The World Today for January 24, 2024

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When the Street Wins

GUATEMALA

Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo’s supporters came out in force outside Congress on Jan. 14. But they weren’t there to witness his inauguration – they were there to make sure it even happened at all.

As commentators noted, after much struggle, these voters refused to let the enemies of their champion stifle the political will of the Central American nation’s majority. “Guatemala’s Democracy Defenders Won Out in the End,” wrote World Politics Review.

It was a surprising conclusion to a drawn-out and difficult path to the presidency.

“Each transparently ridiculous obstacle Guatemala’s corrupt elite threw at Arévalo and his political party since their win last summer was overwhelmingly rejected by the Guatemalans who voted for him,” noted ABC News.

Arévalo defied an “onslaught” of legal challenges to prevent his assumption of power and the success of a United Nations’ sponsored anti-corruption drive, wrote the United States Institute of Peace. Prosecutors, for example, claimed that Arévalo’s Seed Movement political party fraudulently collected signatures and committed other misdeeds in the run-up to the vote. International observers found no evidence to corroborate those assertions.

A former diplomat and peace envoy who is the son of a former Guatemalan president, he vowed after his swearing-in to “build robust and healthy democratic institutions,” and dismantle “the walls of corruption, brick by brick” that has allowed elites to collaborate with drug traffickers, undermining the legitimate economy and robbing the poor of opportunities.

American leaders, meanwhile, signaled support for Arévalo’s new administration by banning his successor, ex-President Alejandro Giammattei, from entering the US, reported the New York Times, because he allegedly accepted bribes. American officials also slapped sanctions on former energy minister Alberto Pimentel Mata due to corruption allegations.

Yet Arévalo is having trouble overcoming the corrupt climate in Guatemala. His pick for communications, infrastructure and housing minister, for example, explained BNamericas, quit that ministry in 2005 after irregularities in charging construction companies. Officials said she sought money for a vehicle related to the projects, but didn’t follow the proper purchasing protocols.

His cabinet is only one of the president’s early troubles, however, and there certainly will be many more in his bid to radically change the country. As the Associated Press wrote, he acknowledged that the country owed Guatemala’s two dozen Indigenous groups that suffer from poverty levels that are higher than other communities in the country. “There cannot be democracy without social justice, and social justice cannot prevail without democracy,” he said in his inauguration speech.

Expanding Guatemala’s economy won’t be easy, however. Foreign investment is especially important, contended Americas Quarterly. Several large business interests have issued statements in support of the new president, however, in a bid to support his agenda and create a new climate with new hope.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Row Your Boat

UNITED KINGDOM

The British parliament’s upper house voted this week to delay a controversial treaty to send people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda, a symbolic setback to the government’s flagship – but lingering – plan to deter asylum seekers, the New York Times reported.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had urged members of the House of Lords four days ago not to impede his policy, which he considers a tool to deter migrants from making the hazardous crossing of the English Channel, and a policy he described as “the will of the people.”

Even so, in a 214-to-171 vote, the chamber voted to delay the ratification of a crucial treaty ensuring the migrants’ protection in Rwanda.

The treaty was drafted in response to a November 2023 UK Supreme Court ruling that the African country did not offer the required level of safety for refugees, meaning that the deal would be contrary to international and UK law.

In response, the government created the “safety of Rwanda” bill, which deems the African nation to be a safe place for asylum seekers and requires Britain’s courts and tribunals to treat it as such.

Though Monday’s outcome would only be symbolic in impact, it signaled the tone of the Lords’ debate next week when they will discuss the so-called “Safety of Rwanda” bill, an attempt to circumvent the top court’s verdict by writing into law that the African country is safe enough for migrants.

Sunak’s strategy of putting pressure on the House of Lords and overpassing courts is a “step towards totalitarianism,” member of the chamber Lord Carlisle told Sky News.

Meanwhile, the prime minister said he was ready to “ignore” international law to make his plan work, answering concerns that the deal breached section 39 of the Rules of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The section provides that the ECHR can halt an asylum seeker’s deportation if there is a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm.”

Last week, the lower House of Commons passed the bill as a rebellious faction within Sunak’s Conservative party caved in at the last minute. Naysayers on the right justified their opposition by saying that in its current state, the legislation left the deal “exposed to litigation and the Strasbourg court.”

Sunak had promised late last year that the first flights to Rwanda would take off this spring. However, amid the lengthening saga opposing him and British institutions as well as his own colleagues, no migrant has reached the African country.

Still, the UK has already sent $300 million to the Rwandan government as part of the deal. If Sunak’s plan fails, Rwanda could “return the money,” President Paul Kagame told the BBC.

Doors Wide Shut

CANADA

Canada will impose a two-year cap on the intake of foreign students after explosive growth in recent years has resulted in a worsening housing crisis in the country, Reuters reported.

Minister of Immigration Marc Miller unveiled plans to issue around 364,000 visas this year, which would cut the number of intakes by nearly a third.

Last year, the country issued almost one million study permits – roughly three times more than a decade ago.

The new proposals will also set limits on post-graduate work permits for foreign students, in an effort to encourage them to return home. However, students pursuing masters’ or post-doctorate programs will be eligible for a three-year work permit.

The permits are seen as an easier path to permanent residency.

Meanwhile, the government plans to reassess the acceptance of new study permit applications in 2025, Miller added.

Miller explained that the measures are “not against individual international students,” but are meant to ensure future students receive the “quality of education that they signed up for,” the BBC noted.

However, observers said the caps come as Canada has become a popular destination for international students which has led to a huge shortage of rental apartments and rising rents across the country. The affordability crisis has caused a dent in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s popularity ahead of next year’s general elections.

Even so, others noted that the changes will negatively impact educational institutions and various sectors, causing labor shortages in businesses such as restaurants and retail.

International students contribute $16.4 billion annually to the Canadian economy, mainly benefiting Ontario, the most populous province.

During the pandemic, Canada sharply felt the economic loss of immigrants and foreign students when it shut its borders. When they were reopened, the government stepped up measures to accept foreign workers and students.

Round and Round

LEBANON

Lebanon’s highest court suspended the arrest warrants for two former cabinet ministers in connection with the 2020 Beirut port blast, the latest twist in an ongoing investigation into one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions, the Associated Press reported.

This month, the court of cassation lifted the warrants against former public works minister, Youssef Fenianos, as well as former finance minister and current member of parliament Ali Hassan Khalil.

The warrants were first issued by Judge Tarek Bitar in 2021, who accused both ministers and two other officials of homicide and negligence that led to the port explosion more than three years ago.

In response, Fenianos had sought Bitar’s removal, citing “legitimate suspicion” in handling the case. Some other politicians and officials have also called for Bitar’s removal as anger and criticism by families of the victims and rights groups have grown, with the investigation being stalled for more than a year.

The August 2020 blast killed more than 200 people, injured 6,000 and devastated large sections of the Lebanese capital. Rights groups and local media said state officials were aware for years of the improper storage of hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, commonly used in fertilizers, in the port.

But despite three years of investigations and arrest warrants, there are still no answers to what caused the explosions and no one has been held accountable.

DISCOVERIES

Urban Jungle

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and its most dangerous, thanks to its hosting of wildlife such as anaconda snakes, black caimans and bullet ants.

This reputation has prompted archaeologists to believe that the vast, thick canopy was only suited for hunter-gatherer societies.

But the discovery of a cluster of “lost cities” more than 2,000 years old is up-ending that perception, NBC News reported.

Located in Ecuador’s Upano Valley, these ancient settlements were first identified more than 20 years ago by archaeologist Stéphen Rostain.

In their new study, Rostain and his team used laser mapping technology called LiDAR to penetrate the forest cover and reveal intricate networks of roads, neighborhoods and gardens.

“It was a lost valley of cities,” Rostain told the Associated Press. “It’s incredible.”

The Upano sites, occupied by the Upano people from 500 BCE to 600 CE, boast over 6,000 earthen platforms arranged geometrically across 116 square miles. The settlements were packed with residential and ceremonial structures, with one site being as large as Egypt’s Giza Plateau.

The landscape mirrors the “garden cities” of the Maya, emphasizing urban agrarian civilizations where agriculture was integrated into city life.

Co-author Fernando Mejía notes that this discovery represents “just the tip of the iceberg” of what’s hidden in the Ecuadorian Amazon, challenging the perception of the region as inhospitable for complex societies.

The Upano sites, 1,000 years older than previous Amazon findings, echo similarities with the Llanos de Mojos society in Bolivia. While both were farming communities with roads and civic structures, the details of their populations, trade connections, and governance are yet to be revealed.

“There’s always been an incredible diversity of people and settlements in the Amazon, not only one way to live,” noted Rostain. “We’re just learning more about them.”

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