Europe/Americas update: January 24 2019

EUROPE

GREECE

The Greek parliament on Friday will probably approve the deal under which the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in return for the Greek government dropping its objections to Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union. The vote was postponed from Thursday to Friday to allow another day for debate. If the parliament does approve the agreement–and that’s by no means a sure thing–it will do so over massive public opposition. Polling indicates that over 70 percent of the Greek public opposes allowing the Macedonians to keep the name “Macedonia” in any form, and even as parliament debated the measure on Thursday huge crowds were protesting against it outside.

FRANCE

Emmanuel Macron’s plan for beating back the “Yellow Vests” protests that are threatening his presidency is beginning to take shape–he plans on boring the protesters to death:

At 9:23 p.m., after nearly six hours of talk, President Emmanuel Macron took up the subject of nursing homes. At 9:48 p.m., into the seventh hour, he was speaking about France’s “food independence.” Past 10 o’clock, with some of his listeners visibly wilting on plastic chairs, it was on to the French minimum wage.

The president in his crisp white shirt and tie — shedding the suit jacket in the fifth hour was his only concession — showed no such sign of weakness. “We’re going to favor organic farming,” he told his audience of local mayors as the night wore on. A half-joke from a small-town mayor about breaking Fidel Castro’s record for marathon speechifying had long since been forgotten.

So it was that the youthful French president revealed his strategy for overcoming the crisis of the Yellow Vest uprising: talk, or at least a series of town hall-style meetings around the country. For now, at least, it may be working to blunt the momentum of his opponents, even as it tests their patience.

In fairness, he may not have to actually kill anybody, the protest movement may just tear itself apart. An announcement that the protest movement will run candidates in European parliamentary elections later this year has apparently not been well received by all of its participants, and so there’s a chance the whole thing is going to implode and do Macron’s work for him.

UNITED KINGDOM

British media are reporting that the Democratic Unionist Party has agreed to back Theresa May’s Brexit “Plan B,” which would be a huge development if it didn’t come with the condition that she negotiate a time-limited Irish backstop agreement with the European Union. Which is something the EU has shown absolutely no interest in doing.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Brazil’s only openly gay congressman, Jean Wyllys, has fled the country citing death threats, and says he will not return. The Bolsonaro era is really off to a fantastic start.

VENEZUELA

I’m going to spend this update mostly talking about what’s happened since Wednesday, when National Assembly president Juan Guaidó up and declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate president and a chorus of Western Hemisphere governments declared that they agreed. If you would appreciate some deeper background on the crisis, I recorded a podcast interview with Jared Abbott, a political scientist who has done fieldwork there, over at Patreon. I think Jared offers a very solid explanation of the situation from a left perspective and I’m grateful he was able and willing to talk with me.

The short version is that Venezuela’s economy is and long has been dangerously dependent on oil, and the social programs that Hugo Chávez was able to implement were built on the back of extremely high global oil prices. When those prices crashed the Venezuelan economy was almost bound to crash with them, though Nicolás Maduro’s haphazard response to the crash has probably done more harm than good. Maduro has done some things that are undemocratic if not outright authoritarian to hang on to power, but he still has a better legal claim on the presidency than Juan Guaidó. For reasons that don’t entirely make sense, the Trump administration has become hell-bent on seeing Maduro off (because the United States has always treated Latin American heads of state more as governors than sovereign leaders), and so here we are.

Where we are, as Slate’s Joshua Keating writes, is in something of a stalemate. Indeed, there are already signs that life for most Venezuelans is returning to something approaching normal, or at least the current normal with the country mired in an economic disaster. Guaidó has staked his claim to the presidency and even presumptuously offered Maduro amnesty. Both men have some degree of popular support, but Maduro still controls most of the levers of actual power in Caracas including the military–so far. Most Latin American countries that have made a statement have come out in favor of Guaidó, but a few (Bolivia, Cuba) support Maduro and others (Mexico, Uruguay) are noncommittal. Those latter two countries have offered to lead a dialogue on the situation, an offer Maduro has apparently accepted but to which I don’t think Guaidó has responded. Outside the region, Russia (which has invested a lot of money and effort into Maduro), China, and Turkey are supporting Maduro, while Canada and of course the US have already made it clear they want him gone. The message from Europe is a little less committal than that–the EU has called for new elections.

Obviously the US is the main player here apart from Venezuela itself, and the Trump administration’s fixation on getting rid of Maduro–which seems to go beyond the normal US imperial urges in Latin America–is driving a lot of this situation. I think it’s wrong to say the US is pulling all the strings here, but it’s certainly involved in coordinating this action against Maduro in a major way. Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with the US on Thursday and ordered all US diplomatic personnel out of the country. The US is only withdrawing non-essential diplomatic staff as a signal that it no longer recognizes Maduro’s authority, which puts the diplomats who are staying in real jeopardy. Maduro might not threaten them directly but he’s likely to take steps such as cutting electricity to the US embassy. The Trump administration says it’s looking for ways to direct aid money and other Venezuelan revenue streams to Guaidó rather than Maduro. The US has called for a United Nations Security Council meeting on Venezuela for Saturday. And of course it can bring out the big gun–oil sanctions, which would be absolutely devastating to the Venezuelan economy–if it really wants to escalate things.

As for the other big guns, i.e. a military intervention, I don’t think we’re terribly close to that yet, simply because the US military doesn’t have any assets positioned for such an operation. I’ve seen people compare this situation to Iraq, but that elides the degree to which the US was already on a war footing with respect to Iraq back in 2002-2003, and had been since really the Gulf War. I’ve seen people compare this situation to Libya, but that elides the fact that the early stages of the Libyan intervention were really led by European nations, who are right in Libya’s neighborhood. There’s been some talk about the possibility that Colombia and/or Brazil could fill that same role here, but that’s really stretching things and anyway Brazil’s military has already seemingly put the kibosh on that idea. The issue as far as a potential military intervention isn’t in the short term, it’s in the long term, if this situation drags on indefinitely and it becomes clear that Maduro isn’t going to give up and go on the lam. Or if the situation inside Venezuela takes a hard turn for the worse and some kind of civil war breaks out. Or if Trump decides he needs a distraction.

On the plus side, a bunch of Wall Street types who hold Venezuelan debt and have been worried that Maduro might default are pretty happy with how things are going. Good for them. It’s not enough, I guess, that Maduro has been deepening his own people’s misery in order to scrape together the money to service that debt. Better to just have a full on political crisis.

MEXICO

Over 10,000 Central American migrants have reportedly applied for visas to enter Mexico, a group that would absolutely dwarf previous migrant caravans headed to the southern US border. The difference in this case is that this doesn’t appear to be an organized caravan and so these migrants probably will not arrive at the US border en masse. New Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has instituted a policy of giving migrants the papers to allow them legal entry into Mexico, so they don’t need to travel together to minimize the chances of arrest. It’s a policy that’s not likely to win AMLO any friends in the White House.

UNITED STATES

Finally, as it maybe begins to prepare to finally leave Afghanistan, the United States is making sure that it screws a few more Afghans over for good measure–the interpreters who worked with US forces in Afghanistan and face regular threats on their lives from the Taliban. Although they risked everything to help the US military, our government is reluctant to issue them visas so that they can relocate to the relative safety of the US:

The challenge to secure such visas is not entirely new. The issuance of special visas dropped by 30 percent in 2015 — a result of changing security measures implemented by the Obama administration, interpreter advocates say.

However, there is a renewed sense of urgency to provide safe haven for Afghans who have been instrumental in helping U.S. forces, advocates say, now that the Taliban has been resurgent in the country amid uncertainty about a potential U.S. troop pullout.

Many interpreters are “expressing a profound fear and imminent threat,” said Kirt Lewis, the program director for No One Left Behind, an interpreter advocacy group.

Since the creation of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, nearly 16,000 principal Afghan applicants have been approved for visas, according to State Department data.

Congress has not allocated new visas for 2019, and advocates warn that continued delays will imperil the 19,000 applicants still waiting.

The International Refugee Assistance Project estimated in 2014 that one US interpreter was being killed in Afghanistan roughly every 36 hours. That figure is probably worse now. Just one more way we’ve covered ourselves in glory in this conflict.

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