Global News Blog
When you want the truth in Mexico, talk to a priest.
So says The Christian Science Monitor's Mexico City correspondent, who is currently traveling through the western state of Michoacán to report on a violent standoff between the federal government and armed vigilantes. The conflict has upended the local rule of law, shut down major transportation routes, and disrupted businesses from avocado farms to Pepsi truckers to Oxxo supermarkets.
But the truth is hard to find in Mexico because of the confusing nature of this deadly clash. In theory, the government should be united with the vigilantes against a common enemy: the violent drug cartel known as Knights of Templar that has ruled Michoacán through intimidation and fear. Instead, they’re all at gunpoint after the federal government announced this week it would force the vigilantes to lay down their arms, while the so-called “autodefensas” have vowed to stand strong until the government weakens the drug cartel.
The implication is that the government is providing political protection to the Knights of Templar, while rival cartels are providing tactical support to the vigilantes with weapons. To dig into the matter, our correspondent says he sought input from local religious leaders who have their ears close to the ground.
“I have spoken to numerous priests, and all of them say that it’s exaggerated to suggest the defense groups are clean, but it’s also unfair to say they’re puppets of other cartels,” our correspondent says.
Meanwhile, the Catholic leaders also question the reasoning for the government’s forceful resolve to disarm the vigilantes, who have wrested control of entire towns from the cartel and restored businesses and farms to their rightful owners.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
Norway’s residential housing sector is cooling after more than two decades of strong growth, interrupted by only a slight dip in 2008. High personal debt levels and hand-wringing over a potential bursting of a real estate bubble have Oslo taking some cautious corrective steps.
In the short term, the changes are contributing to modest price declines and an end to the heyday of bidding wars and one-day sales. But the logic of real estate investment in Norway remains compelling, says The Christian Science Monitor's Oslo-based correspondent, who is not expecting a crash with long-term effects.
“Everybody sees there is going to be a correction, it’s unsustainable,” says our correspondent. But “it’s just a correction in the market and a slower growth. Long term, I think it’s still going to be a very stable investment.”
Not everyone is so sanguine. Looking at the broader Scandinavian picture, American economist Paul Krugman is sounding the alarm about high consumer debt loads in the region. Expensive housing is a big part of those debts, and that has him concerned.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
Donors gathered in Kuwait on Wednesday to start raising money for the most expensive humanitarian crisis in recent history. The conflict in Syria has left nearly 10 million in need, and the UN says it needs $6.5 billion this year just to provide for the most basic humanitarian care.
Roughly $1.6 billion of that money would go to Jordan, where it’s easy to see that need, says The Christian Science Monitor's Amman-based correspondent. Jordan has taken in 600,000 refugees – equivalent to 10 percent of its entire population.
“The presence of the Syrians is seen and felt everywhere at this point,” our correspondent says, recalling how the refugees have taken on haphazard work as shopkeepers, cleaners, and even beggars across the city. “You see more signs of urban poverty now, because 80 percent of the refugees are not in refugee camps; they are in cities and towns across the country.”
Syria’s crisis began at what was already a difficult time for Jordan. The financial crisis hit the country hard, and the capital is littered with construction projects left unfinished by the boom and bust.
When the Syrian refugees started coming, the Jordanian government was generous – to an extent that today they are quietly backtracking on promises they just can’t keep.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
A well-funded, well-organized protest movement has returned to the streets of Bangkok, shutting down seven key intersections in Bangkok with the intention of eventually toppling the Thai government. Key institutions like the central bank have switched to alternative venues away from the protests to keep the gears of the country turning. But there is no doubt the two-month-long protest movement has proven disruptive to the country’s economy.
There are two main ways that our correspondent in Bangkok can see the political paralysis ending: Either the demonstrators create enough unrest to trigger a military intervention into politics, or the patience from Bangkok’s business community runs out on the demonstrators and their movement loses support. With the government very carefully avoiding confrontation and meeting in alternate locations, the demonstrators may have a tough time forcing a change before they outstay their welcome.
“The people in Bangkok whose business rely on Bangkok functioning … have a limited level of tolerance for the city being shut down,” says our correspondent. “After the end of today, there isn’t an overwhelming feeling of ‘This is the beginning of the end.’ In fact, I felt very much like this was déjà vu.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
HBO made headlines in 2012 when four horses died on the set of “Luck,” a drama that revolved around a racetrack. The American Humane Association stepped in to investigate, prompting HBO to cancel the show the next day. For 136 years, the AHA has watched over the welfare of animals in show business. But according to Gary Baum of The Hollywood Reporter, the AHA has repeatedly overlooked or failed to report serious accidents and animal cruelty.
“In fact, the AHA has awarded its ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ credit to films and TV shows on which animals were injured during production,” he writes. “It justifies this on the grounds that the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling.”
The exposé describes several instances of dubious supervision, including when dozens of dead fish and squid washed ashore after a special-effects explosion during “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and a near drowning of King, the real tiger used in a few scenes in “Life of Pi.”
RECOMMENDED: 6 organizations that protect animal rights
The legend of the ‘welfare queen’
On the campaign trail, Ronald Reagan regaled audiences with stories about a woman who “used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
This “welfare queen” became a symbol of a government system rife with fraud, much to the chagrin of some on the left, who considered the tale racist malarkey.
But Mr. Reagan spoke of a real woman. Her name was Linda Taylor, and, as Josh Levin reports in Slate, her crimes reached far deeper than welfare fraud. The con artist was accused of kidnapping, baby trafficking, regularly bilking government services, successfully posing as multiple races (she was white), impersonating a heart surgeon, and possible homicide.
Will Wikipedia survive?
Wikipedia relies on volunteers. They write the encyclopedia entries, add new information, fight off vandals, squash hoaxes, and enforce quality standards. But Wikipedia is in trouble, writes Tom Simonite of MIT Technology Review. Its volunteer workforce has dwindled by more than a third since 2007 and continues to shrink.
As the number of participants diminishes, the community’s problems become more obvious. For example, “its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy,” writes Mr. Simonite. “The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.”
Now, the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group behind Wikipedia, has sprung into action, hoping to expand its base before the whole experiment curdles.
Sobering words of the year
The Oxford Dictionaries chose as its 2013 word of the year “selfie,” a photograph that one takes of oneself and often posts online. (Michigan’s Lake Superior State University voted it as one of the year’s most annoying words.) Asian countries, on the other hand, chose much more somber words of the year.
In a compilation on Quartz, Herman Wong notes that China picked fang (house). Chinese cultural centers chose the character because of the country’s runaway housing market. The Beijing Evening News reports that after three years of surging home prices, some Chinese feel as if owning a home has drifted out of reach.
Readers of Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper voted for mai (haze), after the country’s record pollution. Japan selected a more hopeful word: wa (circle). “This character was chosen to represent how the Japanese people worked together to win the right to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games,” writes Mr. Wong, “and how they endured the natural calamities that have struck the country.”
The cost of a simple T-shirt
How much does it cost to make a T-shirt? NPR’s Planet Money extended a simple offer: Buy a $25 T-shirt and its team of reporters will follow the creation of that shirt from the cotton fields to the sewing factories to customers’ mailboxes.
Planet Money’s 24,470 shirts cost $12.42 each. About $2.25 of that went to Kickstarter and Amazon for processing customers’ money. Each shirt has 60 cents’ worth of cotton. Yarn spinning cost 40 cents. Knitting, dyeing, and sewing came to $1. Shipping the shirts from Bangladesh to the United States turned out to be the cheapest step, adding on only 10 cents. American tariffs slapped on an extra 33 cents. The artist who designed the graphic received 12 cents per shirt. Printing that image took 90 cents. Planet Money teamed up with clothing giant Jockey to make the shirts, so $2.67 went toward the company’s overhead.
Finally, the highest expense: ensuring that each shirt arrives safely at people’s homes. That cost $4.05.
RECOMMENDED: 6 organizations that protect animal rights
Our correspondent in Chile woke yesterday to the thick smell of smoke. He looked outside: Santiago’s air had turned blue, and an office tower one block away was difficult to see amid the haze from a number of weeks-long forest fires that have caused more than $100 million in property losses and will hit the timber, tourism, and insurance industries.
But Chileans are unlikely to respond to the crisis in any measurable way, says our correspondent in the capital city, home to 40 percent of the nation’s population. Air pollution is accepted by many Chileans, and ecology ranks low on the totem pole compared to economic interests from tree farming.
“Chile has a very weak ecological consciousness,” says our correspondent. “Forest fires are another issue in a giant pile of policy problems, and I don’t see them catching much attention.”
While authorities issued an alert on Wednesday due to the choking smoke, Santiaguinos are accustomed to health alerts as the city’s geography lends itself to inversions that trap pollution in low-lying areas.
“Today the air is still hazy, but a breeze overnight cleared out the smoke,” he says. “People are walking in the streets, but fewer than normal.”
The tourism industry will feel a hit from the fires, as will insurers.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
Some years ago in India, I found myself in a casual conversation with the US ambassador at the time on the grounds of the American Embassy School in Delhi. He remarked that maintaining the quality of the school had become a concern after executives impressed on him the school’s importance for keeping expatriate workers based in a country that many find difficult.
Now, the school and other expat infrastructure are coming under pressure as the Indian government reacts to the arrest and fast-approaching indictment of its diplomat, Devyani Khobragade. Indian officials are now enforcing the letter of the law with respect to the US presence in Delhi as a show of reciprocity. That means calling out any visa infractions among school staff and reexamining the tax status of the foreigners working there. (The school’s foreign staff has enjoyed some Indian income tax exemptions, and the school also pays generously compared with other international schools in order to get teachers to relocate there.)
In the latest move, India on Wednesday called for the closure of an American club on the US embassy grounds. I took my share of dips at the club’s swimming pool.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
Latvia has bolstered its image as a stable polity with the nomination this weekend of Laimdota Straujuma to be the country’s next prime minister. An economist who currently heads the agriculture ministry, Ms. Straujuma belonged to no party until joining the ruling Unity party over the weekend. She has since sounded notes of consistency of economic policy so as not to spook investors as it prepares for fall elections and begins a new chapter as the newest eurozone member.
“This is merely a caretaker government until the elections in October,” says our Baltics correspondent in Tallinn. “[S]he has stated explicitly the intention to continue the austerity program of her predecessor.”
Her nomination by the Unity party follows the resignation in November of the previous prime minister, who stepped down to take responsibility for a roof collapse at a supermarket that left more than 50 dead. The sudden change at the top didn’t faze analysts as the preparations for the Jan. 1 accession to the eurozone were already in place.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
China probably wasn’t on the minds of more than 9,500 people who visited the Taipei Zoo for their first look at a giant panda cub this week, but the critter’s popularity still gives a soft touch to tough relations between two old political foes.
The cub named Yuan Zai was born exactly six months ago to two gift pandas from China. Their names said together mean reunion, a hint about what Beijing wants for the two separately ruled sides. Yet the cub’s name comes from the local Taiwanese dialect, a distancing from Beijing, and many people have quit thinking about the older bears’ origin.
“Of course China will be happy about Yuan Zai because it’s the source of the adult pandas,” says Hsu Yung-ming, political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. “But a lot of common people aren’t that clear as to where the cub came from. To them it’s just another phase of entertainment.”
RECOMMENDED: China's panda program
Experts had described the gift pandas as China's ploy to charm the island public toward eventual reunification.
Even if visitors didn’t consider politics while taking a number to file past the zoo enclosure on Monday and exclaim “how cute,” China’s ears should still perk up.
Taiwan owns Yuan Zai, the first cub born locally, but will still consult China in making sure she breeds to raise the endangered world population, says zoo spokesman Chao Ming-chieh. China remains the top breeder of pandas and its bamboo forests are their only natural habitat. About 1,600 live in the wild.
“We may consult them to consider who Yuan Zai’s future boyfriend will be,” Mr. Chao quips. “Our zoo viewpoint is that Yuan Zai is for both sides of the Strait and the whole world.”
Washington, also a recipient of Beijing’s panda goodwill, will return to China a cub born at the Smithsonian National Zoo so she can reproduce there.
Taipei cub views are also expected to surge later in the month as Taiwan begins its winter school break, giving children a chance to visit the zoo. Monday was the first day Yuan Zai went on display.
China gave the two adult pandas to Taipei’s zoo in 2009, after Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had laid aside old political disputes a year earlier to build mutual trust and cash in on China’s massive economy. China hopes the two sides reunify, though Mr. Ma has kept Beijing waiting on any political dialogue.
The two sides have been separately ruled since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Beijing still claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, angering island leaders and roiling economic relations.
Taipei’s zoo initially kept Yuan Zai away from public viewing to ensure she was healthy. The cub, born through artificial insemination, can now walk, climb and eat with no hitches.
The polls have closed in Bangladesh’s Sunday national elections, with the ruling Awami League expected to cruise to a pre-ordained victory amid a mass opposition boycott. But the country’s bitter political gridlock is expected to continue, and so will the hartals and blockades, which have a debilitating practical effect on everyday work life in Bangladesh.
Hartals, our correspondent on the ground in Dhaka explains, are basically general strikes during which party activists ensure that “there is no transport on the street anywhere” in terms of cars and buses – and they have a long history in Bangladesh’s turbulent political culture. Blockades, in which activists effectively block the roads in and out of major cities, have taken a toll on the country’s vital garment trade.
The opposition Bangladesh National Party’s near-constant call for hartals and blockades during the last few months brought many forms of business grinding to a halt, with many work weeks reduced to just a handful of days.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.