An environmental and anti-corruption activist was sworn in this week as Slovakia’s first female president. Zuzana Caputova, 45, is a liberal lawyer nicknamed “the Slovak Erin Brockovich” for her successful 14-year lawsuit to block a toxic landfill in her hometown. Her first act after victory was to light a candle at a shrine for murdered reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova; they were shot dead last year as Kuciak worked on a story about corruption in the ruling center-left party, Smer. Five people have been charged with the murders, including a millionaire linked to Smer, and the uproar over the deaths sparked anti-government protests that brought down the prime minister. Caputova said the killings spurred her to run.
Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week suffered the worst electoral defeat since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002. The secular opposition Republican People’s Party won control of both the capital, Ankara, and the country’s largest city, Istanbul, in the municipal elections. The Republicans credited their victories to a renewed surge of party activism: Thousands of volunteers monitored the polls, some of them sleeping on top of sacks of cast ballots to prevent tampering. “We think [the AKP] were not able to rig the election,” said party official Ilayda Kocoglu. Turkey’s tanking economy also played a role. Inflation is at 20 percent, and youth unemployment is near 30 percent. Erdogan’s AKP is challenging the election results in Istanbul and Ankara, claiming voting irregularities.
A $1.2 million conservation center intended to preserve the legacy of Ernest Hemingway opened last week on the grounds of Finca Vigía, the Cuban villa on the outskirts of Havana where the novelist lived from 1939 to 1960. The center houses some 10,000 letters, 9,000 marked-up books, and 5,000 photos that Hemingway left behind when he quit the country at the urging of the U.S. Embassy amid rising tensions between Washington and the revolutionary authorities in Havana. A Hemingway biographer has called the cache of documents a “CAT scan of Hemingway’s brain.” The conservation center was built by the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation—headed by Bob Vila, former host of TV’s This Old House—and Cuban authorities.
Aid at last
After denying for years that Venezuela is suffering a humanitarian emergency, President Nicolás Maduro last week gave the International Federation of the Red Cross permission to mount a huge disaster-relief campaign. The first shipment of food and medicine is scheduled for mid-April. The collapse of Venezuela’s economy has caused an epidemic of malnutrition, and patients are dying in hospitals for lack of medicine. Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country. To prevent Maduro from shunting the aid only to his supporters, the Red Cross said, supplies such as surgical kits and drugs will be given directly to hospitals. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó tried to bring an aid caravan from Colombia to Venezuela in February, but Maduro’s soldiers and paramilitaries blocked its entry, killing seven people. China and Russia have delivered relief supplies to Maduro.
A comedian who plays the Ukrainian president in one of the country’s most popular sitcoms could soon be Ukraine’s actual president. Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, won 30 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election this week, trouncing incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who took 16 percent, and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 13 percent. Zelensky will face Poroshenko, a candy mogul, in the April 21 runoff. The comedian’s rise has been powered by anger at the country’s oligarch-dominated politics. But Zelensky’s platform is vague and seems to be based on the politics of his character in Servant of the People, a schoolteacher who becomes president after delivering an anti-corruption speech.
Remembering the victims
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro this week ordered his country’s armed forces to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the coup that ousted a leftist president and ushered in 21 years of bloody military dictatorship. A federal judge tried to block the celebration, but a higher court said it could proceed. Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, sees the coup as a strike against communism. But many lawmakers, as well as Brazilians imprisoned and tortured by the dictatorship, were appalled by the commemoration. The attorney general’s office issued a scathing statement denouncing the president’s command and calling the 1964 coup “a violent and antidemocratic rupture of the constitutional order.”
Still using outhouses
Russia has the worst sanitation facilities in the developed world, with a fifth of households—some 35 million people—lacking access to indoor toilets. A study by Rosstat, the federal statistics service, found that the problem is worst in rural areas, where two-thirds of households have no indoor toilets or reliable hot water. Most of those households use outhouses or pit toilets. Poverty is widespread outside of Moscow. The Russian Presidential Academy of the National Economy says 22 percent of Russians can’t buy anything beyond basic staples needed for subsistence. President Vladimir Putin has set a goal of cutting the poverty rate in half by the end of his current presidential term in 2024.
Cheering for change
Bowing to mass protests and pressure from the army, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his immediate resignation this week. Bouteflika, 82, has ruled for 20 years but hasn’t addressed the public since he was paralyzed by a stroke in 2013. The army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, called last week for his ouster, saying Bouteflika was too incapacitated to govern. Protesters, though, may not be satisfied. They want the complete removal of a political elite they see as corrupt and entrenched, including the prime minister and the head of the senate, both Bouteflika allies. “This announcement of his resignation is simply part of the rescue operation for a dying system,” Smain Kouadria of the opposition Workers’ Party told the New York Times.
China has banned all variants of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, fulfilling a promise that President Xi Jinping made to President Trump last year. Chinese-made fentanyl—which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine—has flooded U.S. streets, contributing to the epidemic of opioid overdoses that is killing some 50,000 Americans a year. China previously banned fentanyl in some forms, but manufacturers often changed its molecular structure slightly so they could claim to have made a new, legal drug. The full ban is “a good step,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, but whether China will enforce the prohibition “is a big question.” The ban doesn’t cover all the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, and those could still be exported to Mexico, mixed, and trafficked to the U.S.
India destroyed one of its own satellites in an anti-satellite missile test last week, making it the fourth country to have achieved this space warfare capability, after the U.S., Russia, and China. The Indian ballistic missile blasted the satellite into about 400 pieces, including 60 fragments 4 inches across or larger. Two dozen of those large fragments have ended up in orbits with high points above the 255-mile altitude of the International Space Station; they could collide with the station as their orbit decays. “That is a terrible, terrible thing,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human space flight.”
Gays to be stoned to death
Brutal new punishments for adultery and homosexuality went into effect in Brunei this week as part of the kingdom’s gradual implementation of sharia law. Adulterers and men found guilty of having sex with other men will be stoned to death, lesbian sex will be punished with 40 lashes, and thieves will have their right hand amputated on a first offense. Brunei, an oil-rich former British protectorate with a population of about 400,000, has been ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah for more than 50 years, and an insider told Fox News that the sultan fears the rise of radical Islam and enacted the laws to appease Islamists. Actor George Clooney is calling for a boycott of Brunei-owned properties in the U.S. and Europe, including the popular Beverly Hills Hotel.
Khashoggi kids paid off
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Saudi authorities have given the children of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi millions of dollars in cash and mansions to compensate for the killing of their father in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul six months ago, The Washington Post reported this week. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Post columnist who frequently criticized the Saudi regime, had four adult children—at least two of whom are U.S. citizens. Each has received a $4 million villa in the family’s home city of Jeddah and a monthly payment of $10,000—compensation that was approved by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. A larger payout, possibly in the millions, could come when blood-money negotiations take place, after the trials of Khashoggi’s accused killers are completed in the coming months. U.S. intelligence concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered a 15-man hit squad to kill and dismember the columnist; the regime denies involvement.