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Weekly News Digest for February 2nd, 2024

Compiled by Sara Anis Ali, Grey Cohen, Alex Hsu, Meagan McColloch, Hayes Orr, Quinn Phillips, Ryan Simons

Edited by Sara Anis Ali, Hayes Orr, Quinn Phillips, Meagan McColloch, Niamh Dempsey

Asia and the Pacific 

China, U.S. Hold High-Level Meeting Over Fentanyl

On Tuesday, high-ranking U.S. officials met with their counterparts in Beijing to discuss fentanyl production and distribution. For years, the U.S. has been dealing with a severe opioid epidemic. Fentanyl trafficking, a main component in opioid production, has also been on the rise, leading to a drastic increase in fentanyl/opioid-related overdoses. This fentanyl largely originates from China, where pharmaceutical companies use it to produce medicine and other products. Then, it is illegally trafficked to the U.S. through Mexican drug cartels.

During Tuesday’s meeting, both sides discussed strategies for combating the illegal fentanyl trade and committed to working together to cap the influx of the drug into the United States. Even more, they agreed to establish a joint task force to achieve this goal. Though it is still early, the U.S. can be hopeful that cooperation with China on this issue will lead to meaningful progress based on past cooperation.

The meeting is a result of warming ties and increasing cooperation between the world’s two largest economies. It comes at the heels of the Biden-Xi summit in November and shows the willingness of both nations to work together on the global stage. Showcasing that very attitude, the U.S. lifted sanctions on a Chinese science institute it accused of complicity in human rights violations in 2020.

Central America and the Caribbean

Undercover DEA Program Targets Venezuelan Officials

A secret memo containing details on a covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been obtained by the Associated Press this week. “Operation Money Badger” was an operation that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to accumulate evidence against the country's leadership to build drug-trafficking cases against them. The memo, which is from 2018, says that the operation was to be carried out without alerting Venezuelan officials. Whether the operation is still underway is currently unknown. The document unwittingly was made public during a trial of two former DEA supervisors. 

This document is likely to strain relations between the U.S. and Venezuela and raise further concerns about U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. The document was made at the peak of Republican President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign – an attempt at removing the Venezuelan president from power. The memo exemplifies the aggressive U.S. policies toward Venezuela during the Trump administration, starkly contrasting with the current attempt to ease tensions by the Biden administration.

The “Money Badger” operation has been acknowledged by the U.S. to potentially be a violation of international law. International law forbids undercover operations in another country’s borders without proper consent. However, according to legal experts, no international court or tribunal has the proper jurisdiction to keep the U.S. accountable for undercover law enforcement operations overseas. Current and former DEA officials have said that they were surprised less by the operation's existence than the agency’s acknowledgment of it within their internal documents.


Farmer Protests Spread Across Europe In Response to EU Environmental Policies

For the past two weeks, farmers across several European countries have engaged in a series of protests in response to rising costs, European Union environmental policies, and cheap food imports. Imports from Ukraine, on which the EU has waived quotas and duties to support the country as a result of Russia’s invasion, and renewed negotiations to conclude the Mercosur trade deal with South American countries, have fueled the farmers’ grievances about the unfair competition in sugar, grain, and meat. Recent EU environmental policies, such as reducing pesticide use and increasing fuel taxes, have exacerbated the struggles farmers across Europe are facing amidst rising costs and unfair competition. 

In France and Belgium, farmers have increased pressure on their governments by blocking highways with their tractors and access to roads leading to major container ports. In France, where farmers have been protesting for over two weeks, farmers blocked highways leading to Paris and set bales of hay on fire to partially block access to the Toulouse airport. Farmers in south-west France have also dumped rocks and gravel onto highway exits, preventing the flow of traffic. Meanwhile, drawing inspiration from protests in neighboring France, Belgian farmers have blocked access to the Zeebrugge container port. Belgian farmers also blocked a square in central Brussels, where EU leaders plan to meet for a summit on Thursday. In response to the protests, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that he wants to postpone the trade deal with South America and will raise the issue at the EU summit, citing the vehement opposition from European farmers.

Recently, protests have spread to countries such as Germany, Italy, Romania, and Spain. In Germany, farmers staged national strikes in response to their government phasing out tax breaks on agricultural diesel, while farmers in Romania protested the rising cost of diesel and competition from cheap Ukrainian imports. Similarly, Polish farmers kicked off a national protest on January 24th against Ukrainian agricultural imports. In Sicily, farmers have blocked roads to protest the regional government’s refusal to provide farmers with compensation following last summer’s intense drought and heatwave. Just last week, farmers in Spain announced plans to join the protests taking place across Europe. However, as the protests gain momentum across the continent, some worry about their impact on the European Parliament elections scheduled for June.

Exhausted by environmental policies, European farmers now represent a growing constituency in the European Parliament’s far-right coalition. Polling in all 27 EU states has revealed that far-right parties are on track to finish first in nine countries, including Austria, France, and Poland. In another nine countries, far-right parties are projected to finish in second or third place, which includes Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden. Political scientists Simon Hix and Kevin Cunningham argue that recent polling should “serve as a wake-up call for European policymakers about what is at stake.”

Middle East and North Africa

Iran and Pakistan Restore Ties Following Airstrikes

Following an exchange of missile attacks along their shared border, officials from Iran and Pakistan met on Monday to lessen tensions and affirm respect for each country’s sovereignty. The airstrikes began on January 16th, when Iran launched missiles into the Pakistani province of Balochistan, claiming that the missiles were targeting Baluch militant groups seeking to separate from Pakistan. In response, Pakistan launched retaliatory airstrikes in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. Following the attacks, both countries temporarily suspended diplomatic relations and recalled their ambassadors. 

The tit-for-tat airstrikes were in part fueled by both countries’ internal woes, with Iran still seeking to prove its military might following a suicide bombing, and Pakistan’s administration attempting to display its military strength before a highly contested election in February.

The escalation in attacks between the two nations sparked concern in the international community as many officials like UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saw the exchange as an expansion of instability stemming from the Gaza conflict spreading beyond the Middle East. The sudden nature of the violence between Iran and Pakistan led both countries to scramble to retrieve their foreign ministers to try and restore ties. Despite concerns of potential fallout between the two nations, both Iran and Pakistan overcame international concerns, with the reinstatement of diplomatic ties and a meeting between foreign ministers to push for more collaborative efforts to tackle insurgency along the shared border.

Both nations have continued their diplomatic and economic ties, indicating neither nation seeks to worsen relations and that the airstrikes may have served as a way to reduce internal pressures rather than start a war with a neighboring nation. 

North America

U.S. Announces Sanctions Targeting Israelis Involved in Settler Violence

On Thursday, United States President Joe Biden announced an executive order sanctioning four Israeli settlers involved in attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. The sanctions include blocking individuals from accessing any U.S. property or assets and include a travel ban. This is the most significant action a U.S. President has taken to address violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers. It signifies a divergence from the Biden Administration’s “Hug Bibi” foreign policy strategy, which holds Israel close publicly and exerts diplomatic pressure on them privately. The imposition of sanctions is an escalation from previous visa bans introduced by the U.S. State Department last November, which also addressed settler violence. Biden’s executive order indicates his growing displeasure with the Israeli government’s handling of settler violence following Hamas’s October 7th attack, which has resulted in the deaths of eight Palestinians at the hands of Israeli settlers.

The executive order represents a strategic move by the Biden administration in preparation for the 2024 campaign season. Arab Americans have been critical of the White House’s foreign policy decisions since Israel’s invasion of Gaza post-October 7th. Support for the Democratic party among Arab Americans has dropped from 59% in 2020 to 17%. Campaign experts fear this demographic can drastically affect voting outcomes in key battleground states. Notably, the administration announced the executive order just before a campaign event in Michigan, a state with a large Arab American population. 

U.S. and Israeli objectives have continued to diverge as the months of conflict drag on. The Biden Administration has repeatedly called for a two-state solution. Following the announcement of the sanctions, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that “Israel must do more to stop violence against civilians in the West Bank and hold accountable those responsible for it.” However, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has not indicated agreement with U.S. goals, instead saying he would continue to support settlements. Moreover, a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office displayed his opposition to a two-state solution, stating “Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty.” While U.S. and Israeli policy goals are growing increasingly disconnected, the Biden administration will have to balance its foreign policy strategy with the demands of the 2024 election campaign. 

South America

U.S. Reimposes Sanctions on Venezuela Amid Electoral Controversy 

In a recent press release, the United States Department of State announced the return of sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil and mining industries. According to the State Department, the United States will not renew General License 44 which provides relief to Venezuela’s oil and gas sector when it expires on April 18 of this year. Additionally, the United States is revoking General License 43, which authorized bilateral transactions involving Minerven, the Venezuelan state-owned mining company. Any U.S. companies doing business with Minerven have until February 13 to complete a “wind down of transactions.” The return of U.S. sanctions follows a decision made by Venezuela’s top court to uphold a ban blocking the leading opposition hopeful, Maria Corina Machado, from the upcoming presidential election.

After imposing oil sanctions on Venezuela in 2019, the U.S. granted economic relief to the country when both nations reached an election deal in October of 2023. The terms of the deal meant that the Maduro regime would remain committed to electoral integrity, and elections that would take place in the second half of next year with international observers from the European Union and United Nations overseeing the vote. As a result of easing sanctions, Venezuela was expected to grow its total oil revenue from $12 billion in 2023 to as much as $20 billion in 2024. However, on Monday, White House spokesperson John Kirby said that by disqualifying Machado from the race, members of the Maduro government “have not taken those actions” it promised during October’s negotiations.

In response to Washington's decision, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez accused the United States of “rude and improper blackmail.” The Venezuelan government also warned it would “immediately cancel” incoming deportation flights of Venezuelan migrants who entered the United States illegally. This threat comes after the U.S. and Venezuela reached a separate deal regarding the removal and repatriation of undocumented Venezuelan migrants from the United States. Vice President Rodriguez also said that the U.S. decision was a “deliberate attempt to strike a blow to the Venezuelan oil and gas industry.”

According to analysts, reinstating oil and gas sanctions could cause substantial damage to Venezuelan exports which are largely dependent on oil. A reinstatement of sanctions also has the potential to impact domestic gas markets because several U.S. companies, including Chevron, received a special license to operate in Venezuela in 2022 and export Venezuelan crude oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Opposition leader Maria Machado also warned that millions more Venezuelans could flee the country if the disputes, which have significantly hurt the Venezuelan economy, continue.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Junta-led Sahelian Countries Exit West African Economic Bloc

In a move that threatens the hope of a return to democratic rule in the military-led Sahelian countries, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali announced on Sunday that they will be jointly exiting the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic bloc. The move is a further exacerbation of action that has gripped the region since 2020. ECOWAS responded to the coups with sanctions and threats of force, but these moves only strengthened the military rulers’ resolve, as they dug into their relations with each other and foreign actors such as Russia. This latest action by the juntas only further signals their commitment to holding onto power and threatens the economic security of the three already economically weak states.

ECOWAS has responded to the announcements of departure from the regional organization, broadcast simultaneously on national television stations, by stating that as of yet, a formal request to leave the organization has not been made. Further, ECOWAS regulations stipulate that it takes a year for states to leave the organization, meaning that the effects of the withdrawal will be slow to reveal themselves. Even so, analysts have raised concerns over the economic implications of the deal. Further integration with Russia is expected, as the announcement follows close behind an agreement between Russia and Niger to work together militarily. Analysts have also stressed the impact the exit will have on the millions of immigrant workers from the departing countries who take advantage of ECOWAS’s visa-free travel and right-to-work laws.

While the full ramifications of the withdrawal are yet to be seen, citizens of the countries are already feeling the economic effects of the ECOWAS sanctions. Additionally, the withdrawal, which comes after ECOWAS’s empty threat of military action against the military regime in Niger, signals the bloc’s inability to effectively police its members and sustain stability in the region.



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