The World Today for January 17, 2018



Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Just before Christmas, the Cuban government postponed a historic presidential election in which longtime leader Raúl Castro was expected to step down.

Initially slated for February, the vote was delayed until April, prompting speculation about the country’s future, the Miami Herald reported.

All that is certain is that Castro will remain in power at least until April 19, the date now set for election of a new legislature and the president of the Councils of State and Ministers, positions now held by the brother of the late revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

Some speculate that Raúl Castro will stay on after the election to deal with a sluggish economy, the devastation resulting from Hurricane Irma and the new reality of relations with Washington under the administration of US President Donald Trump.

“I know very well how they think and react,” the Herald quoted a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami as saying of Castro and his team. “To me, it’s inconceivable facing the current circumstances that they would retire.”

But such speculation “is to misread the man,” the Economist suggested.

The Economist and others argue that Castro’s options aren’t limited to retirement or remaining in office. Citing his work to institutionalize the communist regime with an orderly administration and collective leadership, the Economist noted that Castro has groomed Miguel Díaz-Canel as his replacement – and that Díaz-Canel would continue to answer to Castro behind the scenes.

The process is more selection than election, Osmel Ramirez Alvarez argues in the Havana Times, an independent online magazine based in Nicaragua.

“Díaz-Canel returned three months ago to make regular appearances in front of cameras and microphones, and nothing is coincidence in Cuba’s official journalism. And in recent weeks, his appearances have intensified,” Alvarez noted.

A handpicked “nomination committee” will decide who’s on the ballot. Castro will continue to have power as the head of the communist party. He is giving up his administrative position but not his political one. And he is likely to remain the head of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces or pass that position to his son.

Still, the election will be “an unprecedented event that hasn’t happened since 1976,” Alvarez said.

Castro’s supervision won’t be the only tricky issue for Díaz-Canel, however.

Assuming things go as expected, he’ll take office amid a rough patch in US-Cuban relations, following controversies over alleged “sonic attacks” on US diplomatic staff stationed in Havana and Trump’s pullback from the rapprochement brokered by his predecessor.

Of perhaps greater concern, new evidence suggests that the Cuban economy is in worse shape than previously claimed – with a GDP per capita of barely half the officially reported figure and only a third of the Latin American average. And the turmoil in Venezuela threatens to cut off a major lifeline.

Castro’s frustrated constituents could also present some problems.

“Whoever succeeds Castro will be called upon to balance the desires of Cuban hardliners and those who want the Cuban economy to open more and the outreach to the United States to continue,” the Economist concluded.



No Freeze, No Thaw

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out a freeze on military exercises with South Korea, instead calling on other nations to tighten the noose on the North until Pyongyang agrees to begin negotiating an end to its nuclear weapons program.

“Let me be clear — we will not allow North Korea to drive a wedge through our resolve or solidarity,” Bloomberg reported Tillerson as telling leaders gathered in Vancouver to discuss the issue.

China and Russia, which are chiefly responsible for the North’s financial survival, were not invited to the meeting. Both nations have repeatedly called for a “freeze” on US-South Korean military drills in a bid to jumpstart talks. But Tillerson rejected that proposal.

Instead, the meeting is focused on stopping smugglers that have helped Pyongyang evade sanctions, stepping up maritime interdiction and possibly getting the UN to block port access for smugglers.

“The pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes decisive steps to denuclearize,” Tillerson said.


Hopeless Return

Bangladesh and Myanmar laid out a two-year timeframe for the return of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh on Tuesday. But international aid groups are worried that Myanmar won’t be able to guarantee their safety if they return home.

More than 650,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh due to brutal military “clearance operations” that the United Nations, the US and others have called “ethnic cleansing,” NPR reported.

On Tuesday, the two nations agreed to repatriate some 1,500 refugees per week, Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar Sufiur Rahman said.

Myanmar said it’s preparing to receive the returnees. But authorities there continue to deny the migrants’ stories of rape and mass killing, prompting deep skepticism from rights workers.

“Where are considerations for protection of the Rohingya from Myanmar security forces who months ago were raping and killing them?” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.


The Curse of Cheap Money

Africa may face a debt crisis in 2018, thanks to a boom in lending to low- and lower-middle-income country governments following the global financial crisis of a decade ago.

Such lending quadrupled from $57 billion in 2007 to $260 billion by 2016, noted Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. The reason for the increase was quantitative easing and low interest rates in the most developed countries – which made lending to developing countries at higher interest rates more attractive.

But with interest rates now rising, those same poor countries are having trouble paying the money back.

Kenya’s debt now totals 32 percent of GDP, Uganda’s is 57 percent of GDP, Tanzania’s 63 percent, and Mozambique’s a whopping 299 percent, the paper said. At the low end, those numbers aren’t necessarily red flags – the US debt-to-GDP ratio was higher than 100 percent from 2012 to 2016. But a steady upward trend could hurt credit ratings and Mozambique was already unable to pay back its loans in January 2017, Deutsche Welle noted.


Scottish Revolt

For many Scots, the sugary soft drink Irn Bru is a national treasure, prized for alleviating hangovers after a “night on the tiles,” Reuters reported.

But following a decision by the British government to impose higher taxes on sugary drinks to curb obesity, makers of the iconic beverage have reduced Irn Bru’s sugar content – much to the ire of the Scots.

“I believe that a responsible adult should have the choice as to what poisons they want to put in their body,” local petitioner Ryan Allen told the BBC.

In an attempt to preserve Irn Bru’s original recipe, Allen and other loyal fans started a petition named “Hands off our Irn Bru.” They’ve garnered 8,000 signatures so far.

But Allen has told Reuters he’s already begun hoarding the beloved beverage, just in case his revolt loses traction.

“It’s … well known to alleviate the effects of a hangover and is many a persons’ craving, savior or go-to drink after a night on the tiles,” he said. “I think to deny people in that condition their crutch would be a crime.”

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