Small Countries, Big Stories: Cambodia and Honduras

Often the biggest international stories are reflected in the world’s smaller countries. This week we peer into two little mirrors…


Honduras: Violence flared in Honduras as both candidates in last week’s presidential election claimed victory following a mid-vote shutdown of the electoral commissions systems. The opposition candidate, popular TV host Salvador Nasralla, accuses the US-backed incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernandez, of rigging the vote. A curfew is in place and a recount is underway.

Washington has a security problem: Hernandez is DC’s main man in Central America these days — the US has given him millions to bolster security in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most violent countries, in part to stop the flow of drugs and people northward to the US.

Democracy has a tech problem: Contested election outcomes are nothing new (remember hanging chads?) but as technology plays a greater role in elections, we can’t help but wonder if the legitimacy of votes will suffer as a result. Loosely speaking, democracy has both a hardware problem and a software problem.

The hardware problem: are electoral systems hackable? And even if they aren’t, will people perceive them to be in ways that undermine electoral outcomes even if they aren’t fraudulent?

The software problem: democracy depends on trust and good information. Fake news and poorly informed voters are certainly not new. But social media vastly expands the velocity, reach, and impact of fake news: even if you can’t hack a vote count, can you effectively hack a voter? In an atmosphere of growing polarization, people are increasingly likely to regard their fellow citizens’ choices as illegitimate.

Cambodia: Strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than 30 years, recently cracked down on the country’s growing opposition party, which he accused of plotting a US-backed coup. The US, which has funneled aid to Cambodia to support a now-dubious transition to democracy, threatened to cut some funding as a result. Sen, unfazed, said he’d rather Uncle Sam get out entirely. One reason he is so comfortable bucking the US is that China now dwarfs the West in providing aid and investment to Cambodia.

The bigger story: China has been mobilizing massive resources to make new, and often authoritarian, friends in the region, and Beijing attaches far fewer political or human rights conditions to its money, and Washington’s uncertain commitment to the region opens more room for China to expand its influence. The soft power geography of Asia is steadily tilting towards Beijing.

Ferrera Erbognone, a small town in the northern Italian province of Pavia, is home to one of the most cutting-edge computing centers in the world: Eni's Green Data Center. All of the geophysical and seismic prospecting data Eni produces from all over the world ends up here. Now, the Green Data Center is welcoming a new supercomputing system: HPC5, an advanced version of the already powerful HPC4. Due to be completed by early 2020, HPC5 will triple the Green Data Center's computing power, from 18.6 to 52 petaflops, equivalent to 52 million billion mathematical operations per second.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

A few days ago, the New York Times published a bombshell report on the Chinese government's systematic oppression of Muslims in Western China. The story was about many things: human rights, geopolitics, Chinese society – but it was also about technology: Beijing's repression in Xinjiang province is powered in part by facial recognition, big data, and other advanced technologies.

It's a concrete example of a broader trend in global politics: technology is a double-edged sword with sharp political consequences. Artificial intelligence, for example, can help develop new medicines but it can also support surveillance states. Social media helps nourish democracy movements and entertains us with cat memes, but it also feeds ISIS and 4Chan.

More Show less

Increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong have dealt a major blow to the city's once booming economy. Tourism – an economic lifeline in that city – has dropped, and retailers are suffering from a sharp decline in sales. Now, six months since the unrest began, Hong Kong has recorded its first recession in a decade, meaning its economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters. Here's a look at how Hong Kong's quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) growth has fared during the past two years.

Tehran's Next Move: "We don't want an Islamic Republic, we don't want it," was the chant heard among some protesters in Tehran over the weekend after the government announced a 50 percent fuel price hike meant to fund broader support for the country's poor. Under crippling US sanctions, the country's economy has plummeted, unleashing a "tsunami" of unemployment. What started Friday as nationwide economic protests took on a political coloring, as protestors in some cities tore up the flag and chanted "down with [Supreme Leader] Khamenei!". The unrest seems to be related, at least indirectly, to widespread demonstrations against Tehran-backed regimes in Iraq and Lebanon as well. Economically-motivated protests erupt in Iran every few years, but they tend to subside within weeks under harsh government crackdowns. So far, the authorities have shut down the internet to prevent protestors from using social media to organize rallies. But Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps has warned of more "decisive action" if the unrest continues.

More Show less