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Weekly News Digest for February 10th, 2023

Compiled by Aalia Garrett, Niamh Dempsey, Trinity Gates, Sara Anis Ali, Zoe Shepherd, Hayes Orr, and Shekina Shindano

Edited by Aalia Garrett, Niamh Dempsey, Sara Anis Ali, and Riley Mied



Asia and the Pacific

U.S. Shoots Down Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon

The United States military shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over American territorial waters on Saturday, bringing an end to its highly public journey across the nation. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that U.S. President Joe Biden was initially briefed regarding the balloon on Tuesday, at which point he expressed an inclination to order the balloon to be immediately shot down but refrained from doing so due to an advisory from the Pentagon to wait until the balloon was over water. Chinese officials assert that the aircraft was a civilian balloon used only for meteorological research. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated that the “unmanned airship” posed no threat and had entered U.S. airspace accidentally. In spite of these claims, the balloon hovered above numerous sensitive military sites across North America, including Montana, which houses an estimated 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos. Furthermore, a second balloon, believed to also be of Chinese origin, was spotted flying over Latin America on Friday, though China has yet to publicly comment on such sightings. Despite China’s firm denial, the two crafts’ flight paths have drawn several accusations of spying.

Tensions over the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a highly-anticipated visit to Beijing this week, a meeting which had offered slight hopes for an improvement in Sino-American relations. Recent developments, including this most recent conflict, have laid bare the extremely fragile nature of the tumultuous relationship between the two powers, stirring deep concern in Washington and among many of its allies. Experts indicate that China is keen to commence negotiations regarding a more stable relationship with the U.S. so that it may focus on its economy, which took a great hit from China’s now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglect by foreign investors. Be that as it may, the continued disputes cast doubt on an amicable future between the two.


Central America and the Caribbean

U.S. Imposes Sanctions Against Central American Gang Members

The United States Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Archaga Caria and Campbell Licona, two members of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha gang on Wednesday. The Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, to protect El Salvadoran immigrants in the area. The gang has since spread across the U.S. and Mexico and has gained dominance in Central America. In 2012 the U.S Treasury designated MS-13 as a transnational crime organization, the first gang to be designated as such, and these sanctions are the Treasury’s latest attempt at interrupting the operations of the prolific syndicate.


The two individuals targeted by the sanctions are both heavily involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and money laundering. Archaga Caria, also known as “Porky,” is the leader of MS-13 in Honduras and a fugitive from U.S. and Honduran law enforcement after he escaped from a Hondurian prison in 2020. Caria remains one of the FBI’s top 10 most-wanted fugitives, and the U.S. Department of State has announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Caria’s arrest or conviction. Campbell Licona, also targeted by the U.S. sanctions, worked with Caria and assisted MS-13 in establishing businesses that would be used to launder the profits from the gang’s drug trafficking operations. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury block the men from making any financial transactions within the U.S. and freeze any property they may own. U.S. Treasury official Brian E. Nelson spoke on the destructive impact of MS-13 operations stating, “Its criminal activities degrade economies in the region to such a degree that citizens are compelled to seek safety and better opportunities elsewhere.”


Europe

Greece Bans Extreme Right-Wing Parties from Running in Elections

The Greek Parliament passed an amendment earlier this week which will outlaw parties whose leaders have been convicted of a serious crime and/or are deemed to be a threat to Greek democracy. Experts believe this amendment is intended to target the Greek National Party and its founder, Ilias Kasidiaris. Kasidiaris is the former leader of the Golden Dawn Party, a neo-Nazi political party that was banned from the country in 2020. Kasidiaris is currently serving a 13-year prison term because of his involvement with the group.

This amendment comes before an important national election which will take place before July. The Greek National Party has broken the three-percent threshold needed to gain seats in parliament in recent opinion polls, causing concern among the current government which is made up of the ruling center-right New Democracy Party and the center-left Pasok Party. Critics of this amendment include the left-leaning opposition party Syriza, who abstained from participating in the vote, declaring the amendment was too broad and could be used to ban other political movements in the future.


Zelensky Starts European Tour to Get Support for Ukraine

President Zelensky of Ukraine met with the European Parliament and the leaders of the 27 European Union member states in Brussels late this week. This meeting followed similar visits to London and Paris where Zelensky talked with British, French, and German leaders. Zelensky acknowledged each state's efforts to support Ukraine, including introducing sanctions against Russia and military aid. Zelensky is using this tour to campaign for accelerated EU membership for Ukraine after receiving clear confirmation from EU leaders that Ukraine would not be fast-tracked into the bloc. Zelensky also attended meetings focused on military aid, in which EU leaders discussed how Ukraine would manage the billions of dollars of aid it has already received from the EU. These leaders also debated efforts to seize European assets from sanctioned Russian entities and considered using these assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction.


Middle East and North Africa

Earthquake Aftermath in Syria and Turkey

Earlier this week, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Turkish province of Gaziantep, making it one of the most powerful to ever strike the region. Soon after the earthquake, strong aftershocks spread throughout the area, with the magnitude reaching 7.5 on the Richter scale.


Both Turkey and Syria faced heavy casualties from the earthquake. In the aftermath, thousands of civilians were reported to be trapped under the rubble. While humanitarian agencies in the region began mobilizing immediately, the cold, wet conditions made it difficult for first responders to reach affected areas and conduct rescue efforts. For those stuck under the debris, the harsh environment also increased the threat of both hypothermia and starvation.


Experts believe that the severity of the damage was likely so severe because of weaker building construction. In many Turkish provinces, new structural designs ensure that buildings can resist seismic activity. However, many older buildings do not have these protections, making collapse in the midst of an earthquake inevitable.

Amid the difficulty in retrieving buried civilians, many have stepped up, trying to help search for their neighbors and loved ones. At this time, it is uncertain how many individuals the earthquake displaced and harmed, but many first responders hope that with combined efforts of civilians and rescue workers, more people will survive the tragic event.


North America

Biden Gives State of the Union Address

President Biden gave his first State of the Union speech under a divided Congress and appealed to Republicans to collaborate with him. He promised to continue his economic agenda but offered no new initiatives. Biden also outlined his plan for his re-election campaign. He “pledge[d] to restore the nation” and build up the economy where no one is left behind.


In acknowledgement of divided government, Biden urged Americans to remain hopeful and in support of democracy everywhere. In the same regard, he implored the U.S. to confront hate and extremism, referencing the January 6 attack on the capital. Biden consistently returned to the topic of our nation’s economy. He referenced the record 12 million jobs created in his first two years as president. His focus was on helping blue-collar workers in parts of the country that have been abandoned by a changing global economy. Finally, Biden brought up one of the most prevalent issues in the country currently: police brutality. President Biden condemned the police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and called for an increase in police accountability. The address ended by urging Americans to remain optimistic about the future of the union.

Chinese Spy Balloon Shot Down over U.S. Coast

A Chinese spy balloon floated towards the Eastern Seaboard for several days until it was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina. After the Pentagon determined it was a Chinese surveillance device, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken postponed his trip to China which was meant to manage the tensions between China and the U.S. The Biden Administration stated that the balloon did not present a military threat, but rather a violation of sovereignty. Beijing claimed the device was a meteorological blimp that had strayed far from its original course. However, the spotting of a second balloon over South America made this theory of the lost balloon contested.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry declared strong discontent and protest of the U.S. shooting down the balloon. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China had told Washington that the balloon was a civilian aircraft that had accidentally flown over the United States. Therefore, U.S. using armed force is an excessive reaction and a violation of international conventions. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said China reserves the right to respond further. Art Thompson, an aerospace engineer at the Northrop Corporation, says the balloon likely masks powerful technology. Mr. Thompson studied images of the balloon and says it was equipped with solar panels, a control panel, and what is assumed to be a parachute system. Balloons of this nature can be controlled by radio signals and a system that can adjust the balloon's altitude. These devices can use solar power to collect radio data, communications signals, and phone data. The U.S. is still on high alert until they determine China’s intentions.


South America

Wildfires Ravage Chilean Countryside

Over the past week, at least 24 people have died while thousands more have been displaced by wildfires sweeping through the south-central portion of Chile. The fires have devastated local ecosystems and wildlife populations. The Chilean government mobilized over 5,000 firefighters to contain hundreds of separate fires scattered throughout the affected regions. Combined, the wildfires have consumed over 270,000 hectares of land, and the number is expected to grow substantially as dozens of new fires are reported daily.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric called for unity in the face of the deadly fires. In a statement, Boric said, “I’ve seen the resiliency of our people, and it’s exactly that spirit that has to guide us during this difficult time. All together, we’ll come out of this ahead.” These remarks were thought to have been made in reference to the tense relationship between the native Mapuche people, local government interests, and timber companies that has been a source of division in the regions affected by the wildfires.

Extreme heat and a period of prolonged drought have significantly contributed to the intensity of the current round of wildfires. Due to its location in the Southern Hemisphere, Chile is in the middle of summer. As a result, in the weeks leading up to the fires, weather stations in Chile’s central valley recorded temperatures above 104°F. The wildfires also had adverse effects on the country’s economy. The regions that have been hit hardest by the inferno are home to fruit farms that grow the country’s worldwide exports. The current crisis has garnered support from its neighbors. The United States has dispatched a specialized DC-10 Air Tanker plane capable of carrying 36,000 gallons of water while other nations such as Mexico, Spain, and Argentina have sent specialized volunteers to provide assistance. The Chilean government is continuing to accept all forms of help and hopes it can extinguish the flames as quickly as possible.


South American Nations Submit Joint 2030 World Cup Bid

On Tuesday, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay submitted a joint proposal to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. Alejandro Dominguez, president of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), highlighted the region’s storied history, the intense passion of its fans, and the significance of the event by saying “the 2030 World Cup is not just another World Cup; it deserves a celebration with recognition for 100 years.” Following the announcement, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández said “it would be a great joy if, 100 years later, the World Cup returns to where it all began,” adding that he plans to invite Bolivia to join in the candidacy, too.

The nations involved in the original proposal all have long, renowned histories as World Cup competitors. After Uruguay hosted the inaugural tournament in 1930, Argentina hosted it in 1978, along with Chile in 1962. Furthermore, Uruguay and Argentina have a combined total of five World Cup trophies. However, the joint proposal faces competition from a combined Spanish and Portuguese bid. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, and Greece have signaled that they will announce their proposals at later dates. FIFA will make the decision in 2024, two years before the next tournament takes place in North America.


Sub-Saharan Africa

United Nations OCHA Releases Humanitarian Response Plan for Somalia

On Wednesday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced a response plan for Somalia. Somalia is currently experiencing the longest and most severe drought in its history following five consecutive years of little to no rainfall. It is estimated that 36.4 million people are in need of aid. UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Adam Abdelmoula, warns that millions of lives are on the line and famine is a strong possibility from April to June if humanitarian assistance is not sustained. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator is also calling on more partners and donors to “step up and front load their support”.


Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa where the climate is becoming hotter and drier due to climate change. Somalia experienced very little rainfall from October to December leading the country to face an immediate threat of starvation. In Somalia 1.4 million people have been displaced and 3.5 million livestock have died, reducing young children’s access to milk. Hunger is not the only threat set to rise. Cholera and measles cases have risen while conflict and insecurity continue to block humanitarian access.


Last year, aid organizations, local communities, and government authorities were able to help 7.3 million people, but now additional resources are needed to support more people. The UN OCHA response plan includes an appeal for $2.6 billion to assist 7.6 million of the most vulnerable people. The UN and state authorities will continue to work together to address this crisis.


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