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.

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Does Boris Johnson strengthen or weaken the US-UK relationship?

Well I mean strengthens it in so far as he and Trump like each other. They're both oriented towards Brexit. They're kind of right-wing populists that aren't ideologically moored. But will it last? Boris could flip on a dime on any major issue as can Trump. So it's kind of volatile. Plus they both really love the media and when they're in front of each other with other people the potential to - I mean Boris upsets people and Trump easily takes offense. So this could easily go south.

Will Iran release the captured UK oil tanker?

I mean over time I suspect it will. But remember the UK has an Iranian tanker as well, so it's much more likely they work these things out together even if they're not explicitly linked, than suddenly the Iranians say, "Oh I'm sorry. Here's your tanker"

Will protests continue in Hong Kong?

It certainly seems that way. The question is what will China do about it? Xi Jinping is now saying that they are reaching the danger zone and the ability of the Chinese to hit back and hit back hard is real. I worry about those protesters.

Will Robert Mueller reveal anything new when he testifies on Capitol Hill?

I highly doubt it. He said very clearly that he does not intend to go beyond what was in his report. So Democrats looking for bombshells on collusion or obstruction are likely to be disappointed.

Can President Trump expand his electoral college edge in 2020?

Well he thinks he can. He thinks he can win in places like Minnesota and New Hampshire. I think it's more likely that he just hangs on to the Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that got him there in 2016.

Should the governor of Puerto Rico resign?

Absolutely. Governor Rossello should resign. He's lost the confidence of the island. Puerto Rico needs a fresh start particularly after all these terrible text messages. He should definitely resign.

Finally for The Rant: today's rant is on Elizabeth Warren who put out a report today saying the economy is on the brink of collapse. It was very alarmist, certainly there are problems with the economy. Issues that could be fixed but she risks sounding like she's yelling fire in a crowded theater with calls like that.

"A regime willing to kill en masse to stay in power,' Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iranian, discusses the challenges facing the rise of democracy within the country.

Avi Loeb, The Chair of Harvard University's Astronomy Department, delves into the search for extraterrestrial life.