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Colombia’s presidential election: A rattled country looks left, but will voters make historic pivot?

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Bogota, Colombia
CNN

Colombians head to the polls on May 29 to pick a new president in one of the most turbulent times in its modern history.

Six candidates are vying for the presidency in a country plagued by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, social unrest and a deteriorating security situation.

On Sunday, a 39-million strong electorate will be eligible to cast their ballots in the first round of voting. If none of the candidates win by an absolute majority, it will go to a runoff vote, slated for June 19.

Here’s what you need to know about Colombia’s election.

Colombian presidents are only elected for a single, four-year term. And Colombians are ready for change: Right-wing President Iv?n Duque’s approval rating is at a low, with his tenure marred by his administration’s handling of police conduct, inequality, and clashes between organized criminal groups.

That discontent has placed the left in sight of the presidency for the first time in the country’s history. Meanwhile, more conservative candidates are rallying voters to trust a more gradual series of reforms to correct Colombia’s course.

While there are 6 candidates on the ballot, just three candidates are expected to break through with voters, according to the latest polls.

Front-runner Gustavo Petro is a former guerrilla fighter and mayor of Bogota, whose 2022 bid marks his third presidential campaign. The 62-year-old left-wing candidate is running on a platform that proposes a radical overhaul of the country’s economy to combat one of the highest inequality rates in the world. The former guerrilla fighter, who today preaches reconciliation and an end to violence, has framed his campaign around whether Colombia is ready to elect a revolutionary. He’s campaigned on attracting foreign investment in clean energy, new technologies, transportation and telecommunications.

Petro is expected to go head-to-head with right-wing candidate Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, 47, the former mayor of Medellin. Gutierrez is running on a message of continuity, saying Colombia needs to follow the same path of economic growth and pro-business policies as it has done over the past twenty years.

Meanwhile, 77-year-old entrepreneur Rodolfo Hernandez, the former mayor of Bucaramanga – Colombia’s 7th largest city, has surged in popularity over the last few weeks, attracting centrist voters who reject Petro’s revolutionary calls and Gutierrez’s traditionalism. Hernandez’s unique social-media campaign has drawn comparisons to that of former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The self-proclaimed “King of TikTok” has adopted a confrontational stance with traditional media: He did not appear in several of the televised debates organized by Colombia’s main broadcasters, and rarely gave interviews to foreign outlets – although he did appear on CNN, wearing his pajamas, saying that he was a “man of the people.”

Petro’s running mate, vice-presidential candidate Francia Marquez, has sent shockwaves through Colombia’s political scene. The 40-year-old Black feminist and single-mother garnered the third-most votes in March’s primary elections, with her charismatic rallies attracting supporters across the country. If elected, she would become the first Afro-Colombian to hold executive powers.

Colombians of African descent, the second largest community of its kind in South America, have long been marginalized in politics and in society. Marquez’s candidacy has given millions of Afro-Colombians a chance to identify themselves with a national politician – and hope for societal change in their country.

During a recent speech in Bogota, she quoted Martin Luther King saying she also had “the dream to see my country at peace.”

Compared to Petro, who has been in politics for 20 years, Marquez is part of a new wave of progressive leftists in Latin America who are prioritizing issues like the environment. In 2018, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for successfully organizing a women’s group to stop illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. She’s also an advocate for LGBTQ rights, gender issues, and economic equality.

Colombia has been among the fastest growing countries in Latin America in recent years, but that growth is not trickling down to working families and poorer populations.

Petro is relying on voters disillusioned by the country’s economic outlook and who have suffered the most in the last four years, as wages stagnated under Duque’s watch.

As a whole, the country is richer than it was since Duque came to power in 2018, however the value of the average worker’s annual salary has dropped significantly as the Colombian peso has plunged 40% in value against the dollar since. That situation is only exacerbated by rising inflation and the war in Ukraine.

Gutierrez points instead to past growth, saying that rather than an overhaul, Colombia’s economy needs targeted reforms to proceed on the same path of development. While Hernandez is also trying to exploit some voters’ discontent with the traditional political system, his approach on the economy – with a focus on corruption – is more moderate than Petro’s.

On neighboring Venezuela, Petro has said he plans to re-establish diplomatic relations, even with strongman Nicol?s Maduro in power. Meanwhile, Gutierrez last week told CNN he’s willing to reopen commercial relationships at the Venezuelan border, but is reluctant to recognize what he calls “a dictatorship that has caused so much damage to the people.”

The election is also being held as the country’s security situation is deteriorating.

Earlier this month, the notorious “Clan del Golfo” drug cartel imposed an “armed curfew” in retaliation to the US’ extradition of Diaro Usuga “Otoniel,” one of its bosses, with six people killed and over 180 vehicles attacked across the country’s Caribbean coast.

And during the first three months of this year alone, nearly 50,000 Colombians were forcibly confined as a result of ongoing clashes between armed groups, according to the United Nations.

The violence is tied to the country’s narcotics production and trafficking, with Colombia’s cocaine production having significantly increased in recent years. The pandemic has coincided with an uptick of criminal activity, with several groups exerting de-facto control over swathes of Colombian territory including the Arauca, Cauca and Catatumbo regions.

How to restore state control over those areas – and fight back the cartels – is a key conversation in this election, and will prove a formidable challenge for the next president.

Petro has proposed to tackle the problem by legalizing cannabis and partially de-criminalizing the consumption of cocaine and other drugs. He has said that he favors engaging with criminal groups through peace agreements akin to the 2016 peace deal with the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) that brought to an end to over half a century of guerrilla conflict between the state and communist rebels. Petro has been the target of criticism for his promises of “land democratization” and “social forgiveness” to convicted criminals, including those charged for corruption.

In contrast, Gutierrez supports a more traditional approach in the fight against crime. As the mayor of Medellin, he was nicknamed “the Sheriff” for his participation in police raids against gangsters and has taken that ethos with him today, promising to create a new special police units targeting robberies and murders at national level, and the construction of more jails.

While all candidates are presenting their plans for the future, how Colombia mends the wounds of its past will be just as present on the ballot.

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Eight medical professionals charged in Diego Maradona’s death will go to trial

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(CNN)An Argentine judge ruled on Wednesday that eight medical professionals charged with “simple homicide” in the death of football legend Diego Maradona will go to oral trial, according to court documents seen by CNN.

The date of the trial has not yet been set.
Maradona died aged 60 from heart failure in November 2020, the same month he underwent successful surgery for a subdural hematoma, more commonly known as a blood clot on the brain.
Prosecutors allege the eight medical professionals charged in Maradona’s death “violated the duties that each one was in charge of,” which subsequently “led to the fatal outcome of the patient that, otherwise, could have been avoided,” according to court documents.
In his Wednesday ruling, judge Orlando Abel D?az said the eight defendants had not acted with the “thoroughness” demanded by their positions as medical professionals in charge of Maradona’s fragile health.

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The defendants did not take “any saving action” that could have prevented Maradona’s death despite occupying positions of “guarantors” capable of action and being aware of his “situation of risk,” D?az said.
The defendants’ alleged failure to act according to “good medical practice” fulfilled the legal criteria for “malice” required to charge them under Article 79 of Argentina’s legal code, according to D?az, meaning they could face eight to 25 years in prison.
In his ruling, D?az also rejected five petitions for nullities and motions for dismissal by the defendants’ defense attorneys.
The judge also said two of the accused would stand trial to face additional charges. Neurosurgeon Leopoldo Luque faces a charge of using a false private document and psychiatrist Agustina Cosachov faces a charge of ideological falsity, as she is accused of having signed a certificate vouching for Maradona’s mental fitness without visiting him, according to court documents seen by CNN.
Luque’s lawyer told CNN Espa?ol that he rejects the charges brought against him and will appeal the court’s ruling.
CNN has reached out to Cosachov’s lawyer but did not receive an immediate reply. In December 2020, Cosachov’s lawyer told CNN that his client “had used her best judgment from a medical point of view.”

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Why enemies Lebanon and Israel are talking now

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A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Cairo and Jerusalem (CNN)Lebanon and Israel, officially at a state of war, are holding indirect talks in an effort to settle a border dispute with potentially billions of dollars at stake.

At its heart is the gas-rich Karish field located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which Israel has plans to start exploiting.
The US Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that the Levantine basin could hold as much as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas. For comparison, that would make the basin’s gas reserves equal to about 7% of Russia’s reserves, the world’s biggest.
Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, said in a briefing to reporters on Sunday that the main issue preventing an agreement between the two sides was a “change in the Lebanese stance” on where the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon lies.
Here’s what you need to know about this dispute:
What is the current Lebanon-Israel dispute about?
The crux of the dispute is actually about the maritime economic boundary between the two countries, and how to calculate the border line that extends from Lebanon and Israel’s land border.
For years the area under dispute covered around 860 square kilometers, with Lebanon claiming its maritime border lay to the south of Israel’s claim. Under those border lines, the Karish field lay well within Israel’s claimed area.
But recently, Lebanon revised its original maritime border claim, moving it further south and adding about another 1,400 square km than originally claimed, according to Mizrahi. The extra area includes part of the Karish field where Israel is running explorations.
Why has this dispute flared up now?
On June 5th, when London-based oil and gas exploration company Energean arrived to begin development of Karish on Israel’s behalf, Lebanon argued the field should not be developed until it had concluded talks to delineate the maritime boundary.
Why do these talks matter?
Struggling with a crippling economy and fragmented government, Lebanon is in desperate need of new sources of revenues from oil and gas exploration, while Israel is keen to position itself as a new natural gas supplier to Europe as an alternative to Russia. Delineating the boundary would allow both parties to exploit the Mediterranean’s resources without legal hurdles or threats of possible military confrontation.
“Lebanon, more than Israel today, needs this deal,” said Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan, adding that a deal would also provide security for Israel allowing it to explore and drill without the “constant danger of potential escalation” with Lebanon.
What is the current status of the talks?
The US has proposed a compromise solution, which would create an S-shaped maritime economic boundary between the two countries. Under the proposal, all of Karish would go to Israel, while most of Qana, another field that has potential for commercially-viable gas, would go to Lebanon.
US mediator Amos Hochstein said in an interview with US-based Al-Hurra TV that a proposal Lebanese officials presented to him will enable negotiations “to go forward.”

The digest

US hits Iran with fresh sanctions, targets Chinese, UAE companies
The US issued new Iran-related sanctions on Thursday, according to the US Treasury Department. The new sanctions targeted Chinese and UAE companies and a network of Iranian firms that help export Iranian petrochemicals.
Background: The US sanctioned a network of Iranian petrochemical producers, as well as “front companies” in China, the UAE and Iran, saying they were “instrumental in brokering” the export of Iranian petrochemicals, read a Treasury statement. The network was also engaged in facilitating international transactions and sanctions evasion, added the statement. The Chinese and Emirati companies could not be reached by Reuters for comment. Why it matters: The steps may raise pressure on Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which would curb Iran’s nuclear weapon abilities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. While the deal was nearing completion, talks have stalled since March when the US’ terror designation of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard emerged as the final sticking point.
Israeli police conclude investigation into conduct during Shireen Abu Akleh funeral
Israeli police say they have concluded the investigation into police actions during the funeral procession of slain Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem last month. Instead of releasing any details of the investigation or findings, police issued a statement, in which Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai acknowledged Abu Akleh’s funeral had been a “complex event,” adding, “it is impossible to remain indifferent to the harsh images.” Israeli media has widely reported that no police officers on duty, or their commanders, will be penalised for their actions.
Background: Television footage had shown officers striking mourners with batons, nearly causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin. At the time Israeli police said they were responding to objects and rocks being thrown at police. Shabtai said police had examined the conduct of the forces on the ground, but he appeared to blame funeral participants for the way events unfolded: “We must thoroughly learn [the lessons from] the incident, so that in the future sensitive events such as these will not be disturbed by violent rioters, and will be respected.” Why it matters: The Israeli police came under harsh criticism after the procession, with the White House calling the images “disturbing” and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying he was “deeply troubled by the images of Israeli police intruding into the funeral procession.”
‘Jamal Khashoggi Way’ sign unveiled in front of Saudi embassy in Washington, DC
A street sign honoring slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was unveiled outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC on Wednesday, with DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson saying that “the District is creating a memorial in his honor that cannot be covered up or repressed.”
Background: US intelligence reports last year found that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) “approved an operation in Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” which MBS has denied. Why it matters: The unveiling of “Jamal Khashoggi Way” comes a month before Biden visits Saudi Arabia, where he is meant to meet with MBS. The trip has already drawn criticism from members of his party and human rights advocates over the kingdom’s human rights record and the journalist’s murder.

Around the region

Egypt on Thursday retrieved five pharaonic artifacts smuggled out of the North African country that were seized by Kuwaiti customs in 2019, said the MENA state news agency.
The artifacts were statues of Egyptian pharaohs, including Amenhotep III and Amun-Ra, as well as the ancient Egyptian god Horus. Amongst them was also a stone mural.
Three of the artifacts date back to 1400 BC, said the state-run Kuwait News Agency, adding that this was the second time that Kuwait had returned stolen artifacts to Egypt. In 2018, the Gulf nation returned a wooden casket cover to Egypt.
Theft and smuggling of antiquities increased in Egypt after the 2011 uprising, which saw relics stolen from museums as well as through illegal excavations. The North African country has been pushing forward with efforts to locate and retrieve its stolen treasures.

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US and Chinese defense chiefs trade barbs over Taiwan at first face-to-face meeting

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Singapore (CNN)US and Chinese military chiefs sparred over the issue of Taiwan in their first face-to-face meeting on Friday at a major defense summit in Singapore, with Washington saying Beijing is trying to change the status quo over the island and Beijing claiming Washington is fueling instability with its actions including arms sales to Taipei.

The US is committed to its One China policy, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, but he warned that the Chinese military has become increasingly aggressive, unsafe, and unprofessional in the region, a US defense official said after the meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The US official said the actions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reflect recent statements made by Chinese officials that suggest Beijing may be altering the status quo regarding Taiwan, a democratically controlled island that China claims as its sovereign territory.
“Secretary Austin also raised concerns about … statements by PLA officials that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters. [People’s Republic of China] officials have said that multiple times to the United States over the last several months and that’s deeply concerning,” the official said.
Reacting specifically to the US statements in a post-meeting briefing, a Chinese military spokesman said it wasn’t Beijing that was upsetting a decades-long policy that has provided stability across the Taiwan Strait.
“It is not the mainland that is changing the status quo, it is Taiwan independence forces … and outside forces that are trying to change the status quo,” Senior Col. Wu Qian said at a news conference after the meeting.
A Chinese statement on the meeting said Wei pointed specifically to a recently announced $120 million US arms sale to the island. The new arms sale will cover “spare parts for naval ships and related technical assistance,” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday.
“The US again announced arms sales to Taiwan, which has seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests. China firmly opposes this and strongly condemns it,” the Chinese statement said.
The issue of Taiwan took up the bulk of the meeting between Austin and Wei, the US official said.

Ukraine

Russia’s war against Ukraine also proved to be a contentious issue.
Austin urged his Chinese counterpart not to provide any material support to Russia, the US official said.
In China’s post meeting press conference, Wu stressed China had not done so.
“China did not provide military assistance to Russia. That is for sure,” Wu said.
Despite those differences, Wu described the meeting, which last nearly an hour, almost twice as long as planned, as having “good effect.”
It was “candid’ but “positive and constructive,” he said.
The meeting took place during Austin’s fourth trip to the Indo-Pacific region after a formal request from China’s military leadership.
The two also talked about the US desire to establish more robust lines of communication between the two militaries to avoid competition between two world powers turning into conflict. The official said Minister Wei was responsive to the idea of establishing crisis communications mechanisms, suggesting there may be more concrete outcomes on these mechanisms later this year.
“I would anticipate that there would be additional open channels, including military-to-military channels, whether it’s from INDOPACOM or the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs]. I think both sides are likely open to that in the coming months,” the official said.
Before the meeting, a US defense official said Washington would try to establish lines of communication at the highest levels of the militaries as a mechanism to avoid situations that would result in conflict between the two Pacific powers. The US also wants to see communication mechanisms between commanders at the theater level, officials said.
“This has been a priority for us in the defense relationship,” the official said.
Wu, the Chinese spokesperson, said next steps in the US-China relationship will include conducting exchanges and talks on cooperation through both military and diplomatic channels.
“The Chinese side thinks it is better to meet than not to meet and it is better to talks than not to talk,” he said.

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