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U.S. Removes Diplomats From Venezuela Amid Nationwide Power Outages

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  • Power outages in Venezuela have left much of the country in the dark, hindering humanitarian efforts, and killing 21 people.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States will be removing diplomats from Venezuela citing the “deteriorating situation” in the country as a reason.

U.S. to Withdraw Diplomats

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the U.S. would withdraw all diplomats from Venezuela as the country faces nationwide power outages.

Pompeo announced the decision in a tweet, writing, “the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy.”

This move is especially significant because the last line of the tweet could indicate that the U.S. is considering using military force, an option President Trump and his administration have repeatedly indicated is still on the table.

The removal of U.S. diplomats is also a big deal because the U.S. has continually said it will keep essential diplomatic staff in Venezuela. The effort to withdraw diplomatic personnel could indicate that the U.S. government may feel the situation is out of control.

Sweeping Blackouts in Venezuela

Meanwhile, most of Venezuela has been without power for almost a week now.

On Saturday, yet another wave of protests swept Caracas as opposition protestors came out to demonstrate against a nationwide blackout that has left almost all of the country in the dark since last Thursday.

The blackouts reportedly stem from an unspecified problem in Venezuela’s primary hydroelectric power plan, Guri.

Guri is a massive plant, supplying power to 4 out of 5 Venezuelans, and the problem allegedly came from a substation based in the center of the country.

Unsurprisingly, the power outages have made the humanitarian problems in Venezuela even worse.

Water pumps have been affected in parts Caracas, leaving people to fill water bottles at sewage pipes. Long lines of cars and citizens can be seen waiting for gas at the few gas stations that are still open, while transportation networks like subways have been shut down.

Much of Venezuela’s telecommunications networks have been entirely knocked out. Most alarming is the impact on hospitals and medical facilities, which already face medicine shortages, and now are struggling to keep patients alive.

Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who has been declared interim president, stated on Sunday that 17 people had died due to the blackouts, referring to the deaths as “murders.”

Then on Monday, The Guardian reported that at least 21 people, six of whom were babies, had died as a result of the blackouts.

It is still unclear how many people have died and how many people are affected by the blackouts, with contradictory reports of how much power has been restored to different parts of the country.

Unknown Cause

Also still disputed is what exactly caused the outage at the hydroelectric plant.

On Saturday, Nicolás Maduro claimed that the blackout was caused by cyberattacks launched by the opposition with “the support and assistance of the US.” Then, in a speech on Monday, Maduro stated: “The United States’ imperialist government ordered this attack.”

Maduro’s Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez additionally claimed that the blackout was caused by right-wing extremists under the direction of Senator Marco Rubio.

Maduro and his ministers have not provided any evidence for these claims.

Guaidó has disputed this assertion, arguing that blackouts were caused by years of underinvestment in energy infrastructure.

Guaidó’s claim has been broadly supported by energy experts and Venezuelan power sector contractors who have said that in addition to underinvestment, the blackouts are also a result of corruption and brain drain from the energy sector.

Venezuela’s electrical system used to be one of the best in Latin America, but now it is in poor shape after years of improper maintenance and mismanagement.

Venezuelan officials have been accused of stealing government money earmarked for the electrical system. Blackouts have become fairly frequent in Venezuela. However, a blackout of this scale and magnitude has not been seen for many years. Some are even calling the worst blackout in the country’s history.

On Monday, the opposition government declared a state of emergency.

It remains unclear when Venezuela will regain power, especially now as both sides continue to add political charge to the issue.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Guardian) (New York Times)

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China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads

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  • Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people. 
  • More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
  • The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States. 
  • Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.

Race to Build Hospital

In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic. 

The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site. 

Wuhan authorities said the new hospital’s purpose is to “address the insufficiency of existing medical resources,” the Associated Press reported

China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.  

“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”

The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week. 

The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.

What is the Coronavirus?

The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.

Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.   

At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans. 

More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)

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Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom

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  • British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
  • The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
  • While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.

Brexit Becomes Law

After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.

In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.

The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.

On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline. 

Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.

When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU. 

Reaction to Brexit’s Passage

Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance. 

Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections. 

However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage. 

Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.

On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter. 

“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”

To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.

On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”

“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.

What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?

Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.

During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.

The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.

As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.

At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.

But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)

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Greece Elects Katerina Sakellaropoulou as First Woman President

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  • Greece’s first female president was elected on Wednesday in an overwhelming majority vote.
  • Beyond being a large step toward gender equality, Katerina Sakellaropoulou’s election to the largely ceremonial role was a rare display of unity in Greek politics.
  • The high judge received support from lawmakers across all major political parties after being nominated as a nonpartisan candidate by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
  • This was a notable move from the Prime Minister as all but one of the 18 senior positions in his Cabinet are currently held by men.

First Female President-Elect

History was made in Greece on Wednesday when Katerina Sakellaropoulou was chosen to be the nation’s first woman president. 

The 63-year-old high court judge was elected to the largely ceremonial post by parliament in an overwhelming majority vote that showed unity among Greek politicians. She took the presidency in a 261-33 vote, well above the 200 votes needed to win, and received support from Greek lawmakers across all major political parties. Six members of parliament were not present. 

After being notified of her election, Sakellaropoulou said she would strive for the “broadest possible consensus” while she fulfills her presidential duties.  

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis nominated Sakellaropoulou last week as a non-partisan candidate, a move some believe he took to counter the criticism he has faced for selecting nearly an all-male cabinet after he was elected in July 2019. In the current Greek Cabinet, all eighteen senior positions are held by men except for one. 

Sakellaropoulou is a trailblazer in the effort to fix the gender imbalance in the country’s government. She has spent the last fifteen months serving as the president of the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, and was the first woman to step into that role, too.

Sakellaropoulou will begin her five-year term in March, when the term of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the current president, comes to an end.

Praise for Sakellaropoulou

Upon the news of Sakellaropoulou’s win, several prominent figures spoke up to express their support. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted that Greece is “moving ahead into a new era of equality. 

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, also applauded Sakellaropoulou on Twitter.

“A great signal to elect the Republic’s first female head of state,” Michel wrote. “I strongly believe that Greece will continue to contribute to the future development of the European Union.”

Prime Minister Mitsotakis described the new president-elect as “a great judiciary personality who unites all Greeks from the minute this procedure began.” 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Independent) (The Washington Post)

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