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What We're Watching: Ethiopia's opposition crackdown, Cuba's food crisis, US beefs up presence in Syria

People gather to protest against the treatment of Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo group, July 3, 2020

Ethiopian PM cracks down on opposition: Ethiopia's most prominent opposition leader, Jawar Mohammed, was one of 24 political opponents charged with a series of crimes in Ethiopia in recent days, including terrorism-related offenses. The charges relate to civil unrest that erupted this past summer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, as well as the Oromia region that left at least 160 people dead. While ethnic tensions have intensified in the country in recent years, violence surged in late June after the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer and activist whose songs called for the liberation and empowerment of the Oromo, the country's largest ethnic group. Jawar Mohammed, a former ally of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is a hero to many disaffected Oromo, and his jailing since July has raised concerns about an intensifying crackdown by the government. Critics say that while Abiy, who won a Nobel peace prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, has spearheaded ambitious political and economic reforms since coming to power in 2018, he has not done enough to alleviate ethnic violence and tensions in the fractious country.


Cuba faces food crisis: The island nation of Cuba fared well in the early months of the pandemic. A strong public health system and draconian quarantine measures — a police state helps with that — squelched the disease even as much richer nations struggled to contain its spread. Havana even sent its own doctors abroad to help more than a dozen other countries battle the virus. But the economic impact on the island since then has been devastating. Even before the pandemic, the country's badly mismanaged, state-dominated economy was suffering as the Trump administration tightened long-standing sanctions. Turmoil in Venezuela, meanwhile, led to a decrease in the shipments of cheap oil that the Maduro regime in Caracas sends its ideological pals in Havana. Now, a pandemic-driven collapse in tourism —the island's main source of hard currency — has left the government scrambling to amass enough dollars to purchase the food imports that meet two-thirds of the country's food needs. Cuba is facing its most acute economic crisis since the so-called "special period" of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main patron, plunged the island into a harrowing decade of poverty.

US military beefs up Syria presence to counter... Russia? The Pentagon has announced that it will deploy about 100 additional US troops in Syria in order to "ensure the safety" of US-led forces there. The move comes just a few weeks after seven American soldiers were injured when their convoy was hit by a Russian vehicle (in an open field) in northeastern Syria. Although run-ins between troops from the two countries are not uncommon amid the chaos of the decade-long Syrian civil war, and the Pentagon did not cite Russia as the reason to boost the US military contingent in the country, a senior US official called out recent Russian misbehavior, saying it "got us into a dangerous situation" on the ground. President Trump — who controversially decided to withdraw US forces from northern Syria a year ago — has pledged to bring home US troops from "endless wars," but he also is fond of keeping US troops in Syria to protect oil fields, he says. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is still keen to assist Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. All this comes as the White House has yet to respond to the allegations of Russian bounties to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. If the new deployment is indeed meant to send a signal to the Kremlin, we're watching to see what the response is.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (more than) 60 Seconds:

Biden's first scheduled call with a world leader will be with Canada's Justin Trudeau. What's going on with the Keystone Pipeline?

Well, Biden said that that's it. Executive order, one of the first is that he will stop any construction or development of the Keystone Pipeline. This is of course an oil pipeline that would allow further oil sands oil to come to the United States. The infrastructure is significantly overstretched, it's led to backlogs, inefficiency, accidents, all the rest, but it also facilitates more energy development and keeps prices comparatively down if you get it done. So, there are lots of reasons why the energy sector in Canada wants it. Having said all of that, Trudeau, even though he's been a supporter of Keystone XL, let's keep in mind that he did not win support in Alberta, which is where the big energy patch in Canada is located. This is a real problem for the government of Alberta, Canada is a very decentralized federal government, even more so than the United States. The premier of Alberta is immensely unhappy with Biden right now, they've taken a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project. I expect there will actually be litigation against the United States by the government of Alberta. But Trudeau is quite happy with Biden, his relationship was Trump was always walking on eggshells. The USMCA in negotiations ultimately successful but were very challenging for the Canadians, so too with the way Trump engaged in relations on China. All of this, the fact that Trump left the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris Climate Accords, WHO, all of that is stuff that Trudeau strongly opposed. He's going to be much more comfortable with this relationship. He's delighted that the first call from Biden is to him. And it certainly creates a level of normalcy in the US-Canada relationship that is very much appreciated by our neighbors to the North.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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