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NEED TO KNOW

MALDIVES

Hope in Paradise

A fire recently destroyed much of Gili Lankanfushi, a secluded resort in the Maldives that TripAdvisor ranks as one of the best hotels in the world.

A-list guests at the hotel fled in horror, reported Australia-based Yahoo7 News.

It would be interesting to know how many of those well-heeled vacationers knew how the Maldives is now emerging from a period of strongman leadership that nearly bankrupted its economy.

Opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated ex-President Abdulla Yameen in elections in September. Amnesty International and other human rights advocacy groups said Yameen used the courts to crush dissent and curtail the freedom of the press and assembly. Early last year, when supreme court justices ordered the release of political rivals he had unjustly jailed, he declared a state of emergency and threw two of the justices into prison, Al Jazeera explained.

Yameen – the half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years through 2008 – came to office in 2012, after beating Mohamed Nasheed in a highly contested vote. Nasheed had beaten Gayoom in 2008, in the Maldives’ first fully democratic election. But Nasheed lost power in a 2012 coup. He was not allowed to run again last year. The supreme court recently threw out terror charges against him, Reuters reported.

Now, after a win that the Economist described as “an amazing upset,” Solih must pick up the pieces of Yameen’s misrule, which included racking up big debts to Chinese firms that are building new roads and other infrastructure throughout the archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The cost of that work might have been jacked up to line Yameen’s and his flunkies’ pockets.

Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer said some China-financed projects “appeared to have been built at inflated costs,” the Wall Street Journal reported. But in many cases, construction is already underway, leaving the government few options for renegotiating loan-repayment terms.

Much of the work stems from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a plan to create better routes between East Asia and Europe. Debts are one way that leaders in Beijing can maintain influence in countries along the route. But now the Maldives’ opposition is using China’s designs against it.

“The Maldives is a key battleground in the rivalry between China and India,” wrote the BBC.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced a financial assistance package to the Maldives. India Today described the aid as a sign that the Maldives “appears ready to get its relationship with India back on track.”

The aid might also help Maldivian democracy stand on its own two feet.

WANT TO KNOW

VENEZUELA

Swearing In and Around

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in by the country’s supreme court Thursday, after winning re-election in May in a vote that the United States, Canada and a dozen Latin American nations decried as a farce.

No doubt there was a lot of swearing going on elsewhere, too, though at the official ceremony Maduro was cheered on by loyal officials and flag-waving children, the Associated Press reported.

Outside the court, heightened security, and a visible police presence, on the streets of Caracas, ensured that the inauguration ran smoothly, NPR said, while some of the supposed supporters were probably state workers who were obliged to turn up and cheer.

Maduro is widely blamed for skyrocketing inflation and shortages of food and medicines, and five Latin American countries and Canada have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuela for crimes against humanities, including torture and the arbitrary detention of anti-government protesters, NPR noted.

But even though Paraguay announced it was breaking off diplomatic relations and refusing to recognize Maduro’s re-election Thursday, he has managed to retain other key allies in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba and Bolivia – whose presidents attended his inauguration.

SWITZERLAND

Butting Heads

Famous for its neutrality, Switzerland is no pushover when it comes to diplomacy, the battle with Brussels over its relationship with the European Union shows.

After four years of sometimes-fractious talks, Bern and Brussels finally came up with a draft deal on future bilateral relations just before Christmas. But now the country’s new federal president Ueli Maurer is insisting that it needs “substantial renegotiations,” and the EU is refusing to budge, the UK’s Express newspaper reported.

Maurer, who was elected Dec. 20, is now calling for face-to-face meetings with European Council President Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission. But the EU appears to be taking a hardline stance analogous to its approach to the Brexit negotiations.

The push to revise Switzerland’s relationship with the EU gained momentum in 2008, with the EU striving to compel Berne to apply EU laws more uniformly in response to a dispute over Swiss labor policies. The draft proposal calls for bilateral agreements to adapt  “as quickly as possible” to changes in EU laws, but the Swiss government would still have the power to reject such legislation.

CANADA

Against the Grain

While the rest of the world debates walls and other measures to keep immigrants out, Canada has announced it will welcome 1 million new permanent residents over the next three years – nearly one percent of its total population each year.

Canada added 286,000 permanent residents in 2017 and projects that number could reach 350,000 this year, CNN reported. The plan is to add another 360,000 in 2020 and 370,000 in 2021.

“Thanks in great part to the newcomers we have welcomed throughout our history, Canada has developed into the strong and vibrant country we all enjoy,” said Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC).

An immigrant from Somalia himself, Hussen said the new permanent residents will help offset Canada’s aging population and declining birth rate.

In comparison, Japan, which faces its own problem with an aging population, has also paved the way for as many as 345,000 migrant workers to enter the country in the next five years. But its policies do not envision these workers becoming permanent residents, the Japan Times reported.

The US granted more than 1 million people permanent residency in 2017, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But a relatively small portion of them was granted residency for employment reasons.

DISCOVERIES

Bee-ing Immune

Honeybees are big contributors to American agriculture. Their pollination helps produce about $15 billion worth of crops annually in the United States.

They are also under constant threats from parasites, poor nutrition, pathogens and pesticides.

According to preliminary data from the Bee Informed Partnership, the US lost nearly 40 percent of its bee colonies from April 2017 to April 2018.

To counter the threat, scientist Dalial Freitak and her team are now developing a vaccine that will help the industrious insects survive in harsh environments, the New York Times reported.

They created PrimeBEE, a prototype vaccine that can be eaten – instead of injected – by a queen bee and passed down to a new generation of larvae.

The vaccine is based on a 2015 study in which Freitak and colleagues discovered that honeybees produce vitellogenin, a protein that binds to bacteria and carries it to the eggs, prompting an immune response in the offspring.

Freitak’s team is trying to help bee populations fight American foulbrood, a bacterial infection that decimates bee colonies. When colonies are infected with foulbrood, the recommended treatment is burning them.

A vaccine won’t eradicate all threats to bees, of course. Still, Freitak is happy her work is generating some positive buzz.

“We need to help honeybees, absolutely,” she said in a news release. “Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale.”