New York Clothing Store Sells Gender Neutral Lifestyle

New shops appear in New York City every day, but Phluid Project, which recently opened its doors on Broadway, is different. One of the first gender-fluid boutiques in the world, Phluid Project sells clothing for men, women and everyone in between. Both the clothes and the mannequins here are gender-neutral, and as an added selling point, its store owners say the prices are more than affordable. Elena Wolf visited the one-of-a-kind store, where no one feels out of place.

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Russia, Turkey OK Pipeline Deal, End Gas Dispute

Russian state gas giant Gazprom said Saturday it had signed a protocol with the Turkish government on a planned gas pipeline and agreed with Turkish firm Botas to end an arbitration dispute over the terms of gas supplies. 

The protocol concerned the land-based part of the transit leg of the TurkStream gas pipeline, which Gazprom said meant that work to implement it could now begin.

Turkey had delayed issuing a permit for the Russian company to start building the land-based parts of the pipeline, which, if completed, would allow Moscow to reduce its reliance on Ukraine as a transit route for its gas supplies to Europe.

A source said in February the permit problem might be related to talks between Gazprom and Botas about a possible discount for Russian gas.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said earlier Saturday that Turkey and Russia had reached a retroactive agreement for a 10.25 percent discount on the natural gas Ankara buys from Moscow.

Gazprom said in the Saturday statement, without elaborating, that the dispute with Botas would be settled out of court.

 

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Italy’s President Pressured to Accept Euroskeptic Minister

Italy’s would-be coalition parties turned up the pressure on President Sergio Mattarella on Saturday to endorse their euroskeptic pick as economy minister, saying the only other option might be a new election.

Mattarella has held up formation of a government, which would end more than 80 days of political deadlock, over concern about the desire of the far-right League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement to make economist Paolo Savona, 81, economy minister.

Savona has been a vocal critic of the euro and the European Union, but he has distinguished credentials, including in a former role as an industry minister.

Formally, Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte presents his cabinet to the president, who must endorse it. Conte, a little-known law professor with no political experience, met the president on Friday without resolving the

deadlock.

“I hope no one has already decided ‘no,’ ” League leader Matteo Salvini shouted to supporters in northern Italy. “Either the government gets off the ground and starts working in the coming hours, or we might as well go back to elections.”

Later, 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said he expected there to be a decision on whether the president would back the government within 24 hours.

5-Star also defended Savona’s nomination. “It is a political choice. … Blocking a ministerial choice is beyond [the president’s] role,” Alessandro Di Battista, a top 5-Star politician, said.

Mattarella has not spoken publicly about Savona, but through his aides he has made it clear he does not want an anti-euro economy minister and that he would not accept the “diktat” of the parties.

Jittery markets

Savona’s criticism of the euro and German economic policy has further spooked markets already concerned about the future government’s willingness to rein in the massive debt, worth 1.3 times the country’s annual output.

The League and 5-Star have said Savona should not be judged on his opinions, but on his credentials. Savona has had high-level experience at the Bank of Italy, in government as industry minister in 1993-94, and with employers lobby Confindustria.

On his new Facebook page, Conte said he had received best wishes for his government in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.

European Commissioner for Economic Affairs Pierre Moscovici was not hostile when asked about Savona in an interview with France’s Europe1 radio, saying he would work with whomever Italy named.

“Italians decide their own government,” Moscovici said. “Italy is and should remain a country at the heart of the eurozone. … What worries me is the debt, which must be contained.”

The prospect of Italy’s government going on a spending spree on promised tax cuts and welfare benefits roiled markets last week.

On Friday, the closely watched gap between the Italian and German 10-year bond yields, seen as a measure of political risk for the eurozone, was at its widest in four years at 215 basis points.

The chance that the new government will weaken public finances and roll back a 2011 pension reform prompted Moody’s to say — after markets had closed Friday — that it might downgrade the country’s sovereign debt rating.

Moody’s has a Baa2 long-term rating with a negative outlook on Italy. A downgrade to Baa3 would take the country’s debt to just one notch above junk.

Despite the recent surge, Italian yields are well below the peaks they reached during the eurozone crisis of 2011-12, thanks mainly to the shield provided by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying program.

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Kenya Moves to Regulate Digital-Fueled Lending Craze

Kenya built a reputation as a pioneer of financial inclusion through its early adoption of a mobile money system that enables people to transfer cash and make payments on cellphones without a bank account.

Now, a proliferation of lenders are using the same technology to extend credit to the banked and unbanked alike, saddling borrowers with high interest rates and leaving regulators scrambling to keep up.

This week, the finance ministry published a draft bill on financial regulation that covers digital lenders for the first time. A key aim is to ensure that providers treat retail customers fairly, it said.

“We have a lot of predatory lending out here, which we want to regulate,” Geoffrey Mwau, director general of budget, fiscal and economic affairs at the treasury, told reporters Thursday.

Test case for lending

As it was for mobile cash, Kenya is something of a test case for the new lending platforms. Several of the companies involved, including U.S. fintech startups, have plans to expand in other frontier markets, meaning Kenya’s regulation will be closely watched.

From having had little or no access to credit, many Kenyans now find they can get loans in minutes.

George Ombelli, a salesman for a company importing bicycles who also owns a hair salon and cosmetics shop with his wife, has borrowed simultaneously from four providers over the past year.

He took small loans from two Silicon Valley-backed U.S. fintech firms, Branch and Tala, to see what rates he would get, as well as from a new mobile app launched by Barclays Kenya in March and a business loan from Kenya’s Equity Bank.

Citing a slowdown in his business because of elections-related political turmoil last year, Ombelli said he has fallen behind on some of his payments. He fears he will be reported to one of Kenya’s three credit bureaus, jeopardizing his chances of being able to borrow more to grow his business.

​‘Too many loans is a problem’

“I’ve realized having too many loans is a problem,” the 38-year-old father of three said in an interview in a coffee shop in Nairobi’s business district.

He is not alone. In the last three years, 2.7 million people out of a population of around 45 million have been negatively listed on Kenya’s Credit Reference Bureaux, according to a study by Microsave, which advises lenders on sustainable financial services.

For 400,000 of them, it was for an amount less than $2.

Global implications

Some of the fintech lenders are expanding into other African countries and into Latin America and Asia, saying their aim is to help some of the billions of people who lack bank accounts, assets or formal employment climb the economic ladder.

Tala says it has granted more than 6 million loans worth more than $300 million, mainly in Kenya, since it launched in Kenya in 2014. It is expanding its newer businesses in Mexico, Tanzania and the Philippines and is piloting in India.

Tala and Branch argue that their technology, which relies on an algorithm that builds a financial profile of customers, minimizes the risk of default. They say they strive to play a helpful role in planning for tighter regulation.

“We believe that credit bubbles and over-indebtedness will be a challenge over the next decade. (Credit Reference) Bureaus and regulation will be a big part of the solution,” said Erin Renzas, a Branch spokeswoman.

Branch says it expects to grant about 10 million loans worth a total of $250 million this year in Kenya and its other markets, Nigeria and Tanzania.

High interest rates

The current status of the sector, outside the direct remit of the central bank, allows providers, both banks and others, to skirt a government cap on interest of four points above the central bank’s benchmark interest rate, which now stands at 9.5 percent.

Market leader M-Shwari, Kenya’s first savings and loans product introduced by Safaricom and Commercial Bank of Africa in 2012, charges a “facilitation fee” of 7.5 percent on credit regardless of its duration.

On a loan with a month’s term, this equates to an annualized interest rate of 90 percent. The shortest loan repayment period is one week. A Safaricom spokesman referred Reuters to the CBA for comment. Calls to their switchboard and an email were not answered on Thursday.

Tala and Branch, number four and six in a ranking based on usage data by FSD Kenya, offer varying rates depending on the repayment period.

Their apps, downloaded by Reuters, each offered a month’s loan at 15 percent, equating to 180 percent over a year. Both companies say rates drop dramatically as people pay back successive loans.

Barclays Kenya launched an app in March offering 30-day loans with an interest rate of just less than 7 percent, still a hefty 84 percent annual equivalent rate. Reuters was unable to reach their spokespeople by telephone.

The new draft bill says digital lenders will be licensed by a new Financial Markets Conduct Authority and that lenders will be bound by any interest rate caps the Authority sets. But it is not clear if digital lenders are subject to such caps and the current government cap on banks’ interest rates is under review.

Introduced in 2016 to stop banks charging high interest rates, the cap has stifled traditional bank lending and the International Monetary Fund has conditioned Kenya’s continued access to balance of payments support on its removal.

But members of parliament say the public has had enough of high interest rates and the draft does not say the cap will be lifted. The finance ministry will come up with a final version of the bill in the next few weeks before sending it to parliament.

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For Trump, There’s Always a ‘New Deal’ on the Horizon

Though U.S. President Donald Trump decided Thursday to not hold direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has suggested he’s open to talks down the road, if relations improve. That offer of new talks, on his terms, is part of a pattern for Trump when it comes to negotiations. And it’s something that has had mixed results, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports.

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For Trump, There’s Always a ‘New Deal’ on the Horizon

Though U.S. President Donald Trump decided Thursday to not hold direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has suggested he’s open to talks down the road, if relations improve. That offer of new talks, on his terms, is part of a pattern for Trump when it comes to negotiations. And it’s something that has had mixed results, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports.

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US Sen. Corker Meets with Venezuela’s President Maduro

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, less than a week after the embattled socialist leader was re-elected in a vote the U.S. condemned and he kicked out the top American diplomat in the country.

The visit appeared to be an attempt by Sen. Bob Corker to push for the release of Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who has been held for two years in a Caracas jail without a trial on what he has called trumped-up weapons charges.

Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, was seen live on state TV shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. He left an hour later, and neither the senator nor the president made any statements.

Maduro easily won a second, six-year term in Sunday’s election, which was criticized by the U.S. and other nations as a “sham” after several of his key rivals were barred from running. After his victory, Maduro expelled U.S. charge d’affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy for allegedly conspiring to sabotage the vote by pressuring opposition parties to boycott the election, which had the lowest voter turnout in decades.

Corker was accompanied by an aide, Caleb McCarry, who led backchannel talks earlier this year with a close associate of Maduro aimed at securing the release of Holt.

Speculation on social media

Holt, a 26-year-old from Utah, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman he had met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. He was arrested after police said they found an assault rifle and grenades during a raid on the public housing complex where the couple lived. He has denied the charge.

Shortly after Corker’s meeting with Maduro, social media in Venezuela lit up with speculation that Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, would be released as a good will gesture to improve relations, much as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did by freeing three American detainees.

In a previous visit to Caracas in 2015, Corker was shunned by Maduro after having been promised a meeting with the president. Upon his return to Washington, Corker blasted Maduro’s government, saying its “flawed economic policies and political system” had put Venezuela on a “destructive path.”

There was no immediate comment from Corker’s office about the nature of his latest visit.

​Other senators 

Last month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also met with Maduro to press for Holt’s release.

The Maduro government has been seeking contacts in the U.S. to stave off the threat of crippling oil sanctions that could further damage an economy already staggering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro who has President Donald Trump’s ear on Venezuela, played down Corker’s visit.

“Any U.S. Senator can meet with whoever they want,” Rubio tweeted. “But no matter how many senators dictator (at)NicolasMaduro gets to meet with him, U.S. sanctions will go away when Maduro leaves & democracy returns.”

Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez described Maduro’s conversation with Corker as “very good meeting, good news for the Venezuelan people” but gave no details of what the two discussed.

A close Maduro ally, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, accused Holt of being the CIA’s spy chief in Latin America after the prisoner appeared in a video last week pleading for help, saying his life had been threatened during a riot by inmates in the Caracas jail where he and dozens of Maduro’s opponents are being held.

Before he left Venezuela on Thursday on Maduro’s orders, Robinson had been pushing unsuccessfully to see Holt.

However, on Friday, U.S. officials were allowed entry to the prison, according to a message posted by Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, on her Facebook page. She said her son “was in good spirits,” except for discomfort from dozens of mosquito bites. She said his visitors gave him bug repellant.

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US Sen. Corker Meets with Venezuela’s President Maduro

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, less than a week after the embattled socialist leader was re-elected in a vote the U.S. condemned and he kicked out the top American diplomat in the country.

The visit appeared to be an attempt by Sen. Bob Corker to push for the release of Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who has been held for two years in a Caracas jail without a trial on what he has called trumped-up weapons charges.

Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, was seen live on state TV shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. He left an hour later, and neither the senator nor the president made any statements.

Maduro easily won a second, six-year term in Sunday’s election, which was criticized by the U.S. and other nations as a “sham” after several of his key rivals were barred from running. After his victory, Maduro expelled U.S. charge d’affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy for allegedly conspiring to sabotage the vote by pressuring opposition parties to boycott the election, which had the lowest voter turnout in decades.

Corker was accompanied by an aide, Caleb McCarry, who led backchannel talks earlier this year with a close associate of Maduro aimed at securing the release of Holt.

Speculation on social media

Holt, a 26-year-old from Utah, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman he had met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. He was arrested after police said they found an assault rifle and grenades during a raid on the public housing complex where the couple lived. He has denied the charge.

Shortly after Corker’s meeting with Maduro, social media in Venezuela lit up with speculation that Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, would be released as a good will gesture to improve relations, much as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did by freeing three American detainees.

In a previous visit to Caracas in 2015, Corker was shunned by Maduro after having been promised a meeting with the president. Upon his return to Washington, Corker blasted Maduro’s government, saying its “flawed economic policies and political system” had put Venezuela on a “destructive path.”

There was no immediate comment from Corker’s office about the nature of his latest visit.

​Other senators 

Last month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also met with Maduro to press for Holt’s release.

The Maduro government has been seeking contacts in the U.S. to stave off the threat of crippling oil sanctions that could further damage an economy already staggering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro who has President Donald Trump’s ear on Venezuela, played down Corker’s visit.

“Any U.S. Senator can meet with whoever they want,” Rubio tweeted. “But no matter how many senators dictator (at)NicolasMaduro gets to meet with him, U.S. sanctions will go away when Maduro leaves & democracy returns.”

Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez described Maduro’s conversation with Corker as “very good meeting, good news for the Venezuelan people” but gave no details of what the two discussed.

A close Maduro ally, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, accused Holt of being the CIA’s spy chief in Latin America after the prisoner appeared in a video last week pleading for help, saying his life had been threatened during a riot by inmates in the Caracas jail where he and dozens of Maduro’s opponents are being held.

Before he left Venezuela on Thursday on Maduro’s orders, Robinson had been pushing unsuccessfully to see Holt.

However, on Friday, U.S. officials were allowed entry to the prison, according to a message posted by Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, on her Facebook page. She said her son “was in good spirits,” except for discomfort from dozens of mosquito bites. She said his visitors gave him bug repellant.

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