Pollution in the air
French health authorities are urging that young children and pregnant women in central Paris get their lead levels tested, because of pollution from the fire that engulfed Notre-Dame cathedral in April. Authorities had initially told residents of Ile de la Cité and surrounding neighborhoods not to worry about health effects from the blaze, but this week a test revealed abnormally high levels of lead in a child’s blood. More than 300 tons of lead from the cathedral’s roof and steeple melted in the fire, leaving huge heaps of contaminated rubble, said the environmental group Robin des Bois. “For several months or even years, residents and people within the affected perimeter may inhale lead dust without knowing it,” the group said.
Citing fraud in the tender process, Italy has revoked a lease on a 13th-century mountaintop monastery that Steve Bannon had planned to use as a “gladiator school” to train a new generation of nationalist and far-right leaders. The former White House chief strategist was reportedly paying $112,000 a year to rent the Certosa di Trisulti monastery through the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative Catholic organization. But Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported last month that a letter from a Danish bank, used to guarantee the lease, was forged. Bannon’s Academy for the Judeo-Christian West was intended to teach some 250 to 300 students at a time how to defeat secularism. Locals had protested against the school. Bannon said the controversy over the bank document was “just dust being kicked up by the Left.”
The U.S. and Russia were at odds this week over whether Russia had pulled its military advisers from Venezuela, where they have been supporting the embattled regime of President Nicolás Maduro. First, President Trump tweeted that the Russians had told his administration that they had “removed most of their people in Venezuela.” Then Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow had not been in touch with Trump on the subject and that Trump had apparently gotten his information from a Wall Street Journal report that Russian officials had previously denied. The Journal said Rostec, a state defense contractor, had cut its personnel in Venezuela from about 1,000 to a few dozen; Rostec said its numbers were unchanged.
Cocaine uses lots of gas
Mixing coca paste
More than a quarter of all gasoline sold in Colombia is being used to fuel cocaine production, the country’s government revealed this week. The attorney general’s office said it is investigating 33 gas stations in rural areas that have been selling vast amounts of gas—far more than local drivers could possibly be using. One remote station reported selling more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel a year—about the same as the busiest station in car-heavy central Bogotá. Gasoline is the main component in a chemical process that turns the coca leaf into paste, and it takes about 75 gallons of gas to make a single kilo of coca base. Some of the gas stations under suspicion are located in areas that lack paved roads but have plenty of illegal coca farms.
EU’s shrinking center
Farage: Big winner
More than 50 percent of voters turned out for the European Parliament elections last week—the highest rate in decades—and voted for change. The EU legislature’s long-dominant center-right and center-left coalition slumped, going from 54 percent of the seats to 43 percent. Far-right, populist parties surged, particularly in France and Italy, increasing their share of seats from 20 to 25 percent. But they did not sweep into power as many experts had predicted, while the pro-environment Greens and pro-business Liberals did better than expected. The biggest upset was in the U.K., where the new Brexit Party, led by Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, trounced the Conservatives, taking 29 of Britain’s 73 seats and making it one of the largest single parties in the chamber.
Strikes and protests
Abortion rights activists
A one-day general strike brought Argentina to a near standstill last week, forcing banks to cease operations, airlines to ground flights, and soccer matches to be canceled. Thousands of union members marched through Buenos Aires to protest the soaring cost of food and utilities and the austerity policies of center-right President Mauricio Macri. In April, inflation hit 56 percent, among the highest in the world, while the economy has been shrinking. “Every day people are worse off,” said union leader Hugo Moyano. “It’s a disaster what’s happening.” This week, thousands of women took to the capital’s streets to demonstrate against the economic crisis and in favor of legalized abortion. A new bill to decriminalize the procedure has the support of President Macri’s ruling coalition.
A triumphant Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a second five-year term last week, having won a landslide election victory with his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Despite rising unemployment, the BJP secured 303 seats in India’s 543-seat lower house of Parliament—up from 282 in the 2014 election—by campaigning on nationalist and religious themes. Including his coalition partners, Modi now controls 349 legislators, close to the two-thirds majority he would need to change the constitution. Not everyone supports Modi’s Hindu agenda, though. On the day of his inauguration, the BJP’s website was hacked and its photos and articles were replaced with images of steak and recipes for beef dishes. Cows are sacred to Hindus, and the BJP has banned sales of beef in some provinces.
Massacre of protesters
Security forces on the offensive
Sudanese security forces stormed a camp occupied by pro-democracy protesters in Khartoum this week, killing at least 35 people and injuring hundreds more in what survivors said was a spree of murder, arson, and rape. The troops were linked to the Janjaweed militia, notorious for committing atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in the early 2000s. The ruling military council, which ousted longtime President Omar al-Bashir in April after months of protests by activists, has offered to hold elections in nine months. But the opposition says its civil disobedience campaign will continue until the military hands power to a civilian-led interim government. The massacre, said opposition leader Madani Abbas Madani, “was a systematic and planned attempt to impose repression on the Sudanese people.”
Making a stand in 1989
Chinese authorities said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will end up “on the ash heap of history” for his strong statement marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights,” Pompeo said, calling on Beijing to “make a full, public accounting of those killed or missing, to give comfort to the many victims of this dark chapter of history.” On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops opened fire on the 1 million pro-democracy protesters who had been demonstrating in the heart of Beijing for weeks; up to 10,000 people were killed. Ever since, Beijing has censored all mention of the massacre and the ’89 Democracy Movement, jailing anyone who tweets words that even sound like the number 89. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called Pompeo’s criticism “lunatic ravings and babbling nonsense.”
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had five members of his negotiating team executed after the failure of February’s Hanoi summit with President Trump, a South Korean newspaper reported last week. The paper, Chosun Ilbo, also reported that Kim Yong Chol—a former spy chief and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart in talks—had been sentenced to hard labor and ideological re-education. But other reports said that at least one of the supposedly executed men is still in custody, and North Korean media this week published a photo of Kim Yong Chol sitting near Kim Jong Un at an art performance. One source told CNN that Kim Yong Chol has been “kept silently in his office writing statements of self-criticism.”
Duterte’s gay ‘cure’
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told a crowd last week that he “used to be gay” but “cured himself” with the help of “beautiful women.” The foul-mouthed populist made the admission during a speech to Filipino expats while on a trip to Japan. After accusing opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes—a critic of the president’s bloody drug war—of being homosexual, Duterte said he himself felt “a bit gay” as a younger man but was cured by his ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman. The couple divorced in 2000. “I hated handsome men afterward,” he said of getting married. “I now prefer beautiful women.”
Mount Everest, Nepal
Traffic at the top of the world
At least 11 people, including two Americans, have died on Mount Everest so far this year, with overcrowding at the summit forcing climbers to wait hours in line in freezing, low-oxygen conditions. “I’ve seen traffic, but not this crazy,” said four-time summiter Nirmal Purja, whose photo of scores of climbers waiting on a cliff to reach the peak went viral. A record-breaking 825 climbers and Sherpa guides reached the summit this year, and Nepal said it would consider giving permits next year to only very experienced climbers. Authorities blamed the jam on the weather, which reduced the window of time when climbers could complete the ascent to just a few days. Dead bodies, feces, and trash have been emerging on the slopes as ice melts due to climate change. ■