The World Today for March 23, 2018



Bombs on the Beach

Spring breakers were avoiding Playa del Carmen in Mexico after the US State Department issued a security warning about the popular Caribbean resort.

“Passengers are definitely steering away and concerned,” Olga Ramudo, who runs a Florida travel agency, told USA Today.

Mexican tourism officials said the warning – which has since been lifted – was overblown. But American authorities issued the alert after a ferry exploded in February, injuring 25 people, and police found undetonated devices on another tourist boat.

Bombs on the beach are the last thing that Mexico needs these days.

Politically and economically, the country is facing twin threats, MarketWatch explained.

From without, negotiations with the US and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could destabilize its economy.

From within, crime and corruption are major issues. Read this fascinating BBC story about Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, a Mexico City suburb that is the most densely populated place in the country, to see the enormity of the problem.

Mexico and Canada have stuck to their guns in NAFTA negotiations, securing exemptions from US President Donald Trump’s recently imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum so as not to muddle one trade issue with the other, wrote Bloomberg.

But those changes also came amid what the New York Times described as a “marked increase in hostility from Washington” toward Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The multiple currents are likely to come to a head in July, when Mexican voters elect a new president.

Leftwing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the four-year-old National Regeneration Movement is currently in the lead – polling at 42 percent compared with 24 percent for former finance minister Jose Antonio Meade, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Reuters reported. Many American pundits describe his potential victory as a populist nightmare, but according to the New York Review of Books, those threats are imagined.

PRI and President Enrique Peña Nieto, who cannot seek reelection because of term limits, have delivered economic failures and scandals.

As Reuters reported, Mexico’s attorney general, a PRI member, recently released a video that was clearly designed to besmirch Ricardo Anaya, a presidential candidate with the main opposition National Action Party (PAN). In the video, Anaya or someone in his campaign calls law enforcement officials “sons of bitches.” He dropped four percentage points to 23 percent in recent polls, Reuters noted.

But polls also indicated the video made the PRI candidate Meade look bad, too. People wondered why the attorney general possessed the footage in the first place, Bloomberg said.

That could turn the election into a contest between López Obrador and Anaya, meaning a PRI candidate would not be a serious contender for the first time in Mexico’s modern history.

It’s clear Mexicans want change. Once they secure it, maybe they and those north of the border will be able to more easily enjoy a margarita together.



Saudi Stockpile

The US State Department approved nearly $1 billion in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, even as Amnesty International blasted such sales as making a “mockery” of the global Arms Trade Treaty.

The United States’ planned sales include a $670 million deal for more than 6,600 TOW 2B missiles, and a $300 million deal for spare vehicle parts for the Royal Saudi Land Forces Ordnance Corps, the Hill reported.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which oversees foreign military sales, said the weapons would improve “the security of a friendly country which has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East.”

In contrast, Amnesty said that western arms sales to the Saudis continue despite “extensive evidence that irresponsible arms flows to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have resulted in enormous harm to Yemeni civilians.” The rights group said 36 coalition air strikes since 2015 appear to have violated international law, and some may amount to war crimes, Reuters reported.


Walkouts and Shutdowns

French President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to usher in economic reforms is facing a stiff test – tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Thursday against the reforms, and strikes by public sector and railway workers paralyzed the country.

Some 30 percent of flights to and from Paris were canceled while only 40 percent of high-speed TGV trains were running, France 24 reported. Schools, daycare centers, libraries and other public services such as garbage collection were also disrupted by the strikes against Macron’s efforts to reform the country’s labor laws.

Police fired teargas and water cannon in central Paris during sporadic clashes between security forces and groups of students. And Thursday’s strike could be the beginning of months of such labor actions. But turnout at the protests and the severity of the shutdowns appeared low by historic French standards, France 24 said.

Meanwhile, Macron has vowed to press ahead with moves to cut pensions and reduce job guarantees for railway workers, among other measures. His approval rating has suffered as a result.


Start and Stop

Vietnam has suspended a major oil project in the disputed South China Sea for the second time in a year, in what Beijing is likely to regard as a significant victory.

State-owned PetroVietnam ordered Spanish energy firm Repsol to suspend a project off the southeast coast, the BBC reported, saying Repsol and partners could lose up to $200 million in investments already made in the project.

Final preparations for commercial drilling were already underway in the block, which is estimated to contain some 45 million barrels of oil and 172 billion cubic feet of gas.

Repsol was previously ordered to stop development drilling in an adjacent area in July last year. But the latest order comes after the US sent an aircraft carrier to Danang earlier this month, suggesting the show of force has not changed Vietnam’s strategic calculations, the BBC said.

The decision could influence Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, which are also facing Chinese pressure amid their efforts to develop their offshore oil and gas reserves.


The Nose Knows

Apart from sniffing out narcotics and explosives, specially trained dogs are becoming a new breed of archaeologists.

“K-9 Artifact Finders,” an American research program, has teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania to train dogs in sniffing out smuggled artifacts looted from war zones in countries like Syria and Iraq, the Guardian reported.

In cooperation with the University’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center, researchers and authorities are hoping to use dogs to detect stolen artifacts hidden in shipping containers, cargo crates and luggage.

According to archaeologist Michael Danti, who’s worked extensively in war-torn regions home to ancient artifacts like Iraq and Syria, dogs are naturally able to recognize differences in soil makeup and agricultural products. With some training, they could eventually sniff out contraband artifacts as well.

Rick St. Hilaire, the founder of Red Arch, a nonprofit that investigates the looting and trafficking of antiquities and is taking part in the initiative, said that he came up with the idea after he saw news about dogs detecting electronics.

“I thought, if dogs could detect electronics, what about antiquities?” he told the Guardian.

The innovative technique is much needed as war rages on in Syria and elsewhere: The UN Security Council says that terrorists amass a considerable amount profit by looting cultural treasures.

And that’s nothing compared to the losses faced by Iraqis and others of their heritage.

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