The World Today for March 20, 2024

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NEED TO KNOW

The Dream

COLOMBIA

The first-ever leftwing president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, 63, promised to make his country into a more equal society when he won office two years ago. Now the former guerrilla fighter and mayor of the capital of Bogota is struggling to maintain the public’s support.

He reformed the tax code to be more fair, reestablished relations with neighboring Venezuela, and maintained good ties with the US, reported National Public Radio, noting that Colombia is a key player in the American war on drugs. Europe, a major cocaine market, is increasingly involved in that war, as a German government press release suggested.

But he failed to reform the South American country’s healthcare sector, sought controversial peace with rebel groups, and became embroiled in corruption scandals.

His defenders at Jacobin magazine argued that a coordinated rightwing opposition campaign has undermined his success. Thousands of Colombians took to the streets recently, for example, to protest against Petro’s proposed reforms in healthcare, pensions, labor relations and education, added Reuters.

Others said he has played a role in creating the challenges that he now faces. “I think the difficulties of being the first leftist government in Colombia’s history have been augmented by self-inflicted wounds,” said Daniel García-Peña, who worked under Petro when he was mayor. “Many people who voted for Petro were expecting something very different.”

He disappears frequently from public view, explained Americas Quarterly. He has purged the government of technocrats who don’t share his leftist vision, wrote Bloomberg. He has clashed with powerful institutions like the supreme court over his attorney general picks, noted Agence France-Presse.

Petro is now negotiating with armed groups who have fought against Colombia’s central government for around 60 years, a conflict that has involved leftwing rebels, drug cartels, rightwing militant forces, and other players, claiming at least 450,000 lives.

The government already signed a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the primary rebel force, in 2016. This deal fostered peace and arguably paved the way for growth in the Colombian tourism industry, as the Telegraph described, and other perks.

Petro also recently extended a ceasefire between the government and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), noted Al Jazeera. Founded by leftwing students in 1964, the ELN now has around 4,000 militant fighters overseeing gold mining and the drug trade in Colombia and Venezuela.

The president won’t likely reach any new deals with another important rebel force, the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), however, before his term ends in 2026, a rebel leader told Reuters. FARC fighters who refused to sign a peace deal with the government created the EMC. Insight Crime likened the group to a mafia.

It remains violent: On Sunday, Colombia suspended a truce with the EMC in three different parts of the country, citing an attack on an Indigenous group that left one woman dead and other violence, France24 reported.

Petro has also been plagued by scandals involving his family.

His eldest son, Nicolás Petro, was indicted on Jan. 11 for allegedly diverting donations from drug traffickers meant for his father’s presidential campaign. His brother, Juan Fernando Petro, is under investigation for allegedly soliciting payments from jailed drug dealers in exchange for judicial favors from the Petro administration. And his wife, First Lady Verónica Alcocer, is facing scrutiny in the Colombian media for her extravagant spending.

Still, his defenders say in spite of these setbacks, the president is making headway on tough, long-running problems. But others say he should try a little harder to actually govern.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Power of Vagueness

HONG KONG

Bowing to pressure from mainland China, lawmakers in Hong Kong on Tuesday unanimously passed a new national security law, enabling the city’s government to crack down on dissent after decades of public resistance to Beijing, the New York Times reported.

The bill serves to enact Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. It was passed quickly and will take effect on March 23. It targets five types of offenses: treason, insurrection, theft of state secrets, sabotage, and external interference. People found guilty of these offenses face penalties ranging from 20 years to life in prison.

Businesses, journalists, civil servants and academics are among the people most at risk, according to analysts. As a result, the new measure makes Hong Kong’s future as an international city doubtful.

A former British colony ceded to China in 1997, Hong Kong has long enjoyed more freedom than the mainland thanks to a state of partial autonomy that had attracted international workers and companies. Now, the new legislation brings the city a step closer to Beijing.

It has also shored up another national security law, passed in 2020 following months of anti-government protests in 2019. Under that law, opposition figures who criticized Article 23 were sent to jail.

Other critics went into exile. Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the British government relaxed rules for Hong Kong residents to apply for a visa in the United Kingdom, Radio Free Asia reported. According to government figures from November 2023, at least 191,000 people have applied for the visa scheme.

Article 23’s rapid passage “is meant to show people in Hong Kong the government’s resolve and ability to enforce it,” Steve Tsang from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London told the New York Times.

Attempts to pass similar laws failed in 2003 after hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets. For years, leaders feared backlash and refused to raise the matter again. But Hong Kong’s political climate has changed in the ensuing two decades, allowing Article 23’s passage, former lawmaker Emily Lau told the BBC.

The legislation only vaguely defines the offenses and could “take repression to the next level,” Amnesty International said. Its language mirrors security legislation effective in mainland China, the New York Times noted.

It could also make Hong Kong disadvantageous for international businesses. Executives said they would face costs to ensure companies comply with the new law.

Old Guard, New Guard

WEST BANK & GAZA

The Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister on Tuesday unveiled a series of wide-ranging plans to fight corruption and rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip, in a bid to revitalize the government following years of criticism over corruption and a lack of new elections, the Times of Israel reported.

Newly appointed Mohammad Mustafa said he would appoint a “nonpartisan, technocratic government that can gain both the trust of our people and the support of the international community.”

The prime minister vowed reforms for PA institutions and a “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption.

The announcement comes a week after PA President Mahmoud Abbas picked Mustafa – an independent with no political base – as prime minister following the resignation of his predecessor, Mohammad Shtayyeh.

The new plan also comes as the Israeli military and Hamas continue to fight in Gaza, following the group’s deadly attack on Oct. 7 from southern Israel. That attack killed around 1,200 people and saw the abduction of more than 240 other individuals.

In response, Israel launched airstrikes and ground invasions that have led most of the international community to call for a ceasefire amid concerns of a humanitarian disaster.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) warned this week of an impending famine in northern Gaza, affecting around 300,000 people, according to NPR.

The IPC’s report indicated that more than two million residents in Gaza already face severe food insecurity, with northern Gaza potentially experiencing famine in a matter of days or weeks, while central and southern regions could face catastrophic levels of food insecurity by July.

Mustafa’s plan also envisions the creation of an independent agency and an internationally managed trust fund to help reconstruct Gaza. He added that he would work to reunify the West Bank and Gaza, but made no mention of Hamas’ role in the enclave.

Even so, the PA – ruled by Abbas’ Fatah movement – has had no control over Gaza since 2007, when Hamas fighters drove away Fatah loyalists.

Hamas and other Palestinian groups have criticized Mustafa’s appointment, warning that it would deepen divisions and make Palestinian unity more difficult.

Meanwhile, elections have not been held since 2006, when Hamas led with the most votes.

Abbas, 88, has remained in power even after his term expired in 2009. He has refused to hold elections, citing Israeli restrictions – even though analysts believe that this is because his Fatah party is expected to lose due to widespread allegations of corruption.

Mustafa said the PA plans to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, but did not provide a timetable because of “realities on the ground” in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Piling Up

BRAZIL

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was indicted Tuesday for falsifying Covid-19 vaccination records, marking the first indictment of the embattled conservative leader, the Associated Press reported.

The federal police indictment, released by the Supreme Court, accused Bolsonaro and 16 others of manipulating public health data to falsely indicate vaccination.

The accused allegedly aimed to secure fraudulent vaccination certificates, facilitating Bolsonaro’s travels – notably to the United States in December 2022, following his electoral defeat to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The indictment underscores a broader pattern of controversy surrounding Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. During his presidency, Bolsonaro drew criticism for downplaying the severity of the coronavirus and undermining vaccination efforts, aligning himself with a minority of world leaders who questioned the vaccine’s efficacy.

His administration’s refusal of vaccine offers and criticism of vaccine procurement initiatives exacerbated Brazil’s pandemic response, the newswire wrote.

While Bolsonaro’s legal team dismissed the charges as politically motivated, the indictment adds pressure on the far-right former leader, who is currently facing a series of investigations, including ones targeting his involvement in the Jan 8, 2023 uprising and others involving campaign finance misconduct.

Last year, Brazil’s top electoral court barred the former president from running for office until 2030, after it concluded that he abused his power during the 2022 presidential campaign and cast unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic voting system.

If found guilty of falsifying his health data, Bolsonaro could face up to 12 years in prison.

Meanwhile, analysts noted that Bolsonaro continues to command a loyal base of supporters despite his mounting legal challenges.

DISCOVERIES

Too Big To See

Scientists recently announced the discovery of a colossal Martian volcano that had been “hiding in plain sight” for decades, Sky News reported.

This 280-mile-wide geological behemoth is nestled near the equator in Mars’ Tharsis volcanic province and remained elusive despite repeated observations by NASA’s orbiting spacecraft since 1971.

Researchers came across the newly-found Noctis volcano – named in honor of its location at the edge of scenic Noctis Labyrinthus, or “Labyrinth of the Night” – while studying suspected glacier remnants and potential landing sites for future missions.

“We were examining the geology of an area where we had found the remains of a glacier last year when we realized we were inside a huge and deeply eroded volcano,” noted lead author Pascal Lee.

Presenting their findings at last week’s 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, Lee and his team suggested that the gargantuan volcano had been active for a very long time judging by its size and “complex modification history.”

Co-author Sourabh Shubham added that the area surrounding the Noctis volcano is known to be rich in various hydrated minerals “spanning a long stretch of Martian history.”

“A volcanic setting for these minerals had long been suspected,” he explained. “So, it may not be too surprising to find a volcano here. In some sense, this large volcano is a long-sought ‘smoking gun’.”

The authors highlighted that the discovery offers an “exciting new location to study Mars’ geologic evolution through time, search for life, and explore with robots and humans in the future.”

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