The World Today for February 02, 2024

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‘Hustle-bro Populism’

EL SALVADOR

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has drawn admiration and condemnation since he first took office in 2019.

The former mayor of the capital of San Salvador whose maternal grandparents hailed from Jerusalem, Bukele created a bitcoin investment fund after making the cryptocurrency legal tender in the country, for example, earning plaudits from technophiles worldwide. Foreign Policy magazine noted that Bukele had pioneered “hustle-bro populism,” or a regular guy-tech geek-entrepreneur persona that appealed to rich and poor alike. He has more than seven million followers on TikTok alone, added the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

He also launched a draconian crackdown on crime that critics say has compromised human rights in the Central American country. Declaring a state of emergency in late March 2022, Bukele and the country’s parliament suspended constitutional rights and gave the president broad powers that have been extended multiple times. Telling police to round up gang members who have long plagued the country, they put 33,000 people behind bars within two months, according to InSight Crime.

A total of 72,000 people are now in prison. Many claim that they were arrested and convicted unfairly, leading authorities to release 7,000 people either because they exonerated themselves or still face trial.

A local human rights group, Cristosal, also claimed that more than 150 prisoners who have yet to be convicted died while in the El Salvadoran justice system. “There are registries in the Forensic Medicine Institute that establish the cause of death as strangulation, hanging, blows to the stomach, to the head,” said Cristosal activist Zaira Navas in an interview with the Associated Press. “They are violent deaths.”

Despite the dark side of his administration, however, Bukele is the frontrunner in the country’s presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 4, wrote Americas Quarterly. He enjoys an amazing approval rating of 90 percent. Crime statistics explain why. In 2015, El Salvador was the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The murder rate was 103 per 100,000 people. In 2022, the rate had fallen to fewer than eight murder victims per 100,000 people.

Furthermore, as CoinDesk reported, the country’s Bitcoin fund is now showing a profit after sinking into the red for the past two years. If Bukele wins another election, however, he will need to balance his authoritarian tendencies with his dreams of making the country into a tech hub, contended the think tank Stratfor.

Meanwhile, he’ll face two mainstream political parties’ candidates: Manuel Flores of the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF) and Joel Sánchez of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance.

As analysts point out, with Bukele’s 90 percent approval rating, most don’t foresee either prevailing.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

En Garde

FINLAND

Hundreds of thousands of workers in Finland went on strike to protest proposed labor law reforms, which they say would negatively affect low-wage earners and tilt the balance of power toward employers in salary negotiations, Euronews reported Thursday.

Strikes took place in a number of cities Wednesday and are expected to continue and grow through Friday, with more protests planned for next week.

The demonstrations, which coincide with campaigning for Finland’s presidential election, drew 10,000 workers to a rally in Helsinki. Unions estimate up to 300,000 workers could participate in the strikes, affecting various sectors including transportation, energy, retail, tourism, and manufacturing.

At the heart of the dispute are proposed cuts to social welfare provisions and the rejigging of collective bargaining rules. Workers said these changes would lead to significant income losses for low-wage workers and weaken workers’ bargaining power, potentially exacerbating income disparities in the country of about 5.5 million people.

The government has defended the reforms, emphasizing the need to enhance Finland’s economic competitiveness. Minister for Employment Arto Satonen said the reforms are essential to increase employment and reduce public spending, citing concerns about debt raised by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Even so, unions have criticized the government for failing to consider alternative solutions that were already proposed.

Some government officials have also labeled the strikes as politically motivated, further exacerbating tensions between the two sides: Ministers have labeled the striking unions “mafia,” while others have accused workers of getting paid “bribes” to attend the protests.

Meanwhile, a petition to ban so-called political strikes has garnered support from some politicians, raising concerns about the erosion of established social norms in the country and international labor standards.

Despite the government’s position on the strikes, union leaders say they have broad support among the population who see the strikes as a legitimate challenge to the ruling coalition’s plans to alter workers’ rights.

The Long Goodbye

TUVALU

Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader lost his seat in last week’s parliamentary election, which was closely monitored by Taiwan, China, and the United States as it raises questions over the foreign policy of one of Taipei’s last Pacific allies, Reuters reported.

A dozen nations recognize Taiwan instead of the People’s Republic of China, which claims Taiwan as its own. Tuvalu has held this position since 1979 and is now one of three remaining Pacific states to do so after Nauru severed its diplomatic ties in January with Taipei in favor of Beijing, which had offered more aid.

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano pledged not to shift alliances, while his opponent Seve Paeniu called for the archipelago to review its partnership in consideration of national interests.

Last week, Tuvaluans voted in eight two-member constituencies to renew their 16-member parliament. Natano, running in the capital Funafuti, was not re-elected.

Taipei, commenting on the election results, noted that most of the elected lawmakers “support the maintenance of the friendship between the two countries.”

Still, the election results raised questions over the future of the Pacific nation’s foreign policy, amid a race for influence in the region between Beijing on the one hand, and Washington and its allies on the other hand.

While the US recently advertised plans to connect Tuvalu to global communications via a submarine cable, Australia last year concluded a deal with Natano’s government. The so-called Falepili Union treaty will grant Tuvaluans leaving their climate-threatened archipelago refugee status in Australia, in exchange for discretion over Funafuti’s diplomacy – essentially allowing Canberra to veto a potential recognition of China over Taiwan.

The two remaining contenders for the top job, Paeniu and Enele Sopoaga, disagree on the fate of the treaty. The former pledged to preserve it, but the latter said he wanted to cancel the deal, arguing that it violated the country’s sovereignty. Even so, Paeniu told the Washington Post he was open to recognizing China.

Meanwhile, Paeniu is also vying for the position of prime minister through a coalition with other lawmakers. Tuvalu has no political parties, and all 16 members of parliament, running as independents, are divided into two groups, either supporting or opposing the leader.

Lawmakers from across the archipelago have yet to convene and appoint a new prime minister. Some of them, coming from remote islands, will embark on a 27-hour boat journey.

Disrupting Order

COSTA RICA

Costa Rica’s Supreme Court of Justice ruled this month to eliminate the requirement of using a father’s surname before a mother’s on identification documents, a practice common in Spanish-speaking nations, the Associated Press reported.

The ruling follows a request for clarification from the country’s elections board after a resident sought to change the order of their name. In Spanish-speaking countries, individuals usually go by the two last names of their parents.

But the custom usually entails that the father’s name comes first.

However, the top court said the previous requirement was based on “customary practices based on patriarchal and archaic concepts of family, which discriminates against women and today is incompatible with the law of the Constitution.”

Following the verdict, citizens can now choose the order of their surnames.

Costa Ricans welcomed the decision, acknowledging it as a step toward recognizing the role of mothers and women in society.

Lawyer and human rights activist Larissa Arroyo told the AP that the ruling had broader implications, noting its significance for same-sex couples and the elimination of societal pressures related to maintaining family names. Instead, she added that it goes far to address patriarchal norms in Costa Rican society.

The decision aligns with a bill passed by Costa Rica’s Human Rights Commission in the legislature last year, which proposed allowing citizens to choose the order of their names.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, Ukrainian officials confirmed that its weapons firm Lviv Arsenal and officials from the Ukrainian defense ministry were involved in a fraud scheme over a 2022 artillery shell deal worth $40 million, the Associated Press reported. The ammunition was never delivered, while the money was sent to bank accounts in Ukraine and in the Balkans. The Ukrainian security service on Saturday said five people have been charged in the scheme.

Closer to the frontlines, a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia saw 207 Ukrainians return to their country on Wednesday, the Kyiv Post reported. Meanwhile, as military officials ask the government to draft another half-million civilians, the realization that the war may continue for years has left Ukrainians divided on the issue, NPR wrote. Civilians unwilling to serve say that conscription officers have become more aggressive.

Also on Wednesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Russia had violated two United Nations treaties on terrorism and discrimination in a case brought by Ukraine, Reuters reported, while denying Ukraine the right to reparations from Moscow. The ICJ is expected to rule within days on Russia’s objections to Kyiv’s lawsuit regarding Kremlin claims of acts of genocide in the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday was officially registered as a candidate in the presidential election set for March 15-17, which he is almost sure to win, while nationalist – and marginal – candidate Sergei Baburin withdrew to support him. On Wednesday, popular opponent Boris Nadezhdin, who promised to end the Ukraine war, submitted the 100,000 signatures of endorsement he needed to enter the race, Al Jazeera reported. Observers have wondered how far Baburin will be allowed to go, as many Kremlin critics have been imprisoned.

One of these, Russian-British national Vladimir Kara-Murza, has vanished from jail. Then on Tuesday, his attorneys said he was transferred to another prison in Siberia, the BBC reported. Kara-Murza was handed a 25-year sentence in April for sharing “false” information about the Russian army. Meanwhile, members of Bi-2, a prominent Russian rock band known for its criticism of the war, are facing deportation from Thailand, where they were touring, and arrest in Russia. A person familiar with the case told the Guardian Moscow had sent Bangkok a “blacklist” of Russian musicians it would like the country to repatriate.

Five European Union (EU) leaders admitted the EU had “fallen short” of their goal of supplying arms to Ukraine, and stressed that “all states” needed to step up. As pro-Russian Hungary still shows reluctance to support Ukraine, Brussels has drafted a confidential plan seen by the Financial Times to target Budapest’s economic weaknesses and force it to cave; one EU diplomat called it “blackmail.” On Thursday, though, the bloc agreed on a $50 billion aid package for Ukraine, after a compromise deal on an annual review mechanism led Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to retract his veto.

Meanwhile, India is steering away from Russia, otherwise its largest arms supplier, in preference for domestic production of weapons with Western technology, Reuters reported. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Tuesday expressed his hope for similar partnership switches in Africa, where military-led countries often work with Russia or its mercenary Wagner Group. Case in point: Burkina Faso this week thanked Moscow for its gift of 28,000 tons of wheat, a commodity many African and Middle Eastern countries have struggled to import since the outbreak of the war two years ago.

DISCOVERIES

Push-Pull

When individuals try to recall something, the wheels begin turning in the brain in what is turning out to be a highly complex process.

And now, new research has uncovered a new gear – a “neural coding mechanism” in the brain that allows information to be transferred between perception and memory regions, according to Interesting Engineering.

For their paper, researcher Adam Steel and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain activity of participants being assessed on perception and memory.

Their experiments showed a “push-pull coding mechanism” regulating the interaction between these two brain regions.

“We found that memory-related brain areas encode the world like a ‘photographic negative’ in space,” explained Steel. “And that ‘negative’ is part of the mechanics that move information in and out of memory, and between perceptual and memory systems.”

The findings conclude that our memory systems preserve a visual coding principle and that this code is displayed “upside down” – the latter suggesting a distinct brain processing property.

Moreover, this dynamic relationship between perceptual and memory systems flips during recall, illustrating the complexities at play, added the researchers.

They are now working to further explore how this push-pull dynamic between perception and memory can shed light on the cognitive processes in diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

The study also offers new insights into memory encoding mechanisms, potentially shaping future research directions in cognitive neuroscience.

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