Protests and demonstrations in Nicaragua over the government’s intention to reform the nation’s pension plan became increasingly violent over the weekend. According to sources, the number of dead stands at twenty-six. The student-led protests in Managua last Wednesday expanded beyond the capital city to other parts of the nation. The protests themselves have evolved into a popular uprising and challenge to the authority of the government. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced on Sunday he will not go forward with the pension reform, obviously hoping to stabilize the situation. His action could have the opposite effect, however, with many protesters appearing determined to redouble their efforts, vowing to continue the demonstrations until Ortega leaves office.
The unrest in Nicaragua is drawing an increasing amount of international attention. The US State Department is removing a number of its embassy staff and families from Nicaragua in light of the violent protests. Pope Francis has also chimed in, calling for an end to the violence. The death of a Nicaraguan journalist while he was broadcasting on Facebook live has helped make more people aware of what’s taking place.
The longer the protests continue, more pressure will be applied to Ortega. The Nicaraguan leader is an avowed leftist cut from the same cloth as Fidel Castro and to a lesser degree Hugo Chavez. He was the head of government in the 1980s, transforming Nicaragua into a socialist state closely allied to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Ortega lost a re-election bid shortly after the end of the Cold War, only to be elected president again in 2007. Since then, he has moved the country back to the left, and in the process undertook a number of moves that strengthened his hold on power. Ortega’s influence is evident in every branch and department of the government. His influence helped the National Assembly do away with presidential term limits in 2014, and bring about constitutional reforms allowing Ortega to personally appoint military and police commanders.
Latin America deserves more scrutiny with Ortega being challenged, a new president taking power in Cuba, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Nicaragua and Venezuela especially have many similarities at the moment. If Ortega continues to use force to quell the demonstrators and remains in power, Washington will begin paying more attention to events south of the border.
As South Korean President Moon Jae-in touts the progress his administration has made in improving relations with North Korea, many of his fellow countrymen remain skeptical about the sincerity behind North Korea’s promises to end missile tests, and close its nuclear test site down permanently. South Koreans may not be entirely jaded, but they’ve been down this road enough times to know from experience that the chance of the North living up to its promises is slim. Earlier attempts by South Korean leaders to improve relations between the Koreas have all been relatively short-lived. The relationship between North and South always returned to the bitterness, and hostility that has largely defined it since the end of the Korean War. Moon enjoys a high level of popularity among South Koreans at the moment. However, if his renewed Sunshine Policy doesn’t net results, Moon could be facing political problems at home and abroad.
Moon appears convinced North Korea is sincere and desires complete denuclearization. He has been open in his opinions, and, whether he is aware of it or not, has become an unsanctioned interpreter of North Korea’s perceived intentions. Others would consider him to be something more akin to a mouthpiece for his North Korean counterpart. His determination to seal the deal on North Korean denuclearization and attach it to a potential peace treaty is bold and perilous. If North Korea does forfeit its nuclear weapons, Moon’s political capital will soar. On the flip side, if the North decides to keep its nuclear weapons, or the love-fest Moon is promoting does not carry over to US-North Korean relations, the South Korean leader will be the scapegoat.
Moon’s role in the current drama playing out is quite significant. However, it would benefit him to remember that he is a supporting character. Inter-Korean relations are secondary to the standoff between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. The direction events go in following next week’s meeting between Moon and Kim Jong Un will be determined largely in Pyongyang and Washington, not Seoul.
North Korea announced today that it will be officially suspending missile testing, and the nuclear test site where six nuclear tests were conducted in the past will be closed.
“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report Saturday morning. The announcement comes less than a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet in the first inter-Korean summit to be held in over a decade.
Placing a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, and shutting down the nuclear test site are very likely calculated moves by Pyongyang. As North Korea basks in the glow of increasing media adoration, the hope probably is that these moves will be viewed as example of how Kim Jong Un and his government’s sincerity towards denuclearization, and its desire to improve relations with South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
This news just broke a short time ago, and as more information becomes available, I will add a more in-depth update Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
A formal end to the Korean War could be days away from becoming a reality. There are growing indications that the two Koreas are planning to announce the official end to the conflict. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire. No peace treaty or other statutory permanent agreement followed, meaning the war has been technically raging for 68 years although major combat between UN and North Korean/Chinese forces ended in 1953. A number of skirmishes have taken place between Combined Forces (US & South Korea) and North Korean troops. A number of them occasionally threatened to escalate into a major conflict, such as the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the 1976 murders of two US officers at Panmunjon.
Ahead of next week’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, officials from both nations appear to be working out the details for announcing the official end to the war shortly before the summit begins. The move would benefit both leaders tremendously. For Moon, bringing about an end to the Korean War would enable him to walk away from the summit with a victory that would play very well with South Koreans. For his North Korean counterpart, it would hopefully send a signal to the world that Kim Jong Un’s softening stance is genuine.
An agreement ending the Korean War would also raise expectations for the planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that’s expected to take place within the next month. Preparations for the meeting have been progressing for some time. Over Easter weekend, current CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo allegedly met with Kim Jong Un according to the Washington Post. If true, the meeting confirms that high level Trump administration officials have been in contact with Un concerning plans for the summit, as Trump has indicated in recent days.
Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.