May’s Brexit challenge
British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a major challenge to her leadership this week, winning a no-confidence vote called by members of her Conservative Party angry at her handling of the country’s impending exit from the European Union. May won the vote 200-117 after promising to not seek re-election in 2022, but to oversee the Brexit process and then step aside. “We now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people,” she said. But her troubles aren’t over. Disgruntled Conservatives launched the challenge after May postponed a parliamentary vote on the Brexit plan she has negotiated with the EU—a vote she was certain to lose. Many Conservatives oppose the deal because of the “Irish backstop” clause that guarantees there will be no return to a hard border between Ireland, an EU member, and the U.K. province of Northern Ireland. To achieve that, the clause says, the entire U.K. must remain in a customs union with the EU until some friction-free way of checking goods can be worked out—which could take years.
A vote on the Brexit deal must now be held by Jan. 21, and May said she would seek assurances from EU leaders that the Irish backstop would not be indefinite. But European leaders were adamant that the agreement could not be reopened. The pound slumped briefly to a 20-month low against the dollar over fears that Britain could crash out of the EU without an agreement in March. That would cause trade barriers to suddenly be erected, potentially leading to shortages of goods and long pileups at ports.
After an outcry by prominent Cuban artists and performers, Cuba’s culture ministry this week pledged that it would soften the country’s newest censorship law. Decree 349 bans any art that is “vulgar,” could adversely influence children, or violates “the normal development of society.” It requires that painters, musicians, and writers get government approval before presenting their work, and any show deemed in violation could be shut down and artworks confiscated. The decree was opposed by the island’s artistic community—including renowned singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez—and several artists were arrested for planning a protest. Announcing the government’s U-turn, Cuban Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas said state inspectors will now close shows only “in extreme cases, such as public obscenity, or racist or sexist content.”
Russia sends bombers
In a show of Russian support for the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro, Moscow has sent Venezuela two long-range strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. It’s unclear how long the supersonic Tu-160 planes and their crews will stay in Venezuela, or whether they will participate in joint drills. The bombers arrived just days after Maduro went to Moscow to secure some $6 billion in Russian investment for Venezuelan oil and gold ventures. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the stunt amounted to “two corrupt governments squandering public funds.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the criticism, saying that the U.S.’s military budget is “enough to feed the whole of Africa” twice over.
The “yellow vest” riots that have shaken France for the past month looked set to continue this week after protesters rejected an $11 billion package of economic aid from President Emmanuel Macron. The protests were sparked by hikes to diesel and gas taxes, but have since morphed into a general revolt against Macron’s pro-market reforms and the high cost of living in France. Cars have been set ablaze, stores looted, hundreds of people arrested, and at least four killed in clashes with police. Macron this week said he would increase the minimum monthly wage by about $113, eliminate a tax on overtime, and cancel a planned tax increase on pensioners. The protesters, who wear the neon safety jackets that French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles, dismissed the offer as “crumbs.”
After the bloodshed
A gunman opened fire in a Brazilian cathedral after mass this week, killing five people and wounding four others. The attacker, 49-year-old Euler Fernando Grandolpho, took a bullet to the chest during a firefight with police and then fatally shot himself in the head with his 9 mm pistol. It is not yet known why the shooter, a systems analyst with no criminal record, went on the rampage. Grandolpho “came into the church, sat on a pew, with time to think, and then got up and starting shooting,” said police investigator Hamilton Caviola Filho. Brazil has long struggled with gun violence and has one of the world’s highest homicide rates: 63,880 people were murdered there in 2017. But mass shootings by a lone gunman like those in U.S. are unusual.
A gunman shouting “Allahu akbar!” opened fire at Strasbourg’s bustling outdoor Christmas market this week, killing two people, leaving one brain-dead, and injuring at least a dozen more. “Everyone was shouting, everyone was running, running, afraid,” said one eyewitness. Authorities said Chérif Chekatt, 29, is a Strasbourg-born criminal—he has 27 convictions across France, Germany, and Switzerland—and turned to radical Islam during a prison stint. Soldiers fired at Chekatt, but he escaped in a hijacked taxi, bragging to the driver that he had killed 10 people. French authorities deployed hundreds of police and soldiers on a manhunt, but said they believe Chekatt has left the country.
Pyramid sex scheme
Egyptian authorities were outraged this week after a Danish photographer posted an artsy photo of himself in a sexual pose with a woman on top of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Andreas Hvid, 23, also posted a video of himself and his unidentified companion clambering up the 4,500-year-old pyramid at night and looking out over another pyramid and the lights of Cairo. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani said scaling the pyramids was “strictly forbidden” and called the image a “violation of public morality.” He asked Egypt’s attorney general to open a criminal investigation. In 2016, a German teen was arrested for climbing one of the pyramids and received a lifetime ban on returning to Egypt.
U.S. lauds coal
The small U.S. delegation at the United Nations climate conference in Poland was heckled this week as it hosted an event extolling the virtues of coal, oil, and gas—the main sources of the carbon emissions causing climate change. President Trump’s top adviser on energy and climate, Wells Griffith, boasted about the U.S.’s coal reserves and increased oil production, and pitched technology to clean up coal plant emissions. “All energy sources are important,” he said, “and they will be used unapologetically.” The audience began laughing, and many stood up in protest, chanting “Keep it in the ground.” Meanwhile, the U.S. joined Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—all major oil producers—in declining to endorse a recent U.N. climate report that found the world has only a decade to cut carbon emissions by nearly half to avoid catastrophic global warming.
Six Marine airmen have been declared dead following a late-night collision off the coast of Japan between an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet and a KC-130 refueling plane. Two Marines were pulled from the water, but only one survived; five others were not found and were declared dead. It’s the latest in a series of U.S. military air accidents that critics say are the result of wear and tear to aging aircraft after 17 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of budget cuts that have hit maintenance and pilot training. A Military Times investigation has found that the number of aviation mishaps rose 39 percent from 2013 to 2017, from 656 to 909. At least 133 service members were killed in those mishaps.
Faced with a shrinking workforce and a graying population, lawmakers in Japan approved new legislation last week that will relax the country’s famously stringent immigration laws. The new law will let in 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years, mostly to take jobs in construction, the hotel industry, and elder care. They will be paid the same rate as Japanese workers and will be allowed up to two five-year visas. Opposition parties condemned the law, saying there are no provisions for training or housing the workers or teaching them Japanese. But the country faces intense demographic pressures: The fertility rate has dropped to 1.4 children per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1, and the population is dropping by 400,000 people a year. Nearly 30 percent of Japanese are over 65 years old.
Clinton and the bride’s parents
Hillary Clinton, Beyoncé, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch, actress Priyanka Chopra, and Saudi Arabian government ministers headed to India this week for the weeklong wedding of the country’s wealthiest heiress. Dozens of chartered planes ferried guests to a pre-party in the desert city of Udaipur, before taking them to Mumbai, where Isha Ambani, 27, and businessman Anand Piramal, 33, tied the knot. The bride is the daughter of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, who is worth some $43 billion. Beyoncé gave a private show, and much of Bollywood royalty performed. There were so many events that the Ambani family created an app for the occasion so guests could organize their schedules and wardrobes. Indian media reported that the wedding cost a total of $100 million.