Former Presidents Behind Bars

Former Presidents Behind Bars

Last weekend was, on the face of it, a good one for anti-corruption crusaders and a bad one for former presidents.


South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years on corruption charges, Brazil’s former President Lula began serving 12 years for his own graft conviction, and ousted South African President Jacob Zuma appeared in court to face the first of what could be a long series of corruption charges.

So far so good. The high and mighty were held to account. A win for the rule of law at a time when corruption is an increasingly important focus for voters across the world. But rooting out corruption isn’t just about high-profile prosecutions. There are outstanding challenges that lie ahead in the battle against graft in each of these countries.

In Brazil, the country is deeply polarized over whether the conviction and jailing of the left-wing Lula represents a win for impunity (no one is above the law) or a hit to impartiality (his supporters note that plenty of centrist politicians are still free despite corruption allegations of their own.)

In South Korea, the culture of corruption that exists between the government and the powerful, family run conglomerates known as chaebol runs deep. (If you’re reading this on a Samsung and/or riding in a Hyundai, you are in direct contact with a chaebol.) After all, with Ms. Park’s conviction, all four of South Korea’s living former presidents — going back to the 1990s — are either being tried or punished for corruption. It’s not easy to slip the influence of these powerful companies, of which the 10 largest control more than 27 percent of all business assets in South Korea. Will Ms. Park’s fate change that?

In South Africa, Jacob Zuma’s being hauled into court is also, potentially, a win for the rule of law. But it remains to be seen how far his prosecution goes and whether, crucially, it sheds a broader light on the endemic corruption that has contributed to South Africa’s unenviable status as the world’s most unequal society. This is a critical question as the country heads for pivotal elections next fall, in which Mr. Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has pledged to clean up the ANC.

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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