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."

You probably think Visa is a credit card company, huh?

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Visa is well known all over the world, but how well? Many have long misunderstood it as a credit card company, but Visa is actually a network—working behind the scenes, connecting just about everyone to just about everyone else, so more of us can play a part in this commerce thing. Visa helps people and small and big businesses alike move money around the world. And it works to open doors—and change minds about what makes a business, a business. It's a network working for everyone. That's way more than a piece of plastic.

Meet Visa

Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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43: Eight months into the job, US President Biden's approval rating has hit a new low of 43 percent, a six-point drop since August. Of all the US presidents elected since World War II, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this stage of his presidency. It sure looks like Biden's honeymoon period is over.

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