Two-Minute Africa Round-Up

A spat in the Sahara, Algeria looking for some oil friends and another never-ending presidency?

It’s all in this 120-second business and politics round-up from 22 March 2016.

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Two-Minute Africa Round-Up via Soundcloud

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Greece is not alone

A mounting debt crisis. Restructuring and repayment. Calls for concessions from creditors. 

It sounds like Greece but as eyes have been watering over the disintegrating economic crisis there, a similar situation has been developing in Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean island is heading along the same path as the Hellenic Republic, with what legislators see as an unserviceable mountain of debt. Like Greece, it needs extra funds to be able to pay off interest, sort out its wage bills and shore up the banks.

But there is one key difference: Greece has been able to go to international institutions – the so-called ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – for loans. As an unincorporated US territory, Puerto Rico cannot just head off looking for global financial aid. And Washington has also been holding firm over approving a federal bailout.

Something has to give. Will DC relent? Will lenders take a hit on the money they are owed?

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has been in combative mood over the last few months, backed up by steely minsters trying to play hardball against a rising number of missed due dates for debt repayments and increasingly gnarly European and IMF creditors.

Puerto Rico’s governor seems set for a similar face-off as it is unlikely the people who have been lending the US commonwealth money will willingly accept reductions on their repayments. The fight would be over an attempt by Alejandro Garcia Padilla to restructure the island’s $73bn debt that could see creditors ending up repaid less than they are owed.

There are other similarities. The two cases suffer from being out on the fringe, geographically and politically. Greece has been characterised negatively as a work-shy Mediterranean siesta state, that needs a cultural shift to organise its economy, a political shift to end austerity, and pan-European support and agreement to help it remain in the eurozone.

Puerto Rico is also a margin nation. It is not a sovereign state, but nor does it have full US statehood. On the international scene it sends a team to the Olympic Games but does not send an ambassador to the United Nations.

Greece has been setting unwanted records recently, joining the three dubiously managed countries of Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe in still having outstanding debts to the International Monetary Fund.

Puerto Rico cannot become a member of that particular basement club but it has a pretty parlous economic state of affairs. It seems unlikely to be able to declare bankruptcy or deal with its debts in a way that pleases all sides. San Juan might have to hope for a bailout from above, and if that sounds familiar, it is because that is how the whole Greek crisis began – an island nation seeing the tides of debt lapping at the feet of its people.

Flames in the mountains

Islamist threats spread anxiety in Russia with the Winter Olympics just around the corner

The toothed peaks and rumbling glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, along the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are sharply beautiful. The view from the top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest point, was brilliant in the white light, far above the clouds when I summited it with two friends last August. Yet the region seemed quiet when I was there, the green glens of summer vibrant with wildflowers and the angled sun crashing off the snow caps onto green-domed mosques. All the people we met were friendly and very hospitable. But this can be a dangerous area, with worries not simply about the crevasse fields and exposed ridges. The Caucasus area has long been synonymous with an Islamist fundamentalism manifested irregularly by bombings and other atrocities, and carried out by militants who thrive in the region’s isolated backroads and labyrinthine valleys. This point was brought home to us by the border warning signs on peaks such as Mount Cheget that straddle the Georgian frontier and the fact that our mountain guide was not just responsible for our safety on the mountain, but also off the hill, as there have been kidnappings of foreign climbers in the area before.

In three weeks’ time, the Black Sea coast and mountain resort of Sochi, way out on the western fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, will host the Winter Olympics. Worryingly, the massive showpiece event has been subjected to terror threats from the extremists who are striving to create a Muslim Caliphate across the mountainous region. The self-styled leader of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, Doku Umarov, has reproached Moscow’s staging of the Olympics in Sochi, saying the site for ‘Olympic revelry was built on the bones of Muslim brothers killed by the Russians’. That message came in a video posted in July but there was another video released last week in which he said “for those of you who are left, there is an obligation to continue this jihad until death itself.”

But is Umarov even alive? Last Thursday 16, the Chechen regional leader, said that he believed Umarov had been killed. The Interfax news agency quoted Ramzan Kadyrov in an eerie statement: “We have long been 99%-certain that D. Umarov was liquidated during one of the operations. Now there is evidence that he is not among the living”. But there has been no official announcement of this apparent operation, and it would be a timely coup for the security forces if it were to be confirmed.

One militant who has been ‘liquidated’ recently is Eldar Magatov, the alleged leader of an insurgent group in Dagestan. He was killed in a shootout on Tuesday. But security authorities are now looking for four so-called ‘Black Widows’ (whose husbands have been killed by the security services in the ongoing Caucasus skirmishes) who are believed to be either in and around Sochi now, or planning an attack of some kind on the Olympic site, possibly to avenge their spouses’ deaths.

The terror threats are certainly fresh in the Russian and international spotlight following the recent attacks in Volgograd. 34 people died in twin suicide bombings on 29 and 30 December in the southern city. Vilayat Dagestan, one of the regional militant organisations, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Vladimir Putin is certainly determined to face down the terrorists and pull off a successful Games. In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, he vowed to “completely annihilate” the terrorists. The Russian president has wagered a lot on being able to see off the threats coming from the region. He has also spent a lot: with a massive $51bn budget for the Games.

Troubled by the price tag, a furore over a ban on gay propaganda and now threatened by terrorist attack, the Russian government has had a controversial lead-up to these Games. It has spent a lot trying to promote these Games, bringing development to the West Caucasus region but the issue of security is certain to ensure a lot of hand-wringing in Moscow as the days count down to the start of competition. The Winter Olympic torch has been lit and has been travelling far and wide: across the Russian mainland, to the International Space Station and to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Baikal. By the time of the Opening Ceremony, it will also have been to the top of Mount Elbrus. Next week sees the flame taken right through the heartlands of the North Caucasus region, reaching the pinnacle of 5,642m on Elbrus on 1 February. It would be a blessing if the Olympic torch’s view from the top of that huge mountain in a disputed region will be as hopeful and calm as the vista we enjoyed five months ago.

Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Trading complaints

Argentina has been irritating a lot of countries with its global commerce policies

On Monday 3 September Argentina lodged a complaint against the US with the World Trade Organisation. This is the latest of a long line of recent grievances either filed by or against Buenos Aires. The newest protest came from the South Americans who claim that US laws are blocking the imports of lemons from the north-west of the country. Quite a few states have been weighing in at the WTO with Argentinian problems of their own for a while now. Here is a rough outline of what has been going on:

April: Argentinian government takes control of oil firm YPF from Spanish parent company Repsol

May: European Union files WTO complaint against Argentina over import licensing rules

June: Argentina pulls out of car trade pact with Mexico

August 21: US and Japan file WTO complaints against Argentina over import licensing rules

August 27: Mexico files WTO complaint against Argentina over protectionism claims

August 30: Argentina files WTO complaint over US beef and lemons

September 3: Argentina files WTO complaint against US over import of lemons

There has been a lot of activity involving the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the WTO headquarters in Geneva: more than 20 WTO members have objected against Argentinian trade laws which have taken a more protectionist direction in the recent months of la presidenta‘s second administration.

Regarding the latest complaint in these tit-for-tat international commercial arguments, the World Trade Organisation states on its website that:

“Argentina claims that the prohibition of imports of lemons to the US for the last 11 years, and other restrictive measures, lack scientific justification. Argentina also claims that the measures of the United States appear to cancel or impair the benefits for Argentina derived, directly or indirectly, from the relevant WTO Agreements”

As soon as a WTO complaint is lodged the two opposing sides have 60 days in which to settle the dispute through bilateral talks. If these fail or if the deadline is not met then the WTO is usually called upon to adjudicate on the argument.

It is certainly true that the Latin American nation has been increasing its trade surplus in the past few years as its export market grows, with its soybeans, beef and motor parts the most popular items on foreigners’ shopping lists. However, where the countries listed above have a problem is over trying to export goods back into Argentina.

Brussels, Mexico City, Tokyo and Washington have all got hot under the collar over the South Americans’ import licence applications which they claim are subject to lengthy and illegitimate delays. What really gets their goat is that Argentinian companies normally do not face similar bureaucracy when they are carting cereals and chemicals off to their main buyers, which include most of the regional neighbours along with their own nations. Cecilia Nahón, the Argentinian ambassador to the WTO, has defended her government’s policies, saying that Buenos Aires cannot be accused of restricting imports when the national intake of foreign goods rose by 31% last year.

Many of these ‘Somebody v Argentina’ disagreements have the look of global points-scoring about them, with one side claiming that their hand was forced by their opponent’s move. Where they are all the same is that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s abrasively defensive style of government seems to be rubbing many nations up the wrong way. She may pass the others’ grumbling off as sour grapes or as envy at her soaring positive trade balances, but in order for her to achieve record surpluses she has to have easy import licensing rules available to her nation’s firms.

Argentina must now come clean about the accusations levelled against its own import licences for other countries’ companies and the way their exporters’ applications are handled.

Global face/off

Mini versions of international disputes are being played out in the Olympic Games arenas

We may see the hammers being hurled, the sea being sailed and the roads being run, but throughout the Olympic venues there are interesting quirks, contentious flare-ups and small scenes of wider international political situations.

One of the anomalies of the Games themselves is that the competition begins before the official opening ceremony has taken place. And so it was in Glasgow, two days before the grand spectacular in the Olympic Stadium, where North Korea’s women took on their Colombian counterparts in the football tournament. And the Scottish national stadium Hampden Park was where the North Korean footballers were introduced on the big screen alongside the South Korean flag, a serious mistake and one which was not taken lightly by Pyongyang. After much complaining and apologising the match got under way and the Asian women seemed to have been spurred on by the banner mix-up and saw off the Colombians 2-0.

A few days later, Great Britain’s men played their Argentinian counterparts in the Riverbank Hockey Arena. The tone for this particular game had been set in May when Fernando Zylberberg, one of the Buenos Aires players, took part in a training video (below) on the Falklands Islands (or Las Malvinas) that provoked reactions of patriotism at home and widespread anger in the UK. Ironically, Zylberberg eventually did not make the London 2012 squad because of concerns over his fitness, despite the athletic moves he pulled out in the clip. The controversy over the video unsurprisingly spilled over into the match, with several heavy challenges going in and both teams having players sin-binned.

Source: pupianews, 6 August 2012

The Olympic and Paralympic Games also give smaller nations often disregarded on the world stage the chance to come out and participate. But the process of choosing who is and who is not an Olympic nation is complicated. Hong Kong, Bermuda and Puerto Rico are represented independently of China, Britain and the US despite closer constitutional links. But Kosovo and South Sudan have not been granted International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership yet. Their athletes have to undergo the bizarre but by no means uncommon choice to compete for another country (or, indeed, for the IOC themselves, as in the case of marathon runner Guor Marial) in order to take part in the Games.

Countries which have gone through or are going through the Arab Spring, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, all still turned out teams and with Qatar and Saudi Arabia selecting women athletes, all competing Olympic nations have now had female representatives on their books for the first time.

Another bone of contention is over Taiwan. China considers the island to be its twenty-third province but the Taiwanese feel very strongly that the two countries are just that – separate nations. However, the islanders have no seat at the United Nations and few official diplomatic relations, although many state have informal ties with Taipei. China, (or the People’s Republic of China), exerts a lot of pressure globally to try to win support for Taiwan just to be seen as part of the larger motherland and the island has had to bow to different stresses in order to be able to compete in the Olympic Games. At London 2012, as at Games past, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), uses the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, which is drawn from the name of its capital city. And an invented flag flies above the athletes; one that combines the Olympic rings and the country’s national sun symbol.

But before the Games had even begun there were protests linking back to geopolitics, some of them more laughing matters than others. Iran claimed that the official London 2012 logo was actually a coded reference to Zion, and therefore a secret way of forwarding Jewish nationalist propaganda on a global sporting stage.

Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.

Moody standards

How influential are ratings agencies and their downgrades?

The weekly circus of ‘will they, won’t they’ always seems to end in ‘yes, they will’ as another country suffers another rating downgrade somewhere in the world. The three major agencies, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s of the US and the majority-French Fitch, take it in turns to lower debt and credit in a not-so-merry-go-round of economic crises.

The three agencies named above control nearly all the market between them. They rate risk and assess the strength of structures and values of various institutions. They analyse any entity, from a local council in the UK to a multi-national bank. And, of course, governments.

Politicians in those governments get worked up by unhelpful negative rating and downgrading of countries’ rescue and bail-out plans. While Greece lies on a hospital bed and European doctors argue outside the room, the credit rating warnings and negative updates are like secret turns of the key in the lock, cutting Greece off even further from hopes of a recovery. But swifter action in the first place from the EU and more attentive ears to the words of the agencies could well have led to a more positive situation than the current atmosphere.

Some politicians, such as Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, have reacted with shrugs and finger-pointing to downgrades. Certainly, after one of the big three lowers a rating there is at times a complacent attitude displayed when the other two come knocking later.

Prime ministers and bankers can work themselves into a fever trying to avoid the haunting removal of letters from a rating. The agencies hold immense power – the decision by Standard and Poor’s to take away the US’s AAA rating in August was seen as a major decision for consideration in the 2012 elections, despite the votes being 18 months away.

It has seemed in the past that patronising and slavish attitudes has been misplaced –  the agencies infamously failed to forecast the first tremors of the 2007-2008 credit crisis; indeed, those tremors were hidden below the masses of top ratings the agencies were mistakenly handing out.

They do perform good work and their advisory and analytical roles on government policies, particularly the eurozone’s measures, are seen as critically useful. But they are for-profit organisations and some economic commentators feel there is a conflict of interests in their actions. They can deal heavy blows to economies and send markets into frenzies with their decisions and so, at this crucial time – especially for the euro – there is a serious need for more calm negotiation with finance ministries (who themselves must stop fudging the issue and get on with sorting out Greece). Missing the first part of this credit crisis doesn’t mean the agencies have to make up for it by being overly critical now.

Birthday celebrations

One year of blogging – Fifty posts

On 25 September 2010, I published my first blogpost:

Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Deciding the first subject matter for a blog that deals with global events was difficult but Latin America is close to my heart and it seemed a natural place for me to begin. However, despite my intense interest in the region I have tried to offer a different perspective on a wide-range of world issues. Here is a selection of the countries whose affairs have been discussed right here:

Equatorial Guinea

Kazakhstan

Poland

Guatemala

Lebanon

Western Sahara

I have also confronted cross-border issues and here is a selection of those:

South China Sea disputes

Monarchies

Islamic policy in the European Union

Nobel Peace Prize

Female presidents in Latin America

African policy towards Colonel Gaddafi

Thank you everyone who has taken part, commented and read any of the 49 previous articles.

I will continue to cover as wide a range of international affairs as possible and I welcome guest articles on global matters.

I hope to return to Spain next month and Mexico next summer to report on the countries’ general elections and I am aiming to use this website to blog live from Madrid and Mexico City. I will use Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to supplement the blog coverage.

In the meantime, please feel free to get in touch and join in the world news conversation:

Twitter: @cullennews

Facebook: This is World News Analysis

Email: ross.cullen2@gmail.com