What We're Watching: Cuba's internet crackdown, Erdogan woos Ethiopia, Merkel's Russia-Ukraine tour

People connect to the internet at a public hotspot in Havana, Cuba, August 18, 2021

Cuba's internet crackdown: Just weeks after Cubans used social media to mobilize the biggest anti-government protests in decades, the communist regime will now criminalize using social media to criticize the government. The new law states that Cubans cannot use any telecommunications to undermine the country's "public order," and that internet providers must monitor users' activities and even shut down service when deemed necessary. Clearly, this move is a guise for the government to crack down on all dissent, and to codify what they've already been doing. But many emboldened Cubans, who only got online on their smartphones in 2018, say they will not back down on criticizing the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel for lack of food, medicine and general economic stagnation that's thrust millions into poverty. During recent mass protests, the government staged a brutal crackdown and shut down the internet, prompting the Biden administration to sanction Cuban officials and the police force for human rights abuses. The US has also said that it's looking for alternative ways to provide internet access to Cubans, possibly through VPN technology, a workaround solution that could not be penetrated by the draconian Cuban regime. But they are not there yet, the Biden administration says.


Turkey's diplomat-in-chief: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fashions himself as an international diplomat these days, now offering to step in to fix conflict-ridden Ethiopia. After meeting with Ethiopia's beleaguered Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed this week, Erdogan called for a peaceful resolution in Tigray, where the government has been waging a brutal crackdown against ethnic Tigrayans since November last year. Erdogan, who was in Addis Ababa to sign a defense agreement with Abiy (details remain scarce), is worried that instability in Ethiopia threatens the entire Horn of Africa. Erdogan also offered to mediate an ongoing row between Sudan and Ethiopia over the disputed al-Fashaga region. Sudan and Ethiopia reached a deal in 2008 agreeing to a "soft border" in that area, but political changes inside Ethiopia since Abiy came to power in 2018, have revived the old land dispute. Disagreements over al-Fashaga, an agricultural area straddling both states that was never clearly demarcated, dates back to colonial-era treaties signed in 1902, but if Erdogan wants to take a shot at building bridges, we say go for it!

Merkel on tour: Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will hand over the reins after Germany's general election on September 26, is trying her hand at some final diplomatic outreach. Merkel will arrive in Moscow on Friday to meet President Vladimir Putin, presumably for the last time. On the agenda: the quagmire in eastern Ukraine as a result of Russia's aggression there, and Afghanistan. Since Merkel last visited Russia over 18-months ago, bilateral relations have plummeted, most notably after the Kremlin's alleged poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who sought medical treatment in Germany. But the German leader has also backed Russia's plans to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would double Russia's natural gas supplies to Germany. Merkel will also make a pit stop in Ukraine on Friday. Indeed, this comes at a very interesting time after Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky panned Western allies this week for not green-lighting Kyiv's accession to NATO. Speaking directly to the US and the EU, it seems, Zelensky said: you're sending "a signal to other countries that you guys are not welcome here and Russia is just around the corner, increasing its clout."

The key for small business growth? More digital support.

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Iran’s nuclear program runs hotter

Talks between Iran’s government and world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program continue. The US and Iran are still not communicating directly; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia are shuttling between them.

The good news is that they’re all still talking. The bad news is that, after eight rounds of negotiations, the main players haven’t agreed on anything that would constitute a breakthrough.

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January 6 laid bare "the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society," says Fiona Hill, the former US senior director of the National Security Council. In a GZERO World interview, she spoke with Ian Bremmer about her concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.

Hill famously testified against her impeached boss, Donald Trump, who stayed in power after being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. She also notes that divisions actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

Watch this episode of GZERO World: American strife: Will US democracy survive? Fiona Hill explains post-Jan 6 stakes

Kevin Allison, director of geotech at Eurasia Group, is concerned about the rise of very powerful tech companies disrupting centuries of geopolitics led by the nation-state.

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The problem with China’s Zero COVID strategy: GZERO World with Ian Bremmer - the podcast

Listen: Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach faces its toughest test to date with omicron. Why? Because China lacks mRNA jabs, and so few Chinese people have gotten COVID that overall protection is very low. A wave of lockdowns could disrupt the world's second-largest economy — just a month out from the Beijing Winter Olympics.

That could spell disaster for Beijing, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. If things get really bad, though, Huang believes China will pivot to living with the virus, especially as the cost of keeping zero COVID in the age of omicron becomes too high.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Kiev, Ukraine

First question, how is the crisis in this part of Europe developing?

Not good. There's been a week of intense diplomacy with talks in Geneva, and Brussels, and Vienna that produced virtually nothing. The Russian, sort of key demands are outrageously unrealistic. They know that is the case. The US is trying to engage them on somewhat different issues. We'll see if there's any prospect there, but it doesn't look too good. I think the likelihood is that we gradually will move into the phase of what the Russians call military technical measures, whatever that is.

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For Angela Hofmann, practice head for Industrial & Consumer at Eurasia Group, the world's most visible brands are in for a very rocky year.

Navigating culture wars will be very tricky, as well as fighting with competing demands from consumers, employees, and regulators on issues like China, diversity, and voting rights.

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Political polarization in the US isn’t just a problem within the country, points out former US national security official Fiona Hill. Deep divisions, she says, actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

“Putin loves our disunity," Russian expert Hill tells Ian Bremmer. "It's incredibly useful as a tool to exploit in that toolkit that he has.”

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An emboldened Putin thrives on American disunity

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