Egypt: Protest food shortages

Six months of strikes by Egyptian textile workers and others culminated in demonstrations April 6 against rising prices and food shortages in the delta textile city Al-Mahalla. The UN’s IRIN news agency said police arrested over 500.

In Cairo, long breadlines and the reported deaths of 11 people from exhaustion as they waited in line prompted opposition organizations to call for a general strike.

The World Food Program has refused to augment Egypt’s subsidized bread system, saying resources are potentially available through natural gas exports and an economy growing at seven percent. Bakers have been widely accused of selling state-supplied wheat at a profit.

Further strikes are planned for May 4, President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.

Brazil: Continent-wide defense proposed

Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim is touring South American countries to prepare for a May 23 meeting of the Union of South American Nations at which a South American Defense Council would be established.

Nations attending an energy summit last year had backed Venezuelan President Chavez’ original proposal. Brazilian President Lula da Silva revived it recently in response to Colombia’s March 1 military incursion into Ecuador.

Jobim told Prensa Latina the council would draft defense policies, hold joint exercises, exchange personnel, promote “military industrial integration” and provide for regional security. Neither a multinational force nor consultation with the U.S. is planned.

Nepal: Maoists win election victory

In April 10 elections for an assembly to write a new constitution and govern the country, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist has won at least 118 out of 240 seats, with a few districts re-doing the vote.

The Nepali Congress Party won 36 and Communist Party of Nepal-UML 32. Both were part of the former seven-party governing coalition, and both have now withdrawn from government.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu predicted the Maoists were not likely to gain a majority in the 601-seat assembly, as they were winning a smaller portion of the 335 seats decided through an indirect system giving marginalized groups a greater role. Another 26 seats are appointed.

The Maoists had engaged in armed struggle before embarking on a two-year transition to coalition politics.

Nepal’s King Gyanendra is expected to resign soon; the monarchy’s future has been a major issue.

Italy: Rightist back in power

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, a coalition of two center-right parties, swept Italy’s April 14 parliamentary elections, vanquishing the newly-formed Democratic Party alliance, 47 to 38 percent.

His government, successor to Romano Prodi’s left-center coalition, is allied with the autonomist Northern League that took eight percent of the vote while unleashing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

A recently improvised Rainbow Left coalition won 3 percent. No communist party delegate will serve in Parliament for the first time in decades.

Speaking to La Repubblica, Oliviero Diliberto, secretary of the Party of Italian Communists, blamed the defeat on the Democratic Party’s marginalization of its former leftist coalition partners and the Rainbow Left’s failure to highlight its members’ left credentials.

Iraq: Short term oil pacts OK’d

In early April, Iraq’s Oil Ministry designated 35 foreign oil companies, including seven U.S. corporations, as eligible to negotiate two-year contracts to provide equipment and expertise to boost Iraq’s daily oil output by 500,000 million barrels over the present 2.5 million barrels.

Foreign corporations have been denied production rights in Iraq since nationalization in the 1970s.

While democratic forces in Iraq, including the labor movement, oppose production-sharing agreements (PSAs) and there is a major effort to block such deals, the progressive forces do support limited contracts for technical services, which Iraq needs to develop its oil industry.

Kurdish authorities have already signed PSAs with 20 foreign companies, much to the dismay of Baghdad’s Oil Ministry.

Cuba: Travel rules may change

Rumors in Cuba suggest travel from that country to the U.S. may be liberalized soon. Former diplomat Pedro Riera Escalante, once jailed for using a false passport, has petitioned Cuba’s National Assembly to scrap expensive and often delayed exit permits, the French news agency AFP reported.

The U.S. government has also unexpectedly invited would-be emigrants with U.S. relatives to secure a newly available “parole” assuring them of permanent U.S. residence. Until now Washington has failed to meet its agreement to provide 20,000 annual entry visas to applicants chosen by lottery, resulting in thousands leaving via dangerous ocean crossings.

Observers say the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act guaranteeing permanent residence for new arrivals has served as cruel encouragement.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr.