Photo Credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Dec 7: US House signs a bill decriminalising marijuana, UK approves Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine, Brazil centrist parties win big at municipal elections

North America

  • Canada unveiled its largest economic relief package since WW2 last Monday (Nov 30), where its federal government will spend C$100 billion (S$104.41 billion) to kick-start the country’s post-pandemic economy. The spending will bring the deficit to a historic C$381.6 billion (S$398.43 billion) by March 2021. The wide-ranging fiscal plan includes targeted relief for hard-hit business sectors, investments in long-term care homes and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, was questioned under oath in a deposition last Tuesday (Dec 1), as part of a civil lawsuit alleging misuse of nonprofit funds for Donald Trump’s inauguration four years ago. According to the January 2020 lawsuit, a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation called the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee coordinated with the Trump family to grossly overpay for event space in the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
  • According to a statement last Thursday (Dec 3), President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have raised a reported US$207.5 million (S$276.97 million) since Election Day. Soon after the election, Trump’s campaign began to send solicitations to supporters by email and text, making pleas for donations to an “Official Election Defense Fund”. This was to fund legal challenges against Democrat President-elect Joe Biden. However, at a closer look, the fine print made clear that the bulk of the money would go to other priorities, including retiring the debts of Trump’s campaign.
  • The US House signed a landmark bill called the MORE Act, last Friday (Dec 4) that would decriminalise marijuana at the federal level. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and also expunge some marijuana-related convictions. Currently, 15 US states and the District of Columbia have legalised recreational use of marijuana, and over 30 states allow some form of the drug for medicinal purposes. But the legislation is not expected to advance further so long as the Senate remains in Republicans’ hands. The vote came just after Thanksgiving weekend when legal US cannabis sales hit record levels. 
  • Warner Bros. announced it will release its 2021 movies on AT&T’s streaming service, HBO Max, at the same time the debut of the film in theatres. These films include Dune, The Matrix 4, and In the Heights. This move will not need HBO Max subscribers to pay additional fees. With the persistent pandemic situation, and miserable theatre attendance, this will be a boost for HBO Max but the same cannot be said for theatres. AMC’s stock fell 16 per cent and Cinemark’s 22 per cent following the news, capping off a devastating nine-month streak for theatre chains.

South America

  • Traditional centre and centre-right parties secured victory in Brazil’s municipal elections last Sunday (Nov 29), while candidates supported by populist President Jair Bolsonaro blundered. Centrists did particularly well and claimed mayorships in Brazil’s largest cities, complicating President Bolsonaro’s economic agenda in the coming years. However, President Bolsonaro remains popular with his people due to his recent cash handouts and how he speaks honestly about issues without political correctness. From the polls, centrists now have a chance to pick an alternative candidate to run against Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. 
  • Vanessa Neumann, Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó’s representative to the UK, resigns from her post due to doubts within the opposition over Mr Guaidó’s future in the country. This came after the Venezuelan opposition party grew anxious that international supporters are beginning to rethink their recognition of Mr Guaidó as interim president after he lost control of the assembly. Mr Guaidó’s performance in the opinion polls has also been declining sharply over the last year as the citizens grow frustrated over the country’s continual struggle with political deadlock. Many said that they will support neither Mr Maduro nor Mr Guaidó.
  • Colombia’s former President Álvaro Uribe said in a video interview with the Financial Times that “tyranny has established itself” in Venezuela. President Uribe continued to explain that the reason why the military refuses to support Mr Guaidó is that many top officials have been bribed by the government. Dictatorship in Venezuela is looking more institutionalised as Mr Guaidó failed at unseating Mr Maduro. Since Mr Uribe’s presidency, he still dominates the political stage back in his home country, polarising the people. 
  • Nemonte Nenquimo, an indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon was one of the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. This prize is awarded annually to grassroots environmental activists, one from each of the world’s six geographic regions. Nenquimo was the first female leader of the Waorani people and by her early thirties, became the co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance, an indigenous-led non-profit organisation championing indigenous rights and culture. Other winners of the prize this year hailed from France, Ghana, Myanmar, The Bahamas and Mexico.
  • Siemens Energy, Porsche and several other international companies gave the approval for the construction of a pilot project that uses green hydrogen produced from wind power to make synthetic fuel in southern Chile. Chilean power company AME together with oil firm ENAP and Italian utility Enel had announced plans to build the plant in Cabo Negro. This will be the world’s first project to produce climate-neutral e-fuels on an industrial scale. 

Asia-Pacific

  • Singapore granted the world’s first approval to lab-grown meat produced by US start-up Eat Just. Eat Just formed partnerships with various local manufacturers in Singapore to produce cultured chicken cells that can be ready for restaurants. Being a large importer of agricultural goods due to its small land area, Singapore looks favourably upon agricultural technology investments to ensure food security. Eat Just’s meat, however, still faces challenges to scale its product commercially. 
  • Joshua Wong was sentenced for 13 and a half months in prison after pleading guilty to last year’s pro-democracy protests charges. Wong is a 24-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who started receiving the public’s and government’s attention after participating in the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Last Wednesday (Dec 2), he was convicted of organising, participating in and inciting citizens to take part in an unauthorised assembly when protesters gathered at the police headquarters last year.
  • North Korea’s parliament will convene in late January next year, shortly after US President-elect Joe Biden takes office. The country’s legislative body only meets once or twice a year to review and approve budgets as well as decisions to be carried out as ordered by the ruling Workers’ Party. The agenda of the next year’s meeting has not been disclosed but observers will be watching intently to look out for any changes to economic policies and re-shuffling of high-ranking officials. 
  • The Indian government is considering to withdraw some parts of the announced agricultural reforms. The reforms include three laws that are meant to overhaul antiquated procurement procedures and this has sparked the biggest protests by farmers in years. Tens of thousands of farmers were on the streets of Delhi last Friday (Dec 4), rallying against the latest changes. Farmers are afraid that these changes in legislatures will break apart regulated markets, stopping governments from buying rice and wheat at guaranteed prices, leaving them no choice but to sell their products at lower prices to private buyers. 
  • Protests in Thailand last month kicked off the “rubber duck revolution” as protestors started using giant rubber duck inflatables to shield themselves from water canon sprays used by the police. The use of rubber duck inflatables quickly transformed into duck-themed paraphernalia and the emergence as the protest symbol. Protestors are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a rewrite of the army-drafted constitution and for reforms to the monarchy.
  • More than 1,600 Rohingya refugees were shipped from Bangladesh’s southern port of Chittagong to the remote island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. The island emerged from the sea about 20 years ago and is said to be flood-prone. Many refugees reported that they never consented to the move but the government continues to assert that they have not been taking anyone to the island by force. More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after many refugees attempted to flee Bangladesh by sea. 
  • Despite a new wave of Covid-19 cases, South Korean authorities are still moving ahead with preparations for the upcoming college entrance exams, also known as Suneung. The exams have been delayed for two weeks as authorities prepared 31,291 test venues nationwide for this year’s exam, almost double the number from last year to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Students will have to wear masks at all times and will be separated by plastic screens. Educators have recognised the added stress factor students taking the exams this year would have to face. 

Europe

  • Germany banned Wolfbrigade 44, a far-right group, last Tuesday (Dec 1). With a goal to re-establish a Nazi dictatorship, Wolfbrigade 44 is known for possessing illegal weapons and participating in far-right protests. Following the ban, the homes of 13 members were also searched to confiscate the group’s funds and far-right propaganda material.
  • Former French President, Giscard d’Estaing, died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 94, last Wednesday (Dec 2). Highly regarded as “the man who modernised France,” Giscard was France’s leader from 1974 to 1981 and was the youngest president elected in the 20th century. Amongst his many achievements, he was known primarily for his progressive policies such as the legalisation of abortion, the liberalisation of divorce, and lowering the voting age to 18. He also launched the European Monetary System (EMS), a precursor of today’s euro,  with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Both current and former French leadership commented on his passing, with former President Francois Hollande stating that France “has lost a statesman who chose to open up to the world.”
  • The UK approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine last Wednesday (Dec 2). This makes it the first country in the world to approve the Covid-19 vaccine for use that is developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. The first shots could be administered as early as next week, with rare home residents, health & care staff, the elderly and extremely high-risk individuals being first in line to receive the vaccine. 
  • Moscow started mass vaccination amidst its record cases after the distribution of the Sputnik V Covid-19 shot via 70 clinics last Saturday (Dec 3), marking Russia’s first mass vaccination programme against the disease. The vaccine that is made in Russia, would be made available first to doctors and other medical workers, teachers and social workers because they run the highest risk of exposure to the disease. More than 100,000 people have already been vaccinated against the Covid-19, according to Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, who presented the Sputnik V vaccine to the United Nations over video link last Wednesday (Dec 2).
  • Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic, 50, tested positive for Covid-19. The head of the right-wing HDZ party isolated himself after his wife contracted the coronavirus, but was reported to be “feeling well” by his cabinet.
  • As part of the French government crackdown on what was termed ‘Islamist separatism’, checks have been carried out on 76 mosques out of 2,600 Muslim places of worship that were suspected of separatism. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced that 66 undocumented migrants suspected of radicalisation were deported. The inspections were carried out following several Islamist attacks in France this autumn, with President Macron describing Islam as a religion in crisis across the world. France is home to the largest Muslim minority population in Europe, and Muslims are feeling increasingly alienated in their home countries.

Middle East

  • Israeli legislators passed a preliminary proposal to dissolve parliament with support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief governing partner Benny Gantz, which would force the country into its fourth national election in just two years. The vote came last Wednesday (Dec 2), seven months after the coalition took office. The vote gave only preliminary approval to end the alliance and forced new elections early next year. 
  • After weeks of coordination between Israel and Palestine, the Israel finance ministry and a Palestinian minister confirmed the release of more than US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion) in tax money that was withheld from the Palestinean Authority (PA). The taxes, managed by Israel and usually handed over to the PA monthly, make up more than half of the budget of the PA, whose economy has been hit hard by the ongoing pandemic. The PA has been unable to pay full wages of its 130,000 employees in the past months. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced earlier this week that they would pay full salaries once tax money was received. 
  • Lebanese authorities arrested Lebanese-French businessman Ziad Takieddine on the grounds of funnelling millions of euros from the former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi to the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the latter’s 2007 election campaign, as reported from a judicial source. Takieddine was arrested by Lebanon’s elite Information Branch last Thursday (Dec 3), based on an Interpol arrest warrant originally issued by France. Takieddine was interrogated by security forces last Friday (Dec 4) and is set to be questioned by Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat on Monday (Dec 7).
  • In a move following the UK, Bahrain became the second country to approve the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, with approval granted last Friday (Dec 4) for the emergency use of authorisation for the vaccine. Bahrain’s National Health Regulatory Authority (NHRA) said that the vaccine would be used for high-risk groups, but did not disclose how many vaccines it has purchased or when vaccinations would begin in the country. Bahrain had also already granted emergency-use authorisation for a Chinese vaccine made by Sinopharm and already inoculated some 6,000 people with it.
  • The Gulf State Kuwait held a parliamentary election last Saturday (Dec 5) which came at a time where the OPEC member state is facing one of its worst economic crises on top of the ongoing pandemic. Voter turnout is expected to be lower than previous general elections, due to Covid-19.

Africa

  • Continued fighting in many parts of Ethiopia’s Tigray region is preventing aids to be delivered to millions of victims in the area who are said to be running out of medication and sustenance. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and a wave of refugees are fleeing into Sudan. Despite the Ethiopia Tigray crisis, Ethiopia’s minister in charge of democratisation, Zadig Abraha, continues to deny any war in the country. 
  • Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, ordered the withdrawal of the lawsuit that challenged the legality of the panels of enquiry that were investigating allegations of abuses by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars). The police, however, did not disclose what their investigation has resulted so far that made them drop the lawsuit. In Nigeria, state governments do not have the legal authority to carry out investigations into police conduct.
  • The former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, will be returning to his home country next month after being issued an Ivorian passport. Gbagbo, a vocal critic of President Alassane Ouattara, has been in exile as a result of his union activism and is now living in Belgium after being acquitted of his war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. It is unclear what his agenda is when he returns home. 
  • Boko Haram insurgents reportedly killed at least 70 civilians last weekend by tieing victims up and slitting their throats. Many of the victims were farmers working on a rice field. The gruesome massacre took place in Jere, near Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and epicentre of the conflict in northeastern Nigeria. It is becoming increasingly difficult to protect civilians, even in government-controlled areas. 
  • A refinery explosion broke out in South Africa’s second-largest crude oil refinery in Durban. The explosion happened early morning last Friday (Dec 4) and injured seven workers. The crude oil refinery that was operated by Engen, with Malaysia’s Petronas taking majority ownership, produced up to 120,000 barrels per day (BPD). Earlier this year, the country’s third-biggest crude oil refinery operated by Astron Energy in Cape Town also suffered an explosion. 
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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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