Europe/Americas update: September 15-16 2018



A group of hundreds of Romanian judges held a silent protest outside Bucharest’s Court of Appeals on Sunday to call for preserving judicial independence. The Romanian government has been on a months’ long quest to undermine the judiciary and decriminalize corruption on account of the fact that ruling party boss Liviu Dragnea is currently barred from office due to a previous corruption conviction.


In an interesting change of pace, thousands of people marched in Skopje on Sunday in favor of changing the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia.” The name change, which was negotiated with Greece to ease concerns over the use of the name “Macedonia,” seems to be broadly unpopular in principle, but as it’s also the ticket for Macedonia to join NATO and the European Union it’s expected to pass muster in a September 30 referendum. Whether turnout will be over 50 percent, the threshold for a legitimate vote, is another question. And the big hurdle to the name change remains a parliament vote, which still looks like it will be an uphill battle.

Part of the challenge heading into the referendum is a surge in social media activity that is hostile to the name change. Western and Macedonian officials believe this activity is being pushed by Russia-backed groups similar to those who participated in social media activity leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. Moscow has denied interfering in Macedonian politics but it’s not exactly a secret that the Russian government does not want Macedonia to join NATO.


The Swiss government issued a statement on Sunday demanding an end to Russian spying activities in Switzerland. Swiss authorities say they thwarted a Russian operation on Friday that targeted a Swiss lab that conducts research into chemical and biological weapons earlier this year.


In another interesting change of pace, about 1000 people marched in downtown Barcelona on Sunday in favor of Catalan union with Spain. Police had to maintain order after a group of separatists threatened to clash with the demonstrators.



Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro visited Colombia on Friday and did his best Donald Trump impression, suggesting that maybe a military intervention in Venezuela wouldn’t be such a bad idea:

“With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out,” Almagro said at a press conference in the Colombian city of Cucuta. “What Nicolas Maduro’s regime is perpetrating are crimes against humanity, the violation of the human rights and the suffering of people that is inducing an exodus. Diplomatic actions should be the first priority but we shouldn’t rule out any action.”

Almagro has been Maduro’s most outspoken critic in Latin America, but until Friday he hadn’t been willing to go as far as Trump, who last year raised the possibility of a “military option” against Maduro. In several meetings with aides and Latin American leaders last year, Trump also discussed the possibility of a U.S. invasion of the South American nation.

Sounds great. I mean, what could go wrong, really? Almagro heavily criticized Maduro, accusing him of blocking humanitarian aid in order to use hunger and shortages of medicine as weapons against Venezuelans who don’t support him.


Provoking what’s likely to be a ripping constitutional crisis, Guatemala’s constitutional court has ordered President Jimmy Morales to allow the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to return to the country. Morales wants to shut down the UN-backed anti-corruption agency, mostly because it wants to investigate his own corruption, and last month barred its boss, Iván Velásquez Gómez, from entering Guatemala.


Finally, if you have anything you’d like to say to Defense Secretary James Mattis, get it out now because it looks increasingly like he’ll be the next rat off of the USS Trump:

Back when their relationship was fresh and new, and President Trump still called his defense secretary “Mad Dog” — a nickname Jim Mattis detests — the wiry retired Marine general often took a dinner break to eat burgers with his boss in the White House residence.

Mr. Mattis brought briefing folders with him, aides said, to help explain the military’s shared “ready to fight tonight” strategy with South Korea, and why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has long been viewed as central to protecting the United States. Using his folksy manner, Mr. Mattis talked the president out of ordering torture against terrorism detainees and persuaded him to send thousands more American troops to Afghanistan — all without igniting the public Twitter castigations that have plagued other national security officials.

But the burger dinners have stopped. Interviews with more than a dozen White House, congressional and current and former Defense Department officials over the past six weeks paint a portrait of a president who has soured on his defense secretary, weary of unfavorable comparisons to Mr. Mattis as the adult in the room, and increasingly concerned that he is a Democrat at heart.


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