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.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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