The World Today for March 13, 2019

NEED TO KNOW

PANAMA

The Chinese Canal

Panama is one of the world’s hippest hot spots this year, Vogue recently exclaimed.

The Chinese government agrees.

The isthmus country is the exemplar of Chinese investment and influence in Latin America.

China operates ports at the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal, plans to build a cruise ship terminal on a former US Air Force base and almost built its embassy in a choice spot for monitoring military vessels in the canal before American officials objected, the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote in a searing editorial.

Latin America is now the second-largest recipient of Chinese direct foreign investment, the Diplomat reported.

Some of those investments make perfect sense. Ozy wrote that Chile is the world’s biggest copper producer. China is the largest buyer. It makes sense the two countries would be close.

Other deals seem only to benefit China.

In Ecuador, China agreed to build a $19 billion dam and other infrastructure in exchange for 80 percent of the nation’s oil rather than cash payments. But the dam is faulty. Its construction led to scandals that have resulted in bribery charges and convictions of top Ecuadorian officials. The oil goes to Beijing all the same, however, robbing the poor South American country of its greatest source of foreign currency.

“The strategy of China is clear,” Energy Minister Carlos Pérez told the New York Times. “They take economic control of countries.”

That investment has political impacts, too.

Numerous Latin American countries have chosen to rescind recognition of Taiwan, which Chinese leaders view as a breakaway province.

China and to a lesser extent Russia have extended billions in loans to Venezuela, an economic basket case. The US is pushing for opposition leader Juan Guaido to replace the corrupt and embattled President Nicolas Maduro. But CNBC reported that leaders in Beijing are backing Maduro.

In a Voice of America broadcast, Americas Society/Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth said China was a “wild card” in the future of Venezuela. If Guaido can convince the Chinese he will pay back their debts, argued Farnsworth, they might leave Maduro high and dry.

That’s great for Guaido and potentially great for the people of Venezuela, but it’s not so great for Venezuelan sovereignty.

Chinese crime syndicates have also made inroads into Latin America, reported Diálogo, a news website run by the US military.

Foreign Policy suggested that the US counter Chinese investments with humanitarian aid, or “soft power.”

But it’s hard to believe the Latin Americans will take notice of anything but hard cash.

WANT TO KNOW

BRITAIN

Another Slap in the Face

British Prime Minister Theresa May got a second slap in the face from parliament Tuesday as her revised Brexit deal was voted down by another massive majority – albeit slightly smaller than the record-breaking rejection of her first proposal.

May said lawmakers will now get to vote Wednesday on whether Britain should leave the European Union without a deal – a so-called “no-deal Brexit” – and her own Tory legislators will be allowed to follow their conscience rather than the diktat of party managers, the BBC reported.

She also said that the government would explain Wednesday how the UK would manage its border with Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

If lawmakers vote not to leave the EU without a deal in place, they’ll vote Thursday on whether the March 29 deadline should be extended. 

Nigel Farage, who became the public face of the Brexit movement in the leadup to the referendum in 2016, said he expects Britain’s departure date will be delayed by a year, the Associated Press reported.

AUSTRALIA

“Staggering Arrogance”

An Australian court on Wednesday sentenced Cardinal George Pell to six years in prison for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral more than 20 years ago.

The most senior figure in the Catholic Church to be convicted of child sex abuse, Pell’s “conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance,” Victoria state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said in handing down the sentence, according to the Associated Press.

Kidd ordered Pell to serve a minimum of three years and eight months before becoming eligible for parole. The five convictions each carried a maximum possible sentence of 10 years.

Though he was convicted of orally raping a 13-year-old boy along with other charges, Pell led an “otherwise blameless life” and was unlikely to reoffend due to his advanced age, Kidd said in explaining the brevity of his sentence. 

Pell, 77, continues to insist he is innocent and will appeal his convictions in the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5.

AFGHANISTAN

Draft Not Deal

Two weeks of talks between the US and the Taliban ended without a peace deal for Afghanistan, but the two sides worked out thorny issues standing in the way of ending the 17-year conflict.

The draft outlines a plan for the withdrawal of US troops and a commitment from the Taliban to cut all ties with al-Qaida or other terrorist groups, US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday, according to NBC News.

Negotiators had earlier agreed in principle that the peace deal hinges on four elements, Khalilzad said via Twitter: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire. The latest talks hardened the first two into a draft agreement.

After that draft is finalized, the Taliban, the Afghan government and other players in the conflict will “begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire,” Khalilzad said.

The talks resulted in real progress, he added. But “there is no final agreement until everything is agreed.”

DISCOVERIES

Missing Water

The mystery surrounding Mars’ missing water will not be resolved anytime soon.

Even so, scientists recently uncovered evidence that a massive groundwater network may have once existed below the red planet’s surface, the Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Researchers studied images of 24 craters in the planet’s northern hemisphere and found relief features on the floors that they believe might have been caused by rising and falling groundwater.

They posit that these pockets of groundwater may have been interconnected at one point as a vast underground reservoir, which may have in turn linked to a Martian ocean that could have existed three to four billion years ago.

“We found the first geological evidence of a planet-wide groundwater system on Mars,” according to lead author Francesco Salese.

A massive, interconnected water system would have been possible because Mars is thought to be a “one-plate planet” – meaning that its crust is composed of one solid piece.

Such interconnectivity, however, wouldn’t be possible on Earth, because of the various tectonic plates that make up its outer shell.

The research team also found that some of the craters housed minerals that are linked to the emergence of life on Earth.

The team made no claims about whether life ever existed on Mars but its findings could help identify the most promising regions of the planet to hunt for it.

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