The World Today for February 06, 2024

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Growing Pains

ARGENTINA

Labor unions took to the streets a few weeks ago in Argentina to oppose recently elected President Javier Milei’s libertarian plans to adopt the US dollar as the country’s official currency while radically shrinking government spending.

It’s the president’s first big test despite only having been in office for 45 days.

Demonstrators during the strikes and again at protests, the latest last Wednesday, banged pots and pans together and carried images of Evita Peron, the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron, who dominated the country’s politics in the 20th Century and created the socialist, allegedly profligate style of government that Milei despises, CNN explained.

“Before we used to have asados (barbecues) every Sunday. Not now. Even rice is very expensive,” Elizabeth Gutierrez, a protesting nurse, told Al Jazeera. “Rents have shot up. You can’t live off your salary anymore – it’s not enough. The people are here to defend their nation.”

Such displeasure and anger is one reason Milei is now facing trouble pushing his agenda through the opposition-dominated Argentine Congress.

Inflation and skyrocketing living costs were battering Argentines before Milei took office in November. Consumer prices in the South American country rose nearly 95 percent in 2023, noted the BBC. But, as the New York Times reported, costs have continued to climb under Milei after he devalued its currency, the peso, in expectation of his new economic plan. Inflation is now running at 200 percent annually.

As the Buenos Aires Times wrote, after issuing a series of controversial decrees to undercut the public sector, Milei sponsored sprawling omnibus legislation that contained 660 changes to current regulations with the goal of liberalizing and dollarizing the Argentine economy.

However, even though the president enjoys the support of nearly 56 percent of voters, according to polls, lawmakers balked. The president then cut 150 articles in the text to move the bill out of the legislature’s committees. On Friday, the lower house of the legislature approved the bill. It’s likely to be amended further in the upper house, Al Jazeera wrote.

The courts, meanwhile, are yet another issue. Last week, a court struck down his plan to make it easier to fire workers as illegal, the Associated Press reported.

These delays have consequences. For example, chaos in the streets and price spikes led the International Monetary Fund to predict that Argentina’s economy will shrink over the next two years, according to Bloomberg.

Milei might lack the political savviness to push through his ambitions, warned World Politics Review. He might want to enact more measures, for example, to mitigate the pain that his policies are causing as he attempts to shepherd Argentina into a new economic model.

The president has called for payments to low-income Argentines to help them through this period, Reason magazine added. He is flying commercial to meet other international leaders, as he recently did on his way to speak at Davos. And he says he’s willing to compromise with lawmakers and work across the aisle.

He’s happy, say analysts, to do things differently: That includes inflicting pain on the elites and business owners who have benefited from preferential government treatment over the past few decades as ordinary Argentines have struggled to make ends meet.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Staying Put

ZIMBABWE

Zimbabwe’s ruling party secured a super-majority in parliament after winning by-elections on Saturday, enabling them to modify the constitution and extend the president’s rule, amid allegations from the opposition of fraud and political maneuvers, Agence France-Presse reported.

The ZANU-PF party won all the by-elections held in six constituencies, which were formerly represented by lawmakers from the opposition.

The party of President Emmanuel Mnangagwa now holds 190 of the 280 seats in parliament, providing them with the two-thirds majority required by the constitution to pass constitutional amendments. They had fallen short of that benchmark in the August 2023 general election.

Observers said ZANU-PF could use this new tool to remove the presidential two-term limit and allow 81-year-old Mnangagwa to run again.

However, the opposition decried the party’s clean sweep on Saturday as fraud.

A self-proclaimed interim leader of the opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Sengezo Tshabangu, recalled the six lawmakers which left open seats in the districts.

Opposition supporters attacked the move, insisting that Tshabangu was a ZANU-PF “stooge,” imposed on the party to help the ruling party from within. CCC chairman Nelson Chamisa quit the party during the recalls in January.

Regardless, the ruling party won those open seats.

Mnangagwa took power with the army’s support after a 2017 coup ousted Zimbabwe’s longest-serving head of state, Robert Mugabe. Previously an ally of Mugabe, Mnangagwa promised democratic reforms upon becoming president.

He has since denied clamping down on the opposition.

However, last week, opposition figure Job Sikhala was convicted of inciting public violence after already spending nearly two years in pre-trial detention, the Associated Press reported. Sikhala, described by his supporters as the face of resistance to the government’s repressive measures, had been accused of inciting violent protests following the assassination and dismembering of a CCC activist.

Small Is Beautiful

FRANCE

Parisians on Sunday voted to greatly increase parking fees for SUVs, a move intended to force the large, heavy vehicles out of the city center and help the 2024 Olympic host city become more green, the Associated Press reported.

In a mini-referendum, 54 percent supported the measure by socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo to triple the parking fees for SUVs coming from outside Paris, according to results released by City Hall. Despite a low turnout – just 5.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls – the new fees will be enforced from Sept. 1 onwards.

Non-resident owners parking their SUVs in the French capital’s most central districts, featuring the historical center and landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the car-clogged Champs-Élysées, will have to pay $19.5 per hour for the first two hours, and $243 for a six-hour stay. Fares for smaller vehicles remain at $6.40 and $80, respectively.

In the outer districts, home to the tourist draw of Montmartre, the cost will rise to $12.80 per hour for the first two hours and $160 for six hours.

Hidalgo has long criticized SUVs by saying they are too large for Paris’ narrow streets and have impacted public health and the environment.

Speaking to the AP, one young resident said she voted in favor of the additional fees because of environmental concerns and parking issues posed by large cars.

However, opponents of the measure highlighted the high costs for families depending on cars to drive out of the city. A drivers’ lobby group launched a petition to defend the freedom to choose one’s vehicle, Reuters reported.

The vote was the second of its kind:  Last year, residents banned for-hire electric scooters after many found them a nuisance, or worse, as dangerous for riders and pedestrians alike.

Since she became mayor in 2014, Hidalgo has implemented numerous measures to make the city less car-friendly and incentivize residents and visitors to walk, bike, or use public transit systems. In 2016, she closed a busy highway along the River Seine. The embankment is now used by pedestrians, joggers, and cyclists and turns into a beach in the summer months.

Ahead of the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in Paris this summer, City Hall has planned to add more bike lanes.

Tearing One’s Hair Out

PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico last week launched a public debate on a proposed law to explicitly ban discrimination against hairstyles such as Afros and cornrows, causing tense discussions on the racially diverse island, a US territory, the Associated Press reported.

More than half of the 3.2 million Puerto Ricans identify as mixed-raced, and the US census reported 230,000 people identifying as Black.

At a highly attended hearing at San Juan’s Capitol building, Afro-Caribbean advocates of the bill recounted instances where they faced discrimination because of their hair. One explained she had to refuse a job offer that was given to her on the condition that she lose her locks. Another said her child could not attend school until he cut his hair.

Meanwhile, local government officials opposed the bill, saying it was an unnecessary repeat of existing federal and Puerto Rican legal frameworks prohibiting discrimination, citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Nonetheless, limits to Title VII were set by a 2016 US Court of Appeal ruling that an Alabama employer’s no-locks policy did not violate it.

At the same hearing, Puerto Rico Senator Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, who co-authored the bill, asked, “What is the problem with adding explicit protection?” Other proponents including renowned author Mayra Santos-Febres said the bill would “create a protocol” and close a legal vacuum over certain hairstyles such as braids, locks, and Bantu knots.

Texas last September implemented a similar measure. However, a Black high school student has faced suspension for wearing locks in Mont Belvieu, even after the law was passed.

Texas is part of a group of 24 states that have aligned with the CROWN Act – short for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” – banning hairstyle discrimination in cases including employment, housing, and education.

An attempt to pass a federal version of the act failed in the Senate in 2022.

DISCOVERIES

Grand Theft Pollen

There is no question that honeybees are very industrious insects – but that doesn’t mean they don’t engage in the occasional bit of larceny, Science News reported.

Researchers in Italy recently discovered that honeybees steal pollen from the bodies of bumblebees, in a study marked as one of the most extensive documentations of bee-on-bee theft.

Pollen stealing is not new in bees: In the United States, honeybees have been caught robbing other bees in a number of states, including Kansas and California.

But this behavior was not documented outside the US until 2019 when researchers Tiziano Londei and Giuliana Marzi took a video of thieving bees at Mount Antola in Liguria province.

The footage showed honeybees shamelessly stealing pollen from red-tailed bumblebees. The team explained that the thieves would target mostly male bumblebees because they were more laid back about the theft than others.

To determine how common this criminal behavior was, the researchers revisited the crime scene in the following three years and also observed the insects at two other sites about 15 miles away.

Honeybees on other sites stayed on the straight and narrow, but those on the first site carried on with grand theft pollen. For instance, they collected pollen from only three of the 31 flowers the researchers observed in 2021, but stole from 28 of the available 66 bumblebees.

Even so, the authors said this behavior occurs in areas where pollen is difficult to find in flowers – but where there are plenty of other bees around.

Avery Russell, a biologist not involved in the study, said he was not surprised by the findings, considering that honeybees have a reputation as “pollen pigs.”

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