Politics News

Puerto Ricans Appear to Endorse Statehood in Referendum

Lost in the extensive coverage of the 2012 U.S. Election is the recurrent and important issue of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. On Tuesday, the Puerto Rican electorate appeared to endorse statehood in a two-part non-binding referendum. Fifty-four percent of voters prefer changing Puerto Rico’s status from the status quo, and 61 percent of voters supported statehood. “Sovereign free association” garnered 33 percent of the vote, and independence only five percent. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S. with “commonwealth” standing, a status that brings with it a complicated set of rights and privileges.

The two-part nature of the referendum question means that the results may not be the ringing endorsement of statehood that backers of the proposal had hoped. Of the 54 percent favoring a change in status, many could have desired either independence or sovereign free association. Likewise, of the 61 percent of voters statehood as opposed to independence or sovereign free association, many might actually want to retain the status quo. . Overall, the results seem to be compatible with previous statehood referendums and likely do not reflect any profound change in public opinion.

The 2012 Puerto Rican status referendum’s wording has come under harsh criticism, even from supporters of statehood. Pedro Rosselló, the former Governor of Puerto Rico and a longtime backer of statehood, feels that the referendum’s wording will cause “an indefinition that, in the end, will bring more of the same: the continuous status quo.” Nevertheless, most pro-statehood politicians appear to accept the results.

The next move belongs to the U.S. government, though it remains unclear when that move will occur and what form it will take. If Tuesday’s referendum is taken as an endorsement of statehood, Congress will need to decide on whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state. President Barack Obama, as well as leaders of both political parties, have promised to support Puerto Rico’s self-determination, though with the results of the two-part referendum open to interpretation, it is not certain what either the President or Congress will do.

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuna, a backer of statehood, supports both the referendum and the pro-statehood interpretation of its results. He has promised to hold a constitutional assembly in 2014 followed by plebiscite, the necessary next-steps for statehood. Unfortunately for statehood-proponents, Fortuna lost his bid for reelection to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who favors the status quo.

Even if the current referendum goes nowhere, a firmer resolution to the question of Puerto Rico’s status appears likely within the few years. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has asked several times since 2006 for the U.S. to “allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence”. The U.S. government agrees, and has responded with a flurry of reports and investigations over the last few years. The report (pdf) published by the President’s 2011 Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status argued for a two-stage referendum by which voters would first decide whether to remain part of the U.S., either as a state or remaining as a dependency. Then, if the independence option is turned down, a second vote would have the electorate chose between statehood and the status quo. Most likely a clear referendum like this one will be necessary for the U.S. government to act.

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Rising Bihar Asks for “Special Category” Status

The Indian state of Bihar has long been noted for its poverty, corruption, and lack of social progress, ranking last in most Indian developmental indicators. But Bihar now has one of India’s fastest growing economies, and its levels of corruption have recently plummeted. Less pronounced gains have also been made over much of northern India. As a result, the impoverished BIMARU region (BIhar, MAdhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) is now considered to be defunct.*

Despite its recent gains, Bihar is still one of the poorest parts of India, with low levels of social development (as can be seen on the Urbanomics base map used here). Its popular Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, trumpets Bihar’s recent gains, yet he insists that his state’s poverty makes it eligible for “special category” status, which would allow it to receive financial benefits from the central government. Kumar recently rallied his massed supporters by declaring that, “We are prepared for a longer battle ahead. We will now organise a rally in the national capital, sometime in March, to press for the acceptance of the special category status demand.” Kumar’s call has attracted widespread attention across India, in part because he would also like to see such “special category” status applied to other backward Indian states.

To qualify for the category, Indian states must fit several criteria based more on physical geography and culture than on poverty and lack of infrastructure. Rough topography, substantial tribal populations, and low population density are the key factors. Bihar, in contrast, is a densely populated lowland state with few tribal people. Kumar, however, waves away such obstacles, arguing that the problems of the uplands spill into the plains of Bihar: “Though Bihar is not a hill state, the river emanating from the mighty Himalayas is creating havoc in the state through flood every year…It is the responsibility of the Centre to talk to Nepal to find a solution to recurring floods. It has failed to fulfill its responsibility.”

The Times of India contends that Kumar’s approach is “arousing sub-nationalism” among the Bihari people, which it sees as a basically positive development, arguing that sub-nationalism can generate the social cohesion necessary for economic growth. Elsewhere in India, however, Bihari assertiveness is often regarded with contempt and suspicion, as are Biharis. As the Times of India reported in September of this year:

Bihar is on the receiving end once again in Mumbai. Biharis have been termed “infiltrators” — and to hear the words of a self-appointed guardian of Marathi sub-nationalism in Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city in India, they might be run out of the state.

Bihar-bashing has become MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s favourite pastime in recent years. In the process of espousing a grotesque form of sub-national regional and linguistic fundamentalism, he has acquired a larger than life image such that the governance of the city appears to be ‘outsourced’ to him.

*It should also be noted that the geographical designation of BIMARU changed at the beginning of the new millennium when the new states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand were hived off of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh respectively.

** The designation of special category states on the map posted here is not definitive; I was not able to find a map showing the states so designated, and different textual sources place different states in the category. Some sources, for example, list Sikkim and Uttarakhand as well.


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Separatism in French Polynesia

As previously noted on GeoCurrents, the political entities that comprise the French Republic exhibit a multitude of different administrative designations with varying legal responsibilities. One such possession is French Polynesia, which was officially designated an “overseas country” in 2004, though legally its status is indistinguishable from that of France’s other overseas collectivities (see map at left). Overseas collectivities yield control of foreign affairs, monetary policy, and security to Paris while otherwise exercising legal autonomy. In recent years, increasing chaos and animosity have come to define the political landscape of French Polynesia. Elected officials are split over the question of greater autonomy or independence, and legislative coalitions often prove ephemeral.

French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru is at the center of the controversy. Temaru and his pro-independence party, Tavini Huiraatira (People’s Servant), have recently stepped up their separatist rhetoric. On October 8, Temaru reportedly removed the French flag and a portrait of the French President from French Polynesia’s assembly chamber. Pro-independence members of the assembly have also begun using a Tahitian name for the territory, “Maohi Nui”, rather than “French Polynesia”. According to Temaru’s main political opponents, the anti-independence Tahoera’a Huiraatira (Popular Rally), Temaru’s actions are illegal. They further charge that he is becoming more of a dictator than a president.

Opposition to French rule is colored by a history of controversial nuclear testing. Between 1966 and 1996, 193 nuclear tests were conducted in French Polynesia. At first, such tests enjoyed a measure of support, but overtime they became an environmental scandal. France’s final series of tests, conducted in 1995 and 1996 on the French Polynesian atoll of Moruroa, provoked worldwide controversy and condemnation in the South Pacific Forum. After the last 1996 test, France signed and ratified both the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Treaty of Rarotonga, which creates a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Pacific. In 2006, President Temaru renamed a prominent park in Papeete—the Place Chirac—the Place de 2 Juillet 1966. The new name references the date of the first nuclear test to take place in French Polynesia, and the park now hosts a memorial dedicated to all nuclear detonation sites around the Pacific.

French Polynesia’s independence movement faces several political and economic obstacles. Aside from tourism in Tahiti, French Polynesia’s economy has little to stand on, and depends on roughly a billion of dollars in annual subsidy from Metropolitan France to maintain its standard of living. Politically, conservative parties within French Polynesia that oppose independence consistently control about half of the government’s elected positions, including—at times—the presidency. Tahoera’a Huiraatira, founded by Gaston Flosse, is the largest such party and garners the support of most French settlers. The peculiar instability of French Polynesian politics further confounds the situation. The former Tahoera’a Huiraatira President, Gaston Tong Sang, fell to a contentious no-confidence vote in 2006, paving the way for President Temaru’s ascendancy and splitting the anti-independence Tahoera’a Huiraatira into two competing parties. Though independence is certainly one of the largest issues in French Polynesian politics, it would be a mistake to interpret each parliamentary election as something approaching a referendum on the subject.

Temaru and other independence-seekers within Tavini Huiraatira point with hope to recent comments made by French President Francois Hollande during a visit to Senegal. Hollande promised an end to “Françafrique”, a term used to refer to France’s special relationship with its former African colonies. Tavini Huiraatira’s hopes may be somewhat overstated, especially given that the demise of Francafrique is itself a nebulous notion. For the near future, French Polynesia will almost certainly continue on with the status quo, and there are currently no plans for a independence referendum, as is the case in New Caledonia. In the longer term, though, an independent French Polynesia appears to be quite possible, perhaps even likely.

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Local Elections Conclude in Bosnia and Herzegonvina

Preliminary results are in for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s October 7th local elections. The elections went smoothly and without irregularities, but many fear that the results may fan the flames of ethno-nationalism and separatism in the fragile country’s political discourse. The big winner appears to be the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), which won 27 mayoral seats for a gain of 13 from the last such elections in 2008. The SDS’s gains come within Republika Srpska, one of two mostly independent political entities that together comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina (see map at right). Ethnic Serbs dominate Republika Srpska, whereas about three quarters of the inhabitants of its confusingly named counterpart—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—are Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats.

The success of the SDS has understandably raised eyebrows. SDS members played a leading role in the initiation of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and have since been found guilty of numerous crimes against humanity in international courts related the indiscriminate killing of Bosniaks during the war. The SDS does not currently espouse violence, but it has positioned itself to the right of the relatively moderate Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD)—the party of Republika Srpska’s president, Milorad Dodik. The SNSD was the main loser in October 7th’s elections, losing 26 mayoral positions.

Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are more closely associated with national politics than in most other countries. According to Bosnian political analysts, local issues like roads and schools were mostly ignored, as candidates tended to emphasize questions of sovereignty, such as whether and how Bosnia should be divided. According to university lecturer Dražen Pehar, the local media share some of the blame, as they “simply followed the election agenda as imposed by the parties and the candidates, rather than trying to steer it towards a proper set of issues.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sharp ethnic and political division means that the country essentially experienced two different elections, one in Republika Srpska and another in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the latter, the political landscape will remain relatively stable, with the dominant Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), winning 34 mayoral seats. The Croat Democratic Union, which represents the Federation’s Croat minority, won 14 seats.

The final results of the elections remain unclear in some municipalities, most notably Srebrenica. The then-majority Bosniak Srebrenica was the scene of a notorious mass-killing in 1995, where over 8,000 Bosniaks died at the hands of Republika Srpska troops and paramilitary organizations. The killings, along with the expulsion of 25,000-30,000 other Bosniaks, were ruled a genocide by The Hague in 2004. Since the end of the war, about 10,000 Bosniaks have returned to Srebrenica, where they now constitute a one-third minority. In the past, former Bosniak residents of Srebrenica driven from the city in the 1990s have been allowed to vote in local elections, electing Bosniak mayors and councilors. Beginning with the October 7th elections, that privilege no longer applied, prompting fears that Serb politicians will take power.

Serbs see the expiration of special voting rights for Bosniak ex-Srebrenica residents as a natural step towards normalcy. Their reasoning is that local elections require local expertise among voters. According to Srebrenica’s Serb SNSD mayoral candidate, Vesna Kocevic, “the citizens who live here should decide about Srebrenica and about what happens in the community.” SNSD politicians also tend to minimize the hardships of Srebrenica’s Bosniaks; Republika Srpska’s president recently claimed at a Srebrenica campaign event that “there was no genocide.”

Srebrenica’s Bosniak mayoral candidate, Camil Durakovic, sees the new political situation as a fulfillment of exactly what the perpetrators of the 1995 killings wanted. Srebrenica’s Bosniaks have responded by encouraging Bosniaks from around the country to register and vote in Srebrenica. The outcome of their efforts is not yet clear, but it appears that the election will be close. Republika Srpska may challenge the results.

In a more humorous yet perhaps ominous turn, a mayoral candidate in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fourth-largest city—the majority Bosniak Zenica—was banned from the election in September for uploading pornographic videos to his official campaign website. According to the Boston Globe, mayoral candidate Mirad Hadziahmetovic  “said he uploaded porn clips after realizing that large numbers of people use the Web to peruse sexual content.”

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Bavarian Separatism and the Franconian Issue

Bavarian separatism, a long-standing if still rather minor political movement, is finally getting some attention in the global media, thanks to the recent publication of Bayern kann es auch allein (or Bavaria Can Also Go It Alone), a book described by Canada’s Maclean’s as a191-page polemic covering a range of standard Bavarian complaints about the present German (and European) political order and a paean to the benefits and glories that await an unfettered Free State of Bavaria.” Framing the issue in Canadian terms, the Maclean’s article notes that Bavaria is a bit like a combination of Quebec and Alberta: culturally distinctive from the rest of the country (like Quebec), and also more prosperous and more conservative (like Alberta). The New York Times claims that “Bavarians, who have an independent streak akin to Texans in the United States, can handle marching orders ‘from Berlin or Brussels, but both together is too much…’” (quoting a local source).

The separatist Bavaria Party (Bayernpartei, BP), however, rarely gets as much as one percent of the vote in local elections in recent decades, although in the 1950s it occasionally scored in the double-digits and in 1949 it received over 20 percent of the vote in the Bundestag election. But the European economic crisis, coupled with the large fiscal equalization payments that Bavaria makes to other regions of Germany, could result in a certain resurgence.

The separatist movement, however, faces a distinct challenge in the fact that not all of Bavaria is culturally Bavarian. The Bavarian dialect (which many linguists regard as a separate language) is mostly limited to Altbayern, or Old Bavaria, composed of the Regierungsbezirks (“government districts”) of Upper Bavaria, Lower Bavaria, and Upper Palatinate. In the Napoleonic period, several historically and culturally non-Bavarian districts were appended to the state. These include the three Franconian districts, where the East Franconian dialect is found, and Bavarian Swabia, whose residents traditionally speak a variety of Alemannic German. Few residents of these areas have much use for Bavarian nationalism (or sub-nationalism) in any of its guises.

The actual geographical situation, however, is rather more complicated. As it turns, a few small areas in both Bavarian Franconia and Swabia do belong to Altbayern, as does the Austrian region of Innviertel.

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Catalan Secession Looming?

Fear are mounting that Spain will face a new secession crisis after the government of Catalonia called for a snap election on November 25, which is widely seen as a referendum on enhanced autonomy if not outright independence. The move came shortly after the Madrid government rejected Catalonia’s demand for greater autonomy on taxation issues. Desire for political separation is growing in the region, as evidenced by massive (600,000+) pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona earlier this month. Catalonia is Spain’s most indebted region, and one of its wealthiest ones as well, and most Catalans believe that they pay a disproportionate share of taxes.

The Spanish constitution bans outright votes on secession, and it is unclear in any event if most Catalans want full independence or merely enhanced autonomy. The central government, however, is taking the current challenge very seriously. According to blogger Tyler Durden, “the Spanish Military Association (SMA) has warned Monday that those who cooperate or allow ‘fracture’ of Spain should ‘respond with all the utmost rigor’ in the courts in the field of military courts by the ‘serious charge high treason.’”

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Self-Rule and Environmental Crisis in Ogoniland

In recent months, relations between the Ogoni people of Rivers State in southeastern Nigeria and the government have come under intense pressure (map at left from the UN). On August 2nd, a group of Ogoni led by Goodluck Diigbo of the pro-autonomy Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) declared their sovereignty in internal affairs while stopping short of secession. According to allAfrica.com, the declaration asserted “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.” The governor of Rivers State attacked the declaration as “treasonous”, maintaining that Diigbo and his followers do not represent the wishes of most Ogonis. In the intervening months, confusion has reigned, with the government trying to ignore the issue and keep it from escalating, while different groups of Ogonis make different demands.

Suspicion has plagued the relationship between Nigeria and the Ogoni since the early 1990s, when the MOSOP’s creation of an “Ogoni Bill of Rights”, the outbreak of a protest movement, and several assassination attempts targeting Diigbo helped create a crisis situation. In 1993, MOSOP and the Ogoni took on Shell Oil, demanding billions of dollars and a stop to pollution in the area. After a Shell employee was beaten, the company withdrew from the region, prompting Nigeria to take heavy-handed measures to quell the resistance, resulting in around forty deaths. Ogoni antipathy to the national government intensified in 1995, when the military government of Sani Abacha hanged the noted Ogoni activist, novelist, and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Environmental damage due to petroleum exploitation has remained a huge stumbling block in negotiationsbetween Ogoni activists and the government. According to a UN report, roughly 1,000 square kilometers of Ogoniland are contaminated by oil, and clean drinking water is nearly impossible to find.  Ogonis can’t help but be exposed to petroleum toxins through a number of channels. The same report outlines cleanup strategies, but emphasizes that any such efforts would take decades and cost billions. The Ogoni obviously bear the brunt of local environmental damage, but they see few of the benefits, most of which accrue to Nigeria’s central government and Shell Oil. As seen in the August declaration of autonomy, the Ogoni want to keep oil royalties for themselves and to force Shell to either extract oil in a more responsible way or leave.  The Nigerian government, however, has a clear economic incentive to maintain the status quo.

The Ogoni do not necessarily agree about what kind of future they want for their region. Some favor complete independence, though most see that as unrealistic and undesirable. Others, such as senator Magnus Abe, would like to see the creation of a new “Bori State”, ahomeland for the Ogoni and several other ethnic groups. According to Abe, “State creation has been a major tool for enhancing a sense of belonging and promoting development by groups that feel marginalized. It is an important means of strengthening federalism, though; economic viability should also be an important criterion.” A pro-unity faction led by an ad-hoc group of politicians, community leaders, and scholars has also emerged, claiming that the “Ogoni remains committed to the unity of the Nigerian state and that we are with Nigeria, which is contrary to recent media report on Ogoni.” The group’s conciliatory stance is aimed at creating a stable situation that would allow environmental cleanup to proceed. Meanwhile, MOSOP seems to be following up on its claims to Ogoni autonomy, ordering a Mexican firm recruited by the River State government to aid banana producers to stay out of Ogoniland. Which of these groups, if any, will emerge as the dominant voice of Ogoniland, and what the government will do about it, remain open questions.

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A New Capital City for South Sudan

Though South Sudan remains a predominantly rural country, its urban areas—particularly Juba—are growing rapidly. Juba, the country’s largest city and its current capital, is estimated to house nearly 400,000 people, twice as many as in 2005. Years of civil war devastated the city’s infrastructure and drove many of its residents to seek safety in neighboring Uganda, but with the return of stability people are returning in droves. As the southern terminus of Nile River water traffic and home to South Sudan’s best international airport, Juba appears ready to serve as the focal point for future economic growth in the region. Nevertheless, South Sudan’s government plans to go through with a proposal put forward last year to move the country’s capital 125 miles north to what is now the rural location of Ramciel.

The move is projected to cost $10 billion and take twenty years. Water, sewage, and electrical systems will all need to be built from scratch, transportation connections to the region are severely limited, and the construction of governmental buildings has yet to begin. Critics both within South Sudan and in foreign governments have blasted the relocation plan for its costs, which they see as overly extravagant given the country’s current state of poverty. Government officials defend the plan on the grounds that jurisdictional disputes with Juba’s state government, the general chaos of the city, and limited availability of space for expansion all make eventual relocation a necessity.

Should the plan be brought to fruition, South Sudan will become the latest addition to the ranks of countries with purpose-built capital cities. Most such cities are based on sterile designs full of wide-open spaces and monumental architecture that might look good from a bird’s eye view, but which tend to be forbidding on the ground, as is the case with Myanmar’s Naypyidaw and Brazil’s Brasilia. Detailed plans for the new city are difficult to find, but if photos taken of model versions of the city are any indication, Ramciel promises to be another aspirational addition to this genre of architecture and city planning. Pictures tend to emphasize wide streets, grassy fields, geometric patterns, and modernist buildings. Such a city would be the antithesis of Juba, whose years of weak governance have resulted in a very spontaneous kind of urban form. Though such spontaneity can be beneficial in measured doses, the scale of Juba’s growth has fueled dangerous chaos in the past. Last March, several people died in a land dispute between tribal groups in the city during violence that forced President Salva Kiir to call up security forces to deal with the fighting.

Though most of South Sudan’s people are small-scale farmers, government revenue—and by extension the country’s ability to provide education and infrastructure—is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues. Since South Sudan needs to export most of its oil through its longtime enemy (North) Sudan, oil income is highly unreliable. Oil production in South Sudan has been almost entirely shut down since January due to political disagreements with the North over how to divide revenue, and as a consequence the country is almost bankrupt.

Despite South Sudan’s dire fiscal situation, proponents of the move to Ramciel in the government remain undaunted. In an interview with Reuters, Minister for Housing and Physical Infrastructure Jema Nunu Kumba said that “the only option was to go to a complete new place where the government can be able to design the city as it wants, and also to avoid confrontation with local people and the stakeholders.” Avoiding confrontation with local stakeholders is always a tempting prospect for bureaucrats, especially those attempting to build an iconic new city for a new country. But whether $10 billion—almost a year of South Sudan’s GDP and about $1,250 per South Sudanese citizen—is a fair price for avoiding such confrontation remains to be seen.

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Extremist Political Violence in Germany

Although Germany is far more politically stable than it has been over much of the past century, it has recently experienced a rise in crimes linked to radical politics. According to a government investigation , the number of reported criminal extremist activities increased from last year by 3.8 percent to 21,610. Though domestic Islamic extremism poses the greatest threat and receives ample media coverage, neo-Nazi and revolutionary communist violence, which gets much less press attention, has become a growing problem. Neo-Nazis direct the majority of their attacks against immigrants, and communists direct most of theirs against police officers. Both groups also target each other.

Germany’s far right owes much of its ideology to the Third Reich, but it has thrived and evolved because of current economic dissatisfaction and popular resentment of immigration. The most prominent neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), holds seats in thirteen local parliaments and attracts at least a small following in most states. The NPD opposes immigration, capitalism, European economic and political integration, and military involvement in Afghanistan. Though it stems from the German Reich Party, which formed in the aftermath of the Second World War and was based in West Germany, the NPD has since reunification received the most votes in the states of former East Germany. Residents of eastern Germany tend to have a significantly lower standard of living than their counterparts in the west. Because of widespread economic frustrations and a hatred of foreigners, the eastern states of Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Thuringia, and Brandenburg lead the country in their support of the extremist right-wing party.

Though the NPD is the most visible far-right group in Germany, it by no means has a monopoly over neo-Nazism. A significant neo-Nazi subculture has formed around distinctive black attire and shaven heads, heavy metal concerts with white supremacist bands, and marches for extremist causes. Though at times peaceful, the activities of the far right can often become violent and are closely monitored by the government. The number of potentially criminal neo-Nazis rose in 2011, their violent offenses increasing by about 1.5 percent to 16,142. Again, per capita neo-Nazi violence is concentrated in eastern Germany. The region’s recent rise in violence coincided with the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground, a cell of rightists who had committed multiple murders over the course of the past decade.

Germany’s far right may be better known to the outside world, but the country’s greatest surge in political violence has been on the far left. In 2011, violent crimes by leftists increased from the previous year by 20 percent. Like their neo-Nazi counterparts, Germany’s revolutionary communists have had a relatively long history, but have altered their ambitions somewhat with the times. Today’s far left activists share the radical egalitarianism and anti-capitalism of late 20th century militant groups such as the Red Army Faction. However, their organization is less sophisticated and, instead of focusing on high-profile targets in government and industry, they mainly direct their attacks on the police and members of the far right.

The rise of leftist extremism is associated not only with the economic problems that plague the states of former East Germany, but also with gentrification and other social frustrations in urban areas. The highest concentration of violent crimes committed by communists was in major cities—Bremen, Berlin, and Hamburg—and more broadly in eastern Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Unlike the neo-Nazis, the revolutionary communists do not have a party of their own. Though there are several far left parties, the more powerful ones include more moderate factions. All said, most communist organizations lack any substantial support. As one political commentator notes, the revolutionary communists of Germany receive much less scholarly and media attention than neo-Nazis, and so their organizations are less well understood. One reason for this, he suggests, is that certain left-leaning politicians and academics either side with the radicals or worry that highlighting the dangers of revolutionary communists might damage the image of mainstream left-wing causes.

The troubling increase in neo-Nazi and communist violence points to lingering popular anger. German politics is nowhere near as volatile as it was in the past. However, growing economic problems in Germany and the European Union will most likely only exacerbate such frustrations.

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A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

During 2010, some 299,803,162 tons of ships and cargo moved between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Panama Canal. This total would have no doubt astounded the canal’s builders, but to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which operates the canal today, it is a sign that canal’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate. Many ships are forced to wait up to ten days to cross the canal, costing shippers about $50,000 per day. Bidding wars often arise between ships, with some paying up to $200,000 to move ahead in line. To ensure that congestion in the canal does not drive away traffic, Panamanians in 2006 overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by former president Martín Torrijos authorizing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is generally considered a good investment by outside groups, and received A2 investment grade status from the credit rating agency Moody’s. It is expected to be complete around 2014.

Meanwhile, two of Panama’s neighbors—Nicaragua and Costa Rica—are themselves eyeing the inter-oceanic canal game after 98 years on the sidelines. On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed a bill passed by the National Assembly that set up a legal framework for construction of the Nicaragua Inter-oceanic Canal, with the explicit goal of competing for Panama Canal traffic. The proposed Nicaraguan canal would stretch some 200 kilometers and could cost upwards of $30 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years worth of Nicaraguan GDP. So far support for the project among western governments and private industry is thin, but both Russia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interested in financing the canal.

There are several potential routes for a Nicaraguan canal. The most cost-effective of these would run from the mouth of the San Juan River on the Caribbean coast upriver to Lake Nicaragua—the nineteenth largest lake in the world by area. A channel would then be dug across the isthmus of Rivas to allow ships to access the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new idea; in fact the basic outline of the route is over a hundred and fifty years old. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the American shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a stagecoach line across the isthmus of Rivas, called the Accessory Transit Company, for gold-seekers traveling west. Vanderbilt was soon granted rights to build a canal to the Pacific, though his plans were never carried out. Nevertheless, the notion of a Nicaraguan canal remained potent, as shown in the 1906 map at left (source). A more humble (and realistic) version of the waterway proposed recently, known as the “Ecocanal”, would forgo the costly connection to the Pacific and instead focus on allowing shipping to access the various inland waterways of North America through Lake Nicaragua.

The San Juan River, the linchpin of any practical route to Lake Nicaragua, conveniently lies entirely in Nicaraguan territory, though it does directly border Costa Rica. Tensions along the border have been especially high since 2010, when Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River damaged the environment of the Costa Rican parts of Isla Calero, which sits within the river. The resulting backlash helped to precipitate a small Nicaraguan invasion that became known as the Isla Calero dispute, infamous among Central Americans and geographers as the first armed incursion caused in part by a mistake in Google Maps favoring Nicaragua. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla responded by ordering the construction of a new road along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, known as the San Juan River border road project. Since the road was part of an emergency decree, it was able to bypass environmental review and avoid a great deal of scrutiny that is only now catching up with it.

Construction of the San Juan River border road project is now mired in scandal. Millions of dollars of construction contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals that possess no construction machinery or expertise. Allegedly, any National Roadway Council employees who spoke up about the corruption were fired. On top of these domestic indignities, Nicaraguans now argue that Costa Rica is building a “dry canal” that would allow high-speed movement of container traffic from one port to another. Dry Canals have in the past been proposed in both Colombia and Nicaragua. Though a Costa Rican conspiracy seems rather farfetched, a dry canal there might, if constructed, be a bargain compared to Nicaragua’s $30 billion vision.

One can easily lose track of the multiplicity of canals proposed in Central America over the years. Both Nicaragua’s Inter-oceanic Canal and Costa Rica’s San Juan River border road will likely join them as historical footnotes and topics of regional bickering while the Panama Canal continues to grease the wheels of the world economy. Then again, construction of the Panama Canal doubtless seemed similarly daunting when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, left the region with nothing to show for his efforts but the bodies of 22,000 dead French construction workers strewn about the jungle.

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Expected and Unexpected Findings in the New Pew Poll of Pakistan

A new public opinion survey of Pakistan by the Pew Global Attitudes Project has been gathering media attention. Most reports focus on the intensification of anti-American attitudes revealed by the poll. Evidently, only 12 percent of Pakistanis now view the U.S. favorably. Of the nations assessed by Pew, only the Jordanian have a lower view of the United States. Three-quarters of the people of Pakistan see the U.S. as an enemy state, whereas only 8 percent view it as a partner. Pakistanis also express deep skepticism about American financial assistance, with only 12 percent viewing economic aid as “mostly positive.”

Significant as these findings may be, they are not exactly surprising. Nor is the poll’s revelation that Pakistanis retain highly negative views of India, with 59 percent of respondents considering it their country’s greatest single threat. Equally expected is the negative reaction from the other side of the border: 59 percent of Indians view Pakistan as a “very serious threat.” Less expected are the Pew findings that people of other countries also tend to have negative views of Pakistan, with high “unfavorability” ratings noted even in Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia.

The Pew Pakistan survey does reveals some intriguing trends. Pakistanis are evidently less concerned about extremism in their country than they were a few years ago, with support for military assaults against the Taliban plummeting from 53 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2012. Yet at the same time, actual advocacy of extremism is declining. In 2008, 27 percent of respondents looked favorably on the Taliban, whereas in 2012 the figure stood at 13 percent. The favorability rating of the Haqqani Network, which has bedeviled NATO in Afghanistan, is lower still, coming in at 5 percent.

The Pew survey has little information on geographical differences in public opinion within Pakistan, but what it does have is significant. In the Punjabi-speaking core, only 49 percent of respondents regard the Taliban as a serious threat, with a mere 38 percent viewing al Qaeda in the same light. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the other hand, 75 percent see al Qaeda as a serious threat and 94 percent have the same view of the Taliban. As the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun organization that is often seen as pushing a Pashtun agenda, the antipathy toward it in the Pashtun-dominated province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is striking. But the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have suffered much more from Taliban attacks than have those of Punjab. It would be interesting to assess the level of support for extremism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Taliban and the Haqqani Network maintain bases, but the region was considered too insecure for Pew pollsters to examine.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the report is its finding that religious devotion correlates negatively with support for violent Islamism in Pakistan. Among those who pray the requisite five times a day, 72 percent are reported to view the Taliban unfavorably, whereas among those who pray less often, the figure is only 62 percent.





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Another Cartoon Controversy Strikes India

Yet another political cartoon controversy has embroiled India in recent weeks. The cartoon in question dates to 1965, when opposition to the planned imposition of the Hindi language across India generated unrest over much of the country and especially the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil activists feared that the imposition of Hindi would reduce non-Hindi speakers to the status of second-class citizens, and thus agitated for the continuing use of English as the country’s unifying, common language. In the end, the government backed down, allowing the perpetuation of English in official communication and granting each Indian state the right to establish its own official language or languages.

The cartoon is currently generating controversy due to the fact that it has been recently included in a political science textbook. Tamil partisans claim that the drawing unfairly represents the student organization that led the anti-Hindi demonstrations in the 1960s, falsifying history in the process. While the cartoon depicts the students leaders as ignorant of the English language, opponent of the textbook argue that, “As far as English is concerned, few could match Tamils in acquiring the skills of the language.” They also claim that the cartoon hides the fact that the government of Tamil Nadu at the time reacted to the anti-Hindi agitation with harsh repression.

Several other cartoon controversies have agitated India in recent months. Many Indians were outraged at the use in another textbook of 1949 sketch that depicts Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip and chasing a snail-riding B. R. Ambedkar in order to speed up work on India’s constitution. Ambedkar, the dalit (“untouchable”) mastermind of the constitution, is a much-idolized figure, especially among lower-caste Indians, and is thus not to be trifled with. Another recent cartoon controversy in the Indian state of West Bengal was analyzed in a separate GeoCurrents post.

A number of Indian advocates of free expression have been outraged at the outrage expressed over these cartoons. Intriguingly, the noted—and aged—Communist stalwart V S Achuthanandan responded with particular force, arguing that “I am a subject of large number of cartoons. I always enjoy them and try to understand the message sought to be conveyed through them. In a democracy, tolerance and readiness to face criticism are vitally important.” (In contemporary India, “communists” generally seek power through the ballot box, whereas “Maoists” advocate—and engage in—revolutionary violence).

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Food-Cost Protests in Northern Canada

Major protests against the high price of food and economic insecurity more generally were held last weekend in the remote northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, inhabited mostly by Inuit (“Eskimo”) people. Organized on Facebook, the “Feed My Family” campaign has attracted roughly a third of Nunavut’s population.  A recent study found that some “three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes, and that “half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.” Food is exorbitantly expensive in Nunavut because almost all of it must be brought in over vast distances from southern Canada or elsewhere. As a result, a single head of cabbage can cost as much as twenty dollars.

Nunavut is a vast territory, roughly the size of Mexico, but it contains only about 32,000 people, some 84 percent of whom are Inuit. Traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices are still carried out and contribute to feeding the population, but most of the people of the region are now dependent on imported food. Hunting, moreover, now demands modern inputs, and hence is itself an expensive proposition. According the article cited above:

Nunavut’s larder of “country food” — caribou, seals, fish and other animals — is there for the taking, but only if people can afford the snowmobiles, gas, rifles, ammunition and gear needed to travel safely. Elliott estimates hunting costs about $150 a day.

Although a poor region by Canadian standards, Nunavut does possess a large array of natural resources, and mining activities in the territory are increasing. Currently the Canadian government is negotiating with territorial leaders to allow Nunavut to have “province-like” powers over local resource development and to collect mining royalties directly. As a recent National Post article emphasizes, “Mining companies spent more than $300 million in 2011 alone on exploration and development in the territory…”  Yet the same article also notes that “years of negotiations are likely to follow.”

Many Inuit leaders support mining in their territory, but most insist that their community should have substantial input in the development process. Most of their efforts in this regard are carried out through Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a native corporation designed to “ensure that promises made under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) are carried out. Inuit exchanged Aboriginal title to all their traditional land in the Nunavut Settlement Area for the rights and benefits set out in the NLCA.” In April of this year, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “received the first royalty payment as a result of mineral production on Inuit Owned Lands. The royalty payment of $2,249,500 was made by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. from its Meadowbank Gold Mine north of Baker Lake.”


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Angolan Rap Musicians Attacked

Angola is an economically booming, oil-rich country noted for its low levels of human development, authoritarian government, deep disparities of wealth, and high levels of corruption. Peaceful opposition to the government has recently been mounting, inspired in part by several politically active rap musician, most notably Hexplosivo Mental (Jeremias Augusto) and Carbono Casimiro. Earlier this week, a number of anti-government activists, including Hexplosivo Mental, “were attacked, beaten and some hospitalised during a meeting in the Angolan capital Luanda, prompting Amnesty International to call for a full and impartial investigation into the incident.”

The Portuguese-language website maintained by the rap-associated activist group, Central 7311, forwards a broadly democratic message, framing Angola as both a “country of the future” and a “country of fear.” Its manifesto denounces Angola’s “communist and autocratic … cult of personality,” while demanding a free press, freedom of expression, the separation of powers, and an autonomous legal system in which no one is above the law.

Angola’s economy has become highly globalized in recent years. Relations with China are particularly close: Angola is one of China’s top suppliers of oil, and China is currently “rebuilding of the Benguela Railway, a 840-mile transcontinental railway that links the Atlantic port of Lobito in Angola with rail networks in the DR Congo and Zambia.” But China is by no means the only foreign country interested in Angolan resources. Argentina, for example, is currently negotiating with Angola for an “oil for food” pact (Angola’s once-significant agricultural sector is now almost moribund). Economic ties with Portugal are also close—and growing closer, due to the old colonial connection, the use of a common language, and Portugal’s current economic crisis. As reported in a recent Spiegel Online article:

With the help of the state oil company Sonangol’s petrodollars, the former enslaved nation is going on a shopping spree in Portugal. The Angolan elites, many with ties to President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power for the last 32 years, are buying up Portuguese government-owned companies that have to be privatized quickly. Portugal’s conservative prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, spent his childhood in Angola, where his father was a doctor. This connection has prompted Coelho to advocate closer relations between the two countries, “their citizens and their companies.” Now Angolans are buying up shares in Portuguese media companies and they are purchasing prime property along the Atlantic beaches as well as luxury real estate in Lisbon and designer clothing. They are also snapping up workers. Close to 150,000 Portuguese have already obtained visas for Angola.

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