The World Today for September 13, 2018

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Rhetorical Questions

Late last month, the dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago celebrated its 56th anniversary of freedom from the influence of the British Crown with a traditional military parade in the capital, Port of Spain.

While those in power commended the nation for its commitment to democratic values in a time when many newly minted states around the world are failing, opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar gave citizens more somber considerations in her anniversary message.

“Have we achieved the Trinidad and Tobago which the leaders of our fight for independence envisioned more than half a century ago?” she asked. “In answering this question, we must decide whether we wish to maintain the status quo, or determine the future that we want for our children and grandchildren.”

It’s a poignant question for Trinidad and Tobago as a raft of issues old and new demand attention.

Since the discovery of oil in the mid-19th century, this once Spanish, then French and finally British colony, along with its diverse mix of former African slaves, indigenous peoples and indentured servants from India, has been addicted to black gold, according to information from the Commonwealth.

That’s made Trinidad and Tobago one of the Caribbean’s wealthiest states. But being all in on oil has also taken a toll on the nation’s economy – from 30-percent contractions in the 1980s to an average 10-percent growth per annum in the aughts.

Despite near constant calls for diversification, hydrocarbons still account for 80 percent of the nation’s exports, according to the Heritage Foundation.

But with one of the nation’s largest oil refineries slated to shut down amid declining sales, clever ideas are needed fast, Reuters wrote. Some have even suggested legalizing marijuana in an attempt to make some green while dealing with a pesky drug and crime problem on the island.

And it’s not just the economy that needs a wake-up call: Neighboring Venezuela – only a 30-minute plane ride away – is close to becoming a failed state.

Of the 1.5 million Venezuelans who have sought refuge abroad since 2017, just 3,300 have sought asylum in Trinidad and Tobago, Reuters reported in a separate piece.

But even that number has set off alarms.

Trinidad and Tobago never passed asylum laws in accordance with international treaties. Currently, refugees can face penalties of up to five years in jail and steep fines if caught without papers distributed by the United Nations. And even those don’t guarantee a national work permit, leading many into the black market.

Authorities treat asylum seekers like criminals who have entered the country illegally, one human-rights lawyer told Reuters. “They’re treating them worse than dogs.”

Trinidad and Tobago still can’t be moved on the issue. Authorities fear an influx of refugees could overwhelm social and medical services in a nation still recovering from a deep recession in 2014 caused by – surprise, surprise – a decline in oil prices.

With external forces at such loggerheads with the status quo in Trinidad and Tobago, it seems Persad-Bissessar’s rhetorical question on Independence Day is answering itself.



Showdown in Strasbourg

The European Parliament voted to implement sanctions against Hungary on Wednesday for violating European Union rules on democracy and civil rights.

The vote will start proceedings against Hungary’s government for a “clear risk of serious breach” of European values, and is the first step toward a possible revoking of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The clash between the EU and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been building since the prime minister first came to power in 2010: Afterward, he sought to revise the constitution and other laws to make it easier for his Fidesz party to attain a majority while taking other steps to weaken the judiciary and stifle the press.

defiant reaction from Orban made clear that the decision may not have much impact, partly because it’s unlikely to take away Hungary’s voting rights: Such a move requires the unanimous support of all EU members and Poland has vowed to veto such a move. (Hungary in turn backs Poland in its own problems with the EU).


Is This the End?

South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar on Wednesday signed a peace deal meant to end the country’s five-year civil war – in part by reinstating Machar as Kiir’s vice president.

It remains to be seen how long the agreement will last, however, Al Jazeera reported. Previous peace pacts have imploded in a matter of months, and this one was nearly scuttled in August when Machar refused to sign it.

Still, government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said the agreement was now acceptable to both sides and Kiir and Machar enjoyed an amicable chat after the signing ceremony, while David Shearer, head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, also expressed cautious optimism.

“We should publicly acknowledge it is but one step on the road to peace, but one which lays the foundation for all that follows,” he said, according to the news channel.

The long-running war has killed tens of thousands, displaced a quarter of the population and devastated South Sudan’s economy.


Chinese Whispers

While the US pushes economic sanctions against embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, he’s once again looking for a lifeline from China.

Maduro said Wednesday he’s traveling to Beijing to try to convince Venezuela’s key financier to shell out more funds to help alleviate a financial crisis that threatens to oust the leftist leader, Reuters reported.

“I am going with great expectations and we will see each other again in a few days with big achievements,” Maduro said in a TV broadcast from the airport.

China’s foreign ministry confirmed via an official statement that Maduro would visit from Thursday until Saturday at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, but provided no further details about the agenda.

For about a decade, Beijing pumped in excess of $50 billion into Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements that helped fuel China’s economy while simultaneously boosting its political power in Latin America. Beijing turned off the tap three years ago when Maduro sought to change the payment terms, but a fresh deal may be on the horizon.


Lord of the Flies

Since their film debut in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” zombies have become a common trope in popular culture.

It turns out that nature has its own version of “The Walking Dead,” but less gruesome and – so far – only affecting flies, National Geographic reported.

Scientists have recently studied a fungus that hijacks a fly’s brain, forcing it to make a “death pose” in order for the fungal spores to spread.

Called the “insect destroyer” in Greek, the fungus was first noticed in house flies in 1855. The current study analyzed the parasite’s effect on fruit flies.

The details are pretty macabre: After feeding on the insect’s insides, the parasite manipulates the bug into secreting a substance that forces its body to hold a certain position.

The white fungus then grows out of the arthropod’s corpse, shooting its spores to another unsuspecting passerby.

Scientists are unclear if the fly is conscious of its new master or not.

The study could help in pest control and disease treatment, according to entomologist Katy Prudic, as well as in understanding how the parasite controls the bug’s mind.

“And how to protect our brains when the zombie apocalypse comes,” she joked.

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