The world at a glance
Serial rapist to go free: Victims are protesting the decision to release on parole one of Britain’s most notorious rapists, alleged to have drugged and assaulted more than 100 passengers in his London black cab. John Worboys, now 60, was jailed indefinitely in 2009 after being convicted of 19 sexual offenses against 12 women, although a High Court judge said the true number of his victims was at least 105. Police assured victims that Worboys would never get parole, yet the Independent Parole Board voted last month to release him just nine years into his sentence. “I literally felt like somebody had kicked me in the stomach,” one victim said of the decision. After an outcry, the release was delayed pending a High Court review.
A Castro suicide: The eldest son of late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, took his life last week at age 68. Fidelito, as he was known to Cubans, was a prominent nuclear physicist who had recently been championing nanotech research. It’s unusual for the government to admit that a top figure died of suicide; the rumor in Cuba is that officials had no choice but to go public, because Castro hurled himself out of the window at a health clinic where he was being treated for depression. Cuba has one of the highest rates of suicide in Latin America, with 16 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants; in the U.S., the figure is 13.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
FEMA failed: U.S. lawmakers are demanding to know why the Federal Emergency Management Agency handed a lucrative contract to deliver millions of meals to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria to a one-person company in Atlanta. Democratic lawmakers said Tribute Contracting was awarded the $156 million contract to supply 30 million ready-to-eat meals last year but delivered only 50,000 before the contract was canceled. The company, owned by Tiffany Brown, had mishandled government contracts before and was supposed to be barred from government work until 2019. “It is unclear why FEMA or any agency would have proceeded with a contract worth $156 million in light of this company’s poor contracting history and these explicit warnings,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). About one-third of Puerto Ricans still lack power, four months after the storm.
Correa can’t run: Ecuadorans voted in a referendum this week to restore the constitution’s absolute limit of two presidential terms, dealing a blow to former President Rafael Correa’s plan to return to power. Correa, a combative socialist who led Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, scrapped term limits in 2015, hoping to run again after his handpicked successor, Lenín Moreno, had served one term. Now that won’t be possible. Correa, who has been living abroad, returned to campaign against restoring term limits but found he was less popular than when he left office. Voters tossed tomatoes and eggs at him at campaign stops, and at one point he had to be evacuated by helicopter when protesters started throwing rocks. President Moreno campaigned in favor of term limits. The referendum’s result, he said, will help Ecuador “fight against corruption.”
Berlusconi vs. migrants: Italy’s four-time former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned in 2011 amid allegations of corruption, tax fraud, and “bunga bunga” sex parties, is trying for a comeback. Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party is polling third in the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Because of pending legal cases, Berlusconi, 81, can’t become prime minister even if his party wins outright. But he’s still dominating the political debate. This weekend, after a neo-Nazi shot and wounded six African immigrants on the streets of the central Italian city of Macerata, Berlusconi vowed that if his party won power it would deport up to 600,000 undocumented immigrants. Immigration, he said, is a “social bomb ready to explode.”
Migrant crisis: Colombia has opened its first shelter for the thousands of desperate Venezuelans who are streaming across the border every day. Venezuela’s economy has collapsed under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro: Basic foods and medicine are scarce, crime is rampant, and hyperinflation means the weekly minimum wage is less than the cost of a small bag of rice. Some 600,000 Venezuelans are now thought to live in Colombia.
Venezuelans at a border crossing
“My salary and my husband’s salary were not enough for my daughters to eat breakfast,” migrant Esperanza Tello, who is living on the streets of Bogotá, told the Miami Herald. Colombia has set up the temporary shelter on its eastern border, but it can hold only 120 travelers for up to 48 hours. “We are being as generous as possible,” said Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín.
Record snowfall: Storms dumped 22 inches of snow on Moscow this week in just 36 hours, bringing a city with plenty of experience in winter weather to a standstill. It was the city’s biggest single snowfall since record keeping began. Moscow schoolchildren were given an unheard-of day off for snow, prompting an avalanche of tsking tweets from disapproving parents. “There is no reason to give children a break,” said one. “Schools are usually close to home.” Snowplows couldn’t push the snow to the roadside without burying buildings, so they trucked it to a central dump near a railway station, creating an artificial snow mountain. The epic snowfall toppled some 2,000 trees around the city; at least one person was killed by a falling tree.
Zuma: On his way out
Zuma under pressure: After nearly nine scandal-plagued years in office, South African President Jacob Zuma could soon be forced out. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also head of the ruling African National Congress party, said this week that he had held “constructive” talks with Zuma about a transition of power. Zuma is battling nearly 800 counts of corruption, including charges related to an arms deal from the 1990s and charges that he allowed the Guptas, an Indian-born family of tycoons, to wield undue influence over the government. Zuma drew international condemnation before being elected in 2009, when during a trial for rape he said he had had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman but showered afterward to avoid disease. Ramaphosa, a multimillionaire businessman who is seen as a reformer, is likely to replace Zuma.
Samsung head cleared: In a setback for anti-corruption forces in South Korea, an appeals court this week released the de facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, from prison after just a year served. Lee was sentenced to five years in prison on bribery charges after mass protests erupted in late 2016 against the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate industry. Those protests also resulted in the ousting of President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached on charges of collecting bribes. But the appeals court said it could find no evidence of wrongdoing in Lee’s transfer of some $27 million to entities controlled by a confidante of Park. The court said the payments were legitimate “social contribution activities.”
Earthquake shakes city: At least seven people were killed and hundreds injured in Taiwan this week when a magnitude-6.4 earthquake hit the coastal tourist city of Hualien. Rescue workers used cranes and ropes to retrieve dozens of people from a badly listing apartment building that was left leaning at a 60-degree angle, its lower floors flattened. The quake struck at midnight, and survivors were disoriented and panicked. “My bed turned completely vertical,” said resident Chen Chih-wei, 80. “I was sleeping and suddenly I was standing.” The quake toppled at least four buildings, destroyed a bridge, and buckled numerous streets. Aftershocks kept sending rescuers scurrying for safety.
ISIS goes guerrilla: Thousands of foreign ISIS fighters have escaped the U.S.-led military campaign in eastern Syria, The New York Times reported this week, citing classified military and intelligence assessments. Some of the highly trained militants have joined al Qaida or other jihadist groups in Syria, while others have paid smugglers to get them to Turkey—possibly with the eventual goal of returning to their European home countries. In Iraq, ISIS fighters are regrouping in small cells and launching suicide bombings against soft targets, such as markets packed with civilians. The U.S. has started to reduce the number of troops in Iraq following the collapse last year of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate. The Pentagon is expected to leave 4,000 troops in the country to train the Iraqi military, down from 8,892 personnel last September.
Russian jet downed: Russia launched massive airstrikes in Syria this week after one of its fighter jets was downed by a rebel group formerly linked to al Qaida. The pilot of the Sukhoi-25 ground-attack aircraft was killed after parachuting from the plane; Moscow said he blew himself up with a grenade to avoid capture. Rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said it used a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile to down the jet, raising questions about how it got such a weapon. The U.S. has refused to provide such missiles to its rebel allies out of fears they could fall into terrorist hands. Russian jets pounded rebel-held cities following the pilot’s death. “Idlib is burning,” said Ahmed Sheiko of the White Helmets rescue group. “It’s like doomsday.” ■