The World Today for March 02, 2023

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A Dragon in the Shadows


When voters in Paraguay go to the polls on April 30, they will vote for every high office in the land – president, vice president, all 80 lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies and all 45 senators, as well as every governor of the country’s 17 regions.

And yet the South American country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan might be the most important question on the ballot.

Since incumbent Mario Abdo Benitez of the dominant center-right Colorado Party cannot run for reelection, Santiago Pena will be the party’s standard-bearer. The party held the presidency for six decades – effectively creating one-party rule – until losing the office in 2008, only for Colorado Party candidate Horacio Cartes to win back the top job in 2013, explained the Journal of Democracy.

As the Americas Society/Council of the Americas explained, Abdo Benitez did not support Pena’s candidacy. Cartes, instead, shepherded Pena’s rise. The US, coincidentally, has slapped sanctions on Cartes for alleged human rights violations and corruption, the US Department of State announced in a January press release. The sanctions also hit Hugo Velázquez Moreno, who is currently Paraguay’s vice president. American officials believe corruption “starts at the top” in the country, quipped the Economist.

Pena’s main rival is opposition candidate Efraín Alegre of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, who served in the cabinet of former President Fernando Lugo, previously a Catholic bishop who defeated the Colorado Party in 2008 and served until 2012.

In addition to hammering home a message on defeating corruption, Alegre has pledged to improve Paraguay’s relations with China by cutting off diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the independent island that China claims as part of its sovereign territory. Paraguay is one of 14 countries around the world – and the only one in South America – that recognizes the Taiwanese government in Taipei, the Diplomat noted.

China is a major importer of Argentine and Brazilian products, a factor that could explain why leaders in those nations might not want to alienate the Chinese government. Alegre says that improved ties with China would boost soy and beef exports to the world’s second-largest economy. Farmers are clamoring for the change.

The issue became big enough in the election season that Abdo Benitez visited Taipei in February in order to reaffirm the close relationship between Paraguay and Taiwan, reported Reuters.

An anti-incumbency wave has moved through Latin America in recent years, wrote Americas Quarterly. The corruption allegations surrounding the Colorado Party might hurt their standing among voters, especially in the wake of a series of assassinations of “prosecutors, mayors, prison directors, (and) relatives of officials,” added InSight Crime.

But the Colorado Party obviously has a strong network that has allowed its members to hold onto power for so long.

Officials in Beijing will be watching closely.


Poisoning the Mind


Iranian authorities on Wednesday launched an investigation into the poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls across the country, in what officials and human rights advocates believe to be a deliberate attack targeting girls’ education and “revenge” against the women-led protests in recent months, NBC News reported.

Local media said the mysterious incidents began in late November in the holy city of Qom.

In recent weeks, authorities have documented cases, including the poisoning of more than 100 girls in the northwestern city of Ardabil. On Wednesday, they reported a number of poisonings of female high school students in the capital of Tehran.

The poisonings were caused by unknown gas or chemicals, which government officials said were “not war chemicals.” The victims didn’t need major medical treatment, they added.

Still, no one has claimed responsibility for the acts and police have made no arrests. Government officials and lawmakers said the poisonings were not accidental and were intended to disrupt girls’ schooling.

The incidents come as Iran continues to grapple with ongoing anti-government protests that began in September following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s morality police.

The young woman was detained for violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

Women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations, confronting officials and removing their headscarves in protests. Headscarves are mandated by law for women in public.

Critics and advocate groups blamed Iranian authorities for the poisonings, with some saying they are “the result of the Iranian government’s policy of blocking women from having the same rights and status in society as men.”

War and Holidays


Danish lawmakers voted this week to scrap a public holiday in order to boost defense spending prompted by the Ukraine war, a cancellation that outraged labor unions and opposition politicians, Sky News reported.

The vote would scrap Denmark’s Great Prayer Day, a Christian holiday that falls on the fourth Friday after Easter and dates back to the 17th century.

The government said the move will help raise tax revenues needed to pay for the country’s NATO defense spending commitments. NATO requests that its members commit at least two percent of their gross domestic product to defense spending to ensure the alliance’s military readiness.

Denmark will aim to meet that target by 2030, three years earlier than planned.

Officials predict that the holiday’s cancelation will provide more than $427 million in extra revenue earmarked for defense spending, according to the BBC.

But since the measure was introduced in December, trade unions and religious leaders have protested the holiday’s cancelation. Last month, around 50,000 protesters demonstrated outside the Danish parliament in the capital of Copenhagen against the plan.

Opposition lawmakers decried the cancelation as “foolish” and “totally wrong,” but failed to agree on calling a referendum on the issue – in Denmark, 60 legislators can demand a public vote.

Workers in Denmark currently receive up to 11 public holidays annually but this total is reduced in years when Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall on weekends.

The government’s commitment to increasing defense spending comes amid greater concern for security following the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines, which transport gas from Russia to Germany through Danish waters.

Friends in High Places


Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party nominated Vo Van Thuong as the country’s new president Wednesday, following the forced resignation of his predecessor as part of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, Reuters reported.

The 52-year-old official is one of the youngest members of the party’s Politburo – Vietnam’s top decision-making body – and is widely regarded as being close to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s most powerful figure.

Thuong is currently one of the Politburo’s 16 members and the secretary of the party’s Central Committee, one of the highest-ranking positions in the country.

Analysts said Trong meanwhile is one of the main architects of the Communist Party’s “blazing furnace” crackdown on corruption, which saw the investigations and forced resignations of hundreds of officials, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc in January.

Although the position of president is mainly ceremonial, it is among the top four political figures in Vietnam, including the party’s general secretary, the prime minister and the head of the national assembly.

Political analysts suggested that the party’s decision to nominate Thuong was part of an effort to advance a new generation of leaders and consolidate power in the event that the 78-year-old Trong decides to step down before the end of his third term in 2026.


Lessons To Learn

Thousands of years ago, the Hittite civilization was one of the ancient world’s superpowers.

The Late Bronze Age empire spanned from modern-day Turkey to parts of Syria and Iraq, with historians noting that it was ancient Egypt’s main geopolitical rival before it fell into decline after five centuries of dominance.

Now, a new study suggests that it wasn’t wars that brought this mighty empire down but a climate crisis, Sky News reported.

To arrive at this conclusion, scientists analyzed juniper trees alive at the time, focusing on the tree rings which show the plants’ age and the weather they experienced during their lifetimes.

The results showed three straight years of severe drought: In 1198, 1197 and 1196 BCE, all of which coincided with the period of the empire’s collapse.

Researchers explained that the droughts led to “near-crop failure for three consecutive years.” They noted that even though the Hittites would have had food stores, they would have only been able to survive for a year.

“This would have led to a collapse of the tax base, mass desertion of the large Hittite military and likely a mass movement of people seeking survival,” added co-author Brita Lorentzen.

But while the Hittites had none of our modern infrastructure and technology, the authors warned that the empire’s fate could provide a lesson for today’s climate crisis.

“The climate changes that are likely to occur for us in the next century will be much more severe than those the Hittites experienced,” said Jed Sparks, a co-author. “And it begs the questions: What is our resilience? How much can we withstand?”

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