The World Today for May 31, 2024

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Into the Fire

MEXICO

At least nine people died and around 50 more were injured when a stage collapsed in northern Mexico while presidential candidate Jorge Álvarez Máynez was addressing supporters. Máynez of the center-left Citizen Movement was uninjured, the BBC reported. But the incident was the latest ugly incident before voters in Latin America’s most populous country head to the polls to elect a new head of state on June 2.

As the Financial Times explained, assassinations of candidates, allegations of ties to drug lords, and information leaks have marred the run-up to the elections – which are Mexico’s largest – and will see 20,000 jobs up for grabs in Congress, state houses, local legislatures and municipalities.

For example, incumbent President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who can’t run for a second term, recently published the telephone number of a journalist who wrote about American probes into Lopez’s ties to drug cartels. His endorsed candidate from the Morena party-led Sigamos Haciendo Historia coalition, Claudia Sheinbaum, and her main rival, Xóchitl Gálvez of the conservative Strength and Heart for Mexico alliance, have had their info leaked, too. Nineteen candidates seeking legislative office have been killed.

Sheinbaum is the current frontrunner. Polls said she enjoys as much as 59 percent of the public’s support compared with Gálvez, who is hovering around 35 percent, according to the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Máynez is trailing with between five to 10 percent.

When he won office in 2018, Obrador was portrayed as a leftist. In office, however, he governed as a populist and nationalist with an authoritarian bent, wrote VOA, leaving the country deeply divided. Sheinbaum is a leftist who will likely govern as a progressive.

Her parents helped organize a student democracy protest in 1968 that security forces dispersed, massacring hundreds of youths in Mexico City. “She went to these schools where the ‘children of ‘68’ went, they were active-learning schools run by Spanish Republican exiles, they were free-thinking schools,” Antonio Santos, who has known Sheinbaum since the 1980s, told the Associated Press.

Security is a major issue in the race. At a recent debate, wrote NBC News, Sheinbaum claimed that when she was mayor of Mexico City, surveys showed that residents’ previous sense of insecurity had fallen by a third. Gálvez noted that homicides in her time in office increased by 22 percent, however. Neither proffered new policies to address rampant crime, violence, and corruption in Mexico. Máynez, however, proposed legalizing drugs to end the cartels’ trade.

Those issues are linked to foreign policy, argued World Politics Review. The US wants Mexico to help fight the war on drugs. Mexico needs American investment, especially as American leaders seek to re-shore manufacturing on North American soil to avoid the supply chain issues that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic and could happen in the event of a conflict with China.

As a leftist, Sheinbaum’s instincts could lean toward confrontation, rather than conciliation with the US. She might not have that option, however, if she wants voters to have jobs and food on their tables, and preserve democracy – the US is Mexico’s largest trade partner and main source of military equipment.

At the same time, one of the trickiest issues facing the next Mexican president is the exponentially growing power of the Mexican military, wrote the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Mexico, unlike elsewhere in Latin America, has been free of military coups and juntas, with the military seen as subordinate to civilian authority, according to NPR.

But while in office, the current president has transferred vast amounts of resources to the armed forces as well as responsibility for tasks civilians previously would have handled – customs and migration, for example – while constitutional amendments granted the armed forces responsibility for public security until 2028. Meanwhile, more than a dozen state companies have been transferred to the military for management, too, such as oversight over airports, usually a civilian responsibility.

“What’s true is that the growth of the military’s footprint has come alongside focused efforts by the president to hamstring much of the civilian state, including the judiciary and institutions such as the elections watchdog and the freedom-of-information agency,” the Washington Post wrote.

“With its oversight over seaports, airports and borders, alongside its ubiquitous presence throughout Mexico, the military has become an invaluable tool for the president to do his will across the territory, centralizing power and sidestepping democratically elected state and municipal governments.”

“For now, Mexico’s generals show no open interest in taking over the country,” it added. “Yet these things have a way of happening incrementally.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Letters of the Law

HONG KONG

A Hong Kong court on Thursday convicted 14 out of 16 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to subvert the state, a pivotal ruling that marks the most significant legal action under Beijing’s sweeping national security law, NBC News reported.

The activists, including prominent figures such as legal scholar Benny Tai and former lawmaker Claudia Mo, were among 47 individuals charged in relation to their roles in a primary election nearly four years ago.

The objective of the primaries, held in July 2020, was to strategically select pro-democracy candidates for the legislative elections scheduled for September that year. However, the authorities alleged that the primaries were aimed at destabilizing the government, constituting a breach of the national security law.

In 2020, Beijing passed a sweeping national security law in response to the mass protests that gripped Hong Kong a year earlier.

The legislation criminalized secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with authorities saying the new measures were necessary to maintain stability in the city.

Meanwhile, the court acquitted two defendants, marking the first instance of such an outcome under the security law. The remaining defendants, along with 31 others who had earlier pleaded guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences, face life in prison, according to Agence France-Presse.

Sentencing is expected later in the year.

The trial has been viewed as a crucial moment for Hong Kong’s autonomy and the future of its pro-democracy movement. Critics said that the convictions signal a worrying trend of eroding freedoms and political suppression, echoing concerns raised since the 2019 mass anti-government demonstrations.

While some nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have condemned the trial as politically motivated, Chinese officials maintain that the national security law upholds the rule of law and stability in the region.

In March, Hong Kong’s legislature – dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists – passed its version of a national security law, referred to locally as Article 23.

Earlier this week, the city’s authorities arrested six people under that law, charging them with publishing seditious content on social media.

The Politics of Absolution

SPAIN

The Spanish parliament on Thursday approved a controversial amnesty law for Catalan nationalists involved in the 2017 referendum and failed independence bid, a measure that had previously been blocked by conservatives who called it “corrupt,” the BBC reported.

The law passed with a narrow majority with 177 votes in favor and 172 against, six months after the Socialist Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez unveiled it.

Following a preliminary parliamentary vote in March, the opposition-controlled upper house delayed its passage – but could not block it.

Judges will have two months to apply the law once it is published. While appeals are possible, they are not expected to impede its implementation.

The amnesty will benefit nearly 400 Catalan nationalists facing prosecution since November 2011, including police prosecuted for attacking voters during the 2017 referendum.

The most notable beneficiary is Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president, who led the 2017 secession drive, and who fled the country to Belgium soon after.

Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party, along with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), demanded the amnesty bill in return for their support for Sánchez’s coalition government. Puigdemont plans to return to Spain for an investiture vote in the Catalan regional parliament in June, despite insufficient support to form a government.

However, right-wing parties, including the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox, opposed the legislation and said it gives preferential treatment to Catalans, also accusing Sánchez of pushing the law through parliament for political survival.

In a heated parliamentary session, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo called the amnesty “political corruption,” but PSOE officials countered that the law, alongside a 2022 pardon of nine jailed independence leaders, has “normalized politics in Catalonia.”

Closing In

MYANMAR

Myanmar’s military junta is losing control of large swathes of territory to armed ethnic groups, according to new reports, a development that piles pressure on junta head, Gen. Min Aung Hliang, and prompts questions about the army’s ability to remain in power more than three years after it took over in a coup, Radio Free Asia reported.

A report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) showed that the military has lost control of townships covering 86 percent of Myanmar’s territory, which is home to nearly 70 percent of the population.

The council – an independent group of international experts created after the military takeover to support the return of democracy – noted that the junta has been forced “into a defensive posture.”

Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank, wrote in a separate report that the low morale within the army and the mounting losses have sparked criticism against Min, including calls to step down.

The report cautioned, however, that it is unlikely that the junta chief will be replaced because there is no institutional mechanism to remove him and the regime is packed with senior officers loyal to Min.

Violence has plagued Myanmar since February 2021 when the junta deposed the civilian government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in effect ending the country’s decade-long attempt at democratic rule – Myanmar had been previously ruled by the army since 1962.

The coup sparked mass demonstrations against the new military government which later evolved into an armed resistance movement that saw many junta opponents join the ethnic minority guerrilla groups.

Last October, some of these ethnic armies launched a coordinated offensive that saw the junta lose control of the borderlands area in the country’s north. Since then, the insurgents have pushed the junta out of other areas, including Myanmar’s border with Thailand and coastal regions along the Bay of Bengal, Reuters added.

Meanwhile, the ongoing loss of control should prompt neighboring nations and the international community to increase their engagement with the resistance groups, both reports suggested.

DISCOVERIES

A Yawning Bond

Yawning is catchy – and even man’s best friend is not immune.

For example, wolves have been shown to pass yawns from one another in a phenomenon known as “contagious yawning”. Horses do, too, but it occurs differently in dogs.

Different studies have found that pooches are more likely to open their mouths in a tired way after watching or hearing humans do it.

Even so, researchers are still investigating the exact purpose and cause of contagious yawning, especially what it means in terms of behavior and relationships.

While contagious yawning is considered “a hallmark of human empathy,” wrote Psychology Today, there are still questions about whether a yawn signals a connection between people and their pets.

“Am I socially bonded with my dog? How does my dog feel about me? Does my dog feel like I feel?” Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center,” told the Washington Post.

While a 2013 paper found that dogs yawned around twice as often after watching people they were familiar with than from watching strangers, another meta-analysis did not find evidence that contagious yawning in canines is associated with a familiarity bias or empathy.

Still, Hare noted that the behavior could be related to empathy, but science will need to “demonstrate it in a convincing way.”

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