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Workers look for dead pigs floating on the river Monday, March 11, 2013 on the outskirts of Shanghai, China. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Dead pigs in Shanghai water supply don't ring alarm bells for Chinese officials

By Staff Writer / 03.11.13

Here’s a riddle for you: When is the discovery of 2,813 dead and rotting pigs in a major city’s water source not a public health problem?

Answer: When the discovery is made in China.

The Shanghai water bureau, which oversees the water consumed in China’s largest city, was insisting on Monday that tap water derived from the Huangpu River met national standards despite the presence of the decomposing pigs.

All I can say is that I am glad I live in Beijing, not Shanghai.

Truly disgusting photographs of bloated porcine carcasses on a riverbank have appeared in many Chinese papers and websites, drawing attention to what seems – believe it or not – to be a relatively common occurrence.

When pigs die of disease, farmers who cannot be bothered to bury the animals just toss them into the nearest river.

Local residents of one pig-rearing village upstream from Shanghai told the national broadcaster China Central Television on Sunday that disposing of dead pigs in the river was a common practice. “After the pigs died of illness, [they] just dumped them in the river … constantly. Every day,” one villager said.

“They are everywhere and they smell very bad,” the villager added.

Thousands of pigs in the Shanghai area have succumbed to epidemic disease in recent months, according to the Jiaxing Daily, a government-run paper in a hog-raising region southwest of Shanghai.

Last week the paper reported that more than 18,000 pigs had died since the beginning of the year in Zhulin, a village in the Jiaxing district. It was not immediately clear how many of them had been legally disposed of and how many had been thrown into the river.

But in a report last week, the paper quoted one pig farmer as saying that “when things are busy,” he and his fellow farmers do not bother to call the local veterinary services to take the corpses away and just “throw them away where we can.” In the summer, he added, the smell of rotting meat is sometimes so strong that villagers cannot open their windows.

More worryingly, the paper said, many readers had called the editorial desk’s hotline to report pig carcasses abandoned by the roadside or in water channels that had mysteriously lost their hind legs overnight.

“What if they were cooked in a restaurant?” the newspaper article wondered. 

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani is one of Saudi Arabia's most outspoken human rights activists. (Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor)

Two prominent Saudi human rights activists receive 10 years in jail

By Contributor / 03.10.13

On Saturday, Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah Hamad, two political and human rights activists, were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison by a Saudi Arabian court.

The two were found guilty of sedition and providing foreign media with false information. Mr. Qahtani and Mr. Hamad are the founders of Acpra, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an organization that documents human rights abuses.

Acpra has called for a constitutional monarchy and elections, which could be viewed as threats to the power of the Saudi royal family. According to Reuters, last year Acpra issued a statement demanding that King Abdullah fire then Crown Prince Nayef. The group charged that Nayef failed to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the Interior Ministry, which he headed until he died last year. 

Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Hamad must complete six years of a previous jail term for political activities and serve an additional five years. Both will remain jailed until a judge rules on their appeal next month.

For more than ten years Qahtani, an economics professor, has been one of the most outspoken human rights activists in the deeply conservative country. Qahtani believes Saudis must demand their rights, and that speaking up and demanding a stronger rule of law is a moral responsibility.

In an interview with the Monitor in 2012, he compared Saudi Arabia to apartheid-era South Africa, saying, “Our goal is to reach a situation where the regime is bound by its own law. It's a duty incumbent on us to educate people and push them forward."

Qahtani and Hamad’s trial was open to the press and the public. While they disagreed with the decision, some Saudi activists called the trial's openness a step forward.

Supporters of the activists said the trial was political motivated. When the judge sentenced Qahtani and Hamad, supporters began shouting and security officers armed with truncheons cleared the courtroom.

Supporters of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez hold a poster reading in Spanish 'Move forward commander!' outside the military academy where the late president's funeral ceremony took, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Chávez funeral: How do you spot a true Chávista? (+video)

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent, Andrew RosatiCorrespondent / 03.08.13

They spend all day in line in the searing heat for a chance to pay their respects. For Hugo Chávez’s supporters, waiting in line for 12 hours or more to spend a few seconds in front of his coffin has become something of a required pilgrimage.

“It’s something that all Chavistas should do. Something they need to do,” says Higdalia Azócar, who was not deterred by stories of daylong waits. “We came here for the love. We wouldn’t miss it.”

The line stretches for miles, weaving through shade and sunlight, past public parks and in front of the bleachers where Venezuelans watched Chávez salute military parades.

On Friday morning, state-run television said more than 2 million Venezuelans had made the trip to the low-slung military academy where Chávez’s open casket has been since Wednesday.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who will be sworn in as interim president this evening, on Thursday extended the viewing for an additional seven days due to the response. Thereafter, Chávez’s body will be embalmed, much the way Russia’s Vladmir Lenin and China’s Mao Zedong were, and displayed in a glass case for eternity, Mr. Maduro says.

Once inside, visitors said they saw Chávez wearing his signature red beret and sash. Photography was not permitted, but visitors say that on Wednesday and Thursday, Chávez was dressed in a blue suit. That was swapped out this morning – before his funeral – for his military fatigues.

“I was filled with sadness when I approached his casket,” says Juana Uscategui, an elementary school teacher. She waited 15 hours in a wheelchair to catch a glimpse. “When I finally saw, I was overcome with joy, as he was finally resting. He wore his red hat, his suit and medals. He was beautiful.”

For Lenin Benitez, a political organizer, it was a two-day journey.

After driving overnight from the state of Lara in the northwest, he queued up because it was “necessary to see him again and to show to the world that Venezuela stood with their president.”

He adored the idea of embalming the president.

“In the rest of the world, people tell their children stories about fictitious heroes, like Batman and Robin,” Mr. Benitez says. “Here in Venezuela, we can tell our story of Hugo Chávez and his deeds. But more than that, we can show him to our children and continue to inspire the revolution.”

An Afghan firefighter man washes the scene of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

Attack highlights how a corner of Afghanistan is falling apart

By Staff writer / 03.08.13

Glance at a map of Afghanistan and the first thing you notice is the long finger of land jutting out of the country’s northeast – the Wakkan Corridor. The government’s ability to reach that area just became more questionable after an attack this weekend that killed 16 Afghan soldiers on the one road that connects it to Afghanistan proper.

I traveled that road in 2010. The area of the ambush – claimed by the Taliban – scared my driver then, who warned me that the next 15 minutes through the ominously-named Warduj district were going to be risky. Outside the windows of our jeep, we left a lightly-forested riparian village and struck east toward an open landscape ringed by the snowy mountains of the Pamir range, whose peaks form the roof of the world and whose slopes tumble into Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.

Eyes in the jeep weren’t looking up but darting from rock to rock as the road twisted and turned through a giant uninhabited boulder field. The driver pointed out a scorch on the pavement from a recent attack on a police vehicle. The gunmen had hid behind the boulders to waylay the police, miles from any help.

Efforts at putting checkpoints around this area have gone badly, with the Taliban abducting 16 Afghan policemen and killing four others from one checkpoint in an incident last year a few months after German troops handed over security responsibility for the province.

This is Badakshan Province, one of the safest in Afghanistan – safety being a relative metric. Even here, local thugs are carving off chunks of territory for drug profits and power, aided by missteps from the international community and Afghanistan’s pre-existing divisions. To the extent the central government exercises control, it's to decide who gets to profit illegally from government posts. 

Once out of the boulder field, prayers passed the lips of my driver and our eyes looked ahead towards Ishkashim, a city on the Afghan border with Tajikistan and gateway to the fabled Wakkan Corridor that juts out from Afghanistan’s borders like a stiletto. Ishkashim is one of two main border crossings that landlocked Afghanistan has with Tajikistan – the other passing through the more violent province of Kunduz. As such, it’s a lifeline of trade and supplies, and a big conduit for illicit drugs.

The United Nations estimates that Afghan smugglers sent 80 tons of heroin and 20 tons of opium into Tajikistan in 2010. In recent years, turf wars have erupted over control of the road to Ishkashim.

Security analyst Thomas Ruttig detailed some of those fights in an alarming writeup last August. At the time, a short-lived armed rebellion had broke out across the border in Tajikistan, led by the commander of the Tajik border police post at Ishkashim – a lucrative post if one is involved in smuggling. Mr. Ruttig argues the rebellion had its roots in the Afghan drug economy, as it appeared to touch off political infighting on the Afghanistan side which implied “rearrangements in drug-trafficking networks.”

One of those rearrangements came when Afghan officials arrested a district police chief named Qari Wadud that summer. According to Ruttig, Mr. Wadud had drug processing factories and was moving a lot of product out to Tajikstan. Tajik officials convinced their Afghan counterparts that Wadud was also playing a role in the unrest on the Tajik side of the border. 

Uprooting such officials can touch off conflict for the Afghan government. During my visit to the province in 2010, I was woken one night in the city of Baharak by the steadily approaching sound of gunfire. Militants attacked the district government headquarters, destroying a portion of the building with a rocket. The source of the fighting might have been a disgruntled former official, according to a 2011 report from the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU):

Recent security incidents in Baharak District were attributed to the replacement of the long-serving district police chief. In Baharak, the position is a lucrative one given its central position to trade in opium in the province, and the displaced chief is assumed by many to be behind the sudden rise in insecurity.

Baharak is the last major settlement on the road heading east to Ishkasham. Between lies the boulder field of Warduj, a district that has a significant number of insurgents. The pocket of fighters there is a puzzling development considering that the entire province contains almost no ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the vast majority of the insurgency elsewhere, and Badakshan was a last redoubt for the Northern Alliance during their darkest hours fighting the former Taliban government in Kabul. The insurgents in Warduj appear to be supporting themselves by infiltration routes from nearby Pakistan and possibly the drug trade that they allow to flow along the same road that they deny to police and army personnel.

From Ruttig’s report:

…the insurgents – who, since November [2011], regularly seem to have been positioning checkpoints on a key road leading from the provincial capital Faizabad to Baharak, Warduj and further on to Zebak, Ishkashem and Tajikistan – are also cooperating in the safe passage for drug convoys coming from Darayem and Baharak, as a ‘contribution to jehad’, namely by ‘sending drugs to the enemies of Islam’. 

The gradual slide of Badakshan into a scrum for a piece of the poppy trade goes hand-in-hand with the return of poppy cultivation to the province. In the late 2000s, the province was considered nearly “poppy-free” as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) promised to bring development to the province.

USAID would ultimately spend $60 million over four years, but spend it badly. Hydroelectric projects were left incomplete, newly-paved roads fell apart in months, and a pricey veterinary lab shut down when the government couldn’t keep paying salaries, according to an investigation I did for the Monitor.

Residents of Badakshan cite the failed promises as a reason for restarting the cultivation of poppy, according to the AREU report:

The informants in [Badakshan] were blunt about how far such efforts had fallen below their expectations.… [M]ost of the money that had been promised did not arrive, and the projects that did take place were not seen as bringing long-term benefits: “we have given up our weapons, given up poppy but there is nothing for income, the government has done nothing.”

The report found other reason that residents returned to poppy: Their sons who joined the Afghan military and served in southern provinces like Helmand noticed that the Afghan government and the US Marines there openly allowed farmers to cultivate poppy. At the same time, the southern Pashtun-dominated provinces were getting more development aid.

Both gripes are absolutely true. On an embed to the US mission’s southernmost outpost in 2010, the Marines in Helmand explained to me that the counterinsurgency thinking in vogue at the time meant that their mission was to win over the support of local residents. Nothing angered farmers working that ditch-scarred desert more than eradicating their poppy crops, so the Marines said they wouldn’t do that.

Instead, the US showered development money on the insurgency-ridden southern regions in the hope of shoring up support for the US-backed government. In Helmand, too, the projects are incomplete: The US just announced it won’t finish work on restoring the Kajaki dam, a projected needed to power the south; instead, money will be given to the Afghans to finish it.

Can the Afghan government keep control over such corners of a difficult and drug-fueled country to take up the work of nation-building? The news out of Badakshan isn't encouraging.

A North Korean man works atop a utility pole as a soldier man on a post along the river bank of the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite side of the Chinese border city of Dandong, Wednesday. The UN Security Council responded swiftly to North Korea's latest nuclear test by punishing the reclusive regime Thursday with tough, new sanctions targeting its economy and leadership, despite Pyongyang's threat of a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States. (AP)

China voted for new North Korea sanctions. Will it enforce them? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.08.13

When the UN Security Council imposed new and harsher sanctions on North Korea yesterday to punish it for its most recent nuclear test, one big part of the story was the fact that China had gone along with the resolution.

But that may prove not to mean very much.

Beijing’s vote was widely seen as a signal of just how impatient China is getting with its “little brother,” who has been getting more and more wayward in recent months, launching missiles and detonating nuclear devices despite public Chinese warnings not to do so.

But the Chinese vote was only the start of the story, point out Victor Cha and Ellen Kim, Korea analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“The real test of China’s commitment will be in the follow-through. Will it not just sign on to sanctions, but will it enforce them with vigor?” the experts asked in an emailed briefing.

The initial signs are not encouraging.

(Read more about why China is unlikely to come down too hard here.)

The spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, posted to the ministry website his government’s official position on the resolution on Friday. It went on for four wordy paragraphs. It made not one single mention of sanctions.

Chinese companies make a handsome profit from trade with North Korea, which depends on China for nearly four-fifths of its imports. Most of that trade is perfectly legal, but some of it appears not to be. Luxury items that are meant to be banned from North Korea seem to find their way across the Chinese border without any difficulty, for example.

And the UN panel of experts monitoring compliance with previous sanctions resolutions has found evidence that banned exports from and imports to North Korea have moved through the Chinese port of Dalian.

“In the past, China-DPRK trade has increased in the aftermath of UN sanctions,” say Drs. Cha and Kim. “One hopes that this will not be the case again.”

For the record, here is the CSM’s unofficial translation of Mr. Qin’s statement:

“The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2094 on March 7th Beijing time over the issue of the DPRK’s third nuclear test.

 As a close neighbor of the Korean peninsula, China has worked hard to ensure nuclear nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula and maintain Northeast Asian peace and stability. China supports the UN Security Council’s necessary and proper response to North Korea’s nuclear test.

China believes the UN Security Council’s relevant action should be helpful to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia.
UN Security Council resolution 2094 showed the international community’s position against North Korea’s nuclear test and meanwhile promised to solve the Korean peninsula issue in a peaceful manner via dialogue and negotiation, and reiterated support for the restart of  six-party talks. Generally speaking, the resolution is balanced. China takes an objective and impartial position and played an important and constructive role during discussion of the resolution.
Maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia accords with the common interest of the international community. China urges relevant parties to remain calm and restrained and refrain from taking any action that could escalate tensions, and calls for all parties to stick to negotiations and seek denuclearization of the peninsula within the framework of the six-party talks and to explore effective ways to attain lasting peace and stability in the region. China will continue to make unceasing efforts towards these goals.”

The crew of the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies for some mid-mission fixes dropped by parachute from a C-130 in the Arctic Ocean in this July 2011 photo. (Courtesy of Kathryn Hansen/NASA/Reuters)

China pushes for Arctic foothold, from a thousand miles away

By Mike EckelContributor / 03.07.13

Way up above 66th parallel north, the jousting and jostling for the mother lode of oil, gas, mineral, fish, and other resources being exposed by the rapidly receding Arctic sea ice is well under way.

Russia is building a new class of nuclear icebreakers. Norway is charting fish-migration patterns for potential new fisheries. Canada is setting up a new Arctic training base and constructing a fleet of new patrol ships. US oil giants are angling to drill exploratory oil and gas wells. And China is sending its flagship icebreaker along the Northern Route.

Wait. China?

Not surprisingly, the eight nations that ring the planet’s northern cap – the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark – are the ones who have largely driven the discussion about access in the Arctic. With the exception of periodic saber-rattling or polar tub-thumping (Exhibit A: Russia’s 2007 ocean-floor flag-planting stunt), the discussions have been amicable. That’s due in large part to the 17-year-old intergovernmental agency known as the Arctic Council, which has helped soften the edges of growing competition.

“The lure of riches in the Arctic draws ever more companies and nations,” said William Moomaw, a professor of international environmental law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. “And so far it’s been relatively amicable jousting and jostling there.”

The quickening decline of Arctic Sea ice has its own alarming implications for the globe. As Prof. Moomaw put it at the Tufts University Energy Conference Sunday: “the trend line looks like a failing stock market or the collapse of a fishery – it just keeps going down and down, and then keeps going down further.”

That aside, with the wealth of resources being unlocked by global warming, it’s not surprising that other, non-Arctic nations are increasing looking to get in on the action. The US Geological Survey estimates more than a fifth of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and gas lie under the harsh, frigid, and remote conditions above the 66th parallel.

Enter China, whose northern most point in Manchuria, along the Amur River, is at least 1,000 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Beijing last year sent the icebreaker Snow Dragon (MV Xue Long) from Shanghai to Iceland along the Northern Route, which parallels the Russian Arctic coastline and has the potential to be a shorter, cheaper route to get goods from East Asia to Europe. They’ve applied for observer status at the Arctic Council. And, according to Malte Humpert, executive director of The Arctic Institute, China has also built a swanky new, $250 million embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places.

So what's behind this push?

It’s easy to see that China would clearly like access to oil, gas, and other resources. But a more persuasive argument is that Beijing clearly wants alternate shipping routes to the Strait of Malacca. That’s the crowded 1-1/2 mile bottleneck between Indonesia and Malaysia that 60,000 ships pass through every year, according to Mr. Humpert: Sixty percent are China-bound, and 80 percent are carrying the fuels that are propelling its economic dynamo. China’s leadership is concerned enough this is a strategic vulnerability that they call the situation the “Malacca Dilemma.”

But those aren’t wholly convincing in Humpert’s estimation. The most plausible argument is that, as with many of its policies these days, the Chinese are in it for the long haul: a long-term strategy as a global emerging power.

China “is extending its reach in Africa, southwest Pacific; the Arctic is just the latest region with geopolitical significance. They can make minimal investments today and can secure strong influence in 20, 30 years,” he told a energy conference panel discussion dubbed “Arctic Anxiety.”

“China wants to have a seat at the table. They want to be part of the Arctic Council. They’re an emerging power,” he said. “They know that Arctic may be one of the hot spots of the 21st century.”

Protesters march on a boulevard during a demonstration in central Sofia on Sunday. Tens of thousands protested in more than a dozen cities across Bulgaria on Sunday, in the latest demonstration against poverty and political system. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

In crisis, Bulgarians aware they are on the 'periphery' of world attention

By Correspondent / 03.07.13

When I arrived in Bulgaria shortly after mass street protests had helped force the resignation of the prime minister, the country’s problems were still far from over. Government corruption remained rampant and slow economic grow had placed many Bulgarians on the brink of economic ruin.

As a reporter tasked with explaining the situation to people, I knew that one of the biggest challenges would be finding a way to make the nation’s problems relevant to American and Western readers who probably couldn’t find Bulgaria on a map and who likely didn’t even loosely understand or follow news from inside the country.

As an overseas reporter, this has been a constant struggle even when I’ve covered big stories like Iraq or Afghanistan. Often the important issue driving news at a given moment – say, something like land disputes that fuel tribal feuds and destabilize the country – are not something that will interest a casual consumer of news.

Reporting in these situations is always a bit strange, because for those in the midst of what may likely be the biggest hardship of their life, there is an expectation that the entire world wants to know about them and cares enough to have an opinion. Sadly, it’s been my experience that sustained global interest in everyday crises is not common.

What I’ve always found a bit frustrating is that an Afghan who is outraged that the world doesn’t react to the theft of his ancestral land couldn't have cared less about a similar problem that someone in Africa experienced long before the Afghan had any problems. It’s rare to find people with the self-awareness and perspective to understand how the world will perceive their internal crises.

But in Bulgaria I was surprised to find this wasn’t always the case. When I started talking to Bulgarians, I found that very few people had any illusions about what their political drama meant for those outside their borders.

During interviews, local experts would start to get incredibly detailed in their analysis of events. After a while I’d say something along the lines of, “I don’t mean to be rude, but most people don’t follow Bulgarian news closely. Could you explain what’s happening here within the context of what’s happening throughout Europe.”

The first time I said this, the interviewee laughed and almost seemed to be apologizing when he said, “Yes, yes, I know. Bulgaria is a very small country.”

Later I met someone who described Bulgaria as being so small and powerless in stature that it was like a child strapped in the back of a car at the mercy of its parents' driving in perilous conditions. This man had also written a report about Bulgaria titled “The Periphery of the Periphery.”

At times it didn’t even feel like the Bulgarians took their own crisis seriously. During protests, I constantly ran into people walking their dogs during protest marches. They had the demeanor of someone who, while out for a weekend stroll, happened upon a block party and decided to stop in and see if they knew anyone.

None of this is to belittle Bulgarians or their current difficulties, nor do I think I met a single person who wasn’t deeply concerned about their own personal future and that of their nation.

But what was refreshing to me as a reporter about Bulgarians’ outlook was that many people could see their situation within the context of world events. They didn’t have oversized expectations for how my reporting could bring international attention on their plight.

In the end, I’d like to think that the Bulgarians’ outlook allowed me to leave the country in peace, knowing that I’d done my part as a reporter to help people understand the problem there, but I also knew no Bulgarians would get frustrated with me or the media in general for not doing enough.

A Caracas resident puts up the national flag next to a poster of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, in Caracas, Thursday. Venezuelans flocked to pay tribute to Chávez as he lied in state at the Military Academy two days after his passing. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

A changed Venezuela after Chávez?

By Staff writer / 03.07.13

As Venezuela mourns the passing of President Hugo Chávez and foreign dignitaries gather to pay their respects, a big question for a post-Chávez Venezuela remains answered: How will the country's role in the world change?

Earlier today, Mr. Chávez lay in state at the military academy where he began his career, drawing hundreds of thousands of mourners – including the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay – reports the Associated Press.

And his funeral, scheduled for tomorrow, will be attended by both friends and foes of the firebrand leader. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally of Chávez's, left Tehran today for Venezuela, reports AP. And the Los Angeles Times adds that Washington also plans to send a delegation – despite Chávez's tempestuous relationship with the US.

In fact, it is not surprising that so many dignitaries will attend, since Chávez had a profound effect both on his country and his region – though opinions remain sharply divided on whether that effect was good or bad.  Either way, his attention to Venezuela's poor reshaped the political scene in both Venezuela and Latin America, the Monitor reports.

“The poor remember that no Venezuelan government ever cared for them or nurtured them or provided them with resources, and although Chávez is a lot of ‘blah blah blah,’ he also is a guy who has come through for [the poor],” [Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs,] says. ...

Many of the once disenfranchised found new political power during Chávez’s leadership, which the president’s passing will not take away, no matter who holds power in the future. Opposition candidates in the primary in the October 2012 presidential race all promised to continue Chávez's emphasis on social inclusion – underscoring the fact that such a stance is considered essential to winning a race in Venezuela, or anywhere else in Latin America, today.

But Chávez didn't just provide guidance to Latin America's leftist leaders. He also provided some with direct financial support – support that blogger Anya Landau French warns may not be so generous under future Venezuelan governments. That could have a huge impact on beneficiaries like Cuba, she writes.

Not unsurprisingly, many in and out of Cuba now wonder if the loss of Chávez is the death knell of the Castros’ Revolution, or, perhaps could it inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro’s reform agenda, just in the nick of time? In some ways, the loss of Hugo Chávez, on its face so devastating for Cuba, might actually be a good thing for the island. With Nicolas Maduro a favorite to win the special presidential election a month from now, Cuba will likely retain significant influence. But Maduro is no Chávez. He’ll have to focus on building up his own political capital, without the benefit of Chávez’s charisma. While he surely won’t cut Cuba off, to maintain power he will almost certainly need to respond to increasing economic pressures at home with more pragmatic and domestically focused economic policies. And that likelihood, as well as the possibility that the Venezuelan opposition could win back power either now or in the medium term, should drive Cuban leaders to speed up and bravely deepen their tenuous economic reforms on the island.

Regardless, says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, Chávez "made Venezuela a much more independent country, and made South America more independent of the US than Europe is today.”

In the West, and the US in particular, there is hope that Venezuela's post-Chávez government will soothe the country's often contentious international relations – though at least in the US, the Monitor reports, "no one expects tensions to evaporate from the relationship overnight."

“Chávez conditioned much of Venezuela to think negatively of the US,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society in Washington. Many Venezuelans won’t forget quickly Chávez’s claims, especially early in his rule, that the Central Intelligence Agency was trying to assassinate him or that the US was behind a 2002 military coup that briefly forced him from office.

“Healing is going to take time,” he says, “and I’m not convinced that whoever takes over after Chávez will be that interested in healing.”

Chávez's political heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, showed that immediate changes were not coming on Wednesday, when he accused the US of being behind the late president's death and promised to investigate further. Mr. Maduro is set to run in upcoming elections to succeed Chávez, and is expected to rely heavily on anti-US rhetoric to rally support.

The US isn't alone in hoping for more consistent, positive relations with post-Chávez Caracas. Spain, as Europe's main liaison with Latin America, has had a hot-and-cold relationship with former colony Venezuela, the Monitor reported yesterday. Although Spanish Foreign Minister Jose García Margallo described the ties between the two countries as "solid relations," he conceded that the Venezuelan president was an obstacle.

Referring to pending free trade negotiations between the EU and the South American Mercosur trade block, Margallo said Chávez had enormous influence. “Honestly, I think that a Venezuela with the parameters Chávez defended would have made negotiations impossible," he said.

“I don’t know what is going to happen, but it’s very important to us,” he added.

North Koreans attend a rally Thursday in Pyongyang to support a statement given on Tuesday by a North Korean military spokesman vowing to cancel the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War. The billboard in background depicts a large bayonet pointing at US army soldiers and reads 'If you dare invade, only death will be waiting for you!' (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

North Korea threatens 'preemptive nuclear attack' on US as UN readies new sanctions (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.07.13

North Korea upped the ante in its vitriolic rhetoric today, threatening to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the US and other "aggressors," just hours ahead of the United Nations Security Council's expected vote to implement harsh new sanctions against the regime.

According to North Korea's state news agency, a foreign ministry official warned that "Now that the US is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, (our) revolutionary armed forces... will exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors," writes Agence France-Presse. The official also said that a second Korean war is "unavoidable."

AFP notes that while North Korea claims to have missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US, they have yet to successfully demonstrate such technology. Most observers believe that North Korea is many years away from such a capacity.

North Korea's latest threat comes amid growing international concern – including that of longtime ally China – over the country's continued nuclear testing, its third such test occuring last month. In response, the US and China negotiated a tightening of sanctions against the regime, which is expected to pass later today at the UN Security Council. 

The Monitor reported yesterday that while probably not ready to impose sanctions strong enough to destabilize the Kim regime, China was angered by the decision to follow through with last month's weapons test in spite of Beijing's direct requests otherwise.

The resolution due to be approved Thursday will make it harder for North Korean diplomats to transport large quantities of cash, which they are forced to do by existing financial sanctions that make banks unwilling to deal with Pyongyang.

The resolution will also step up the inspection of North Korean imports and exports, so as to crack down on Pyongyang’s purchase of technology that could help its weapons program and on North Korean military sales abroad.

The sanctions will prohibit the sale of luxury items such as yachts and racing cars to North Korea, in a bid to deny the country’s rulers some of their toys.

Still, experts are dubious that the sanctions will make much difference.

David Kang, an expert on North Korea at the University of Southern California, told the Monitor that "There is zero chance that this new resolution will have any effect on North Korean behavior. Pressure does not work on North Korea."

The sanctions' passage is unlikely to end North Korea's bellicose rhetoric in the coming days, as the US and South Korea are set to engage in two months of war games starting next week. Pyongyang warned on Tuesday that if the games were held, North Korea would "completely nullify" the armistice that has held since the Korean War unofficially ended in 1953. An official peace between North and South Korea has never been enacted.

"The war exercise being done by the United States and the puppet South Korea is a systematic act of destruction aimed at the Korean armistice," the KCNA quoted a top military official as saying.

But the Monitor noted that North Korea's threat "rings hollow," as the government made a similar declaration in 2009 amid an earlier round of international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.

“Maybe North Korea should check its files, because they already abrogated the armistice in May 2009,” says Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “They said at the time they had abrogated it and were no longer bound by it,” Mr. Klinger says, “so I guess you could say history is repeating itself.”

In this undated file photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a consultative meeting with officials in the fields of state security and foreign affairs at undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP)

Why North Korea is turning up the heat again

By Staff writer / 03.06.13

It’s been a dramatic week on the Korean Peninsula, culminating with a threat from North Korea to break the 60-year truce with the South and the subsequent terse warning from South Korea's military Wednesday that it would respond to any attack from North Korea with “strong and stern measures.”

In case you missed it, this comes on the heels of China's agreement to sanction the North, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s debrief on his basketball diplomacy trip to the world’s most isolated country – and, lest we forget it, rumors of an expansion of the Kim dynasty

The North's bombast also comes ahead of planned military exercises during an especially tense period. The US and South Korea’s regular combined field-training exercises are set for early next week, and North Korea has been observed planning their own exercises, which could set the stage for a clash as happened in 2010. The deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island broke out after North Korea claimed that the South had fired into its waters during routine exercises. 

The Christian Science Monitor points out that the North’s threat of violence is of course nothing new – each year the US and South Korea have joint military exercises and each year the North loudly protests with threats. North Korea has even claimed to abandon its armistice with the South once before – in 2009, when, like today, it was facing a new round of sanctions for a nuclear test.

“Maybe North Korea should check its files, because they already abrogated the armistice in May 2009,” says Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “They said at the time they had abrogated it and were no longer bound by it,” Mr. Klinger says, “so I guess you could say history is repeating itself.”

And it remains to be seen how strictly China will impose the new sanctions. 

Cheng Xiaohe, a Korea watcher at Renmin University in Beijing told the Monitor’s Peter Ford there:

“China and the DPRK need each other.” While Pyongyang depends on Chinese aid and trade to stay afloat, Beijing is anxious to keep at least one regional nation friendly in the face of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, which is widely seen here as a bid to contain China.

Still, he says:

Since coming to power a little over a year ago, Kim Jong-un “has brushed aside Chinese friendship and made China feel extremely uncomfortable.”

And that has made Beijing’s leaders more apt to do more to express displeasure, such as urging the North to show restraint.

"The Korean War armistice is significant in terms of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily press briefing Wednesday, reports Voice of America

Whether the North will listen is another question. 

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