Information and news about politics.

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After 17 days of occupying the country’s parliament, the parents of Poland’s disabled youth are finally receiving reforms they have demanded for years. The Senate promised on April 18 to ratify a bill that will boost Poland’s welfare system benefits from a mere $270 per month to $431 by 2016, giving many the financial security they need.

Over 4,000 parents came out to actively fight in the movement, protesting outside of parliament and even staging sit-ins. Approximately 140,000 more individuals voiced support and were represented by the protests.

Poland’s welfare system has long been under criticism, particularly by those in need of disability benefits. Experts have recommended adjusting the caretaker allowance every three years to follow increases in cost of living, but Poland had neglected this for a decade. Prime Minister Donald Tusk made parents believe that changes would be made since taking office in 2011, but nothing had yet been done.

Leader of the month-long movement, Iwona Hartwich, pointed out flaws in Poland’s welfare system, stating that “In 20 years of Polish democracy, there has not been an effective welfare system established supporting a family taking care of a child with a disability.”

Political Science professor and Protest supporter Piotr Broda-Wsocki added that a livable social welfare system is a priority investment for Poland: “Funds for social benefits, especially for the young generation, need to stop being considered a wasted expenditure. This is smart money. If we can improve someone’s health condition, providing for him in the future will be much less expensive. Moreover, if we can educate these children and help them become independent, we will have a good citizen and taxpayer in the future.”

The 60% increase is significant for Poland’s disabled population and their families, giving caretakers the minimum flexibility to leave their jobs and still maintain a decent and dignified quality of life. For many, the previous welfare benefit was not sufficient to provide even basic medical care for their children in need, much less any other necessities.

Previously, Poland was alone among many European countries in not adequately supplying for their disabled children. Many in Scandinavia, such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, directly employ caretakers through the federal government. Germany gives an allowance of up to $2,760 per month, which is enough for visits from a qualified nurse.

These parents will not rest, though, until their children are fully considered in all spheres of the public sector, especially education. Poland’s education system formally prohibits the exclusion of disabled children, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

An EU study reports that this is, in reality, false, and that many accessibility requirements that would allow students to attend local public schools are not provided. This is especially true in small towns, forcing thousands to move to larger cities so their children can attend more expensive, private schools.

Polish parents plan to keep asking for more measures and more welfare benefits to improve the standard of living for them and their families. Some have even made plans to travel to Brussels to seek the aid and attention of the EU Parliament.

— Stefanie Doucette

Sources: AlJazeera, European Union, Libcom
Photo: Aljazeera

Most recently, air pollution has become the single greatest health risk in the world, surpassing smoking, car accidents and diabetes combined.

Figures reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that indoor and outdoor air pollution have been linked to a total of seven million deaths, or one in eight deaths, in 2012. Indoor pollution is the result of wood-burning and coal stoves mostly in rural impoverished communities, while outdoor pollution mainly comes from traffic fumes and coal-burning plants.

The majority of deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution occurred in Southeast Asia, which is now known to be the most polluted region in the world. It is estimated that 3.7 million deaths can be attributed to outdoor air pollution, usually as a result of stroke and hearth disease.

4.3 million deaths are attributed to indoor air pollution, many of which were caused by stroke, heart disease, and respiratory diseases. The vast majority of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

These figures demonstrate the detrimental effect of air pollution on mortality and health across the globe. It is a public health issue that needs to be addressed by all countries. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Public Health and the Environment Department, states, “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

It is important to note in Neira’s statement that she refers to “the air we all breathe.” Air pollution is an environmental health concern that has no boundaries; what one country emits has a direct impact on countries that are halfway around the world.

So what can we do to reduce our impact on air pollution?

Rural communities and big cities vary in what they can do to reduce their pollution emissions. But, we can all change our behaviors individually to make a difference.

At the local level, we can work on replacing inefficient coal and biomass stoves used in rural communities with electric stoves that are better for the environment. We can reduce our own carbon footprints by walking and bicycling more, instead of using our cars. Planting more trees has also become one way that people are filtering clean air into their neighborhoods.

At the political level, all countries need to reduce their carbon emissions. They need to create sustainable, urban policies that emphasize sharing resources and reducing our energy usage. Examples of this include green architecture and infrastructure, as well as bans on car usage.

One great example of someone who did this was mayor Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia. In 1998 he pedestrianized large sections of the city, raised the tax on petrol and forced commuters to leave their cars at home at least two days of the week, while making the bus system more accessible. He said, “Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical benefits are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit.”

So, do we have the will to change our behaviors and lobby politicians to do the same?

I think so.

– Mollie O’Brien

Sources: The Guardian, Treehugger, The Guardian

Once an apolitical ophthalmologist in London, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has proven himself to be a more ruthless leader than the average Western-based eye doctor. The civil war, raging for over three years in Syria, has demolished entire cities, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and displaced even more. While most dictators would have stepped down by this point, Assad continues to exert a perverted power over the masses.

Hezbollah even claims he has won. The Shi’a Islamic militant group has notoriously supported and fought beside the Syrian government in efforts to defeat the rebels attempting to oust Assad from power. As such, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced in a newspaper interview that any attempts at a military overthrow of the Syrian government have failed.

Nasrallah also expressed, in the same interview, his views on the origin of the war itself. Rather than a fight against corruption and for democracy, freedom and justice, Nasrallah believes the Syrian rebels mostly wanted to change the policies of the Syrian government in terms of Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance movement. But whatever the primary goals of each individual rebel might be, Nasrallah does not think they stand a chance anymore. Incapable of waging a war large enough to take down Assad, the rebels may very well be weakening.

According to Lebanese sources, Assad is planning to run for reelection in July with a new campaign starting in May. The move, supported by Russia as a method of avoiding a power vacuum in the country, is rejected by the opposition. The extensive destruction caused by the civil war, in addition to the fact that many citizens are currently living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, makes it extraordinarily difficult for a reasonable number of people to freely and fairly exercise their right to vote.

It is not surprising, then, that the United States is taking extra measures to bring down Hezbollah. In an effort to undermine Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill entitled the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act. The bill, if passed, will impose sanctions on any financial institutions found to be aiding Hezbollah in some effect. Hezbollah in recent times has wrought havoc on the region in ways the U.S. clearly does not appreciate, causing the Western nation to speak out against the terrorist organization that has had such a large affect on the civil war in Syria.

Hezbollah’s actions have not only resulted in a less than desirable outcome in Syria- they have also caused some lashing out in Lebanon. Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, who support the Syrian rebels, have reportedly attacked Hezbollah bases in acts of revenge fro the organization’s action in Syria. These attacks serve to augment a mounting fear that Syria’s civil war could spread, such that a civil war erupts in neighboring Lebanon as well. Assad’s power is clear. One can only hope that Syria’s destruction is not fatally contagious.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: Al-Monitor, Al Arabiya, The Guardian, Haaretz
Photo: Accuracy In Media

Luis_Solis_Wins_Costa _Rican_Election
The dominating two-party system in Costa Rica has finally been broken. Luis Solis, of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC), has won the presidential election handily. With most of the votes counted, he won 1.2 million votes, or approximately 78% of the vote.

Even though the other candidate, Johnny Araya, had pulled out of the campaign following a University of Costa Rica poll suggesting a large lead by Solis, his name remained on the ballot and he received 22% of the vote. This win comes despite 43% of the electorate abstaining from voting in the elections, a record figure.

Solis beat Araya in all seven provinces and even beat Araya in his own hometown of Palmares by a ratio of two to one.

The PAC party was founded in 2000 as a center-left party focusing on reducing corruption and promoting civic participation in Costa Rica. Solis ran his platform on building up infrastructure, improving universal health care and pension programs, and promote environmental stewardship. He also focused his campaign platform on his desire to revamp the tax system to include a more progressive tax policy.

Meanwhile, Araya’s campaign was marred by allegations of corruption alongside President Chinchilla after he flew on a private jet owned by the MECO Corporation, which had just won a $65 million contract from the government. Some regional experts have been calling this election a clear mandate against the current administration ruled by the National Liberation Party (PLN) headed by the current President Laura Chinchilla.

One other important fact to observe is the PAC’s current standing in Congress. Despite winning the presidency, the PAC only has 13 out of 57 seats in Congress, while the PLN has 18 out of 57 seats. Although the PLN has sworn to support the PAC in Congress where they can, this might change given the PAC’s stated commitment to cracking down on the corruption of the current administration.

President-elect Solis will be sworn in on May 8.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: Tico Times, BBC, Blogging by Boz, Tico Times

Countless Venezuelans live in poverty, many of them living in small, run-down towns that are sprawled over the hillside around Caracas, the nation’s capital. Even though Venezuela is known for having some of the world’s largest oil deposits and massive amounts of coal, gold, iron ore, and bauxite, poverty is still a very real issue. The economy is mainly tied to global oil prices, with the oil boom in the 70’s largely benefitting the Venezuelan middle class, but the price collapse to follow caused many of the middle class to enter into poverty and worsened the lives of the already impoverished. Former President Hugo Chavez pursued political programs based on a society with equal rights and opportunities for all, as well as the sustainable integration of the rural poor population into the national economy.

Approximately 60 percent of households are living in poor conditions because of the unemployment rates being so high. Around 50 percent of the rural population is poor, compared to the 40 percent in urban areas. The National Institute of Statistics indicates that over 38 percent of the total population lives below the poverty line and 10 percent of the population lives in abject poverty. The poorest segments of the rural population include mostly Afro-Venezuelan and indigenous communities and landless households headed by women that inhabit semi-arid territories. Even though there have been strong efforts to endorse national food security, the country still imports many basic foods, like grain, milk, and meat. This makes the country extremely vulnerable to global food price inflation, so scarcities of key basic foods is very likely to become more severe in the future.

Some say Hugo Chavez’s economic reforms and expansion of social programs have helped the poor population benefit from oil money, but others say he has harmed economic performance since his rise to power in 1999. According to The Guardian, however, poverty and illiteracy levels have fallen, but violent crime and inflation have increased at the same time. Lately, oil exports have boomed, with the country’s current net oil export revenues at $60 billion, when they were only at $14.4 billion in 1999. The nation’s GDP per capita has increased from $4,105 to $10,801, but the inflation rate has also increased from 23.6 to 31.6 percent. Violence has increased as well and become a key concern for Venezuela, with murder rates doubling since 1999. Unemployment has decreased from 14.5 to 7.6 percent and as a result, poverty has dropped significantly, as well as infant mortality which was 20 per 1,000 live births in 1999 and is now only 13 per 1,000 live births.

Former Vice President Nicolas Maduro assumed presidency of Venezuela in April, 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, and has invited corrupt officials into the government. The country continues to face formidable challenges with its economy’s vulnerability to the fluctuations in international oil prices. They have also recently experienced sharp increases in public debt as well as major fiscal deficits. The high inflation rate, largely blamed on businesses, mixed with the falling international reserves that represent less than five months of imports are a great concern to many government officials. The international community is curious to see how Venezuela’s new president will affect what were once improving statistics in the nation.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: BBC News, The Guardian, Rural Poverty Portal, World Bank
Photo: Efareport

Allegations of corruption on behalf of the Brazilian oil and gas giant Petrobras has unsettled the political opposition in Brazil. The controversy comes amidst allegations that the current President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, drastically overpaid Astra Holding for Pasadena Refining, Inc., when she was a member of Petrobras’ Board of Directors in 2007.

Petrobras paid almost $1 billion for the refinery, even though two years earlier the company was sold to Astra Holding for $42.5 million. This wide gap in the sale prices of Pasadena has drawn ire from many of Rousseff’s political opponents.

Following the discovery of the misconduct, the senior executive of Petrobras, Nestor Cervero, was forced to step down and Paulo Roberto da Costa, a former executive director of Petrobras, was arrested on charges of money laundering during his tenure at the company. There are also five federal investigations of Petrobras, including one by the Congressional Budget Office in Brasília.

Political opponents of Rousseff are taking advantage of this discovery by unleashing disparaging remarks about the Brazilian president ahead of presidential elections in October. Rousseff is expected to be a favorite to win the election, and opponents are attempting to whittle her down by focusing press attention on the scandal.

Aecio Neves, the main opposition candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, has called for a parliamentary investigation into the scandal, and has criticized the decision to buy the refinery even though information given to Petrobras was incomplete.

Petrobras also faces allegations that Petrobras employees received $139 million in bribes in exchange for granting oil platform and drilling contracts to SBM Offshore, a Dutch company.

Petrobras has diminished in value over the past few years. In 2008, its shares were trading at $60 and today they trade for less than $12. The market cap has declined by 51 percent in the past three years, and has a debt of $22 billion, a 30 percent increase over 2012 levels. Such a level of debt has resulted in a warning by the financial counsel that the credit rating of Petrobras might soon be downgraded.

According to analyst Jõao Augusto de Castro Neves, Rousseff is not likely to lose her re-election bid in 2014, but her opponents will try to use this issue to continue exerting consistent pressure on her administration in the hopes of currying favors or ministerial positions.

— Jeff Meyer

Sources: Forbes,
Photo: Portaldeangola

Indonesia’s upcoming presidential election, currently slated for July 9, gained a great deal of attention when the National Commission on Human Rights refused to examine the human rights records of any of the presidential candidates.

Since the announcement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has given questionnaires to all of the candidates in order to demonstrate that the candidates want to improve Indonesia’s human rights record. As of now, HRW has distributed the questionnaire to Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Aburizal Bakrie for the Golkar Party, Prabowo Subianto for the Gerindra Party, Wiranto for the Hanura Party, Rhoma Irama for the National Awakening Party, as well as to the parties who have not yet decided on their presidential nomination.

The questionnaire asks how committed the candidates will be in improving areas where a large amount of religious violence is occurring. These areas include Aceh, Banten, East Java, West Java and West Sumatra.

Additionally, the HRW is asking candidates if they plan to comply with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) recommendation to allow foreign journalists to enter into Papua and if they will release political prisoners.

The HRW should receive responses by May 16 and will publish their findings in early June, prior to the presidential election.

However, the record of Prabowo Subianto, the candidate for the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerinda Party) has recently come under scrutiny. Human rights groups are questioning Prabow’s actions from when he started as an officer in the military to his actions as a three-star general.

Human groups are calling for an investigation regarding Prabowo’s actions in East Timor in the 1980s following allegations that he ordered a massacre of over 300 civilians. Additionally, these groups are claiming that Prabowo was “responsible for the abduction and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 1998, and for orchestrating riots in May 1998” which ultimately resulted in “more than 1,000 deaths and the rapes of at least 168 women.”

In 2006, the National Commission on Human Rights issued a report with the names of 11 people, including Prabowo, who they thought should be prosecuted in the abductions of those 23 activists.

Prabowo’s military career ended because of the abductions case, where he accepted responsibility for the torture of 9 of the activists, but said that he was not responsible for ordering the abductions or torture and said nothing about the other 14 activists.

In regard to the emphasis on human rights in the upcoming election, HRW’s deputy Asia director Phelim Kine has said, “Indonesia’s next president will inherit serious human rights problems requiring leadership and commitment.” Kine went on to say, “Indonesian voters should insist that presidential candidates make explicit their plans to promote and strengthen human rights in the country.”

The winner of the election will serve as the second Indonesian president to be directly elected by the public. Whether or not the human rights records of the candidates have a strong impact on who is elected will be determined in July.

– Julie Guacci

Sources: The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, The Huffington Post, The Jakarta Post
Photo: The Asia Foundation

As Rwanda remembered the 20th anniversary of the horrifying genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda’s first lady—Jeanette Kagame—wrote a moving piece stating that women bore the heaviest burden of Rwanda’s history. However, modern Rwanda now leads the world’s revolution for female political representation.

Aloysia Inyumba, Rwanda’s former minister of gender reveals that “there is a general understanding and appreciation that if things are going to be better in Africa, women are going to have a key role.” Rwandan women played a crucial role in rebuilding the country after the war—many women were obligated to step up to assume the roles formerly occupied by men. Out of necessity, women found a venue to demonstrate their capabilities.

Women hold 51 out of 80 seats in the Rwandan Chamber of Deputies; that is 64 percent. Not only that, 24 seats in the Chamber are also reserved exclusively for women. The country now has more women in the parliament than any other country in the world. Furthermore, the Rwandan constitution also guarantees both genders no less than 30 percent representation in all decision-making bodies of the country.

What does a female majority parliament mean? It means that gender parity and women’s empowerment are prioritized on the national agenda. Rwanda legislated many laws aiming at empowering women and protecting their rights and interests. Gender violence, women’s health and choice, gender imparity and imbalance are all highly prioritized issues. Furthermore, the Rwandan political culture also favors female representation; as can be seen from the fact that the even more women have been elected than what the quota system guarantees.

Nevertheless, for many Rwandans there are still many areas that could still use some improvement. In public sectors, women hold only 15.7 percent of positions, 54.5 percent of all civil servants are still male and 36.8 percent of ministers are women. Furthermore, more girls and women in Rwanda still need to be enrolled in school. However, Connie Bwiza Sekamma, one of Rwanda’s female MPs, believes that female empowerment and equality can be brought about via the quantitative expansion of female representation. She believes that gender equality can then be attained once enough women have a chance to show their potential.

Nonetheless, Rwanda’s success in moving from the state in which it found itself in the 90s to a leading country in gender equality is an admirable achievement. The seriousness with which they endeavor to make this issue a national priority is certainly worth emulating.

-Peewara Sapsuwan

Sources: Voice of America, Thomson Reuters Foundation , The New Times, Institue for Security Studies, NTV Kenya, The New York Times, Republic of Rwanda
Photo: Lateline 

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment unrest in the country. According to the report, the program, named ZunZuneo after the sound of a hummingbird’s tweet, attempted to create a network similar to Twitter through which Cubans could send text messages to one another on quotidian topics such as the weather, soccer and news updates.

Upon reaching enough subscribers, ZunZuneo would become a catalyst for political change by trying to trigger flash mobs of Cubans and an eventual “Cuban Spring” where tens of thousands of citizens gather to demand more rights and for the overthrow of the Castro regime. Although the program did eventually reach 40,000 subscribers, Cubans were unaware of its affiliation with the United States.

ZunZuneo also had a surveillance dimension with Mobile Accord, a contractor for the project, storing and classifying cellular usage data according to age, gender, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.”

The debate now hinges on whether the program was considered a “covert” action. Under the law, any covert action requires president authorization and Congressional notification, yet the White House and USAID have denied the supposedly covert nature of the program. The U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, has emphasized the necessity of a “discreet” but not “covert” program in “non-permissive environments” to ensure the safety of individuals.

Carney also stressed the fact that the program was subject to congressional oversight and its role as a “development assistance” program to aid in the free flow of information to Cubans living in a setting where information and access to the Internet is heavily restricted.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah again stressed the discreet but not covert effort of the program and claimed that the Government Accountability Office investigated and cleared the programs as legal.

This latest revelation has come on the heels of damaging revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program which sparked indignation and mistrust between the U.S. and its allies.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Guardian, Associated Press, USAID
Photo: Tech Crunch

Now that Crimea is officially a part of the Russian Federation, nations, especially those with borders near Russia, need to focus on the newly created border of Crimea and Ukraine. Unrest, illegal markets, and more training exercises or amassing of troops need to be watched carefully. Ukraine may not have a full army or the ability to support one, but that will not stop small guerilla groups or militias who are still sore about the event from causing trouble for innocents.

In regards to Russia and Putin, the American Intel and other nations must not simply believe that the buck stops here. Ambition is hard to kill. With Crimea obtained rather easily Putin may take this as a building block to strike at more countries and “reclaim” more territories. So be prepared and keep watch for the borders of all nations surrounding Ukraine and Russia which include Finland, Belarus, which already has armed Russian forces in it, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and nations in Central Asia.

Recently, Russia has been removed from G8 due to its activity and if this international shunning continues to take place, expect to see Russia become more aggressive and yet somehow isolationist in its foreign policies. The separation from trade will hurt the economy and force internal production, which may force the nation to close off and take on a North Korean attitude against the world, only emerging to take more nations. This is an extreme and slim probability, but one that should not be ignored.

So things such as decreased foreign trade, further removal from international organizations, increased domestic production and random or sudden contact with smaller nations not normally contacted should be things to have a close eye on. Besides these warning signs, something else to watch for is how well the integration process with Crimea and Russia itself goes.

The intelligence community, and maybe even the UN itself, will need to see how peaceful the process will be, examine the social and economic aspects and also watch for dissidents in either territory. The policy Russia implements and puts to action for the integration of Crimea must be reviewed to see if it will be fair for both parties and if it is equal and democratic.

-Matthew Price

Sources: NightWatch, National Post