The World Today for February 12, 2024

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Havana Blues


Storm waves recently flung jellyfish and seaweed onto the streets of Havana. After the storm, temperatures plunged to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, unusually cold weather for the Caribbean island.

“This really is something new … we’re not used to this kind of cold,” Havana resident Jaqueline Dalardes told Reuters near Havana’s Malecon esplanade. “The climate has changed.”

As Cuba faces harsher meteorological conditions, much of their housing stock is at risk of crumbling. Humidity, storms, and poor maintenance have undermined many of the island’s stately old homes, while Cuba’s poor economy has failed to ignite housing development.

Last year, for example, an old house collapsed in Havana, killing three people, reported the Associated Press. Thirteen families lived in the house. Today, many Havana residents live in fear of their domiciles collapsing around them, too.

Meanwhile, authorities have evicted tenants from buildings that inspectors fear will collapse without structural renovations, added the Havana Times, a Nicaragua-based independent news outlet that covers Cuba.

Renovations cost money, however. Unfortunately, most Cubans lack capital to spend on improving their housing.

Speaking to France 24, Chatham House fellow Christopher Sabatini argued that the island’s deteriorating buildings reflect a cratering of its economy in general. The communist authorities who run the country have permitted half of the housing stock to become substandard, he said.

These problems linger as the Cuban government doubles down on social policies related to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals for 2030, wrote Prensa Latina, a Cuban government-owned news service.

The Cuban government recently expanded maternity and paternity leave benefits by three months to a total of 15 months, for instance. The quality of the country’s medical system is world-renowned. Health-related exchanges with regional neighbors like Brazil and Jamaica are among the country’s most successful diplomatic efforts.

Many would blame Cuba’s economic troubles on the American economic embargo that has long suppressed its growth. The embargo reflects Cold War enmities that have helped Russia and Cuba retain ties since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russians are key to Cuba’s vital tourism industry, its most important source of foreign currency. Offered fat paychecks while they languish in unemployment, Cubans are even fighting in Russian forces in Ukraine, CNN reported.

China has also invested mightily in Cuba, to build a better relationship with a traditional antagonist of the US. At the Torch, the student newspaper at St. John’s University, an editorial writer called for the end of the embargo to prevent China from taking Russia’s place.

Still, that’s unlikely, wrote Robert Looney, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in World Politics Review. That’s because Cuba has little to offer Beijing, which tends not to grant selfless favors, especially as it faces economic headwinds.


Pardon Me


Hungary’s president resigned live on television Saturday after a scandal erupted over her decision to pardon a man accused of child sexual abuse, a decision that has caused a setback for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, the BBC reported.

Over the past week, opposition parties and protesters have demanded that Katalin Novak, a close ally of Orbán, step down after reports in Hungarian media that she had granted a presidential pardon to a former deputy director of a state children’s home.

The man was sentenced to three years in prison in 2018 for forcing children to retract abuse claims against the institution’s director, who himself was handed an eight-year sentence for abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.

The deputy director was among 25 people pardoned by Novak during a visit by Pope Francis to Hungary in April 2023. Since the list was made public last week, she has faced mounting pressure to resign while denying any wrongdoing and refusing to provide a formal explanation for the pardon, the Associated Press wrote.

The president’s decision and comments caused outrage in Hungary and dismayed survivors of the sexual abuse in this case. In parliament, the opposition launched an ethics probe against the president, while Orbán proposed to amend the constitution to bar people convicted of child abuse from receiving presidential pardons.

The scandal has been awkward for Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has ruled Hungary with a nationalist, conservative agenda placing traditional family values at the center of its social policy.

Nonetheless, in an address live on television on Saturday evening, Novak apologized for the pardon, calling it a “mistake” that “(triggered) doubts about the zero tolerance that applies to pedophilia,” and announced her resignation.

Novak became the first female president of Hungary in 2022. Though the position is for the most part ceremonial, she remained a popular figure in Fidesz.

Following the uproar, another key female member of the party stepped down. Judit Varga, who was the justice minister at the time of the presidential pardon and approved it, quit her position as leader of Fidesz’s campaign for this year’s European elections.

Chaos Theory


Deadly protests erupted across Senegal this week, following President Macky Sall’s decision to postpone the Feb. 25 presidential elections, a move that critics and analysts say will endanger the country’s reputation as a beacon of democratic stability in West Africa, the Associated Press reported.

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Dakar and other cities, burning tires and blocking traffic as authorities used tear gas to disperse them. Officials said at least one person was killed during violent demonstrations in the northern city of Saint-Louis, Al Jazeera noted.

The violence began when Sall, who faces term limits, announced earlier this month that he was delaying the upcoming vote. He explained that the postponement was aimed at resolving issues over the disqualification of some candidates, as well as a conflict between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Earlier this week, parliament voted to delay the vote until Dec. 15, a move that triggered nationwide protests.

Tensions have increased over the past few weeks after two major candidates were disqualified from the Feb. 25 elections: The Constitutional Council blocked candidate Karim Wade because he held dual citizenship with France at the time he filed to run.

Meanwhile, the main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was disqualified because of a conviction by the Supreme Court for defamation against a minister. His supporters say the charges are intended to prevent him running for office.

Amid the unrest, more than a dozen opposition candidates filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the postponement. At the same time, the Constitutional Council will decide later this week whether it agrees with parliament’s decision to postpone the vote.

Analysts and think tanks questioned the delay and warned that it underscored the threat of democratic backsliding in Senegal, a country that has been marked by stability in a region plagued by coups and insecurity.

Instead, Sall’s two-term presidency has come under fire, with critics accusing authorities of repressing media and civil society, as well as arresting nearly 1,000 opposition members and activists.

In an interview with the AP, Sall defended the vote delay and denied he had instigated a constitutional crisis. He also brushed off suggestions that he was seeking to remain in office – Sall had previously said he would not run for a third term.

He added that Senegal’s path forward includes launching a national dialogue to create trust and an inclusive environment for elections.

Immoral Tests


Authorities in Turkmenistan are ordering female high school students in the country’s western province of Balkan to undergo mandatory virginity tests, saying the move is aimed at establishing the teenagers’ morality, Radio Free Europe reported.

Parents, educators and students said officials have demanded gynecological tests without the consent of the girls or their parents. Students who “fail” these tests are being reported to police and security services, they added.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers are reportedly checking the mobile phones of these girls to gather information about their suspected sexual partners.

While authorities have not offered a proper explanation for such tests, some observers speculated that it might be connected to the reported rise of teenage pregnancies in the coastal region in recent months.

Still, virginity tests are not unprecedented in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation.

In 2018, virginity tests were conducted in the northern Dashoguz region as part of efforts to combat teenage prostitution.

“Some of the girls were discovered to not be virgins during the tests, and their parents were summoned and shamed in front of everyone at the school,” a source close to the matter told RFE at the time.

A year later, female students in the southeastern Mary Province were subjected to gynecological examinations without parental consent.

Many women’s rights activists and medical professionals have condemned virginity tests, which continue to be enforced in some parts of the world.

Health experts said such tests cannot determine a person’s virginity because the hymen can be damaged outside of sexual activity.


Dangerous Greens

Astronauts: Beware of the lettuce.

That’s because while a 2020 study found that lettuce grown in space was as safe and nutritious as the leafy greens found on Earth, new research has shown that space-grown salad could make space explorers very sick, according to Science Alert.

In their paper, researchers from the University of Delaware conducted a series of tests on plants grown in simulated microgravity.

To replicate the space environment, they used a device called a clinostat to perform some rotation tricks in the lab. This put the lettuce plants into a similar state as microgravity.

The team then added the Salmonella enterica bacteria to the leaves and noticed something peculiar: The plants’ stomata pores – which keep attackers out – opened up and allowed the pathogens to go inside.

Even adding helpful bacteria to combat the invaders didn’t help the plants, the researchers noted.

While more research is needed on the phenomenon, they theorized that the microgravity state disabled the chemical reactions that the lettuce would normally use to keep itself safe.

“In effect, the plant would not know which way was up or down,” said lead author Noah Totsline. “We were kind of confusing their response to gravity.”

The authors hope that further studies can come up with innovations to make food safer in space and potential future missions.

“You don’t want the whole mission to fail just because of a food safety outbreak,” noted co-author Harsh Bais.

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