Benjamin Witte

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WHAT THE WORLD

Pandemic Forces French To Buy Their Frogs From Vending Machine

You're hungry and restaurants aren't serving because of COVID lockdowns, but at least there are always vending machines. Hmmm? What looks tempting from behind that plexiglass?A Snickers bar or a bag of chips? Or maybe a pair of plastic-wrapped triangle sandwiches and a can of Coke? Otherwise, if you're in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France … ribbit, ribbit?

Yes, frogs (of the dead and edible variety) are now available via vending machines. And we can say "merci" to COVID-19 for this culinary-capitalistic breakthrough.

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CLARIN

How An Iconic Buenos Aires Ice Cream Shop Melted Away With COVID

BUENOS AIRES — It's only now that the news is finally spreading. El Vesuvio, the country's oldest heladería (ice-cream shop), is no more.

Founded in 1902 by the Cocitori family, the legendary Buenos Aires establishment had actually stopped operating shortly before the pandemic began. Its most recent owner was no longer able to keep it afloat. And yet, because the health crisis had occupied everyone's attention, nobody seemed to notice the end of a sweet era for the Argentine capital. Recently, though, the financial newspapers Bae Negocios ran a story and locals began to realize what had been lost.

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ABC

Potty-Mouthed Grandma Strikes A Chord In Paraguay Protests

Amid a wave of protests against the Paraguayan government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, one unlikely voice — that of a sharp-tongued, silver-haired abuelita (grandmother) — has stood out above the chorus of discontent.

One of countless people taking to the streets in the capital Asunción in recent days, the elderly woman has yet to be publicly identified. But her opinion of the country's president, Mario Abdo Benítez of the conservative Colorado Party, is now widely known following an impromptu interview Sunday with a reporter from the Paraguayan news outlet ABC TV.

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Sources

Huge Haul Of Whale Vomit Worth Millions For Fishermen In Yemen

It's a modern tale with a rich and fragrant whiff of Jonah and the Whale, when a group of Yemeni fishermen made the catch of their lives this week in the Gulf of Aden.

After a large, dead whale was spotted floating in the waters of the coast of Yemen, 37 fishermen helped drag it ashore, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National reported. But what they found in the belly of the beast could make them incredibly rich in one of the world's poorest countries: a giant blob of unexpelled and very valuable vomit.

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ULTIMAS NOTICIAS

Powering Through Appendicitis For Perfect Score On Chile's National Exam

The 18-year-old was doubled over in pain, but her parents thought it was just a case of exam-time nerves. She survived... and then some!

The two-day, standardized exam that Chilean high school students must take to gain entry into university is grueling enough to make anyone a bit sick to their stomach.

Antonia Schmohol, 18, was no exception, although in her case, the abdominal aches that began bothering her on the eve of the dreaded PTU, as the test is called, turned out to be more than just a case of nerves, the Chilean daily Las Ultimas Notícias reports.

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El Diario

Pollo Vaccine? Chicken Truck Delivers COVID-19 Jabs To Bolivian City

Residents in the far-flung city of Trinidad, Bolivia can rest assured: 1,100 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine were successfully delivered this week, albeit by the most unlikely of means. After being flown into the region on a flight operated by the national airline Boliviana de Aviación, the potentially life-saving cargo was loaded onto a truck belonging to a local chicken meat distributor.

Onlookers could tell something unusual was happening when the bright-yellow "Distribuidora de pollos" truck, owned by the Gabriel chicken company, pulled into the town accompanied by a full police escort, as reported by Bolivian daily El Diario.

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Coronavirus

Six Iconic Landmarks That May Be Shuttered By COVID-19

Founded a century (or centuries) ago, these businesses survived world wars and economic depressions. Now the pandemic could close them forever.

PARIS — New York City's Roosevelt Hotel, a midtown mainstay that first opened to the public in the roaring 1920s, is now a not-so-distant memory after closing its doors — permanently — just before Christmas.

Like so many businesses around the world, the nearly century old facility — famous, among other things, as the place where then New York state governor Thomas Dewey erroneously declared victory over President Harry Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential election — is a victim of the times. The grand old hotel survived the Great Depression but not, as it turns out, the revenue loss caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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eyes on the U.S.

From Pinochet To Trump, When Democracy Is Under Attack

A dictator-in-waiting orchestrates a violent assault on the seat of government. Shots are fired. A stunned world watches what most agree is an attack on democracy itself, a rejection of what had long seemed self-evident: that a nation's health and prosperity depend on an orderly transfer of power from one elected leader to another.

Two days after the stunning scenes in Washington, I am reminded of those grainy scenes from a different historical chapter in another nation's capital, Santiago, Chile. It was nearly a half century ago, when military forces, under the command of General Augusto Pinochet, launched their assault on the La Moneda presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973.

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Geopolitics

Beirut Blast: Mayhem In A Nation Already On Its Knees

Tuesday's deadly explosion couldn't have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is also struggling with high inflation, the collapse of its currency and a new wave of coronavirus infections.

BEIRUT — Lebanon had already been teetering on the edge of an abyss. It's now fallen in. That, at least, is the overwhelming sense here in Beirut following the gigantic detonation that devastated the city on Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The explosion, which killed at least 78 people and was felt kilometers away in all directions, comes in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. The national currency is in free fall, the middle class is disintegrating and state institutions are adrift. And the enormous mushroom cloud of black smoke that appeared at about 6 p.m. yesterday, above the city's port, is the sad symbol of that systematic implosion. It signals the collapse of a model that was supposed to allow Lebanon to rebuild after its 15-year civil war (1975-1990) but instead took it in the opposite direction.

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Coronavirus

Coronavirus And The Global Cost Of Chinese Secrecy

-Analysis-

PARIS — In his most recent book, Chine, le Grand Paradoxe (China, the Great Paradox), Jean-Pierre Raffarin reminds us that, "the key to diplomacy is reciprocal respect."

Prime minister at the height of the SARS crisis, in 2003, Raffarin was one of the rare foreign leaders to proceed with a scheduled trip to China. The gesture — and display of personal courage — did not go unnoticed by the Chinese, who rewarded him with both recognition and friendship.

Respect and friendship shouldn't mean complacency, however. With 1.4 billion people's lives at stake — and perhaps many more — this is no time for half-truths or, in the case of the World Health Organization, half-criticisms.

What's really happening in China? Medical uncertainties regarding the development of the virus, along with the nature of the Chinese regime itself, make this a difficult question to answer. The situation is anything but transparent.

What is clear is that there needs to be solidarity with and empathy toward the Chinese people. The "yellow scare" reaction against Asian people who live here is simply scandalous. It's a throwback to the worst moments in our history, an expression of the darkest side of human nature.

This knee-jerk reaction of fear and rejection needs to be challenged head on, especially because in facing this epidemic (let's not go so far as to call it a pandemic), international solidarity is one of the keys to success. How can we expect to save ourselves "alone" by building walls, real or symbolic, and by hiding behind nationalist reflexes when the very protective masks we may need — and that are out of stock in many countries — use components that come from places all over the world, including China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico and Colombia?

The Chinese leadership prioritizes the unity of the country behind the party.

Like nationalism, the pathological taste for secrecy is another obstacle standing in the way of a quick response to the epidemic. In China, precious weeks appear to have been lost because of this insistence on the total control of information. And there's no way now to recover that lost time.

To justify the centralization of power, the Chinese leadership prioritizes the unity of the country behind the party. In their eyes, that requires secrecy, the stifling of a free press, and limits on civil liberties. But do the actions of the Chinese leader always serve their stated interests?

In the name of national unity, China has tightened its control over Hong Kong while pushing Taiwan even further away from the motherland. In the last presidential elections, a majority of Taiwanese showed that they're more concerned about freedoms and the rule of law than they are about ties to mainland China.

The death of the coronavirus "whistleblower," Dr. Li Wenliang, prompted a public outcry in China that forced the normally secluded President Xi Jinping to finally make a public appearance and later remove key authorities in the province of Hubei and city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.

On Feb. 18 in Jiangsu — Photo: Su Yang/SIPA Asia/ZUMA

But it's clear that initially, China prioritized the party above the safety of its citizens and, by extension, the safety of the world as a whole. What happens now if the virus gains a foothold in a continent with as fragile a public health infrastructure as Africa?

It would probably be an exaggeration to describe this as a "Chinese Chernobyl," or to draw a comparison between Li Wenliang and the Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller who set himself on fire in 2010, which sparked the Arab Spring. Xi Jinping isn't Gorbachev or Ben Ali. China isn't Tunisia. And unless this really does develop into an uncontrollable pandemic, the so-called Celestial Empire won't be in the situation that the USSR faced in the late 1980s.

Authoritarianism contains its own contradictions.

Faced with an event of unknown magnitude, the possible economic, still-to-be-determined political and geopolitical consequences, we need to find the right balance. Between the Bolshevism of democracy and complacency towards the Chinese regime, there is a middle way. As the Asian affairs specialist François Godement writes: "Is Xi, by wanting to be "president of everything," therefore responsible for everything?" A democratic regime would have reacted more quickly. But would it necessarily have been more effective?

Still, in the face of an epidemic of this scale, the absence of the rule of law and the inexistence of checks and balances are certainly handicaps, both in terms of rapid response and preserving citizen confidence.

In May 1986, roughly 15 days after the Chernobyl disaster, I found myself in Moscow for professional reasons. I recall being approached numerous times on the street by Moscow residents asking me anxiously: "You're from the West. Tell us, What can we eat and drink? Our leaders lie to us." How could I tell them that in my country, the authorities were assuring us that the so-called "bad air" miraculously stopped at the border with Germany, having the courtesy not to cross the Rhine?

When all is said and done, the monopoly of power in China will no doubt survive this health crisis, even if, in the short term, it will have to show a bit less triumphalism and more modesty. But one fundamental question will remain: Can absolute authoritarianism be a response to "democratic confusion?" Probably not. And that's because authoritarianism contains its own contradictions.

How can a country present itself, alongside the United Nations, as the defender of order and international law, when it has so little respect for the rule of law at home? This is the problem with China. And if the epidemic becomes a pandemic, it will be a problem for us all.

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Geopolitics

U.S.-Iran: France May Be Last Best Hope To Prevent All-Out War

PARIS — In diplomacy, there's always room for talk, even when the window for negotiation seems all but shut.

Such is the scenario that Emmanuel Macron faces in wake of the assassination by the United States of Ghassem Soleimani, an act that has kicked up a whirlwind in the Middle East, with consequences that remain unclear.

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food / travel

On The Trail Of Invisible Bears Wreaking Havoc In The Pyrenees

VAL D'ARAN — It wasn't until I'd made may way clear through to other side of the village that I finally crossed paths with another human: A man about my age returning from a walk in the hills with his dog.

"The only thing I can tell you is that up along the road, after the bend and then further along where it winds back, there's a water source. That's the last place they saw him, a few days ago," he told me when I explained the purpose of my visit.

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