local fleet.

But it’s the plant’s own fuel source that’s the big technological feat, says Matt McClory, a senior engineer with Toyota research and development.

“The majority of natural gas comes from drilling for well gases,” he said. “We’re trying to green up this process. One way is to find renewable sources, like from gases emitted from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and farm animals.”

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