At least 25 are reported dead and more than 240 injured in clashes that erupted when Ukrainian protesters mounted a march on parliament Feb. 18, apparently ending a "truce" that had been worked out to allow negotiations. The march took place before a scheduled debate on reinstatement of Ukraine's 2004 constitution, which would rein in President Viktor Yanukovich's powers. The situation on the streets escalated as the bill was blocked by parliamentary staff who refused to register it on procedural grounds. The 2004 constitution was repealed in 2010, shortly after Yanukovich came to power, replaced by a new one granting him sweeping powers, including to appoint regional governors—a critical issue in Ukraine, with its cultural divide between the more Russian-identified east and more European-identified west. (Jurist, WP, UN News Centre, Feb. 19; BBC News, EuroNews, Feb. 18)
Days of street clashes between opponents and supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have left five dead, with scores injured or detained. The demonstrators, mostly students, blame the government for violent crime, high inflation, chronic shortages, and what they charge is repression of opponents. They are calling for Maduro to resign. The street fighting has mostly been in middle-class areas of Caracas, where it seems we are treated to the unlikely spectacle of well-heeled youth throwing Molotov cocktails at police and blocking streets with burning trash. Authorities even said a funeral procession for revered folk singer Simón Díaz, who died Feb. 19 aged 85, was held up by "violent groups" blocking roads. (Reuters, Feb. 20) Widely blamed for inciting violence is the leader of the right-wing Voluntad Popular party, Leopoldo López. CNN reported that López turned himself in Feb. 19 to face murder charges—which CNN reported the following day had been dropped. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles has also been supporting the protests, but is publicly urging nonviolence. The unrest extends beyond Caracas, with the government mobilizing troops to Tachira state following protests there. Maduro has also threatened to expel CNN from the country if it does not "rectify its coverage" of the protests. (BBC News, Feb. 20)
Mexico's violence-torn state of Michoacán produces millions of kilos each year of its famous specialty crop, highly prized in US markets... Yes, avocados. Michoacán accounts for 72% of total Mexican production of this rich, green fruit, and over 80% of the state's output is exported to the United States. The trade amounts to nearly a billion dollars a year—even ahead of the state's notorious (and prohibition-inflated) marijuana. But now the two industries are experiencing a grim synergy, as narco lords acquire avocado plantations to launder money, facilitate smuggling and maintain a cover of "legitimate" income. According to a recent exposé in Mexico's Vanguardia newspaper, the Knights Templar cartel has in recent years been running an extortion racket on avocado farmers, seizing their lands if they can't pay up (on pain of family members being abducted and threatened with death), building a "legal" agrarian empire in the state. The local agribusiness association, with the clunky name of the Michoacán State Committee on Vegetable Health, has been co-opted by the Templarios through threats and bribes, according to the report.
Pretty hysterical irony. Gawker reported Jan. 24 that New York's newly elected populist Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered a private speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the night before, behind closed doors at Manhattan's Hilton hotel—and that a reporter from Capital New York who managed to infiltrate the event was ejected by security, although not before recording audio in which the mayor can be heard hailing fealty to Israel as "elemental to being an American" because the US has "no greater ally on earth." The New York Times wrote that the affair "led to questions...about the transparency of his young administration, especially given his repeated pledges during last year's campaign to oversee a more open and inclusive City Hall than that of his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg." And it's doubly unbecoming given how de Blaz played to a very different crowd on the campaign trail, even citing The Autobiography of Malcom X as his favorite book! (See NYT, Oct. 8)
Spain's El Mundo and El Periodico on Jan. 17 reported the heartening news that after weeks of angry protests, Burgos Mayor Javier Lacalle announced a definitive end to his planned redevelopment of one of the city's main traffic arteries, citing the "impossibility" of moving ahead with the plan. Protesters had opposed the 8 million euro project both as a waste of money better spent on social programs and as a scheme to accelerate the city's gentrification. BBC News reports that the project to trasnform Calle Vitoria into a new boulevard called for a bike lane and green spaces to replace two of the thoroughfare's four traffic lanes. Free parking spaces were also to be replaced with a paid underground car lot.
Israel's ultra-reactionary foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, a vocal advocate of "transfer" of the Palestinians, stars in a very gloomy analysis in The Economist on Jan. 18, "Might they want to join Palestine?" The title refers to Israel's Arab citizens, and the subtitle tells us: "Avigdor Lieberman's radical ideas for population transfers are gaining ground." Actually, in Lieberman's politically correct formulaitons of the "transfer" concept, he insists he is talking about transfering land by tweaking the border between Israel and the Palestinian state, not transfering populations. This is transparent hypocrisy. One favorable comparison he has drawn for his proposal, Cyprus 1974, actually did involve massive forced population transfers—and leaves a bitterly divided island nearly two generations later. Others have been bolder. The now happily retired MK Benny Elon pushed a maximalist transfer program—all the Palestinians from the West Bank across the river into Jordan—and won support from influential US politicians for this blatantly illegal scheme. John Derbyshire in National Review in 2002 called for this future for the Palestinians: "Expulsion from the West Bank and Gaza, those territories then incorporated into Israel.... Would expulsion be hard on the Palestinians? I suppose it would... Do I really give a flying falafel one way or the other? No, not really."
After lying in state at the Knesset, where Israelis lined up to pay tribute, Ariel Sharon was buried Jan. 13 on his family's ranch in the Negev desert. The Israeli military deployed the Iron Dome missile shield, lest Gaza-based militants tried to target the burial with rockets. In fact, "two projectiles" did hit the nearby Shaar HaNegev region, the military said, reporting no casualties. Earlier in the day, Israeli air-strikes hit a Gaza refugee camp, ostensibly in response to prior ineffectual projectile attacks. US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement to Israel: "Our nation shares your loss and honors Ariel Sharon's memory." News of Sharon's death set off spontaneous joyful celebrations at Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. (Algemeiner, AFP, AFP, JP Updates)
Amid ongoing fighting in South Sudan, the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 7 notes that two of the regional powers supposedly attempting to head off further escalation through a "diplomatic effort" are Kenya and Uganda—whcih were "recruiting investors to back an oil pipeline in South Sudan in December when a rebellion upended the world's newest nation." Most reportage reads as if the "upending" came out of nowhere, but when a precursor rebellion broke out in Jonglei state last March, we noted widespread theories that Sudan was quietly backing it to interrupt plans for alternative pipeline routes through Kenya or Ethiopia, which would break South Sudan's reliance on old enemy Khartoum for getting its crude to market. So we may now be looking at a proxy war for South Sudan, pitting US client states Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia against Sudan. On the ground, the Dinka (the group most closely linked to the ruling faction) are pitted against the Nuer (whose legitimate grievances may be exploited by Khartoum). Of course the model of a ruling clique controlling oil wealth and distributing it in clientelist manner to build a power base is what is really at root of the conflict—and neither side has any interest in challenging that.