Coronavirus Politics Daily: Autocrats claim no cases, and Trump baits Maduro

Coronavirus Politics Daily: Autocrats claim no cases, and Trump baits Maduro

North Korea has zero coronavirus cases? North Korea claims to be one of few countries on earth with no coronavirus cases. But can we take the word of the notoriously opaque leadership at face value? Most long-term observers of Pyongyang dismiss as fanciful the notion that the North, which shares a border with China, its main trade partner, was able to avert the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Many point to Pyongyang's lack of testing capabilities as the real reason why it hasn't reported any COVID-19 cases. To be sure, Kim Jong-un, the North's totalitarian leader, imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, well before many other countries – closing the Chinese border and quarantining all diplomats. The state's ability to control its people and their movements would also make virus-containment efforts easier to manage. We might not know the truth for some time. But what is clear is that decades of seclusion and crippling economic sanctions have devastated North Korea's health system, raising concerns of its capacity to manage a widespread outbreak of disease.


Trump's overture to Venezuela: The Trump administration released a proposal Tuesday to ease US sanctions on Venezuela, but with a catch: it demands that long-time strongman Nicolas Maduro relinquish power to a transitional government made up of both regime loyalists and opposition figures. His rival, Juan Guaido, who heads Venezuela's parliament and is recognized as the country's legitimate leader by the US and most of the world's democracies, would also need to step aside – for now – in exchange for financial relief. The US hopes this would pave the way for fair national elections in the near-term in which Guaido could run for president. While Maduro's foreign minister came out and rejected this invitation to political suicide, President Trump is hoping that plummeting prices for oil, Venezuela's main export, will force Maduro to the bargaining table at a time when his government (and its wrecked healthcare system) badly needs resources to get through a growing coronavirus crisis of its own.

Word games in Turkmenistan: Not to be outdone by fellow former-Soviet strongman Alexsander Lukashenka's prescription of "vodka and saunas" as coronavirus antidote, the government of Turkmenistan, one of the most extravagantly repressive countries on earth, has taken a novel approach to fighting the novel coronavirus itself: don't say its name. According to Reporters Without Borders, the authorities in Ashgabat have largely discouraged state organs from referring to coronavirus or COVID-19, and official statistics show zero infections in the former Soviet Republic of nearly 6 million people. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, known abroad primarily for DJing, shooting guns while on a bicycle, and falling off his horse, has prescribed fumigating public areas – and nasal passages – with the smoke of the yuzarlik plant, though quarantines and lockdowns are reportedly gaining steam. Crazy as this all is, it's also very dangerous: Turkmenistan has a long border with Iran, which is home to one of the worst COVID-19 epidemics in the world. An outbreak in Turkmenistan, which is already reeling from a collapse in its lucrative gas exports to China, could quickly turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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