Dec 19, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back! Thanks for helping make this a wonderful year for Axios World, and for me.

  • We're off next week but back with a special global trends edition on Dec. 30. Tonight's edition is 1,589 words (6 minutes).
  • Give the gift of Axios World this holiday season. Just pass along this sign-up link.

Situational awareness: The Senate just confirmed Stephen Biegun, the current U.S. special representative for North Korea, as deputy secretary of state with a 90-3 vote.

1 big thing: Venezuela's Maduro survives 2019

Maduro on the balcony of the Miraflores Palace on the day Guaidó declared himself president. Photo: Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images

The Trump administration and the Venezuela opposition believed — insisted, in fact — that 2019 would be the year President Nicolás Maduro would fall.

The big picture: For a time it seemed Venezuela would be the international story of the year — an unfathomable economic collapse, a refugee crisis fast becoming the world’s gravest, and an international drive for regime change involving threats of military force.

How we got here:

  • May 20, 2018: Venezuela’s presidential election, won by Maduro, is widely condemned as a sham.
  • Jan 23, 2019: National Assembly President Juan Guaidó declares himself interim president and is quickly recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other countries.
  • April 30: Weeks of efforts to oust Maduro culminate in a dramatic but ultimately failed uprising, led by Guaidó and vocally supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and others.

Between the lines: Maduro has never again looked as vulnerable as he did that day, but U.S. officials continued to declare his ouster “inevitable.”

  • Elliot Abrams, President Trump’s Venezuela envoy, said in July that Maduro would “absolutely” fall by year’s end.
  • “The administration over-promised, and I think it over-believed,” says Fernando Cutz, who served as South America director on the White House National Security Council earlier in the Trump administration.
  • “They tried a high-risk, high-reward approach,” he says, pairing an embargo with bellicose rhetoric. “They really believed the actions they were taking were going to lead to regime change in Caracas, and they could have, to be honest.”
  • Now, Cutz says, “there has been an indisputable and noticeable decline in attention being paid to Venezuela,” in large part because Trump — who he says showed great personal interest in Venezuela, frequently raising it unprompted — realized “this won’t be an easy win for his foreign policy.”

The flipside: The Venezuelan opposition has begun to fray and was recently hit by a corruption scandal. Guaidó himself — once portrayed in almost messianic terms — is becoming less popular and drawing ever-smaller crowds.

  • “The people are tired of protesting and not obtaining what they ask for,” Guaidó admitted to the Washington Post.
  • His supporters are losing hope, and many have joined the flood of refugees leaving the country.

“Maduro has an incredible escape valve that he’s figured out, which is to allow everyone who doesn’t like him to flee. That is a win-win for him: Not only do you get the crowds down, but that’s less people you have to worry about not having food and medicine,” Cutz says.

  • “You keep the supporters at home, you keep the ones benefiting from the corrupt regime at home, and everyone else, you know, that’s now Colombia’s problem, and Peru’s problem, and Argentina’s problem and Chile’s problem."
  • “Particularly Colombia, which has now done more for refugees than any other country in the world recently.”
2. Part II: "We hope that 2020 will be the year"

Guaidó at the National Assembly. Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

Over lunch at his stately Washington residence, Ambassador Francisco Santos told reporters Wednesday that Colombia is struggling to cope.

  • More than 5,000 Venezuelans migrate across the border every day, he said, while another 40,000 cross to get health care or go to school (Colombia grants full access to those services) and then return.
  • “We have more than 1.7 million refugees, that’s the official number and I think it’s under-reported. Bogota has 375,000 — that’s like the size of New Orleans."
  • Colombia is desperate for help from the U.S. and others, but is not considering changing its "open door" approach, he said.

Still, Santos rejected the suggestion the U.S. should reconsider a sanctions-first strategy that has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. "We need to keep the pressure on," he said.

  • Asked by Axios about a potential leadership change in Venezuela's National Assembly — Guaidó is up for re-election next month — he said Colombia stands firmly behind Guaidó but will recognize whomever leads the assembly as the country's legitimate leader.
  • Given allegations of bribery by the Maduro regime, what if Guaidó loses under questionable circumstances? "We don't even want to think about that," he said.

The bottom line: Santos acknowledged that change in Venezuela had not come as fast as many hoped.

"We hope that 2020 will be the year."
3. Impeachment around the world

South Korea's constitutional court rules on President Park Geun-hye's impeachment, 2017. Photo: Kim Min-Hee/Pool/Getty Images

President Trump may only be the third American president to be impeached, but a quick look around the world might give him comfort.

By the numbers: “Since 1990, at least 132 different heads of state have faced some 272 impeachment proposals in 63 countries,” per the Economist. Most leaders survive attempts to remove them from office, as Trump almost certainly will.

The history: The roots of impeachment date back to ancient Germany, but the first known instance came in England in 1376 with the removal of ministers to King Edward III, according to the Economist.

  • “The constitutions of 94% of countries with presidents include mechanisms for removing them from office. Even some countries without presidents, such as Britain, allow for impeachment.”
  • “Leaders in nearly half of the countries that transitioned to presidential democracy from the mid-1970s onwards faced threats of impeachment from the legislature between 1974 and 2003.”
  • “Several notable instances of impeachment-related departures include Brazil’s Fernando Collor [1992] ... Peru’s Alberto Fujimori [2000] ... the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada and Indonesia’s Abdurrahman Wahid [2001] and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye [2017].”

The criteria vary: “In Tanzania, the president can be impeached if he has ‘conducted himself in a manner which lowers the esteem of the office of president.’ Honduran presidents can be impeached for incompetence. In Ghana, disrepute, ridicule or contempt of office suffice.”

So do the procedures: In most countries, the final verdict comes from a court or constitutional council.

  • Removal from office also triggers fresh elections in most countries, rather than a transition to the vice president.

Worth noting: I looked at the Newseum's gallery of global newspapers this morning to see how the world was covering Trump's impeachment, and I was a bit surprised to find it wasn't even mentioned on most front pages. A healthy reminder that the world doesn't revolve around Washington.

4. Global grab bag: Skating, spying and sex ed

Yuting Zhang of China competes at Maurice Richard Arena, Nov. 10, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Minas Panagiotakis — International Skating Union/International Skating Union via Getty Images

1. Senators Rick Scott and Josh Hawley have called on NBCUniversal, which has broadcast rights for the Olympics, to refuse to air the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, in a letter obtained exclusively by Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

  • Why it matters: Consider this the opening shot in the struggle between human rights advocates, who believe that a country currently operating concentration camps should not host the Olympics, and the Chinese Communist Party, which will defend its successful bid to host the 2022 games at all costs, Bethany writes.

2. Tunisia is the first Arab country to provide a sex education program for elementary and middle school students, the Washington Post reports. The country is known for being relatively progressive compared to its neighbors.

  • Why it matters: The education program will be integrated into a variety of school subjects such as Arabic and the sciences. Children will learn about their bodies in a "biological and religious-based way" to arm them against sexual harassment, catcalling, rape and molestation, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh writes.

3. The Canadian Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Alexander Vavilov, the Toronto-born son of two Russian spies, and said he has the right to Canadian citizenship, the Washington Post reports.

  • Context: Vavilov's parents, Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, worked for a Russian spy agency and were arrested in the United States in 2010, per the Post. The family's story inspired the FX series "The Americans."
5. 2020 look ahead: Duck and cover

Yemeni children attend a bombed-out school in Sana'a. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Council on Foreign Relations asked experts to rank 30 potential or ongoing foreign policy conflicts based on how likely they are to occur or escalate, and how directly they affect the U.S.

Top risks for the U.S. in 2020 include:

  • A cyberattack on critical infrastructure, including elections systems.
  • A mass-casualty terror attack.
  • War with Iran.
  • Conflict with North Korea following the collapse of nuclear talks.
  • Russia-Ukraine escalation.
  • Increased migration outflows from Central America.

Why it matters: "President Trump has so far managed to avoid a really big foreign crisis on his watch as so many of his predecessors faced in their first term. His luck may hold but he shouldn’t bank on it," says CFR's Paul Stares.

Mark your calendars: Big events coming up in the new year.

  • Jan. 1: North Korea's deadline for a nuclear talks breakthrough
  • Jan. 11: Taiwanese presidential election
  • Mar. 2: Israeli elections (round 3)
  • June 10: G7 summit at Camp David
  • July 24: Tokyo Summer Olympics
6. 2019 yearbook: This year's superlatives

Begging police not to harm young protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images

The Economist’s annual Country of the Year designation goes to....

"Three years ago Uzbekistan was an old-fashioned post-Soviet dictatorship. ... Its regime allegedly boiled dissidents alive, and certainly forced legions of men, women and children to toil in the cotton fields at harvest time."

  • But since 2018, the "government has largely ended forced labour. Its most notorious prison camp has been closed. Foreign journalists are let in."
  • "Although it is far from a democracy ... candidates have offered mild criticisms of the government, which would previously have been unthinkable."
  • "Ordinary Uzbeks, too, feel free to lampoon the campaign and grumble about the political class, without fear of being dragged off in the middle of the night."

Honorable mention: New Zealand (for responding to terrorism with inclusion and new policies), North Macedonia (for choosing progress over nationalism in changing its name), and Sudan (for toppling a vile dictator).

So what was the international story of the year? Some options that come to mind:

  • Hong Kong uprising
  • Syria (Trump pulls back, Erdogan invades)
  • The Islamic State (defeat of caliphate + death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)
  • Iran (dual crises on nuclear deal + escalation in the Gulf)
  • U.K. political chaos (Brexit + Boris)
  • Protests in Middle East/North Africa (Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon)
    • Protests in Latin America (Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia)
  • Modi's landslide re-election in India
    • Crackdown in Kashmir + exclusionary citizenship steps
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's election in Ukraine and subsequent troubles with Trump
  • Israel (Netanyahu indictments + political crisis)
  • World wakes up to Uighur detentions in China
7. Stories we're watching

Photo: Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  1. House passes USMCA free trade deal
  2. Pakistan sentences former leader Musharraf to death
  3. Pope bans "pontifical secrecy" in sex abuse investigations
  4. In photos: Wildfires rage across Australia amid historic heat wave
  5. Wave of resignations hits Pentagon
  6. Last of the heroic technocrats
  7. Trump-Ukraine impeachment timeline


"The Wakanda information should have been removed after testing and has now been taken down."
— The USDA on why Wakanda — the fictional setting of "Black Panther" — was included on its website as a free trade partner of the U.S.