The world at a glance ...
Populists take another scalp: A tearful Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stepped down this week after Italians roundly rejected his proposed constitutional reforms in a referendum. The center-left leader had said he would resign if voters didn’t approve his plan to streamline the government, making it easier to pass essential economic reforms, and that promise effectively turned the referendum into an up or down vote on his record. Nearly 60 percent of voters gave him the thumbsdown. “I didn’t think they hated me so much,” Renzi, 41, said as the results came in. Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister took office in 2014 on a pledge to improve the economy, but youth unemployment still sits near 40 percent, and the country is suffocating under massive debt.
The result is a victory for the populist Five Star Movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, who campaigned hard against Renzi. Grillo wants to pull Italy out of the euro and to scrap EU-mandated austerity policies, and his party is expected to make big gains in the next national election, which could be held as soon as February. Uncertainty over Italy’s next government might spell more problems for Europe. If investors fear that Italy is about to leave the single European currency, they will demand higher rates of return on new investments in the troubled Eurozone. Heavily indebted countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal could see their borrowing costs rise above their ability to pay, causing their already fragile economies to crash.
Big Oil arrives: Mexico has for the first time sold offshore drilling rights to foreign companies, in an auction that could generate $40 billion in investment. The Mexican government awarded exploration blocks in the Gulf of Mexico to Exxon Mobil, Chevron, France’s Total, and China’s state-run CNOOC. Mexico opened up its oil sector in 2013 with a reform law that ended the 75-year monopoly by Pemex, the Mexican state oil company, because Pemex lacks the resources to develop the deepwater reserves by itself. The auction was a huge success for Mexico, which had said it hoped to sell at least four of the 10 blocks of territory on offer and ended up selling eight.
La Paz, Bolivia
Who’s to blame for crash? The LaMia charter plane that crashed on its way to Colombia last month, killing 71 people, including nearly an entire Brazilian soccer team, simply ran out of fuel—and Bolivian authorities are looking for someone to punish. Airport official Celia Castedo has fled to Brazil to claim asylum, saying the government has falsely accused her of failing to prevent the plane from leaving the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. The plane’s flight plan, in violation of international aviation standards, didn’t include a refueling stop. Castedo said she had alerted the crew to the fuel issue, but the crew insisted they could make it. The pilot who died in the flight, LaMia co-owner Miguel Quiroga, had been previously detained for failing to pay for maintenance work and hangar fees. LaMia has had its license suspended.
Merkel backs burqa ban: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become the latest European leader to favor banning the burqa—the full-body, fullface covering worn by some Muslim women. “The full veil is not appropriate here,” Merkel said to cheers this week at a conference of her center-right party. “It should be banned wherever it’s legally possible.” Merkel had previously opposed a ban, saying it would restrict religious freedom. Critics said Merkel, who last month announced that she would run for a fourth term as chancellor in 2017, was cynically pandering to right-wing voters. Merkel’s decision to let 1 million asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, settle in Germany last year has fueled a sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and hurt her popularity.
Watering down corruption bill: Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities across Brazil this week after lawmakers in Congress weakened an anti-corruption bill. In an overnight session, the lower house dropped the toughest measures in the bill and added a measure that allows defendants to sue judges and prosecutors for abuse of power. Many of the lawmakers who voted for the changes are themselves under investigation for corruption in a wide-ranging kickback scheme centered on state oil company Petrobras. “We are here to protest against this absurdity,” said Agnes Musseliner, a prosecutor who joined a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, “to guarantee the independence of the public prosecutor’s office and Brazilian judicial authority.”
One giant graveyard: Cemeteries ran out of room for the dead as Syrian government troops pushed deeper into eastern Aleppo this week, killing rebels and civilians alike as they seized neighborhoods long held by the opposition. Overstretched rescue and removal crews can’t get to the wounded or dead, and bodies are left to rot in the streets. “Aleppo has fallen,” one rebel fighter told The New York Times. “If there are no U.N. initiatives, I expect the regime will exterminate us all.” The Syrian government now controls at least 75 percent of eastern Aleppo, and civilians said they were being squeezed into an ever-smaller area. Officials in Russia, the Syrian regime’s main backer, said that anyone who remains in the rebel-held areas will be considered a terrorist and killed. There are currently no safe evacuation routes from the city.
Fake U.S. embassy: Mobsters ran a bogus U.S. embassy in Ghana for nearly a decade, issuing counterfeit visas to people and charging them thousands of dollars. The criminals, from Turkey and Ghana, set up a sham office in a rundown section of Accra, far from the real, gleaming U.S. Embassy, decorated it with an American flag and a portrait of President Obama, and staffed it with English-speaking Turks. The mobsters brought visa seekers from all over West Africa and shuttled them to the makeshift site. Ghanaian authorities shut down the crime ring after the U.S. got a tip about the fake embassy, and the State Department said none of the phony visas made it past U.S. customs officials. “It’s very, very hard to counterfeit U.S. visas these days,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
Abe to visit Pearl Harbor: In an echo of President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to visit Pearl Harbor this month. He will be the first Japanese leader to do so. Abe’s office said the prime minister would not apologize for the 1941 sneak attack on the U.S. naval base there, which killed some 2,300 Americans and destroyed much of the U.S. fleet, bringing America into World War II. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said Abe’s visit is meant “to show his commitment toward the future and to never repeat the tragedy of the war, as well as to send a message of reconciliation between the U.S. and Japan.” Obama also did not apologize for the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima during his May visit to the city.
Executing Shiites: A Saudi court has sentenced 15 Shiites to death for spying for Iran in a trial that Amnesty International has called “a travesty of justice.” The 15 men, arrested across Saudi Arabia in 2013 and 2014, were accused of establishing a spy ring to provide Iran with military intelligence, as well as participating in antigovernment protests. Amnesty International said the accused were denied access to lawyers and forced to sign confessions through threats to their families. The sentences could further inflame tensions between the Sunni kingdom and Iran, a Shiite-majority nation. Massive demonstrations erupted in Iran in January after the kingdom executed prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others for supporting protests against anti-Shiite discrimination.
Jayalalitha dies: Indians shaved their heads this week in mourning for the most popular politician in southern India, Tamil Nadu state leader Jayaram Jayalalitha. A former movie star revered as a goddess-like figure by her followers, Jayalalitha entered politics in the 1980s as a champion of the urban poor, particularly women, and quickly established a cult of personality. Supporters walked over hot coals for her and drew her name in their blood, and officials prostrated themselves before her. Jayalalitha grew extremely wealthy and served jail time for corruption—more than 30 distressed followers committed suicide when she was sent to prison for three weeks in 2014. But she was still revered when she died of illness this week at age 68.
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Deadly quake: A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra this week, killing at least 100 people and injuring hundreds more. Homes, businesses, and mosques were flattened; electricity poles were toppled; and roads were left with massive rifts. The 5 a.m. quake appeared to have wiped out whole families. “When we retrieve bodies sometimes there’s five, sometimes 10 corpses,” Aceh military commander Maj. Gen. Tatang Sulaiman said. Aceh is prone to earthquakes. The epicenter of the massive 2004 earthquake that triggered a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, killing 226,000 people across the region, was just off the province’s coast.