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    A Political Tour of the World

    December 2022

    Rarely has the world been so unstable with so many places threatened by either internal or external tensions.

    Let's start with Saudi Arabia, possibly my least favorite country in the world and certainly a dubious (and embarrassing) ally for the USA. The current de-facto ruler, prince Mohammed bin Salman is a mass murderer who shares many traits with Putin: he too has invaded a neighboring country (Yemen), he too depends on oil prices, he too tolerates no dissent (most dissidents are either in jail or dead). The kingdom is very stable, thanks mainly to the constant stream of money coming in from all over the world to pay for Saudi oil, but the kingdom is also a source of instability around the world, from Libya to Pakistan. The West likes to forget that Saudi Arabia was the main financial supporter of both Al Qaeda and ISIS, both movements inspired by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism. Despite a formal opening up of the society (Western citizens can now easily get a tourist visa and can travel freely through 99% of the country), Saudi Arabia's human-rights record has been getting worse, not better, and remains one of the most appalling in the world. In just one day of 2022 (March 12) Saudi Arabia executed 81 men, the largest mass execution in the entire world in modern times if you don't count conflict zones. By the end of 2022 the number of people executed in the kingdom was officially 147 although many suspect that some executions are not even reported. The execution rate has actually doubled since 2015, the year when King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman seized power, disproportionately affecting low-income foreigners such as female domestic workers (if a maid is raped by her "master" and then kills him, there's a good chance she'll be executed, presumably to teach a lesson to all other maids) and disproportionately affects the Shiite minority (41 of the 81 men executed in March 2022 were Shiites). Quoting from the Reprieve report: "The six bloodiest years of executions in Saudi Arabia’s recent history have all occurred under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022). From 2015-2022 (King Salman came to power in 2015) there was an average of 129.5 executions per year – that’s a rise of 82%." Saudi bloggers literally risk their lives. Raif Badawi (founder of the Free Saudi Liberals) was sentenced to 1,000 lashes (50 lashes weekly after friday prayers for 20 weeks in front of the Juffali Mosque in Jeddah) and spent ten years in jail for "insulting Islam online". Others have disappeared in prison. In August 2022 two women received harsh punishments: Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison for "violating the public order" with her posts on social media and Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets that "disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state." Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally for the USA and not only for the abysmal human-rights record: it often seems to side with the enemy of the USA. In October 2022, with the West already stressed by high oil and natural gas prices, Saudi Arabia joined Russia and the other OPEC countries to cut oil production, thus sending oil prices up again. This came just weeks after US president Joe Biden humiliated himself when he traveled to Saudi Arabia to beg Salman to increase oil production. Salman did exactly the opposite (note that, due to the West's sanctions, Russia is already pumping below its OPEC+ ceiling, so the bulk of the cuts will be made by Saudi Arabia). OPEC's decision was the first good news for Putin since he started the invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia gave Putin his first major financial boost in a year. Not even China has helped Putin that much. The other relationship that is blossoming is with China. When he visited Saudi Arabia, Biden was treated like a second-class guest. When China's president Xi visited a few weeks later in December 2022, he was treated to a lavish ceremony, like a true guest of honor. Salman and Xi signed a "comprehensive strategic partnership agreement", ranging from oil to telecommunications. The USA is not seeing the obvious fact: it is inevitable that the undemocratic regime of Saudi Arabia will gravitate towards similar undemocratic regimes. It is inevitable that, going forward, Saudi Arabia will find more common ground with Russia and China than with the West. Mohammed bin Salman was briefly an international pariah after he ordered the murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a gruesome murder carried out in Turkey (the body was beheaded, dismembered and stuffed into a suitcase). But oil talks: four years later Biden's government has told an investigating judge that Mohammed bin Salman should be granted immunity, hoping that Salman will reciprocate by pumping more oil. Saudi Arabia has also colluded with the most undemocratic president of the USA, Donald Trump, the man who authorized the sale of lethal weapons worth billions of dollars and who refused to hold Salman accountable for Khashoggi's murder. Saudi Arabia has invested $2 billion in the private equity firm Affinity Partners started by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and in November 2022 Saudi Arabia's real estate developer Dar Al Arkan partnered with Trump for the Aida complex in Oman. Trivia: Saudi Arabia is the world's top importer of arms (79% sold by the USA).

    Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is causing a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Yemen. See Nations in Crisis: Yemen.

    Iraq hasn't had a government in ages. It has instead had plenty of demonstrations against the economic crisis. And then it was rocked by bloody fights between Shiite factions after (in August 2022) Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr announced that he was quitting politics. He used to be an Iranian puppet but later distanced himself from Iran. Iraq is a real democracy, with regular elections, but its politicians cannot create stable governments. In October 2021 parliamentary elections were won by al-Sadr's party and by his two Sunni and Kurdish allies (Mohammed Halbousi's Taqadum party and Masoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party), while the Iran-backed Coordination Framework, which included Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and the Kurdish Patriotic Union as well as Qais al-Khazali's militia, lost about two-thirds of its seats, and the Alaa Rikabi's Imtidad list of independents born out of the 2019 protest movement won only nine seats out of 329. During this long political impasse, caretaker prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been running the country. The country is far from pacified: in 2021 ISIS carried out an average of 87 terrorist attacks and 149 casualties per month in Iraq. In August 2022 alone, Iraq was rocked by 22 bomb attacks, six of which resulted in 32 civilians dead. This is nowhere near the peak of 2014 (20,218 deaths) but Iraq still ranks second behind Ukraine and ahead of Syria and Afghanistan in number of people killed by bombs. Finally, in 2022 Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani has been chosen as prime minister. The problem is that he is the candidate of the Coordination Framework, the coalition that lost the elections. People say that he was handpicked by Iran. Why Sadr withdrew from politics is anyone's guess, but Sadr's family lives in exile in Iran, and Iran may have threatened retaliation on his family if he blocked the appointment of a pro-Iranian prime minister. The bottom line is that Iraq has one of the weakest governments in the world, which also explains why countries like Turkey and Iran feel free to bomb its territory. In November 2022 alone, Iran has conducted air strikes on Iraq's Kurdistan (following a September bombing that killed 14 people) because it provides sanctuary for Iranian Kurdish armed groups, and Turkey has launched air strikes on the same area (but targeting different Kurdish groups) in retaliation for a bombing in Istanbul which Erdogan blamed on Kurdish militants.

    The country that is relatively pacified is Syria, after Russia and Turkey invaded and partitioned it (i.e. after the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement of March 2020). Israeli planes routinely patrol and bomb Iranian-backed activities inside Syria and US planes and drones routinely strike ISIS, but Syria is roughly divided into spheres of influence that have become self-governing regions. To summarize: in 2011 an "Arab Spring" revolution aimed at deposing dictator Bashar al-Assad spread throughout Syria but quickly turned into a multi-faceted civil war pitting ethnic and religious groups against each other, each a proxy for some external powers. The USA supported a democratic movement that was mainly controlled by Syrian Kurds and used it to fight the ISIS caliphate. Iran too meddled into Syria, both to support the regime and to maintain bases for its own military operations that Israel sees as potentially aimed at itself. Iran's proxy militias probably saved the Assad regime from collapse at the beginning of the civil war. In 2015 Russian troops and Russian-paid mercenaries invaded Syria to prop up the Assad regime and since then Assad's regime has regained control of most of Syria. However, deprived of most of its revenues, the Syrian government has become a producer and exporter of illegal drugs to Europe. Turkey, overwhelmed by Syrian refugees, bombed and invaded Syria several times since 2015 and more recently in 2019, and supports the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the north. Turkey is fighting the very Kurds armed by the USA, fearing that the victorious Kurds of Syria could inspire the Kurds of Turkey. The Kurdish-controlled area, ruled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which mainly consists of the People's Protection Units (YPG), is the only democratic corner of Syria. The Kurds are under attack by both Sunni terrorists and the Turkish military. After a terrorist attack in Istanbul that Erdogan blamed on Kurds, Turkey has threatened to invade again northern Syria. Erdogan's Turkey has always played a double game in Syria, helping ISIS and other Sunni groups against Assad while claiming to be an ally of the USA that was fighting ISIS. Now Turkey aims at rooting out the Kurdish militias for good, knowing that they hold thousands of ISIS terrorists from more than 50 countries in their prisons, i.e. that these terrorists would be able to escape. Turkey is also controlling Syria via the water crisis of the Euphrates River. Turkey has often weaponized water. The 2800-km Euphrates is the longest river in the Middle East, originating in Turkey and flowing southeast across Syria and Iraq. In both countries the river is a vital asset for agriculture and electricity production. There is no question that Turkey's aim is to turn Syria into a vassal state. The power that stands in the way is not so much Iran but Russia, which now treats Assad as a key ally and obedient servant. If the interference of these countries weren't enough, in November 2022 Israel too has conducted airstrikes within Syria, targeting Assad forces that are backed by Russia and Iran and that Israel sees as potential bases for Hezbollah. One week later Turkey bombed the Syrian Kurds (again), and a few days later Russia bombed the crowded camps in Idlib, where millions of internally displaced Syrians now live. The target was probably the Islamist organization Hayat Tahrir al Sham, which has been fighting on multiple fronts: against Assad's army, against the rival Islamists of the Jabhat al-Shamiyah, and against the Syrian National Army created within the region by Turkey (the successor to the Free Syrian Army). Despite the defeat of ISIS, several Islamist groups still operate in Syria, mainly in that Idlib province. In 2017 the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra split and this new group emerged, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is no longer affiliated with Al Qaeda and has rapidly become dominant group. So Syria is mostly pacified (the civil war has ended in a stalemate) but de facto it has become a battlefield ready for at least two regional wars: Russia against Turkey, and Israel against Iran. The good news is that the refugee crisis of 2015 (when huge crowds marched through Turkey into the European Union) is for now only a memory of the past.

    Lebanon, which used to be the richest Arab country in the Middle East, is now a failed state and its people are facing starvation.

    Lebanon's food price inflation has reached 208%, the second highest in the world See Nations in Crisis: Lebanon.
    Turkey is still ruled by Erdogan, the Islamist who first won elections in 2003. Turkey is a member of NATO but under Erdogan it has its own foreign policy. It was even sanctioned by the USA when it purchased a multibillion-dollar missile system from Russia, which is not exactly a friend of NATO. NATO tolerates Turkey's erratic behavior because it is mostly directed against Russia. Turkey supported Azerbaijan while Russia supported Armenia in the brief border conflict won by Azerbaijan; in the Libyan civil war Turkey supports the Tripoli-based government while Russia supports the rebel general Khalifa Haftar; in Syria it supports the opposition to dictator Assad who is supported by Russia; and Turkey has supplied Ukraine with the Bayraktar TB2 drones that have killed scores of Russian troops. Turkey has taken advantage of Russia's trouble and increased its influence on the Central Asian nations that belong to same Turkic group. And so NATO is willing to ignore the fact that Turkey is ignoring Western sanctions against Russia and is openly boasting of a boom in trade with Russia since Russia invaded Ukraine. Turkey has also increased trade with Venezuela, another country that is not exactly a friend of the USA. Turkey can afford to play games with the USA because it knows its strategic value: under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey controls passage through the vital Turkish Straits (the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles). Russian warships cannot leave the Black Sea without going through those straits. And perhaps, more importantly, the Turkish military is one of the real pillars of NATO, much better trained and equipped than the armies of Germany and Italy. Erdogan's fierce enemy is Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in the USA. Turkey is the remnant of the Ottoman Empire, that used to rule over most of the Arab world, and Turkey's relations with the Arab world remain complicated. Besides taking a side in the Libyan civil war, Turkey also helped Qatar during a crisis which pitted Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Domestically, Erdogan presided over an economic boom that lasted until 2011, but then, especially after the attempted military coup of 2016, which Erdogan blames on Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan turned authoritarian and has steadily shut down independent media organizations, purged the military of anyone even remotely suspected of being disloyal, jailed thousands of dissidents and bombed the Kurds wherever they live. Over the last few years, Turkey has entered an economic crisis with double-digit inflation, at the same time that Erdogan has turned it into an Islamofascist state. Before Erdogan seized power, Turkey used to be a model of an Islamic nation with a secularist constitution. See also Nations in Crisis: Turkey

    Moving east of Iraq, Iran is the usual mess. Iran is a country surrounded by Sunni enemies and obsessed with Israel. After Trump reneged the nuclear deal signed by Obama, Iran is rapidly developing its own nuclear weapons. Iran has traditionally supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria. It has traditionally had tense relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. After the USA "liberated" Iraq, Iran has exerted more influence in Iraq than any other country, so in a sense the US invasion of Iraq created a corridor between Iran and Lebanon via Iraq and Syria that cemented Iran's status as a regional power. At the same time, Iran is supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi Arabia, a rare opportunity for Shiite-majority Iran to meddle into Sunni world. At the same time, Iran has been getting closer to Russia and China, causing some analysts to see a potential tripartite alliance of authoritarian states. In 2021 Iran signed a 25-year trade deal with China. In 2022 there was a high-level meeting between Putin and Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and three weeks later Russia launched an Iranian satellite into orbit, and now there is evidence that Iran has sold drones to Russia (at the same time that Turkey was selling its Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine). Iran and Russia have already worked together in Syria. Iran has de facto become Russia's top military ally. Internally, however, Iran in 2022 is rocked by the feminist protests that have followed Mahsa Amini's death. These are not the first protests against the regime. In 2009, when Joe Biden was vicepresident under Obama, young Iranians rose up against hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the "Green Movement"). Those were much bigger crowds, and the protests went one for almost two years. Obama's government, busy trying to forge a multinational nuclear deal to stop Iran's nuclear program, did very little to help the protesters. In 2022 the situation has been very similar. Biden has been following in Obama's footsteps and has done little to help the protesters. Hopefully, he will realize that Iran is now creating geopolitical problems from Iraq to Ukraine that cannot be overlooked anymore: there is only one beneficiary and it's Russia.

    Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban, who are slowly reinstating a religious dictatorship. Nonetheless, they are not the fanatical Taliban of the 1990s, the ones who protected Osama bin Laden. In fact, their top enemy seems to be ISIS, which has staged several high-profile terrorist attacks within Afghanistan since the USA left the country. See Nations in Crisis: Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan face a humanitarian and economic crisis, but the world has largely forgotten about them. Thousands are leaving Afghanistan and setting out on the long and dangerous trek towards Turkey and Europe. In a way, it's Vietnam all over again: in the 1970s the USA withdrew, defeated, and thousands of "boat people" tried to escape the communists, and now it's the people who don't want to live under shari'a who are fleeing. Despite a decree by the Taliban's reclusive leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada outlawing the cultivation of opium poppy, opium cultivation in Afghanistan has jumped 32% since the withdrawal of the USA in August 2021, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Afghanistan probably has major natural resources like lithium, but the Taliban are not the kind of government that would attract Western investors, so the only hope for the Taliban is that China shuts its nose and comes to mine. China has met with Taliban officials more often than any other country. Afghanistan is surrounded by Chinese trade routes: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China-Iran's trade agreement, and One Belt One Road investments in Central Asia. The good news is that security in Afghanistan has greatly improved since August 2021: the Taliban were the main terrorists and now they control the country and it's their job to fight the other, minor, terrorists.

    I once wrote that Pakistan is the "most dangerous country in the world", and i have changed my mind only because North Korea has become more dangerous. Not only does Pakistan have nuclear weapons, but those nuclear weapons are in the hands of one of the most unstable regime in the world, a hybrid of Islamic republic and fascist military dictatorship. Imran Khan, a former cricket celebrity and founder of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), was deposed by parliament in April and survived an assassination attempt in early November while leading a protest march. Khan's story is confusing because he rose to power thanks to the support of the military but then his firing was largely their decision and now he accuses the spy agency of the military to have architected the assassination attempt against him. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan's military has ruled directly the country for 33 years and has been the power behind the scenes whenever the official ruler was a democratically elected politician. Khan's political career was going nowhere until a decade ago he decided to ally with Pakistan's military against the two dominant political parties: Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (inherited by her widower and her son after her assassination) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (inherited by his brother Shehbaz Sharif after Nawaz was banned from politics). The military engineered Khan's electoral victory in 2018 and he became a little Trump, trying all sorts of undemocratic manners to get rid of the independent press and of the political opposition. Then it is not clear what happened: somehow Khan got on the nerves of the military and they quickly got rid of him. Khan had been moving closer to China and Russia, and the military may still value the US relationship more than the relationships with China (the relationship with Russia has never amounted to much). Recently, Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa (widely considered the de facto ruler of Pakistan) retired and was replaced by general Syed Asim Munir, who never got along with Khan. Munir served as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). In 2021 for the first time since 2009 the number of terrorist attacks increased and so did the number of people killed (388). Domestic terrorists rank from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the Baluchistan separatists and to ISIS. Somehow the triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan has galvanized the Pakistani terrorists: from August 2021 (when the Taliban entered Kabul) to August 2022, the number of people killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan increased to about 500. Meanwhile the new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has to deal with a collapsing economy: inflation passed 25%, foreign debt is about $100 billion, and the floods of August 2022 have displaced more than 30 million people. If this weren't enough, the Pakistani Taliban just ended a ceasefire and attacked a police station, a sinister omen for 2023 ("taliban" simply means "student" in Pashto and the Pakistani Taliban are a different group from the more famous Afghani Taliban). And then the mother of all problems: Pakistan, a country of limited natural resources and very limited industrialization, has a population of 225 million, more than France, Britain and Italy combined. India and Pakistan fought three bloody wars but there is no question who "won" in economic terms: in 1990 India and Pakistan were both poor the same (about $370 GDP per capita), with Pakistan (funded by the USA) having had the faster growth rate (India was a socialist country, closer to the Soviet Union than the West), while in 2022 India's GDP is about ten times that of Pakistan and its GDP per capita is 50% higher ($2,250 versus $1,500). In fact, two states of India have a higher GDP than the whole of Pakistan. India's foreign exchange reserves are almost double the size of Pakistan's entire GDP. Pakistan is negotiating an economic bailout with the International Monetary Fund while India is passing Britain to become the fifth largest economy of the world. India is way ahead in life expectancy, literacy rate, infant mortality, etc. Pakistan is still obsessed with competing with India while today Indians tend to compare themselves with China, not with Pakistan. Pakistan has clearly paid a huge price for its Islamic ideology and its troublemaking in Afghanistan and its constant political instability. Pakistan looks like Saudi Arabia without the oil and with a general instead of a king, while India looks like a vibrant, multi-ethnic and multicultural democracy similar to the USA. If one looks at the whole world, Pakistan used to be as poor as most of the "third world" but now it is one of the poorest countries in the world, passed by just about every other Asian nation except Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and North Korea. See also Nations in Crisis: Pakistan.

    Overpopulation is a problem shared with Bangladesh, which until 1971 was part of Pakistan. Bangladesh has 170 million people, which makes it the world’s eighth-most populous nation. The 2018 elections have created more tension in a country that already was rocked by the bitter rivalry between the "battling begums", Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, the two women who have dominated Bangladesh politics since 1991, both related to former national heroes who were assassinated: Hasina is the daughter of independence leader Mujibur Rahman, who ruled between 1971 and 1975, and Khaleda is the widow of military dictator Zia-ur Rahman, who ruled from 1977 to 1981. In 1991, when Bangladesh held the first democratic elections, Khaleda became prime minister, and for a while the two women alternated in power. However, after she won in a landslide in 2008, Hasina Hasina turned increasingly authoritarian, crashing political rivals and gagging the media, so much so that Bangladesh can now be considered a de-facto one-party state. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Bangladesh ranked 146th out of 180 countries in media freedom. In 2018 Hasina's Awami League won elections and she won a third term but just before the elections a court had sentenced Khaleda to five years in jail after convicting her of embezzling money meant for an orphanage, and, for good measure, her son Tarique Rahman was also jailed for 10 years; so the election results were contested by Khaleda's party, the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party). The BNP has accused Hasina of arresting around 2,000 of its members in the first two weeks of December 2022 alone. Bangladesh ranked 162th in Reporters Without Borders' 2022 "World Press Freedom Index". Hasina's big political weapon has been a healthy economy: Bangladesh's economy enjoyed an average growth rate of 8% before covid struck. The state embarked on several high-profile projects like the Padma bridge, the Rooppur nuclear power plant and Dhaka's metro. However, Bangladesh's economy is largery based on the garment industry, and therefore vulnerable to disruption of supply chains like the ones caused first by covid and then by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Western analysts fret over Bangladesh's increasing ties with China (China is now the top trading partner of Bangladesh), but the USA is still Bangladesh's top source of foreign direct investment. A RAND report (titled "China’s Global Basing Ambitions") mentions Bangladesh next to Pakistan and Myanmar as a likely target for China to establish military bases, but China Index 2022 ranked Bangladesh only 54th in global Chinese influence (Bangladesh's arch-enemy Pakistan topped the index, and, incidentally, Singapore ranked third without anyone in the West panicking about it, and the USA itself ranked 21st, way ahead of Bangladesh). Meanwhile, the country is sheltering almost a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, victims of ethnic/religious persecution for being Muslims in a Buddhist country. The fact that two women have been vying for power for more than 20 years proves that Bangladesh is still a moderate Islamic country, but fanatical Islamists have gained strength in recent years, sponsored by Saudi Arabia (and possibly Pakistan) and helped by anti-India sentiment and anti-Myanmar sentiment. While bilateral ties with India have prospered under Hasina, religious/ethnic cleansing has reduced the Hindu minority from 29% of the population in 1947 to less than 10%. Hasina's regime has so far been successful in curbing the Islamists. Traditionally, they have belonged to three organizations: Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which evolved into Neo-JMB, an affiliate of ISIS responsible for the Holey Artisan Cafe' terrorist attack in 2016 in which 29 people were killed (17 foreigners); Ansar al-Islam (AAI), the al-Qaeda affiliated group responsible for the killing of atheist blogger Rajib Haider in 2013; and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B). The Neo-JMB was largely disbanded by a police operation in 2016, and a new organization emerged in 2019, Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya. The real threat to Hasina's power and to the secular dimension of Bangladesh came from the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Hasina made sure that a high-profile trial of Jamaat's leaders depicted them as traitors who collaborated with Pakistan during the 1971 independence war. Accused of genocide, in 2010 the top leaders were sentenced  to jail and even death and in 2013 Jamaat-e-Islami was banned.

    Next door, Myanmar is convulsed again in a civil war that spiked after the 2021 military coup and the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. The National Unity Government still recognizes the deposed president, Win Myint, as the lawful head of the state, whereas the military have appointed Min Aung Hlaing as the de-facto dictator. But Myanmar's civil war is a much bigger affair: since it became independent (as Burma), the country has been trying in vain to control various ethnic insurgencies along the China, India and Thailand borders, notably the Karen and Kachin ones. While relatively minor, the insurrection in 2016 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army led in 2017 to the genocide of the Muslim minority, the Rohingyas. The Myanmar military are now fighting not one but many insurgent groups (at the latest count, on seven distinct fronts). Only one country has supported the military dictatorship: China. Myanmar is geopolitically important to China for two reasons: 1. it can provide direct access to the Indian Ocean (China has proposed a dual-use port at Kyaukphyu and a Kunming to Kyaukphyu railway); 2. it can work as a Trojan horse within ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations), whose members are generally hostile to China. The geopolitical implications of Myanmar becoming a vassal of China could be significant. Currently, China depends on sea routes controlled by the USA, both in the Pacific ocean and in the Indian ocean. A transport corridor to Myanmar would allow China to circumvent US-controlled seas, and therefore decrease the power of the USA to discourage a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. However, Myanmar's military junta is wary of China for historical reasons: one of the bloodiest and longest-running insurgencies in Myanmar is the one led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), funded by the drugs trade in the "Golden Triangle" and considered the largest non–state army in southeast Asia. Its Wa region in Shan State has never truly been under the control of Myanmar's governments. The UWSA is a Mao-inspired communist group and it still speaks Chinese and uses Chinese money.

    Another reason for Myanmar to be cautious when dealing with China is the "debt trap" that is destroying Sri Lanka. This country is all but bankrupt, and China has been a big factor in causing its economic collapse. In 2009 Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa began to borrow money from China to build a port in his home district, the port of Hambantota. As usual, the contract assigned the project to a Chinese company that used Chinese workers. The port opened in 2010 but very few ships ever used it (there is a bigger port in nearby Colombo). In 2015 China spent a fortune to help Rajapaksa's reelection but his opponent Maithripala Sirisena won. The new government realized that Sri Lanka now had a huge debt towards China and at the end of 2017 was forced to surrender the port to erase some of the debt: a 99-year lease just like Hong Kong was. Sri Lanka still owes money to China because some debts still have to be repaid and the Rajapaksa government was bribed into accepting interest rates that were much higher than the market rates. The most recent elections (in 2019) were won by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who appointed his brother (the corrupt president who created the whole mess) as prime minister and was planning a free-trade agreement with China: Sri Lanka was de facto becoming a Chinese colony. This year large demonstrations toppled the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, but no government can easily solve the problem of a highly-indebted country that cannot pay for food and fuel. Sri Lanka's public debt is 122% of GDP. Sri Lanka has defaulted on over US$50 billion of debts to international creditors. Food price inflation is now over 85%, the sixth highest in the world. The new government of Ranil Wickremasinghe has simply arrested a large number of activists who led the protests and banned demonstrations under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Sri Lanka is the Lebanon of south Asia, a failed state that is rapidly heading towards mass starvation.

    By comparison with its neighbor Myanmar, Thailand is a model of stability. Everything is relative: in reality, Thailand was rocked by a military coup in 2014 and since 2019 it is ruled by former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who more or less won elections. In 2020 there were mass protests against his government, but overall Thailand continued to function normally.

    Malaysia has traditionally been a very stable country although a de facto one-party state run by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for more than 60 years. In 2018 Mahathir Mohamad (at the age of 92), Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, switched sides and led an opposition alliance to victory. The culprit was long-time prime minister Najib Razak (first elected in 2009), suspected of embezzling billions of dollars that are missing from a state investment fund. In 2020 Najib Razak was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The main beneficiary of these events appears to be long-time dissident Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed for "sodomy" by Najib Razak (after winning the popular vote against him in the 2013 elections) and has finally been released from jail after the 2018 elections. The most recent elections, following several months in which the country had no government, have yielded a hung parliament, but Anwar Ibrahim's coalition won more seats than anyone else, followed by another new coalition, the National Alliance. UMNO came third and Mahathir Mohamad's new party failed miserably. And so Anwar Ibrahim is not only free from jail but has even been appointed prime minister. However, this is unlikely to end Malaysia's political instability. Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Harapan coalition won 82 seats but that's far short of the 112 that he needs to run the country with a majority, and so he made an alliance with the devil, the party of Najib Razak, the UMNO, that has 30 seats. In order to get UMNO's support, Anwar Ibrahim had to accept humiliating conditions, like having Ahmad Zahid as his deputy prime minister (Zahid was involved in the scandals that destroyed Najib Razak's career and may well end up in jail with his former boss). Further instability originates from the multi-ethnic nature of Malaysian society. Anwar's coalition Pakatan Harapan mainly consists of his own multi-ethnic Keadilan party (31 seats) and of the Chinese Democratic Action Party (40 seats). His coalition does not represent the ethnic majority, which is (narrowly) ethnic Malays. Perikatan Nasional, consisting of an Islamist party and of Bersatu, a splinter of the old UMNO led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, is the party that openly defends the privileges of ethnic Malays and of Muslims, the role which used to be UMNO's. Those privileges are currently enshrined in the constitution, but ethnic Malays and Mulims fear that Anwar Ibrahim's multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan could change it. Further flaming the religious and ethnic divisions is Indian-born Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik, founder of the Islamic Research Foundation and the Peace TV network, who has been living in exile in Malaysia since 2016 because India issued a warrant for his arrest. His TV program is influential in both Malaysia and Indonesia. (See alo Malaysia and Chinese colonialism)

    When people discuss the largest democracies in the world, they often forget to mention Indonesia, which also happens to be the most populous Muslim country in the world: almost 200 million people voted in the 2019 elections. The moderate Muslim president, Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), was reelected but political Islam has never been so influential in the country like it is now. In the old days, one could feel the power of political Islam only in conservative strongholds like Aceh, West Java and West Sumatra that introduced shari'a-based laws. The turn towards a more radical Islam (in a country long known as a role model for religious tolerance) came in 2016 when mass demonstrations took down Jakarta's governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian ethnic Chinese. He was later sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam. Widodo's rival was, again, former general Prabowo Subianto, who was supported by Islamist religious parties and hardline Islamist clerics. Jokowi himself had to take as his running mate a conservative Islamic scholar in order to win reelection in 2019. A few weeks after winning reelection, Jokowi made peace with Prabowo Subianto and appointed him as his defense minister, and it looks increasingly like Prabowo has been anointed as Jokowi's successor. At the same time that Jokowi bent to the influence of the Islamists, he cracked down on extremists. For example in 2020 he outlawed the very Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) that had been behind the Jakarta protests in 2016. Nonetheless, recent polls show that as many as 72% of Indonesia's Muslims favor adopting shari'a as the official law. Indonesia's parliament is about to pass a law that will punish sex outside marriage with imprisonment of up to a year, a law that will apply to both Indonesians and foreigners. The law was first proposed in 2019 but then withdrawn when young people took to the streets in Jakarta and other cities. It is telling that now it is likely to pass. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2024 and the leading candidates to take on Prabowo Subianto (technically, a candidate of his Gerindra Party and the National Awakening Party) are Central Java's governor Ganjar Pranowo of Jokowi's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), also the party of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, and former Jakarta's governor Anies Baswedan of the NasDem Party.

    The Philippines got rid of populist semi-dictator Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal war on drugs may have killed thousands of people, but his replacement is Bongbong Marcos, the son of the dictator who ran the country for decades, whose vicepresident is Duterte's daughter Sara. This is simply an alliance of two powerful political families. Durerte was president from 2016 to 2022. He campaigned on a promise to fight drugs and corruption. His “war on drugs” led to crimes against humanity. Since he muzzled the press, we don't know how many people were killed by his death squads, but estimates range between 7 thousand and 12 thousand. His death squads and attacks on the media have undermined the democratic institutions. The rule of law, which was already more virtual than real, virtually disappeared in the Philippines. However, the crime rate fell (officially by 63%) and many in the Philippines credit Duterte's iron fist. Duterte used so speak live on television every week and denounce the politicians caught in corruption schemes. However, the Philippines didn't improve in the ranking of most corrupt nations in the world: it ranked 117th in 2021 (compared with 93rd in 2015 before he became president). Duterte also undermined the Philippines’ sovereignty by remaining cozy to China even while China was militarizing islands claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. Duterte had to step down because the constitution limits presidents to only one six-year term. In the 2022 elections Marcos defeated Leni Robredo, who was Duterte's vicepresident. In the Philippines the vicepresident is elected independently of the president. She was de facto the leader of the opposition to Duterte (and she had defeated Bongbong Marcos for that post of vicepresident). She has better credentials as a human-rights activist and the founder of an anti-poverty program, but Marcos won in a landslide (58.77% to 27.94%). Families make celebrities: Bongbong's mother Imelda was elected four times to parliament, his older sister Imee is a senator, and his cousin Martin Romualdez is the speaker of parliament. Sara Duterte defeated Francis Pangilinan in an even bigger landslide (61.53% to 17.82%). Had she run for president against Marcos, chances are that she would have prevailed: opinion polls routinely put her ahead of him. But she always said she was not interested in running for president. The alliance between the Marcos family and the Duterte family creates a powerful force: the Marcos family is popular in the north and center, while the Duterte family is popular in the south. Furthermore, Sara Duterte ran as a candidate of the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, a party founded by former president Gloria Arroyo, leader of another powerful political family.

    Next, Latin America. There are several hot spots, and one was largely unexpected but has been building up through decades of drug-related trouble. Mexico is now run by Andres Obrador, which many Mexicans consider a left-wing version of Donald Trump, and a sort of Chavez 2.0 trying to undermine the democratic institutions of Mexico and to bring back the semi-dictatorship of the 1970s, except from a left-wing perspective. However, he recently declared that he has no intention of running again for president in 2024. He enjoys a high popularity rating thanks to a spartan lifestyle (he refuses to live in the presidential palace and wants to sell the presidential airplane). Obrador promised to end Mexico’s war on drugs, which was started by Felipe Calderon in 2010 and, besides failing to stem the violence of the drug cartels, has resulted in human rights abuses (notoriously, the massacre of 47 people in 2018 in Nuevo Laredo). Not much has changed though. More than 34,000 homicides were recorded in 2021, and some of these are committed by the newly created National Guard and by the armed forces (SEDENA). In 2021 police and army killed and burned 19 Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Mexican migrants in Tamaulipas state. Obrador promised a more peaceful strategy but his strategy doesn't seem all that different from Calderon's strategy, and in any case it has utterly failed to dismantle organized criminal networks. The drug cartels are estimated to control almost a third of Mexico. Some fear that Obrador has de facto capitulated to the drug cartels, especially after Obrador's government in 2020 quickly freed a corrupt general, Salvador Cienfuegos, who had been arrested in California and extradited to Mexico. This will affect the whole of Central America because the cartels have expanded their operations to Guatemala, Honduras and San Salvador. In 2021 the brother of the president of Honduras was sentenced to jail in the USA for drug trafficking.

    The USA won't admit it, but the "drug war" is largely caused by the USA: the USA is the main buyer of drugs and the USA is the main seller of weapons. Money flows from the USA to the cartels to purchase cocaine and then from the cartels back to the USA to purchase guns. The cartels get both money and guns from the USA, and it's hard to find a more lucrative business in those countries.

    El Salvador has its own authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele, except that this one has the support of the vast majority of his subjects. He is, in fact, the most popular leader in the Americas, according to a recent Gallup poll, and the party that he founded in 2017, Nuevas Ideas, has achieved super-majority in the National Assembly. Bukele, elected in 2019 at the tender age of 37, set out to fight both the criminal gangs that have been terrorizing El Salvador for decades and the corrupt politicians that have been robbing the country. The corruption is similar to the one in other Latin American countries, but the gangs are fairly unique. Gang violence seems embedded in Salvadoran society. Local historians like to draw a line connecting the "matanza" of 1932 (when dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez's troops killed about 30,000 people) with the death squads of the 1960s-90s and with today's criminal gangs. Over the decades, the number of victims of violence has been colossal for a country like El Salvador which is smaller than Massachusetts. Ironically, one reason for the gang's grotesque power is that El Salvador doesn't have the drug cartels of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala: drug-trafficking organizations prevent gangs from growing powerful. In 2017 El Salvador (61.7 deaths per 100,000 people) had the highest murder rates in the world. Bukele, the son of a leftist businessman who happens to be a Muslim of Palestinian descent, started his ascent in that year. Until then, the country had been dominated by two parties, the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) and the left-wing Frente Farabundo Marti' para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN). Bukele founded his own party and attacked both. The violence continued unabated but the public perceived serious efforts to fight both the gangs and corruption. The tipping point came in March 2022, when El Salvador’s largest gang, Mara Salvatrucha aka MS-13 (a gang that originated in Los Angeles), murdered 87 people in three days. Bukele declared a state of emergency and cracked down on both MS-13 and Barrio 18. Since then, El Salvador has arrested more than 55,000 people so that now it has the highest incarceration rate in the world: two out of every 100 Salvadorans are in jail. Dozens of those arrested have died in prison. Between January and the end of October, 463 people have been killed in El Salvador: it's still a lot for such a tiny country but it's a 50% drop from last year. In November 2022 the army surrounded and sealed off the municipality of Soyapango, the stronghold of the gangs. The problem is that there have been crackdowns before and they also backfired. In fact, El Salvador's crackdowns are a textbook example of how a crackdown can benefit the gangs that it is supposed to fight: it motivates the gangs to improve their organization so that it becomes harder to fight them; it generates discontent among the population so that some young people join the gangs to exact revenge on the police; and it allows gangs to evangelize and recruit new acolytes in prisons. Whatever the merits of Bukele's strategy, he has made waves for violating human rights. A master himself of Twitter demagogy, he also set up “troll farms” that constantly bombard the population with government propaganda. El Salvador has become notorious for arbitrary arrests and farcical trials. Bukele has silenced the free press and civil society in general. Journalists have been persecuted and many have fled the country. Even prosecutor Bertha Deleon, known for her work against organized crime, had to flee to Mexico. In April 2022 the National Assembly passed a law forbidding the media to cover the war on gangs. When Trump was president, Bukele could count on US complicity: as long as he stopped emigration towards the USA, the Trump government was willing to look the other way, and Bukele became a darling of US right-wing media (the only interview Bukele ever did on a US network was with neofascist host Tucker Carlson on Fox News). The USA is clearly torn between two undesirable outcomes: gangs become more powerful (displacing more families that end up at the US-Mexico border) or Bukele becomes a full-fledged dictator. Bukele is also popular because of several ambitious projects. The one that was most publicized is actually the one that is failing: in September 2021 El Salvador became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as a legal tender. Unfortunately for him, the value of Bitcoin has declined quite a bit. Undeterred, Bukele has plans for a "Bitcoin City", designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero, where Bitcoin mining will be powered by geothermal energy from a volcano.

    El Salvador inspired Jamaica, the country with the second highest homicide rate in the world: Jamaica declared the same kind of state of emergency. Jamaica’s homicide rate per hundred thousand is now 45. By comparison, the western country with the highest murder rate is the USA with 5%.

    If Lebanon is the failed state of the Middle East and Sri Lanka is the failed state of south Asia, Haiti is the failed state of the Americas. In 1991 Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the first democratic elections in Haiti but he was immediately deposed by the military. Thousands of Haitians took to the sea and rowed to Florida. It was only the beginning of 30 years of instability. In 2021 Haiti's president Jovenel Moise was assassinated and a few months later an earthquake killed more than 2,000 people. It's been two years of chaos and anarchy. Criminal gangs now control much of Haiti, and about 60% of the capital Port-au-Prince. The United Nations estimates that the gangs killed almost 1,000 people in the capital alone in the first six months of 2022. In the first ten months of 2022, more than one thusand people have been kidnapped for ransom. The victims of kidnapping are routinely tortured (and raped if women), often live on the telephone, to speed up ransom payments. This is by far the most lucrative business in Haiti. Gangs control politicians, and politicians control gangs: no gang member gets prosecuted, or even jailed. Judges are easily bribed, and cops often belong to the gangs. The leader of the most powerful gang, G9, is a former cop, Jimmy Cherizier. The nominal prime minister Ariel Henry is in hiding and the parliament building is surrounded by gangs. During turf wars between gangs, rape is routinely used as a weapon. On top of that, in 2021 an earthquake killed more than 2 thousand people and in 2022 cholera has started spreading. The USA has suggested the creation of an international peacekeeping force, but Haiti has bad memories of the last time that such a force was sent to maintain order, in 2010: Nepalese troops of the United Nations spread cholera that eventually killed 10,000 people. Several sections of Haitian society (especially the Marxist-leaning ones) are opposed in principle to a "US invasion". The people of Haiti are getting desperate and may soon face starvation. The problem is already spilling over in neighboring Dominican Republic, which started rounding up thousands of Haitian migrants and deporting them (including, apparently, children with no parents). Thousands may soon take to boats and row towards Florida or Mexico or other Caribbean islands. Incidentally, it is still not clear who killed Moise and why. The USA has arrested a whole bunch of Haitians and Colombians. Originally, it was thought that a political rival, Christian Sanon, hired Colombian mercenaries to carry out the killing in order to stage a coup, but Colombia has always claimed that the Colombian killers were working for Joseph Badio, yet another political rival (currently in hiding); and some suspect that Badio may have been in cahoots with Ariel Henry, the politician who has served as the acting prime minister of Haiti and the acting president... It is telling that the suspects have been transferred to the USA for prosecution, an implicit admission that Haiti cannot even take care of its own investigations: four of the judges have resigned for fear of being assassinated.

    The three communist dictatorships of the Americas, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, are instead doing just fine. Daniel Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front has now full control of Nicaragua after local elections delivered all the country’s 153 municipalities. That was not a difficult feat in a country where the main opposition parties have been outlawed and many opposition politicians have been jailed. Miguel Diaz-Canel continues the policies of the Castros in Cuba, which continue to result in shortages of goods and in emigration towards the USA. Venezuela's food price inflation has reached 158%, the third highest in the world, and seven million refugees and migrants from Venezuela have scattered around the world, but Maduro seems comfortably in power. He has started negotiations with the oppositions so that the USA started to lift sanctions on Venezuela, possibly because it needs Venezuela's oil to counter Russia's oil (Venezuela sits on 20% of the world’s oil reserves). Now that Luiz Inacio Lula has won the elections in Brazil, almost all of South America is run by left-wing governments that are likely to be less hostile to Maduro than previous governments (Andres Lopez-Obrador in Mexico, Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Luis Arce in Bolivia, Alberto Fernandez in Argentina, Gabriel Boric in Chile, and Lula in Brazil). See also Nations in Crisis: Venezuela

    There's another country that is heading down the route of Nicaragua and Venezuela: Guatemala. In 2020 right-wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei, a man who spent time in prison for his connection with the death squad Riveritas, won Guatemala's presidential elections, but only after the Constitutional Court disqualified what was considered the front-runner candidate, anti-corruption jurist Thelma Aldana. Once in power, Giammattei has proceeded to persecute those investigating corruption. In 2007 Guatemala had established the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate crimes against humanity committed by previous dictators. This was the beginning of the so-called "Justice Spring" of Guatemala. That court depended on funding from the USA. In 2018 Donald Trump suspended US funding for the CICIG that was investigating corruption in Guatemala. (Coincidence or not, much of the corruption stemmed from Russia's interference - somehow Trump always seems to help Russia). Once the judges, lawyers and journalists lost the support of the USA, Giammattei's government started jailing them. Giammattei appointed people like Maria Consuelo Porras as attorney general and Rafael Curruchiche as anti-corruption prosecutor: the former is on the US list of anti-democratic actors and the latter replaced Juan Francisco Sandoval just when Sandoval was investigating members of the government. In February 2022 another anti-corruption prosecutor, Virginia Laparra, was arrested for abuse of authority. Miguel Ángel Galvez, a judge who was presiding over the arrest in Panama of Toribio Acevedo Ramirez, accused of crimes against humanity during the fascist dictatorship, the same judge who had sent to jail former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on genocide charges and former president Otto Perez Molina on corruption charges, was forced to resign. The campaign of intimidation against the anti-corruption heroes is led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, who served as Rios Montt’s interior minister, now president of Guatemala's right-wing organization Fundaterror, also on the US list of anti-democratic actors.

    Peru is not a failed state yet but its political class is certainly doing all it can to achieve that goal. The political stalemate has been lasting since 2011. Since then Peruvians have had 8 presidents, 6 over the last five years, and have witnessed 4 ex-presidents tried for corruption. But perhaps the instability goes back to the year 2000, when Alberto Fujimori, who had ruled during the 1990s as a quasi-dictator, was fired by parliament, accused of both corruption and human-rights abuses. Fujimori went in exile and was eventually arrested (he's still in jail) but his successors didn't fare any better. The presidents of the 2000s were Alejandro Toledo and Alan Garcia (2001 to 2011). Their time in power was not uneventful (for example in 2005 when Antauro Humala led an attempted coup against Toledo) but they managed to complete their terms. In 2019 Toledo, accused of taking bribes from the Brazilian company Odebrecht, was arrested in the USA, spent seven months in a California prison, and is waiting for extradition to Peru. Garcia too was accused of taking Odebrecht bribes, but committed suicide in April 2019 when the police showed up to arrest him. During those years the economy grew an average 7%, one of the best performances anywhere in the world and certainly in Latin America. In 2011 leftist candidate Ollanta Humala, brother of the imprisoned rebel Antauro Humala, won presidential elections and became the first leftist president of Peru in 36 years. In 2016 he too was accused of taking bribes from Odebrecht, and so now he and his wife are facing a trial in Peru. In 2016 Humala was succeeded by the economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, leader of a center-right party, who won the elections with a narrow margin over Fujimori's daughter Keiko, leader of the right-wing party Fuerza Popular. In 2018 Kuczynski resigned (just before being impeached by parliament) amid allegations of corruption (same Odebrecht scandal while he was a minister in the Toledo government) and was replaced by vice-president Martin Vizcarra. In 2018 Fujimori's daughter Keiko, the leader of the opposition, was arrested for accepting bribes from Odebrecht and her case still has to go on trial (the prosecutors demand that she be given 30 years in prison). Her father Alberto Fujimori, who is now 84 years old, was pardoned in 2017 by then president Kuczynski but the pardon was overturned by the Supreme Court and only recently the Constitutional Court approved his released from prison, but he's still languishing there. Back to the head-spinning saga of presidents: in 2019 Vizcarra ordered parliament to dissolve and, in retaliation, parliament, dominated by Keiko Fujimori's Fuerza Popular, fired him and appoint Mercedes Araoz as the new acting president. He was finally removed from office in 2020 (after a recording showed up of him trying to silence witnesses in yet another corruption scandal) and was replaced by parliament speaker Manuel Merino who resigned after five days following mass demonstrations and was replaced by by the new parliamentary speaker, Francisco Sagasti of the centrist Purple Party. In 2021 the leftist Pedro Castillo, a former teacher and farmer, narrowly beat Keiko Fujimori in new presidential elections. Castillo is now facing six criminal investigations. He also released from prison Ollanta Humala's brother Antauro, and critics were accusing him of planning to stage a coup. 70% of Peruvians disapprove of his performance. A parliament dominated by populist right-wing parties impeached him twice and finally managed to oust him at the end of 2022 (101 voted in favor of removing him and only 6 against). Pedro Castillo promised leftist reforms but proved to be an incompetent dreamer. Perhaps he wasn't even meant to become president: the founder of his party is Vladimir Cerron, who couldn't run in the elections because (guess) he is facing a corruption conviction. Castillo's vicepresident, Dina Boluarte, has become Peru's first female president. De facto Peru has not had a president in 11 years who had enough power to do something about Peru's chronic social and economic problems. Inflation is not particularly high by world's standards, about the same as in the USA, but Peru has a chronic problem: poverty. Despite two decades of relative good economy, the poverty rate hovers around 25%, i.e. one in four Peruvians doesn’t have enough money to buy adequate food, and so it takes very little to cause widespread protests. Wheat, rice, and cooking oil have more than doubled in price. On top of that, Peru suffered enormously from covid: it has the world’s highest mortality rate. Russia's invasion to Ukraine had a particularly devastating effect in Peru. Peru imports most of its oil, unlike Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia (South America's largest coal producer and second-largest oil producer after Brazil). In March 2022 truck drivers went on strike to protest the high price of fuel and soon demonstrations spread to other classes and became anti-government demonstrations (at least six people died). And so Castillo was also the victim of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, not only of political scheming. Parliament is in fact even less popular than Castillo: its disapproval rating recently hit 86%. Parliament has consistently worked to weaken the democratic institutions and repeatedly attacked the free press. Members of parliament essentially prioritize saving the party system that has given them their job. Trivia: Peru was the highest-ranked South American country in the China Index 2022 which measures China's influence on countries of the world.

    The other looming catastrophe in Peru is the illicit drug industry. For decades Peru has been vying with Colombia for the title of world's largest cocaine-producing country. A United Nations report in 2020 showed that cocaine production in Colombia declined by 7% but in Peru it increased 13% (in Bolivia even 15%). The traditional center of the drug trade is VRAEM (an acronym for the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers). It is estimated that 70% of Peru’s coca is grown in that valley. Coca growers and drug traffickers are protected by a splinter group of the old Shining Path rebels, a group led by Victor Quispe Palomino, aka Comrade Jose'. In 2015 a damning investigation by the Associated Press revealed the route by which drugs were being flown daily to Bolivia. Peru's parliament passed a law authorizing the military to shoot down civilian planes. Since then most drugs are shipped on foot and by boat. Meanwhile a new area of drug trafficking has risen to prominence, the one at the border with Colombia along the Putumayo River, a long river that begins in Colombia and flows into the Amazon. This one is largely controlled by an armed gang called the Carolina Ramirez Front that was formerly part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There is also an armed group called Border Command, another by-product of the Colombian civil war. These Colombian gangs grow coca and process cocaine inside Peruvian territory. Drugs are shipped by boat east to Brazil (and then to Europe) and north to Mexico (and then to the USA via the Sinaloa, Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Los Zetas cartels). These gangs pose a secondary danger to the local communities: they also collude with illegal gold miners. These gold miners pollute the Putumayo river with the mercury used in the mining process. Tribes living along the river can't consume the fish of the river anymore. The region is difficult to police by the Peruvian government: it takes two weeks by boat to reach El Estrecho, the capital of the Putumayo district, from Iquitos, the nearest major city. In both VRAEM and Putumayo it is not easy to convince farmers to stop growing coca. For example, Ollanta Humala launched a program to convert coca plantations into cacao plantations. Growing coca is easier (cacao only harvests once a year while coca can harvest four times a year) and more lucrative. Today several agencies deliver genetically improved cocoa seedlings to communities of the VRAEM, but it's still a hard sell. The Peruvian economy, especially in these rural areas, would certainly suffer from a serious coca eradication program, and the popular backlash could increase the number of people willing to join the Shining Path and the Colombian gangs.

    Ecuador's instability dates to 1997. Abdala Bucaram had just been inaugurated as president after winning elections when parliament ousted him for corruption. Ecuador then had 6 presidents in 8 years. A period of relative calm started after in 2005 president Lucio Gutierrez had to flee the country following mass protests against his dictatorial style and when in 2007 president Rafael Correa, a leftist, was elected. In 2016 Ecuador inaugurated a giant dam in the jungle, Coca Codo Sinclair, financed and built by China, but the project was more famous for bribery scandals than for the technological achievement. Meanwhile, Ecuador too felt the shock waves of the Odebrecht scandal: in 2017 former vice-president Jorge Glas was jailed for taking bribes from Odebrecht to build the dam, and was followed in jail by former electricity minister Aleksey Mosquera and even former anti-corruption official Carlos Polit. At the same time, engineers discovered 7,000 cracks in the dam. In 2018 Ecuador issued an arrest warrant for ex-president Rafael Correa, who had fled to Belgium. Lenin Moreno, elected in 2017, faced huge anti-government protests from a very angry public, so much so that in 2019 had to impose a night curfew near government buildings. In 2021 Guillermo Lasso, a former banker, was elected president in the middle of gang-related chaos, mostly prison riots that were spinning out of control: 62 inmates were killed in February 2021, and 126 at Guayaquil's infamous Litoral prison in September, and 68 at the same prison in November, and 43 at the Santo Domingo prison in May 2022, etc. These were riots between rival gangs like Los Lobos and R7, who are fighting a bloody war for control of lucrative cocaine routes. Ecuador is cursed by its geography: it iswedged between Colombia and Peru, the world’s biggest cocaine producers. In November 2022, when the government started transferring some 2,400 inmates out of the Litoral prison, the gangs staged attacks on the streets of Guayaquil, killing 8 people. A few days later, when the government decided to transfer Los Lobos' leader Jonathan Bermudez to a maximum security prison, inmates rioted at the "El Inca" prison and ten were killed. A few days later the prison's warden, Santiago Loza, was assassinated. The government introduced extreme measures to curb the power of gangs inside prisons, but the drug cartels reacted by attacking government facilities. After bombs went off in Guayaquil in August 2022, killing 5 people, the government declared a state of emergency there. More bombs went off in November 2022, killing 5 more people, and Ecuador declared a state of emergency also in Esmeraldas, besides a fifth one in Guayas. Ecuador is also emblematic of the divide between the rich and cosmopolitan city elite and the rural masses. In the middle of all these gang-related violence, the developer Uribe Schwartzkopf unveiled two residential towers in Ecuador's capital Quito: Qorner, by Safdie Architects, and Iqon, designed by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), now the tallest building in Quito.

    That leaves us Africa. There is perennial hope that Africa will undergo the same economic boom that took place in East Asia or at least the moderate economic growth that lifted South America out of poverty. However, in recent years turmoil has increased rather than decreasing. Start with Libya, where the civil war doesn't seem to end. See Nations in Crisis: Libya. Then Ethiopia is engulfed in its own civil war. See Nations in Crisis: Ethiopia. Then you have the endless civil war in Somalia, where the government fights the Al-Shabab Islamists. Somalia suffered 308 terrorist attacks in 2021. See Nations in Crisis: Somalia. Then you have the Jihadists who are terrorizing the region between Nigeria (where Boko Haram has never been defeated) and Libya, i.e. Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Cameroon. Nigeria has had for the longest time the Boko Haram insurgency (officially started in 2009) and Libya has fallen into chaos after the revolution that deposed and killed Qaddafi. Somehow the Sahel region is being devastated by shockwaves from both events. Scores of people have been killed in Burkina Faso since 2016 when an Al-Qaeda affiliate (Al-Mourabitoun) attacked a hotel taking 150 hostages (23 people of 18 different nationalities were killed). After a particularly virulent 2021 (30 people killed in Kodyel village, 132 in Solhan village, 53 people in Inata village), Burkina Faso joined Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo to launch a counterterrorism operation, but in 2022 Burkina Faso was rocked by two consecutive military coups (Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba removed president Roch Kabore' and then Ibrahim Traore overthrew Damiba). Niger didn't fare much better in 2021: 50 people killed in Tchombangou, more than 30 in Zaroumdareye mostly near the triborder with Mali and Burkina Faso 58 in Tillaberi region, 137 in several villages of Tahoua region, 69 people in western Tillaberi. Cameroon has fared better. At the peak, in 2015, Boko Haram staged 34 suicide attacks in Cameroon in one year, killing about 200 people. Now the main problem in Cameroon is the rift between the Francophone government and two Anglophone regions (that used to be a British colony before the creation of Cameroon), a rift that led to mass protests in 2016 and then to an armed rebellion by separatists. Incidentally, Cameroon has been ruled by Paul Biya for 40 years. Ditto for Chad: 2015 was the worst year of Boko Haram attacks on Chadian territory. Chad too now has a different problem: in 2021 Islamists killed Chad's president Idriss Deby and his son Mahamat, an army general, seized power, but popular protests have been going on for months against the military junta. In March 2022 the countries of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria launched a joint military operation against Islamists around the Lake Chad basin that lasted until August (they claim to have freed thousands of civilians and killed more than one thousand militants). Meanwhile, Nigeria still has one of the highest murder rates in the world, 34.5 per one hundred thousand people. See also Nations in Crisis: Nigeria.

    A beneficiary of the Islamist insurgencies has been the Wagner Group, a group of mercenaries directed by a Russian oligarch close to Putin. The Wagner Group's brutal methods have been more effective than the United Nations or France (the old colonial power) in protecting African governments from the threat of rebel groups. The Islamist insurrection in Mali, mainly led by Al Qaeda's affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), has indirectly caused two military coups in two years, Assimi Goita, installed as the new president after the 2021 coup, requested help from the Wagner Group. Atrocities have been carried out on both sides. For example, in March 2022 more than 300 people were massacred in Moura by Mali's army and the Wagner Group, and in June 2022 two days of Islamist attacks in the Bankass region left more than 130 people dead. Burkina Faso too is rumored to be employing the Wagner Group, a group of mercenaries directed by a Russian oligarch close to Putin, which in return would be given a cut in lucrative businesses like diamonds.

    The Wagner Group has been operating in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2018. The CAR has been devastated by a long civil war that started in 2013 when the (mainly Muslim) Seleka rebels of Michel Djotodia overthrew president Francois Bozize' in the Central African Republic which is 80% Christian or animist. Human Rights Watch has documented atrocities committed by Seleka in 2013, but that's nothing compared with what happened afterwards: despite having won the civil war, Seleka basically disintegrated and its former generals partitioned the country into personal fiefdoms, plunging the country into chaos. Noureddine Adam declared an independent in the north around Bria, populated by the Gula and Runga people (mostly Muslims) while Ali Darassa built his personal fiefdom in a region dominated by the Fulani people around Bambari (also Muslims). These former Seleka generals started fighting each other along ethnic lines. At the same time a mostly Christian (or at least non-Muslim) rebel group, the Anti-Balaka, was formed to fight both the Muslim militias. The Anti-Balaka have committed their own atrocities, notably the Bossemptele' massacre in January 2014 and the Bangassou massacre of May 2017, both of which killed more than 100 Muslims. Anti-Balaka's leaders Patrice Nagaissona, Alfred Yekatom and Maxime Mokom (Bozize's nephew) have all been arrested and delivered to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity. There are no angels in this civil war. France had sent troops in November 2013 to restore order but focused mainly on the Muslim militias, and in April 2014 the African Union sent its own peacekeeping troups (but they have been accused of committing their own atrocities). Djotodia was replaced by an interim president (a woman) but the government had de facto lost control of the situation, despite a national peace agreement in 2015, the more or less democratic election of Faustin Archange Touadera in 2016, yet another peace agreement in 2017 (signed by 13 militias), and the Accord Politique pour la Paix et la Reconciliation (signed by 14 militias), sponsored by the African Union in 2019. Lawlessness remained ubiquitous. Touadera welcomed Russia's intervention: Russia began providing arms and training to the government in October 2017 (a Russian, Valery Zakharov, became Touadera’s security adviser) and mediated with the rebels in 2018. In November 2018 a Russian-language radio station began broadcasting in the capital (to a population that doesn't speak any Russia, so obviously there must be enough Russians in the country to justify the broadcasts). In 2021 a Russian studio produced "The Tourist", a film that depicts Russian mercenaries fighting alongside government troops. In return, the Russians have been granted the rights to mine for gold and diamond. Like elsewhere, the Wagner Group has been accused of human-rights violations. However, in 2021 they managed to stop the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), an alliance of militias created by former president Bozize', that had conquered two thirds of the country and was about to overthrow Touadera. At that time the Russians were fighting alongside the government's army, the United Nations peacekeepers (MINUSCA) and Rwanda's special forces against the rebels. The Russian mercenaries and "advisors" have restored some degree of order but Touadera has become "a hostage" to the Wagner Group (as France's president Macron recently said) and the Central African Republic is becoming a Russian colony.

    Africa has witnessed a proliferation of ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates. Africa has de facto replaced the Middle East as the epicenter of Islamic terrorism. Half of all deaths from Islamic terrorism of 2021 happened in Africa. If at the beginning African terrorism was limited to Nigeria (Boko Haram) and Somalia (Al-Shabab), it has expanded south to Mozambique and the question now is which country will be next. See also Nations in Crisis: Mozambique.

    In 2011, following a referendum, Southern Sudan seceded from Sudan and became the 54th country in Africa and the 193rd country in the United Nations. Since then, the country has been ruled by Salva Kiir, who succeeded John Garang as the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) that fought for independence for almost 30 years. Unlike Sudan, which is almost entirely Muslim, the population of South Sudan is mostly Christian. The median age of the country is 18, which means that the majority of the population knows little of how the country came to exist. In 2013 the country was plunged into a civil war between Salva Kiir, who is a member of the country’s majority Dinka population, and his vicepresident Riek Machar, who is a Nuer, the country’s second-largest ethnic group. At least 50,000 people were killed in the following five years, and more than two million South Sudanese were displaced by the fighting, resulting in Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Then came the famine of 2017. Atrocities were committed by both sides. In 2018 the United Nations documented 232 civilians killed and 120 women raped by government troops in 40 villages in the country's northern, oil-rich, state of Unity, a stronghold of the opposition. Some of the victims of rape were little girls. Both sexual abuse and starvation have been used as weapons. In 2018 a peace deal ended the five-year civil war and in 2020 Machar was re-sworn in as vicepresident, but seven million South Sudanese were starving. The transitional government has never organized new elections and has failed to integrate the rebels into the army. Between 2019 and 2022 South Sudan was also struck by a record four years of floods. The capital of Unity state, Bentiu, is at times an island surrounded by flood waters. If that wasn't enough, communal land violence is widespread. In October 2022, for example, 25 people were killed in South Sudan over a disputed border between families. Nonetheless, in December 2022 the government of South Sudan (that can't even pacify its own territory) announced that it will contribute 750 troops to the African peacekeepers in Congo Kinshasa.

    Which brings us to Congo Kinshasa, officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its civil war has largely been forgotten in the West but more than 120 armed groups continue to terrorize the east, notably the M23, an ethnic Tutsi group which is supported by Rwanda and has recently staged a rapid advance towards the city of Goma. The M23 became famous for unspeakable atrocities. In 2012 Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, call them “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world for that matter.” (To be fair, in 2012 the Congolese army didn't fare any better: fleeing M23, Congolese troops raped over 1,000 women over a ten day rampage). The world agrees with Kinshasa that Rwanda is arming and funding the M23, but Rwanda is right that Kinshasa has been sheltering the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu group that fled Rwanda after the genocide of Tutsis in 1994. In November 2022, the M23 slaughtered more than 130 people in the villages of Kisheshe and Bambo. The international community has not done much to condemn Rwanda because tiny Rwanda is actually an important actor in Africa. For example, it just sent one thousand soldiers to fight the Islamists in Mozambique. The border with Uganda too is periodically a troublespot: in late 2021 Ugandan troops crossed the border to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an ISIS affiliate, that are fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government. The Ugandan troops remained until mid 2022, with approval from Kinshasa. This ISIS affiliate has increasingly shifted its target from Uganda to Congo (Uganda does have a sizeable Muslim population, Congo does not). In the same general region (more precisely in eastern Iruri province) massacres of civilians have been carried out by the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO), whose fighters are mostly drawn from the Lendu farming community which has been fighting for decades the Hema herders. In February 2022 CODECO killed 60 Hema people in the Plaine Savo refugee camp, in September they killed 15 in Djugu And it's not like the rest of Congo is pacified: deadly intercommunal violence has displaced thousands since July 2022 in Kwamouth, in the west of the country. There are now more than 5.5 million internally displaced people. The civil war that started in 1998 has often been the theater of a broader geopolitical conflict pitting Rwanda and Uganda against Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, all competing for control over Congo’s lucrative natural resources (gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan, copper, tin, oil), each having carving out their own economic fiefdom at one time or another. Much of the mineral wealth ends up in the countries of the usual suspects: for example, China and the USA are vying for control over the global supply of cobalt, an essential element for the electric cars of the future. Congo’s gold is smuggled out to Rwanda and Uganda, then exported to the United Arab Emirates where it is refined and traded in Dubai. Note that in the region a nation is often just the personal fief of its leader: Uganda is Yoweri Museveni's personal fief, Rwanda is Paul Kagame's, Angola was Jose Eduardo dos Santos', Zimbabwe was Robert Mugabe's, and Congo was Joseph Kabila's fief before 2019 (when Felix Tshisekedi inherited power from him). Congo's democracy is funny: the Catholic Church oversaw the 2018 elections and declared that there was a clear winner, and that winner was Martin Fayulu, the leading opposition candidate, but Tshisekedi was declared the winner after making a deal with Kabila. The Congolese army is deeply corrupted. Generals receive more income from bribes than from government salary. An estimated 6 million people have been killed in Congo's multiple civil wars. The 12,000 troops of the United Nations mission in eastern Congo (the MONUSCO), one of the world's most expensive peace operations, have largely been useless. In fact, Congolese frequently demonstrate against their presence. The only actor actively working for peace is Kenya, which has deployed troops in Goma and hosted talks between the government of Felix Tshisekedi and the M23 rebels.

    In the south, there's also the eternal sick man of Africa, Zimbabwe, once the richest region of Africa: food price inflation has reached a staggering 321%. The death of Mugabe, and the appointment of new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, haven't changed much for the lives of ordinary people.

    I omitted Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the various China-related tensions (Taiwan, crackdown on Hong Kong protesters, Xinjiang's reeducation camps, zero-covid policy, militarization of South China Sea islands, North Korea's nuclear program). You can read about them in separate articles:
    Putin's invasions
    Thoughts on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine - Part II
    Nations in Crisis: Russia
    Facts about China that may surprise you
    China and the world according to China's intellectuals.
    Common Prosperity and Digital Billionaires: Why China is Cracking down on Big Tech
    China Cracks down on Big Giants but Raises Little Giants
    China's Debt

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