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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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