October 16, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

BOLIVIA

Overstaying His Welcome

Rain finally extinguished the massive wildfires that burned through almost 10 million acres of the Bolivian rainforest since August, the BBC reported recently.

President Evo Morales isn’t likely to receive a similar respite. Latin America’s longest-serving head of state – he first took office in 2006 – faces his biggest re-election challenge when voters go to the polls Oct. 20.

Critics blasted Morales for letting farmers clear more land in the Amazon region of the South American country, then refusing to declare a national emergency or to seek international aid to combat the fires once they started. Argentina and Chile were willing to help but, as indigenous groups and others protested Morales’ inaction, the president refused to accept their assistance.

The first indigenous leader of Bolivia, Morales is a leftist. But he claimed that asking for foreign help would undercut Bolivia’s sovereignty, the same argument Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro used to snub international help to put out fires in his country, World Politics Review noted.

Morales’ rigid stance on the fires hints at the authoritarianism in his government that concerns many voters.

In a 2016 referendum on whether to allow the president to seek a fourth term in office, a majority of Bolivians voted no. But Morales asked the country’s top constitutional court to overturn the vote. It did, so now he’s on the ballot.

Since then, he hasn’t done much to assuage his critics. The same tribunal that annulled the referendum, for example, recently threatened to sanction a university that published poll results unfavorable to Morales. The poll found that the president would receive only 31 percent of the vote, or less than the 40 percent minimum necessary to avoid a December runoff, reported Reuters.

Morales’ main opponent, Carlos Mesa, a former president, said the court’s decision showed how the president kept government officials on a tight leash that was likely to get tighter if he won a fourth term. “If we continue with Señor Morales as president, we will go from authoritarianism to dictatorship,” Mesa told the Financial Times.

An economic slowdown is also taking the shine off Morales’ image. For much of his tenure, Bolivia has enjoyed annual economic growth of about 4.5 percent, the Associated Press wrote. He’s spent lavishly on infrastructure projects with that extra money, building new roads, schools and stadiums. But the International Monetary Fund recently predicted that growth would slow.

Many Bolivians once supported Morales, whom they viewed as a man of the people. But even such a man can overstay his welcome.

WANT TO KNOW

SPAIN

Independence Day

Thousands of protesters took to streets across Catalonia on Tuesday, demonstrating against stiff prison sentences for Catalan independence leaders on sedition charges by Spain’s Supreme Court, the BBC reported.

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave nine Catalan separatist leaders sentences ranging from nine to 13 years for their bid for independence in October 2017: They had participated in an independence referendum orchestrated by former Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont that Spain’s constitutional court had already blocked, reported CNBC.

The Spanish government had hoped that the sentencing might close a troubled chapter and usher in a new phase of reconciliation between Spain and Catalonia, according to the BBC.

However, despite Catalonia’s President Quim Torra’s responsibility for keeping the peace in the region, he actively encouraged Catalans to hit the streets and protest.

Adding to the chaos was the mysterious Tsunami Democràtic platform, which called for the blockade of Barcelona’s airport – more than 100 flights were canceled Tuesday – and intended “to generate a situation of generalized crisis in the Spanish state,”  Catalonia’s leading newspaper La Vanguardia reported.

SOUTH AFRICA

A House of Cards

A long-awaited corruption trial against former South African President Jacob Zuma was postponed to February after his lawyers filed an appeal against an earlier court ruling against his attempt to dismiss the charges.

Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering related to an arms deal in the 1990s, Agence France-Presse reported.

The former president is alleged to have made about $270,000 in kickbacks from a deal with French arms manufacturer Thales during his time as deputy president in Thabo Mbeki’s administration.

Zuma has denied all charges and argues that politics is playing a significant role in his prosecution.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party forced Zuma to resign last year after almost a decade in office due to escalating pressure from the public over corruption allegations.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took over from Zuma, has made the fight against corruption one of his top priorities, but faces opposition from many ANC members still loyal to Zuma.

Meanwhile, some analysts say the trial could see Zuma dragging down many top officials of the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

The Hand That Bites

An arrest warrant was issued for former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill on corruption charges, even as he said Tuesday he was unaware of the warrant while calling it “a political power play,” according to the Guardian.

O’Neill came to power in 2011 and boosted hopes for the country’s democratic development: One of his first moves as prime minister was to establish a multi-agency investigation into government corruption.

Even so, he resigned in May following weeks of high-profile defections from the government to the opposition due to allegations of misuse of public funds and charges of “official corruption” reported ABC Australia and the Guardian.

In 2014, O’Neill was investigated as part of a corruption inquiry by the agency he set up: The corruption watchdog looked into fraudulent payments of approximately $30 million to a law firm.

DISCOVERIES

A Song Stuck in the Head

Young zebra finches learn their songs from their fathers, but scientists were able to teach the little birds to memorize aspects of the tunes without them ever hearing the songs.

In an experiment straight out of science fiction, researcher Todd Roberts and his team implanted memories of the song’s rhythms in the birds’ brains without exposing them to the song, Live Science reported.

The researchers employed a technique called optogenetic manipulation, using pulses of light to alter certain brain cells.

By pulsing light in a rhythm matching the durations of notes in the song, Roberts’ team managed to embed “memories” in the avian brains. The birds then started singing the tune in rhythm, but they still lacked other aspects of it, such as pitch.

“We’re not teaching the bird everything it needs to know – just the duration of syllables in its song,” Roberts said.

The study offers new insights into the brain pathways that encode note duration in the birds and may provide a better understanding of how humans learn to speak.

Roberts hopes that the results will help scientists improve language learning in people with autism and other disorders.

“The human brain and the pathways associated with speech and language are immensely more complicated than the songbird’s circuitry,” he said. “But our research is providing strong clues of where to look for more insight on neurodevelopmental disorders.”