The World Today for August 17, 2023

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Taming Through Terror

ECUADOR

Just a few years ago, Ecuador, sandwiched between narco-states Peru and Colombia, then grappling with their own civil conflicts, was an oasis of relative prosperity and peace in the region.

Now, as voters go to the polls on Aug. 20 to choose a successor to conservative President Guillermo Lasso, the country finds itself labeled as a “failed state.” This time around, voters will be deciding how they want their next leader to right this listing ship.

The situation is dire. Earlier this month, Ecuadorian lawmaker and presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, known as a crusader against public corruption and organized crime, was shot dead at a political rally in the capital of Quito, the Associated Press reported. He was the target of numerous death threats – including from drug cartels outside of the country – and under armed protection. Police believe it was the work of one of the organized crime gangs that have come to dominate the country, becoming a ‘state within a state.’

It was, unfortunately, only one more political assassination in a country where the homicide rate because of gang turf wars has quintupled over the past five years. (On Monday, leftist party leader Petro Briones was murdered in another killing attributed to gangs.) Still, Ecuadorians deal with bombings, public shootouts, decapitations and murder victims hanging off of bridges every week.

Argentine author Gabriel Pasquini, writing in the Washington Post, said Villavicencio was just “one more victim in a country where extreme violence has become the criminal organizations’ way of not just settling scores but also communicating with society…Their aim has been to tame an entire nation through terror.”

Even in a region known for record-setting violence, Ecuador’s recent spiral into lawlessness and bloodshed stands out, wrote the Americas Quarterly, noting how homicide rates now top those of Mexico and Brazil.

And at the center of Ecuador’s troubles is “the bottomless” global demand for cocaine, the Americas Quarterly explained. Over the past few years, Balkan gangs, particularly from Albania, have now helped propel Ecuador into a center for the transshipment and export of cocaine from the world’s top producers, neighbors Colombia and Peru, to Europe and the United States.

Sinking prosperity is also a factor. While oil producer Ecuador was doing relatively well economically until 2019, the pandemic and also the drop in oil prices hit it hard, sliding a greater percentage of its 17 million people into poverty. The violence and extortion rackets have also cut into economic growth and are strangling business, World Politics Review noted.

As a result, corruption and the lure of crime gangs grew, mainly because there are few alternatives, as the International Crisis Group detailed.

Meanwhile, partisan politics and Ecuador’s power vacuum have created an opening for the gangs, wrote CNN. While the Lasso administration has attempted to beef up security and crackdown on gang violence, it lost control of the prisons, from where criminal gangs run their empires. At the same time, collusion between top officials and law enforcement with the crime gangs has undermined efforts to contain the violence, according to local investigative outlet, La Posta.

More recently, the country went into crisis mode after Lasso dissolved Congress to block his own impeachment on embezzlement charges his supporters call bogus. This seldom-used mechanism triggered snap elections. He has decided not to run.

Now voters have a stark choice: Continue to move through this spiral of lawlessness until the criminal gangs have made the state completely irrelevant, negotiate with the gangs or impose a police state to crush them with civil liberties as collateral damage, as has happened in El Salvador.

According to polling, the frontrunner is left-leaning Luisa González, backed by former president Rafael Correa, a leftist who is still immensely popular from exile in Belgium after being convicted on corruption charges three years ago, Reuters reported. Correa, who trampled on personal liberties and press freedoms – he tried to jail Villavicencio for defamation – had attempted to negotiate with the crime bosses as did Lasso, according to local press. That’s likely with González, too.

However, that tactic didn’t work out so well in El Salvador, where after a brief dip, homicides spiked, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Also running is conservative candidate, Otto Sonnenholzner, a former vice president, and Yaku Pérez, an environmental activist who surprised observers by only narrowly missing the cut-off to participate in the 2021 runoff, wrote the Americas Society.

Meanwhile, businessman and former French Foreign Legionnaire Jan Topic, says he wants to channel Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has managed to contain his country’s spiraling violence by turning a failing democratic state into an authoritarian one: He has imprisoned tens of thousands of alleged gang members without due process, wrote El Pais. And he has all but suspended civil liberties.

Freedoms versus safety? That’s a truly terrible choice to have to make. But it looks like Ecuadorians may have to.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Tricky Dance

THAILAND

Thailand’s Constitutional Court dismissed a petition that challenged parliament’s decision to block the leader of the election’s leading party from being renominated as a prime ministerial candidate, a ruling that could end the political deadlock that began following May’s vote, Nikkei Asia reported Wednesday.

Since May, Thailand has been in political gridlock after the progressive Move Forward party led the parliamentary elections. That vote marked a clear rejection of the pro-military government that had ruled Thailand for the past nine years.

Initially, Move Forward formed a coalition with other political groups, which gave it a majority in the lower house of parliament.

But party leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, failed to garner enough support in the first prime ministerial vote last month and his second bid was blocked by conservative lawmakers allied with the military.

The legislators countered that Limjaroenrat’s renomination was a repeat motion that was not allowed under parliamentary rules.

The Office of the Ombudsman filed a petition to the Constitutional Court on July 24 to ask whether the constitution supersedes parliamentary rules when it comes to the election of a prime minister.

On Wednesday, the top court dismissed the case on a technicality, explaining that Limjaroenrat was not among the complainants, Reuters added.

The court’s rejection was the latest blow for Move Forward, but it could facilitate the formation of a new government led by the populist Pheu Thai party, which came in second in the May elections.

Pheu Thai withdrew its backing for Move Forward after Limjaroenrat failed in his second bid. It has since created a new coalition that is seeking support from conservative, army-backed lawmakers for its candidate, real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin.

The next prime ministerial vote in parliament is set to take place next week but Move Forward said that it would not support Pheu Thai because doing so would go against the will of the people.

A Heavy Load

KENYA

Kenya reinstated a small subsidy to help control the retail prices of fuel, reversing a government policy that prompted mass protests across the country over the high cost of living, Al Jazeera reported this week.

After taking office in September, President William Ruto removed subsidies on fuel and maize flour that were put in place by his predecessor. He explained that the move would support the production of goods rather than just consumption.

This decision would also help reduce government spending, he said: The African nation is handling debt repayments that have forced it to deny speculation about a possible default.

However, the removal of subsidies and tax hikes caused the cost of living to skyrocket, which culminated in months-long violent anti-government protests.

On Monday, the country’s energy and fuel regulator announced that the maximum retail price would remain at $1.35 for one liter of petrol (0.26 gallons). Consumers would also be shielded from a $0.05 increase, which the government will cover using a special stabilization fund.

Officials did not explain the reasons behind the government’s decision.

Fuel prices in Kenya shot up in July after the government pushed for a law through parliament that doubled the fuel tax.

But last month, the planned protests against that law were canceled after the opposition and Ruto agreed to talks to resolve their differences – the second such attempt this year.

It’s likely that the opposition will take the government to court to invalidate the July law.

The Right To a Name

SPAIN

Spain enacted a new law this month that will set up a civil registry for stillborn babies, a move that some grieving parents have welcomed but feminist groups have labeled as a “frontal attack” on a woman’s right to an abortion, Euronews reported.

Under the new legislation, babies who die before birth – but have remained in the womb for more than six months – must be registered and can have a full name in the civil register file.

The new “stillbirth declaration” register came more than a year after a majority of lawmakers approved the change following demands from pregnancy loss associations.

Before the change, babies who died after the sixth month of pregnancy would be registered to the so-called “Abortion Creatures File,” which does not name them or identify their parents.

Noelia Sánchez, who lost her baby during the 31st week of her pregnancy, called the change “a great achievement for families.”

But a number of feminist organizations cautioned that the legislation marks the first step toward recognizing the demands of anti-abortion groups. Although the changes do not impact the current right to abortion, advocates said that registering stillbirths and giving the fetus an identity is equating the fetus with the same status as a born person under the law.

Sánchez, however, countered that the law is not “a step backward,” adding that the measure could give her and other families “emotional peace.”

Recent statistics show that one in four pregnancies does not result in a live birth.

DISCOVERIES

The New Giant

Blue whales are currently the heaviest animals on Earth but about 39 million years ago it was outclassed by another marine heavyweight, the Independent reported.

Scientists recently studied the skeletal remains of a previously unknown species discovered 13 years ago in the Ica desert in southern Peru.

Aptly named Perucetus colossus, the extinct titan had a body mass between 93 and 375 tons and measured from 56 to 66 feet in length. When compared to the blue whale, P. colossus was shorter but it was two to three times heavier than the modern cetacean.

In their study, the research team estimated the body mass of P. colossus by applying the soft tissue to skeleton mass ratio from present-day marine mammals. The substantial bone mass in the gigantic animal is attributed to two skeletal modifications: The external addition of bone to skeletal parts and the internal cavity filling with dense bone material.

They classified the P. colossus as a basilosaurid, a family of extinct cetaceans – a class that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises.

Living around 41 million to 23 million years ago, it was a slow swimmer and lived near the coast, according to researchers.

The authors say that the P. colossus’ immense size reveals some new details about the evolutionary history of mammals at a time when some land-based animals were returning to the ocean.

The shift toward gigantism in marine mammals is traditionally thought to have started around five to 10 million years ago, but the new discovery suggests that this trend might have originated about 30 million years ago.

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