The World Today for January 19, 2018



Out with the Old

When longtime strongman José Eduardo dos Santos announced he was stepping down as president of Angola after 38 years late last year, few expected that much would change under his handpicked successor. But President João Lourenço has proven to be more independent than anybody expected.

Saying on the eve of elections that as president he would have “all the power,” Lourenço – who is popularly known as JLo and has been christened “the Relentless Remover” on social media – wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Under a new constitution adopted in 2010, Angola’s president controls all organs of the government, making the country an authoritarian state.

He lost no time in wielding that power, either, the Economist reported.

Two months after taking office, Lourenço on Nov. 15 ousted Isabel dos Santos, the oldest daughter of the former president and said to be Africa’s richest woman, from her position at the head of Sonangol, the national oil company – a clear signal JLo wasn’t taking instructions from her father. On Nov. 20, Lourenço fired the police chief and the head of the intelligence agency. And last week he fired another of the ex-president’s children, José Filomeno dos Santos, from his post as chairman of the nation’s $5 billion sovereign-wealth fund, shortly after devaluing the country’s currency, Bloomberg reported.

Alongside those moves, Sonangol announced an investigation into its former chief executive for a “possible misappropriation” of funds, Agence France-Presse reported.

For her part, Isabel dos Santos denied any wrongdoing and blasted a CNN report on the probe as “fake news,” according to Africa News.

“Fake News CNN. There is NO corruption probe! Totally False allegation by @cnnbrk (CNN Breaking News), get your facts right,” she said in a tweet posted on Twitter following the report.

Her official statement said, “The public prosecution service of Angola has informed that it has not received any criminal complaint against Ms. Isabel dos Santos.”

AFP confirmed that statement as accurate. But the agency quoted a Sonangol spokesman as saying the company had indeed launched “an internal commission of inquiry to investigate the information published.”

Earlier, the local Novo Jornal and Portugal’s Jornal Económico reported that the firm had identified a suspect transfer of $67 million to Dubai and said investigators were looking into an almost $12-million monthly payment to a Portuguese company in which Isabel was the principal investor. The payments began when she became the head of the state oil giant.

To many, Lourenço’s shakeup is more than welcome. The stupendous wealth of the dos Santos clan never sat too well with ordinary people – who mostly live in poverty, with a life expectancy of just 60 years. But frustrations have grown as the drop in oil prices further eroded the country’s economy, which depends on oil for more than 90 percent of exports.

It’s too early to tell if Lourenço will really bring about the “revolution” forecast by Luaty Beirão, an Angolan rapper and activist who was jailed by the old administration.

But by cleaning house, observers say he’s made a strong start.



From Bad to Worse

Venezuela’s oil output plunged to a 28-year low in 2017, and that’s the good news.

Though Opec reported Venezuela’s crude oil production fell nearly 13 percent year-on-year in December, the official figures reported by Caracas showed a stunning 29 percent drop, Bloomberg reported. And that reflects a widening (and worsening) gap since April.

Venezuela needs to sell oil to salvage its failing economy and avoid defaulting on its debt. But Caracas has been unable to stop a now six-year-long production decline due to insufficient investments, payment delays to suppliers and US sanctions, Reuters reported.

The “weird” discrepancy in the figures is also significant. In November, beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro – whose efforts to consolidate power have prompted local protests and international sanctions – replaced both the country’s oil minister and the head of state-oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA.

So the massive drop in official output could represent newly appointed Major General Manuel Quevedo’s attempt to overstate the problem and thereby take credit for a modest improvement in January.


Scrambling Birds

Istanbul sent its military chief to Moscow to get the green light to launch air strikes on parts of Syria controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces.

Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar traveled to Moscow to meet representatives of Russia and Iran in a bid to gain approval for an air assault on the Afrin region of Syria, Reuters reported.

The visit marks the strongest signal yet that Turkey plans direct military action against territory held by Kurdish militia, which could open a new front in Syria’s civil war and widen the rift between Istanbul and Washington.

The US State Department has called on Turkey to focus on the fight against Islamic State militants and not take military action in Afrin, the agency said.

Russia and Iran want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain. Turkey wants both Assad and the Kurdish forces ousted. The US wants Assad gone and plans to set up a 30,000-strong force to support the Kurds – though Washington walked back its description of that contingent as a “border security force” on Thursday.


Strange Bedfellows

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party inked an alliance agreement with the anti-immigration Northern League and nationalist Brothers of Italy party Thursday, committing to slashing taxes and rolling back pension reforms.

The alliance likely positions the right-wing coalition to win the most seats in the upcoming national election March 4, but they will probably fail to win a majority, Reuters reported.

The parties did not release a final version of the electoral pact, but officials said earlier it would include provisions for rolling back a 2011 increase in the retirement age and the adoption of a flat tax – which the Northern League wants to be set at 15 percent and Berlusconi has said should be 20-25 percent. Currently, taxpayers in the highest bracket pay 43 percent.

Those promises and the increasing sway of the populist Five Star Movement on the opposite end of the spectrum have raised concerns that the new government will derail the economy as it begins to bounce back, CNBC reported.


Better Out Than In

A loud and sloppy sneeze in public can be embarrassing.

But swallowing it down might be a big mistake.

A 34-year-old man in Leicester, England recently ruptured his throat while trying to suppress a powerful sneeze, the BBC reported.

The man said he felt a “popping” sensation in his neck after trying to hold in his sneeze, accompanied by a sharp pain and difficulties swallowing and speaking.

Doctors discovered that his throat had ruptured and that air was escaping from his windpipe into the soft tissue of his neck.

The patient recovered, but not before enduring a week of being fed through a tube.

“Halting a sneeze via blocking nostrils and mouth is a dangerous maneuver and should be avoided,” said doctors from Leicester Royal Infirmary.

And it seems a ruptured throat isn’t even the worst of it.

According to a recent study published in the journal BMJ Case Reports, halting sneezes can cause damage to ears and rupture brain aneurysms.

Better out than in, as the saying goes.

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