The World Today for March 19, 2019

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Living Off Fire

The trial of a dozen Catalan separatists has been proceeding for more than a month in Madrid.

Separatist leaders who organized Catalonia’s October 2017 independence referendum have testified that their demonstrations ahead of the vote were spontaneous, peaceful and festive, wrote an English-language story in El País, a leading Spanish daily.

But a court official who was part of a raid at a Catalan provincial office in Barcelona a month before the referendum testified that she was terrified as thousands of violent protesters surrounded the building, broke windows and vandalized police cars.

The they-said, she-said was technically about whether the Catalans were seditious rebels. But arguably the case is about more than Catalonia.

“At its core, Spain’s trial is about whether democracies can manage profound disagreement among their citizens and maintain their commitment to democracy,” wrote Georgetown University law professor Naomi Mezey in a Washington Post op-ed.

A series of crises from the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s to Brexit today reflect how European countries often face irreconcilable differences among their citizens.

Spain is facing a double-whammy, however, because questions about the dissolution of the Iberian kingdom come as important votes are imminent.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called an election for April 28, a move that illustrates how he and other Spanish politicians have failed to instill faith in their constituents, Al Jazeera wrote.

Sanchez assumed power only nine months ago. No other Spanish government has called elections in such a short window. His predecessor lost a no-confidence vote amid a corruption scandal, also a first in Spanish history.

Sanchez will likely cobble together a weak coalition, Reuters reported. The far-right Vox party – riding a tide of anti-separatist and anti-immigrant sentiment – is expected to rise sharply, though not enough to form a government.

Departing Foreign Minister Josep Borrell described the election as a choice between conflict and conciliation. “We are playing with fire,” Borrell told the Financial Times. “There is a systematic exacerbation of tension and conflict, incited by people from both sides because that is what they live off.”

In May, another challenge comes.

The former president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, is planning to run for the European Parliament. Puigdemont fled to Brussels during the independence crisis. Spanish authorities consider him a fugitive, but he has fought their attempts to persuade Belgian officials to extradite him.

If Puigdemont wins a seat in the European Parliament, he believes he should enjoy immunity from Spanish prosecution, reported the Associated Press.

Sanchez won’t like it if Puigdemont has a bully pulpit. But he might be lucky if Puigdemont only wants to talk.



Mass Devastation

Cyclone Idai may have killed as many as 1,000 people in Mozambique, President Filipe Nyusi said after flying over some of the worst hit areas of the country on Monday.

The storm made landfall on Thursday near the port city of Beira, but aid workers were only able to reach the site to take stock of the devastation on Sunday, the BBC reported. So far, the official death toll is recorded as 84.

But with winds of up to 106 miles per hour, the cyclone left almost nothing in its path undamaged.

“No building is untouched. There is no power. There is no telecommunications. The streets are littered with fallen electricity lines,” said Gerald Bourke of the United Nations’ World Food Program.

President Nyusi described seeing bodies floating in the rivers as he flew overhead.

In Zimbabwe, too, at least 98 people have died and 217 people are missing, while in Malawi flooding associated with the storm killed at least 122 people.


Power Politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of the erstwhile region of Ukraine that NATO and the European Union insisted was an illegal land grab.

“Russia has taken you into its fold with delight and joy,” Putin told a crowd of residents, the Associated Press reported.

He also attended launch ceremonies for new power plants that are part of Russia’s attempts to upgrade the area’s infrastructure amid Ukraine’s blocking of energy supplies and shipments bound for the peninsula.

Noting that the new plants will be able to meet all of Crimea’s energy needs, Putin said, “The situation has changed radically.”

NATO and the EU reiterated their stance on the annexation, however, with NATO members saying they still “strongly condemn” the move and the EU foreign policy chief asserting the EU stands “in full solidarity with Ukraine, supporting its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Though the annexation boosted Putin’s popularity initially in 2014, enthusiasm has waned significantly as European and US sanctions have exacerbated economic problems in Russia.


Inspiration and Perspiration

On his first official visit to Washington, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared an end to what he described as decades of hostility toward the United States and said he would be actively seeking a new era of close relations.

“The American people have always been an inspiration for me,” said the unabashed admirer of US President Donald Trump, according to Reuters. “We have good relationships around the world, but I am extending my hands so that the relationship with the United States is increasingly more important.”

The Brazilian government on Monday waived visa requirements for visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan in a bid to increase tourism and, presumably, exercise a little soft power.

Love for Coca-Cola and Disney aside, however, Bolsonaro’s economy minister urged the US to invest more heavily in the country, and adopt more liberal trade policies toward Brazil, lest Washington lose out to big spenders in Beijing.


Flying High

Poppy farmers in central India already had to deal with inconsistent rainfall this season.

Now, they are dealing with another threat to their crops: opium-addicted parrots.

Flocks of birds swarm to the poppy fields 30 to 40 times a day to get their fix, Live Science reported.

Video footage shows the birds feasting on unripe poppy pods – filled with opium-rich milk – and even trying to steal entire pods away.

And yes, they are getting high on them. Local farmers aren’t amused.

“This affects the produce,” one poppy cultivator in Madhya Pradesh state told a local TV news outlet. “These opium-addicted parrots are wreaking havoc.”

District officials have ignored pleas to control the avian attacks, so cultivators tried guarding their fields and using loud sounds and even firecrackers to keep the birds at bay.

But they still kept coming.

Poppy-thieving birds aren’t uncommon in India, one of the few countries where licensed opium cultivation is allowed. Bird raids have been reported in several poppy-growing districts.

Back in 2018, birds were crashing on trees and “lying in the fields in a daze,” only to sober up and fly away – probably for another fix.

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