The World Today for February 19, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

CUBA

A Capricious Coquette

Britain’s Prince Charles is scheduled to visit Cuba in the spring, a rare visit of a royal to a country whose communist ideology opposes monarchy. (His ancestors avoided visiting the Soviet Union because the Bolsheviks murdered their relatives, the Romanovs, in the Russian revolution.)

Charles will see vintage cars and, as the Guardian wrote, likely eat cassava bread – though maybe not “Moros y Cristianos,” or Moors and Christians, a politically incorrect term for rice and beans.

The trip comes as Cuba undergoes momentous changes.

On Feb. 24, Cubans will vote on a new constitution. The proposed document will retain the supremacy of the Communist Party and state control of the economy. However, it will legalize private property and businesses that have been popping up throughout the Caribbean island in recent years, open the door to more foreign investment, and potentially hasten the acceptance of same-sex marriage, Reuters reported.

Even before the former dictator Fidel Castro fell ill and died in 2016, Cuban officials had been loosening their control of the economy and civil society. Acknowledging the changes but stressing the country has not yet entirely sloughed off its totalitarian past, the United States opened an embassy on the island in 2015.

To be clear, the Cuban government is still oppressive.

Security agents have arrested and mistreated activists who oppose the new constitution because, they argue, it legitimizes the current government of Raúl Castro, Fidel’s 87-year-old brother, who stepped down as president last year but still wields power as head of the Communist Party.

“During the detention they punched me in the stomach, took me outside with handcuffs put on really tight, shoved me around and hit me on the head a couple of times,” dissident José Daniel Ferrer told the Miami Herald. “They told me clearly that it was a response to the campaign against the constitution.”

In an op-ed in the Miami Herald, Outreach Aid to the Americas President Teo Babun also argued that the new constitution fails to enshrine freedom of religion in the country.

The constitution symbolizes the contradiction at the heart of Cuban society, wrote Elizabeth Gonzalez of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

It would empower President Miguel Díaz-Canel – widely viewed as Castro’s successor in waiting – to make further changes. Díaz-Canel, 58, is a “Twitter personality and proponent of technological innovation,” wrote Gonzalez. But he also promotes the hashtag #WeAreContinuity, emphasizing how his designs are in keeping with the ideas of older revolutionaries.

Díaz-Canel, for example, recently said the new constitution would defend Cuba’s “sovereignty, independence and dignity,” wrote Prensa Latina, the country’s state-run news service. He’s not talking about democracy and civil rights.

Still, the winds of change are blowing in Cuba. What they bring in and out of the country could be historic.

WANT TO KNOW

SYRIA

Hoping, in Vain

The leader of the US-backed Kurdish troops in Syria said Monday he still holds out hope that 1,000 to 1,500 international soldiers will remain in the country to continue the fight against Islamic State, including at least “a partial group” of American troops.

After talks with US generals in Syria, Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said, “We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us,” according to Reuters.

However, US Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, said that President Donald Trump’s December order for a complete withdrawal of US forces is still in place. “The discussion really isn’t about US forces staying here,” Votel said. “We’ve looked at potentially what coalition (forces) might be able to do here.”

Apart from risks of a resurgence of Islamic State if America withdraws, the SDF faces a more immediate existential threat from Turkey, which considers them to be terrorists – potentially forcing Kobani to cut a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection.

ITALY

Do As I Say…

Members of Italy’s ruling Five Star Movement voted Monday to block a possible kidnapping trial against Matteo Salvini, their coalition partner as well as the outspoken leader of the far-right League.

The online vote was taken to decide how Five Star senators should vote in a Tuesday parliamentary committee meeting to determine the fate of an investigation into Salvini, who is deputy prime minister and interior minister in the left-right populist coalition government, Reuters reported.

Five Star said on its website that 59 percent of its members had voted to block the probe, despite the party’s pledge to bring transparency to Italian politics and end such parliamentary maneuvering.

The case concerns Salvini’s decision to hold 150 migrants aboard an Italian coast guard ship for five days in August, which prosecutors have alleged could amount to abuse of power and kidnapping. However, Salvini, whose stock has soared since last year’s election in large part due to his anti-immigration stance, has asked for parliamentary immunity.

BRAZIL

Scandal 2.0

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired one of his top advisers and cabinet members, Gustavo Bebianno, amid a campaign financing scandal that threatens to derail his reform plans.

In a short video clip released late on Monday, Bolsonaro said he took the decision to dismiss Bebianno due to “differences of opinion on important issues,” Reuters reported.

However, the move follows newspaper reports accusing Bebianno of running a scheme under which huge sums were directed to dummy candidates as campaign funds and then funneled to real candidates from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL), explained the Brazilian Report.

Bebianno denies any wrongdoing, and analysts say the scandal is unlikely to hurt Bolsonaro’s reputation too badly. But it has spooked investors and prompted worries it will “lead to the approval of a less ambitious version of the government’s proposal for pension reform,” according to analysts at Eurasia Group.

Bolsonaro is keen to shave as much as 1 trillion reais ($269.48 billion) over 10 years off the budget deficit through pension reforms, Reuters reported in January.

DISCOVERIES

Rockets, and Roofs

Europeans usually evacuate areas when they discover unexploded World War II bombs.

Residents of Qezelabad, in northern Afghanistan, on the other hand, use them as building materials for their houses, the BBC reported.

Villagers started using missiles to rebuild after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Locals had no money, so they had to get creative – and daring.

“I was a teenager when we brought these missiles here,” said village elder Izatullah, whose house has rockets for ceiling beams. “When we put them on our roofs back then, it was a moment of fear and danger.”

There are over 400 rockets that were used as door-stoppers, house beams, and even bridges.

After a visitor alerted the Afghan government about the village’s explosive reputation, de-miners were sent to dismantle the dormant missiles.

“In one house, we have found 26 rockets,” according to Abdul Rahman of the Danish De-Mining Group.

He explained that they amounted to over 2,600 pounds of TNT explosives – capable of razing the whole village, if they exploded.

The de-miners are slowly removing the weapons from people’s homes and destroying them in controlled explosions far, far away from houses.

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