August 08, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

GUATEMALA

Passing the Buck

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, whose term ends in January, is leaving behind a crisis for his successor.

Demonstrators in recent days have taken to the streets to protest an agreement Morales reached with US President Donald Trump on July 26. The agreement requires migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and other countries to stop in Guatemala and apply for US asylum there.

Critics immediately complained that the impoverished nation didn’t have the means to shelter them. “Guatemala doesn’t have the capacity to be a safe country for migrants that aren’t desired in the United States,” human rights activist Brenda Hernández told the Associated Press.

Civil rights advocates launched lawsuits alleging the country’s foreign minister didn’t have the authority to make the agreement, the news service reported in a separate story.

“Guatemala is not a safe third country, and it’s ludicrous to argue that it is,” wrote Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, in an opinion piece in the Hill. “Poverty, violence, organized crime and institutional corruption are among the deepest in the hemisphere.”

The pact “is unlikely to be sustainable,” former American ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland tweeted, according to the Washington Post. “A bitter US ‘win’ would put at risk US goals in democracy and law enforcement with the current and next governments.”

But Morales is leaving office soon, so he might have some incentives for signing an impossible agreement. VICE News suggested he might need Trump’s help when he loses presidential immunity and potentially faces prosecution for campaign funding improprieties.

The news website also noted that Morales agreed to handle migrants because he also wanted to avoid Trump slapping taxes on money that Guatemalans in the US send to their families back home in Central America.

Guatemalans went to the polls in June in the first round of voting for a new president. As the Los Angeles Times explained, voters will decide in the August 11 run-off between two candidates: Sandra Torres, a businesswoman and former first lady, and Alejandro Giammattei, who once ran the country’s prison system. Torres won around 26 percent in the first round. Giammattei won almost 14 percent.

Torres represents the left side of the political spectrum. She supports more social welfare programs and the like. Giammattei is a conservative who would bring back the death penalty to help end gang-related violence. His platform has appeared to expand his appeal among voters, wrote Americas Society/Council of the Americas researchers recently.

Both Torres and Giammattei have expressed opposition to the migrant deal with the US, Reuters reported. They might have a chance to act as the US presidential election season begins.

WANT TO KNOW

PUERTO RICO

Step Aside, Sir

Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the swearing-in of Pedro Pierluisi as the island’s governor less than a week ago was unconstitutional, clearing the way for Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez to take over.

Following weeks of strife in the US territory, the decision is expected to spark new protests as many Puerto Ricans oppose Vázquez becoming governor, the Associated Press reported.

“Puerto Rico needs assurance and stability. Our actions are aimed [and] will be aimed toward that end and it will always come first,” Vázquez, who’d indicated earlier that she didn’t want the job, said after agreeing to step in.

The issue turned on the circumstances of Pierluisi’s assumption of the position. He was appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló while legislators were in recess. So only the House approved the nomination that put him in place to succeed Rosselló when the former governor was forced to resign by protests over corruption and a leaked recording in which he and other officials made offensive remarks about women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria.

ITALY

Paying the Piper

Italy’s highest court on Tuesday upheld the confiscation of 49 million euros from the League party that is now part of the ruling coalition. The case related to a fraudulent claim of electoral expenses dating to 2008-10.

Wire-tapped telephone conversations and testimony reported in the Italian media in 2012 indicated that party founder Umberto Bossi, his sons Renzo and Riccardo and other relatives spent the money on home improvement, renting luxury cars and dental work rather than party business, according to Agence France-Presse. Of the 49 million euros seized by the courts, only three million appeared on the League’s books.

The party agreed to repay the rest in installments of 100,000 euros every two months – which will take decades.

The news comes as League party leader Matteo Salvini canceled a five-day tour that had been billed as an effort to court voters ahead of a possible call for early elections, AFP said separately. Instead, he’s seeking to hold the coalition together, at least for now, after the Senate’s rejection of the 5-Star Movement’s motion to block a rail connection planned between Turin and Lyon in France widened an already-existing rift between the coalition partners.

KYRGYZSTAN

Realpolitik

Supporters of former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev engaged in a gun battle with security personnel sent to arrest him on corruption charges Wednesday.

Two local news sites reported that a special forces unit succeeded in entering Atambayev’s home and emerged with dozens of wounded, while two others reported that the former president’s supporters had overpowered and disarmed the security troops, Reuters reported. Eurasianet reported that the government troops were beaten back and a second raid was likely.

Atambayev was reportedly still inside the building, according to the BBC.

The Kyrgyz Parliament accused the former president of corruption and stripped him of immunity from prosecution in June after his relationship soured with former protégé and current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Atambayev campaigned for Jeenbekov in the 2017 elections, which were heralded as the country’s first peaceful transfer of power between two elected presidents, Rappler noted. But they fell out after Jeenbekov had several Atambayev-era appointees arrested in a bid to consolidate his power.

DISCOVERIES

A Real Laugh

Laugh tracks are a staple for many sitcoms, adding a kick to some of the punchlines.

Though they might seem dubious, they are quite effective at turning weak jokes – such as dad jokes – into comedy gold, Cosmos magazine reported. Especially if the laughter is real.

In a recent study, British scientists had a professional comedian record 40 cringe-worthy dad jokes, with two versions of each joke: one followed by canned laughter and the other by real, spontaneous laughter.

Next, they asked neurotypical and autistic participants to rate the jokes. Both groups deemed the jokes to be funnier when they were followed by spontaneous, real laughs.

“This research shows that while canned laughter does elevate the humor of a comedy, adding real laughter would get a better response,” explained co-author Sophie Scott.

Researchers also reported that autistic people found the jokes funnier, possibly because they were more open to them, unlike the other participants.

“This might suggest that comedy and laughter are more accessible to people with autism than typically considered to be,” added Scott.

Scott and her team hope to learn more about how laughter influences brain activity when people crack jokes.

In retrospect, now it makes more sense why the sitcom “Friends” might look like a psycho-thriller without the laugh track.