Andean aftermath: Two big weekend elections in South America produced two stunning results. In Ecuador's presidential runoff, the center-right former banker Guillermo Lasso upset early frontrunner Andrés Arauz, a leftist handpicked by former president Rafael Correa. Lasso will take power amid the social and economic devastation of the pandemic and will have to reckon with the rising political power of Ecuador's indigenous population: the Pachakutik party, which focuses on environmental issues and indigenous rights, is now the second-largest party in parliament. Meanwhile, in a big surprise next door in Perú, far-left union leader Pedro Castillo tallied up the most votes in the first round of that country's highly fragmented presidential election. As of Monday evening it's not clear whom he'll face in the June runoff, but three figures are in the running as votes are counted: prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, rightwing businessman Rafael López Aliaga, and conservative Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Meanwhile, in the congressional ballot, at least 10 parties reached the threshold to win seats, but there is no clear majority or obvious coalition in sight.
Willis Sparks is a senior editor for Signal. He is also a Director in the Global Macro practice at Eurasia Group, where he has worked since 2005. He has made speeches on international politics on every continent except Antarctica, and appears regularly as an analyst on CBS. Willis holds degrees from Brown University, the Juilliard School, Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He also holds an honorary degree from the Moscow Art Theatre School. A native of Macon, Georgia, Willis has worked as a stuntman at New York's Metropolitan Opera. As a child, he declined an opportunity to spend an afternoon riding the Great American Scream Machine, a rollercoaster, with Ronald McDonald, for money. He has never regretted that decision.
What We’re Watching: Andean elections, AstraZeneca’s hell week, former Aussie PM is designated driver
Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.
AstraZeneca under pressure: COVID jab manufacturer AstraZeneca has had a hell week. First, a top EU health official issued a confusing statement linking AstraZeneca's jab to blood clots, which has led some countries to limit its use on people older than 60 and younger than 30. And now the African Union is suspending further AstraZeneca purchases until the Serum Institute of India can ensure supplies for the global COVAX facility. The latter is a big blow to a lot African nations, since the AU was betting on AstraZeneca to inoculate the entire continent because its vaccine is cheap and doesn't need cold storage. On the other hand, it's also a vindication of early skeptic South Africa, which stopped using AstraZeneca even before the blood clots issue surfaced because it was not effective enough against the variant of the virus prevalent there. The broader problem is that unless the safety, supply and efficacy concerns are resolved soon, AstraZeneca's jab will lose the momentum it once had to end the pandemic throughout the developing world.A famous chauffeur: Four inebriated Aussies stumble out of a bar in Melbourne to discover a driving rain. Having called Uber, they spot an idling car. They pile in and ask the driver to take them to Hastings street. About halfway home, one of the boys notices that their driver is Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and current Eurasia Group senior adviser. Rudd had just dropped his daughter off at a restaurant when his surprise passengers arrived, and he agreed to take them home because Kevin is a fair dinkum gent.
Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.
Since 2014, Moscow has supported and armed separatist rebels inside Ukraine's Donbas region along the border with Russia in order to weaken Ukraine's government and thwart its plans to one day join NATO and the European Union. Off-and-on fighting there, which began after Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago, has killed about 14,000 people.
Earlier this week, in response to an ominous buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian-Russian border, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky told NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that Ukrainian membership in "NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas." He added that a NATO decision to give Ukraine a so-called membership action plan, opening a long-term process toward membership, would provide "a real signal for Russia." That plan would require political, economic, security, and legal reforms to bring Ukraine into line with NATO standards.
Russian officials have dismissed Zelensky's government as "children playing with matches" and warned that a new Ukrainian military operation in the Donbas would trigger "the beginning of the end of Ukraine."
So… should NATO now give Ukraine a plan toward eventual membership in the alliance? There are good arguments for and against.
Ukraine, an independent nation of 44 million people, has the right to decide for itself which allies to embrace and which clubs to join. The Russian government, which considers Ukraine a part of Russia's "sphere of influence," continues to undermine its territorial integrity to keep Ukraine in Russia's shadow. NATO should stand against this aggression by giving Kyiv the ultimate defense against Russian meddling.
Recent history exposes the absurdity of arguments that NATO membership for Ukraine would provoke Russia. NATO restraint didn't prevent Russia from invading Crimea and stoking war in the Donbas, both of which created new problems for Europe. Russia has no respect for NATO restraint.
By offering Ukraine a plan to join, the alliance would spur Ukraine to accelerate the reforms of its military, security services, politics, and economy that Europe and the US have wanted for a generation.
Ukraine can strengthen NATO. Last year, the alliance granted Ukraine "enhanced opportunities" for deeper cooperation, and Ukraine has already contributed troops to support NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The reforms demanded for full membership would make Ukraine an even more valuable ally.
NATO promised. As Ukraine's foreign minister noted in February, NATO pledged in 2008 that Ukraine (and fellow former Soviet republic Georgia) will become NATO members one day and encouraged both countries to apply. How long must Ukraine wait to begin this process? Until Russia says it's OK?
Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty requires all member states to defend any fellow member that comes under attack. That's the cornerstone of the alliance. But a median of 50 percent of people in 16 NATO member countries states said last year that their country should not defend a fellow NATO ally against Russian attack. Just 38 percent said it should. If that many people won't support military action to help an existing alliance member, how many would back an armed defense of Ukraine? The leaders of NATO countries can't ignore that question.
And that's a special problem for Ukraine, because Russia has already invaded. NATO members don't recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, and they condemn Russian involvement in the Donbas. By admitting Ukraine as a member, isn't NATO on the hook for evicting Russian troops from those two regions?
Initiating membership can make the current conflict worse. By itself, the membership action plan doesn't provide an Article 5 security guarantee. If NATO were to grant one to Ukraine, Russia would have every incentive to destabilize Ukraine much more dramatically than it already has in order to derail the membership process. That's the opposite of what NATO and Ukraine want.
Fear of that scenario helps explain why there's no groundswell of support for NATO membership even in Ukraine. In November 2020, just 41 percent of Ukrainians said NATO membership is a good idea. (About 37 percent hoped Ukraine would remain non-aligned, while 13 percent supported partnership with Russia.) These results are broadly consistent with other recent surveys.
The status quo isn't that bad for NATO or Ukraine. It isn't fear of NATO that prevents Vladimir Putin from ordering a full-on invasion of Ukraine. It's that large numbers of Russian troops would be killed, that occupation of Ukraine over many years would be hugely expensive, and that lasting support of the Russian people for that undertaking is far from certain.
So... strong arguments on both sides. Tell us what you think.
Whenever China and Russia shake hands, alarm bells ring in Washington. It's an old story given new life by increasingly contentious US relations with both countries and a new round of glad-handing by senior Chinese and Russian officials. What if China and Russia were to form some kind of axis of revisionist powers, Americans (and others) wonder? How dangerous might that be for US interests and for global democracy?
China and Russia have obvious overlapping interests. Start with trade. China is the world's largest importer of oil and natural gas. Russia is the number two exporter of oil and the top for natural gas. It's a natural partnership.
Geopolitically, China and Russia share a common desire to limit American political and economic leverage in their neighborhoods. Neither wants to hear criticism of how they manage dissent within their own borders or US sermons on democracy for Taiwan and Ukraine. China likes US tariffs about as much as Russia likes US sanctions.
Both want seats at the table where global leadership decisions are made. The election of Joe Biden, who has much more to say on human rights in other countries than Donald Trump did, adds new impetus to what Russia's Vladimir Putin calls his country's "multifaceted strategic partnership" with China.
But there are important factors that limit just how close China and Russia are likely to become. First, Beijing and Moscow are serious about their "spheres of influence," and there are places where those spheres overlap, creating zones of competition. That's especially important in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, regions once part of the Soviet Union where Russia remains overtly and covertly active and where China is now investing vast sums as part of its Belt and Road international infrastructure plan to connect China and Europe by road and rail.
Second, when it comes to trade, the partnership is entirely one-sided. For Russia, China is trade partner number one. Some 15.5 percent of its trade is with China. But for China, Russia doesn't make the top 12. China's top export partner is the United States. The EU, Japan, and its other Asian neighbors are all more important for Chinese trade, while less than 1 percent of China's trade is with Russia. In fact, China exports more to the Netherlands than to Russia.
That matters, because political stability in China depends on economic stability, and economic stability depends far more on pragmatic relations with America and Europe than on any form of partnership with Russia.
China and Russia will sign new trade agreements, particularly for Chinese purchases of Russian energy and weapons. They will conduct joint military exercises. They will work together to try to shape cyber rules.
But China needs constructive relations with the West, while Russia would like a more fundamental redraw of the international system. Their transactional relationship won't lead to a military alliance that doesn't serve China's purposes or even to systematically share intelligence as the Five Eyes allies— US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — do.
Not only should Washington worry less about a China-Russia axis, it should consider the value in what China-Russia competition has to offer. In particular, Beijing and Moscow believe COVID has created an opportunity for each to boost its image and influence. (That's especially important for China, where the pandemic began.) And that's a good thing.
China and Russia have each produced and distributed COVID vaccines that appear to be relatively safe and effective. China has supplied millions of vaccine doses to 49 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Russia has sent supplies to 22 countries. That's good for the people who've been vaccinated, good for those countries, good for the world, and, therefore, good for us all.
Bottom-line: China and Russia will give Americans and others plenty to worry over in coming years without exaggerating what their governments might do together. And in today's world in crisis, all of us should welcome help from wherever it can be found.
Those fighting to halt climate change call the Amazon rainforest the "lungs of Earth," and they're frustrated that Brazil's current president has made his country a chain-smoker.
A healthy Amazon is crucial for the global fight against climate change. Human activity is pumping unsustainable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, trapping enough heat to warm the planet in ways that profoundly disrupt the climate. Trees, and the soils they grow in, store carbon that might otherwise reach the atmosphere, but trees that are cut down or burned release more carbon into the air.
That makes rapid deforestation of the Amazon an urgent problem for the entire planet. Clearcutting of trees in the region has been a problem for decades, but the January 2019 inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, home to more than 60 percent of the remaining Amazon tree cover, has made matters much worse.
Bolsonaro has stripped environmental protection agencies of funding and manpower, which flashes a bright green light to those who want to cut and burn trees to open land for farms and cattle ranches. Bolsonaro's bid to use Brazil's military to police the Amazon has failed, perhaps because the president himself and some of Brazil's army brass may not believe in the mission.
The results speak for themselves. In 2019, more than one-third of all destruction of the world's tropical forests took place inside Brazil alone. The Amazon lost more trees in 2019 than at any point in the previous decade, and then, despite the pandemic, beat that record again in 2020. When confronted with evidence that the number of fires in the Amazon has spiked sharply on his watch, Bolsonaro accused "greenies" –environmental activists — of setting the fires deliberately to "bring problems to Brazil."
Bolsonaro and his supporters in Brazil don't like it when outsiders demand new protections for the Amazon. "OUR SOVEREIGNTY IS NON-NEGOTIABLE," he tweeted last year in response to threats of economic sanctions over the Amazon from then-US presidential candidate Joe Biden.
But outsiders concerned about the climate are increasing their pressure. The EU has warned that failure to protect the rainforest is an important obstacle to completion of a blockbuster trade deal between Europe and Mercosur, a Brazil-dominated South American trade bloc. Institutional investors are pushing too. But Brazil has (so far) been able to resist these pressures, in part because it exports far more to China than to either the US or Europe, and Beijing isn't pushing for change.
That said, economic threats have helped mobilize Brazil's business community. Many companies have promised to cut carbon emissions and to remove products produced via deforestation from their supply chains. An alliance of Brazilian CEOs and scientists has called for investment in sustainable development.
But so far, Bolsonaro has shrugged off external and internal pressure for a change of course, in part, perhaps, because a challenging election campaign next year might depend on the continued support of his political base — including farmers and ranchers in the Amazon, who say that their industry is important for feeding Brazil and maintaining the country's position as an agriculture superpower. In particular, Brazil is now the world's top exporter of soy beans.
Joe Biden hopes a mix of carrots and sticks might help. The new US president has asked his climate envoy John Kerry to lead an international effort to raise $20 billion for the Amazon, though there are plenty of debates to come over how that money should be used. The money won't flow unless deforestation is reduced, but the new US president hopes that engaging, rather than threatening, Bolsonaro can produce a better result.
In the end, the size and density of the Amazon is itself part of the problem. The ground it covers is larger than all of Western Europe, so whatever agreements are forged and promises made, it will never be easy to police Amazon deforestation.
But Ibama, Brazil's civilian environmental protection agency, must be given the resources to try, climate experts warn, because those trees are crucial for all of us.
"We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children." So said US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas earlier this week. US Customs and Border Protection reports an average of 565 children traveling alone now crossing the border per day, up from 313 last month.
Who are the migrants? US officials say most people now reaching the US border are adults travelling by themselves, but numbers of both families and unaccompanied children are growing. There are changes in where they're coming from. With exact numbers from border officials, the Washington Post's Nick Miroff reports that the highest number of families is now coming from Honduras, the most unstable country in Central America. Many kids traveling alone come from Guatemala, where the youth population and unemployment are both high and smuggling networks are most fully developed. There are now fewer migrants from El Salvador, where the Nayib Bukele government has made progress against gang violence.
Why the surge? The transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in Washington has persuaded some would-be-migrants that a limited window now exists for entry into the US. Human traffickers, short on cash following the migration slowdown of the Trump years and most dangerous months of pandemic, are now eager for more income, and thus reinforcing that message. Making matters more urgent, in November two major hurricanes inflicted severe human and economic damage in Central America, particularly in Honduras.
Taking to the road is always dangerous, especially for young children. Most take this step for the same reasons that others have taken it before them: they hope to find a much better life for themselves and their families away from the violence, corruption, and poverty all around them. In particular, research published last year by Doctors Without Borders found that more than 75 percent of Central American migrants traveling with children toward the US border reported leaving their home countries due to threats of violence, including forced recruitment by gangs.
Countries along the route are struggling to cope. In January, under pressure from the US and Mexican governments, Guatemalan police turned back a caravan of thousands of Hondurans. Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has warned that migrants remain vulnerable to his country's violent drug gangs, which have a history of kidnapping, sexual assault, human trafficking, and forced gang initiation of migrants. In addition, the surge in numbers of migrants entering Mexico headed north comes at a moment when COVID-19 makes sheltering migrants much more complicated.
Those who reach the US border may not find what they're hoping for. The US isn't ready for them, and the Biden administration, under intense criticism from Republicans for enabling this surge by promising to loosen Trump administration border restrictions, isn't welcoming them. Under the current policy, single adults and families are being refused entry as part of US efforts to contain COVID-19. "I can say quite clearly don't come," Biden has said to the migrants. "We're in the process of getting set up… Don't leave your town or city or community."
Mayorkas has promised a "safe, legal and orderly immigration system," including by streamlining the process by which asylum applications are filed and considered, but that will take time and prove much easier said than done. Last week, the Biden administration announced it would begin processing backlogged asylum applications for about 25,000 people that had stalled under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy, but that process won't move quickly either.Bottom line: Life on the road is hard and getting harder, but that isn't stopping larger numbers of desperate people from taking the risk in hopes of applying for asylum. Every government along their path is scrambling to prepare.
This week, we mark the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of Syria's catastrophic civil war.
As the Arab Spring brought protesters into streets across the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, some of Syria's 22 million people decided to join in. Pro-democracy demonstrations began in the southwestern city of Deraa.
It wasn't crazy at the time to imagine that President Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000, might step beyond the brutal legacy of his father, the dictator Hafez al-Assad, to open a period of reform that created new opportunities, particularly for his country's youth.
Instead, he answered protests with guns. Demonstrations multiplied across the country and turned violent. Into the resulting maelstrom stepped Assad's allies, Russia and Iran, to protect their investment in his continued rule. The US dithered, half-heartedly supporting some rebel groups but mostly staying away.
Iran-backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen backed the Syrian army. Well-armed Syrian Kurds saw an opportunity to win greater autonomy by weakening Assad. Fundamentalist extremists of various tribes joined the fight. Turkey sent soldiers, and Saudi Arabia provided cash and weapons to destabilize Assad. Western powers intervened to try to contain the carnage.
Assad's army — with backing from its friends — bombed hospitals, tortured prisoners, and used chemical weapons against civilians. The Obama administration warned these crimes crossed a "red line" but did virtually nothing to enforce it. In total, years of shooting, shelling, and bombing has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, about 22,000 of them children.
The war is now over, though the Syrian army hasn't recaptured all its northern provinces. Assad has won because those with the deadliest weapons were willing to commit atrocities to survive, and because outsiders did far too little to stop them.
Today, more than half the 22 million people living in Syria in 2011 have been forced from their homes. Six million are now in other countries. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan host more than 90 percent of these refugees.
Of those who weren't able to escape, thousands have been murdered inside Syrian prisons, and tens of thousands more prisoners remain missing, according to a report from the UN Human Rights Council. An untold number of people still living in Syria suffer from untreated emotional and psychological damage.
About 70 percent of Syrians now live in poverty. Before the war began, 47 Syrian pounds bought one US dollar. The official price stands today at about 1,250 pounds. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that 30 percent of women have no income at all to support their families, and about 80 percent of Syrian youth struggle to afford food.
An entire generation of Syrian children faces an uncertain future. In 2017, a report from the International Rescue Committee found that a third of Syria's children don't go to school. Of those who continue their studies, half of middle school-aged children were unable to read at a second-grade level, and nearly 60 percent couldn't solve a second-grade math problem.
Then there's the physical wreckage. Today's Syria lies beneath millions of tons of rubble. Roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals have been destroyed, and there's little money to rebuild them.
And Assad, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week, remains in charge.
Syria's frozen future
For the foreseeable future, life in Syria isn't going to improve from today's uneasy quiet. Russia and Iran got the outcome they wanted and now, burdened with COVID costs and Western sanctions, they have better things to spend money on than rebuilding Syria.
Europe and the United States will direct humanitarian assistance toward suffering Syrians, but they won't finance the reconstruction of a country led by Assad.
A few Syrian refugees will return, but most believe they're better off where they are and fear retribution if they go home.Bottom-line: John Milton's fallen angel famously declared that it's "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." One wonders whether Assad agrees.
It's not like things are going well in Mexico.
COVID has killed more people there than in any country except the United States and Brazil. Just 2 percent of Mexicans have gotten a first vaccine jab, compared with nearly 24 in the US. The Biden administration made clear this week that it won't send vaccines to its southern neighbor until many more Americans have been vaccinated. Mexico's government has cut deals for doses from China, Russia, and India.
The pandemic has weighed heavily on Mexico's economy. In 2020, GDP fell more sharply than in any year since 1932. The first wave of coronavirus killed 12 million formal and informal jobs, and later waves have slowed the employment recovery. (Nearly 30 million people work in Mexico's informal economy.)
Deadly violence and organized crime continue to plague the country. Murder rates remain historically high across Mexico. In the state of Jalisco, 10 men and a boy died in a hail of gunfire on February 27 in an attack blamed on competition among competing drug cartels. Add their names to the 189 found murdered in that one state last year and the 18 plastic bags full of body parts discovered there in early February.
It's no wonder then that Mexico's government has weak poll numbers. A survey (Spanish) published this week by El Financiero found that just 42 percent of Mexicans surveyed said their government was doing a good job managing the pandemic, and 30 percent reported a positive view of its economic policies.
But... that same poll gave Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an approval rating of 63 percent, up from 61 percent in January. As he approaches the midpoint of his single six-year term — Mexico's presidents are limited to one term — the president who promised to revitalize Mexico's economy, tackle violent crime, fight corruption, and create new opportunities for the poor and marginalized seems immune to political blame.
Why is he still so well-liked? In part, it's because Mexico's political establishment, which ran the country for decades before Lopez Obrador was elected in 2018, remains deeply unpopular because many Mexicans say past governments were profoundly corrupt.
It's also because he's an authentically talented politician. Lopez Obrador's COVID response is justly criticized: He's encouraged Mexicans to continue business as usual even as the virus was spreading, and he consistently refused to wear a mask. Few were surprised when he contracted COVID-19.
But when asked why he had left himself vulnerable, he reminded voters that he had refused to break in line for early vaccination and insisted he became infected by showing up for work, as hard-working Mexicans do. Some may doubt his judgment, but recent polls say a solid majority of Mexicans consider him honest.
And no one can deny his common touch. Lopez Obrador does more than share a love of baseball with millions of Mexicans. He's shown himself willing to grab a bat and take his turn at the plate. He might need some coaching on keeping his weight on the back foot, but Mexico's 67-year-old hombre del pueblo can still drive a baseball.
Mexico faces elections on June 6. Voters will fill every seat in Mexico's lower house, and Lopez Obrador's Morena Party hopes to keep its majority. In addition, nearly half of Mexico's 32 states will choose governors. Can he remain popular enough to use his remaining three years to get things done?
Results of those elections — and the president's continuing ability to beat the political odds — will tell the tale.