It’s been a week of surprises by the Obama administration. On Saturday, President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was a surprising pick. With his experience as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, his previous tenure as deputy U.S. trade representative and as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and his fluency in Mandarin, Huntsman appears to be a solid pick. However, Huntsman is a Republican currently serving as governor of Utah, and has widely been viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Obama last week also reversed his previous position in two controversial areas. First, on Friday, Obama announced the U.S. government would revive the military tribunals created by the Bush administration but suspended by Obama in January to try some 20 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo Bay. Obama also changed position on the release of hundreds of photograps showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees. Obama had previously promised to release such photos, but on Wednesday said that their release would “not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals” but would further enflame anti-American opinion and…put our troops in further danger.” The reversal was criticized by the American left, and even managed to draw a response from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
In other news from the last week:
1. The Congress Party won a decisive victory over its rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s nation-wide elections Saturday. According to most observers, the election gives the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties, a mandate to push ahead with a series of economic reform. Because most Pakistianis view Congress as less hawkish than the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election could also provide an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, which have been strained since the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai six months ago.
2. Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were also completed on Saturday. The country has been paralyzed by a standoff between conservative Islamists in the parliament and the government which wants to move forward with economic reforms. Kuwaiti elections are unusual insofar as there are no political parties; candidates run as individuals without formal political affiliations. Historically, the parliament has been dominated by religious figures and tribal authorities who oppose the power of the central government. Kuwait formally extended the right to vote to women in 2005, and analysts had hoped that the expansion of the franchise might moderate the parliament. But while women were elected to the national parliament for the first time in the country’s history—some sixteen of the 210 candidates for the 50 seat-assembly were women; and two women were actually elected into the parliament—the overall composition of the parliament changed little. Analysts now fear that the standoff between the government and the parliament will continue into the next legislative term.
3. A political scandal rocked Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party in the United Kingdom last week. On Saturday, Labour suspended MP David Chaytor after it was revealed that he claimed £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for a mortgage he had already paid off. Chaytor was the second Labour MP suspended due to allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds. The scandal has also claimed one junior minister, Shahid Malik, who is being investigated by the parliamentary oversight committee for accusations that he violated the ministerial code. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has tried to seize the initiative, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient oversight. But with members of his own party also accused of wrongdoing, some analysts believe the only real winners in the scandal are likely to be left-wing Liberal Democrats and the far-right British National Party, neither of which have been implicated in the scandal. With local and euro-elections scheduled for June 4, voters will not have long to wait to express their frustrations.
4. The fuel shortage in Nigeria—one of the world’s leading oil exporters—appears to be drawing to a close. A standoff between Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, and a group of powerful Nigerian business interests had led fuel importers to cut off supplies to the country. Fuel importers receive extensive subsidies from the Nigerian government to keep domestic fuel prices artificially low. However, as the subsidies have become increasingly expensive, the government sought to reduce their levels, sparking a confrontation with fuel importers, who receive approximately $5.5 billion per year from the subsidies. The Nigerian oil industry is the primary source of foreign exchange for the country, but has also been a source of considerable controversy.
5. After announcing plans to seize more than 60 oil-servicing companies last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued his efforts to nationalize the country’s food industry last week. On Thursday, Chávez announced that the government would seize control of a pasta factory owned by the U.S. food producer Cargill. In March, the government seized a rice mill owned by Cargill, a Coca-Cola plant, and several other food factories. The government accused the companies of violating price controls aimed at controlling inflation and maintaining a sufficient national food supply. Cargill owns another 22 plants around the country, and the Chávez government warned the country that it could see further nationalizations within 90 days if it continued its “marked non-compliance with the law.” Venezuela currently suffers inflation of almost 30 percent and shortages of key staple foods are becoming increasingly common.
And in a bonus follow-up story this week:
6. Concerns over the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic appear to be waning, but several important stories nevertheless emerged last week in the wake of the crisis. First, the Mexican tourism industry is trying to encourage visitors to return to Mexico. Concerns over visiting Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, had led to a collapse of tourism in the country. The resort destination of Cancún, for example, is losing an estimated $6 million per day as a result of the downturn. To counter the decline, some Mexican resort destinations are now offering flu-free guarantees to lure back visitors.
And even more importantly, the H1N1 outbreak has also rekindled debates over the tradeoffs between intellectual property rights and the right to access essential medicines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral flu drug, has agreed to increase production. Roche currently sells Tamiflu for €12 ($16.30) per treatment for developing countries and€15 in developed countries. However, developing countries have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify Tamiflu as an essential medicine, a move which would bypass Roche’s intellectual property claims and allow generic production to address public health concerns in the global South. Roche maintains that it can provide sufficient stockpiles of the drug to make such a move unnecessary. While the WHO has not yet issued its opinion, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company is nevertheless planning on moving forward with its plans to produce a cheap generic version of the patented Tamiflu drug, which its says it can sell for less than half the cost of the patented brand.