All posts by MBusiness

US growth slowed sharply last quarter to 1.6%, reflecting economy pressured by high rates

WASHINGTON — The nation’s economy slowed sharply last quarter to a 1.6% annual pace in the face of high interest rates, but consumers — the main driver of economic growth — kept spending at a solid pace.

Thursday’s report from the Commerce Department said the gross domestic product — the economy’s total output of goods and services — decelerated in the January-March quarter from its brisk 3.4% growth rate in the final three months of 2023.

A surge in imports, which are subtracted from GDP, reduced first-quarter growth by nearly 1 percentage point. Growth was also held back by businesses reducing their inventories. Both those categories tend to fluctuate sharply from quarter to quarter.

By contrast, the core components of the economy still appear sturdy. Along with households, businesses helped drive the economy last quarter with a strong pace of investment.

The import and inventory numbers can be volatile, so “there is still a lot of positive underlying momentum,” said Paul Ashworth, chief North America economist at Capital Economics.

The economy, though, is still creating price pressures, a continuing source of concern for the Federal Reserve. A measure of inflation in Friday’s report accelerated to a 3.4% annual rate from January through March, up from 1.8% in the last three months of 2023 and the biggest increase in a year. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, so-called core inflation rose at a 3.7% rate, up from 2% in fourth-quarter 2023.

From January through March, consumer spending rose at a 2.5% annual rate, a solid pace though down from a rate of more than 3% in each of the previous two quarters. Americans’ spending on services — everything from movie tickets and restaurant meals to airline fares and doctors’ visits — rose 4%, the fastest such pace since mid-2021.

But they cut back spending on goods such as appliances and furniture. Spending on that category fell 0.1%, the first such drop since the summer of 2022.

The state of the U.S. economy has seized Americans’ attention as the election season has intensified. Although inflation has slowed sharply from a peak of 9.1% in 2022, prices remain well above their pre-pandemic levels.

Republican critics of President Joe Biden have sought to pin responsibility for high prices on Biden and use it as a cudgel to derail his re-election bid. And polls show that despite the healthy job market, a near-record-high stock market and the sharp pullback in inflation, many Americans blame Biden for high prices.

Last quarter’s GDP snapped a streak of six straight quarters of at least 2% annual growth. The 1.6% rate of expansion was also the slowest since the economy actually shrank in the first and second quarters of 2022.

The economy’s gradual slowdown reflects, in large part, the much higher borrowing rates for home and auto loans, credit cards and many business loans that have resulted from the 11 interest rate hikes the Fed imposed in its drive to tame inflation.

Even so, the United States has continued to outpace the rest of the world’s advanced economies. The International Monetary Fund has projected that the world’s largest economy will grow 2.7% for all of 2024, up from 2.5% last year and more than double the growth the IMF expects this year for Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Businesses have been pouring money into factories, warehouses and other buildings, encouraged by federal incentives to manufacture computer chips and green technology in the United States. On the other hand, their spending on equipment has been weak. And as imports outpace exports, international trade is also thought to have been a drag on the economy’s first-quarter growth.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, cautioned last week that the “flipside″ of strong U.S. economic growth was that it was “taking longer than expected” for inflation to reach the Fed’s 2% target, although price pressures have sharply slowed from their mid-2022 peak.

Inflation flared up in the spring of 2021 as the economy rebounded with unexpected speed from the COVID-19 recession, causing severe supply shortages. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 made things significantly worse by inflating prices for the energy and grains the world depends on.

The Fed responded by aggressively raising its benchmark rate between March 2022 and July 2023. Despite widespread predictions of a recession, the economy has proved unexpectedly durable. Hiring so far this year is even stronger than it was in 2023. And unemployment has remained below 4% for 26 straight months, the longest such streak since the 1960s.

Inflation, the main source of Americans’ discontent about the economy, has slowed from 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.5%. But progress has stalled lately.

Though the Fed’s policymakers signaled last month that they expect to cut rates three times this year, they have lately signaled that they’re in no hurry to reduce rates in the face of continued inflationary pressure. Now, a majority of Wall Street traders don’t expect them to start until the Fed’s September meeting, according to the CME FedWatch tool.

New York appeals court overturns Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction from landmark #MeToo trial

NEW YORK — New York’s highest court on Thursday overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction, finding the judge at the landmark #MeToo trial prejudiced the ex-movie mogul with “egregious” improper rulings, including a decision to let women testify about allegations that weren’t part of the case.

“We conclude that the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes,” the court’s 4-3 decision said. “The remedy for these egregious errors is a new trial.”

The state Court of Appeals ruling reopens a painful chapter in America’s reckoning with sexual misconduct by powerful figures — an era that began in 2017 with a flood of allegations against Weinstein. His accusers could again be forced to relive their traumas on the witness stand.

The court’s majority said “it is an abuse of judicial discretion to permit untested allegations of nothing more than bad behavior that destroys a defendant’s character but sheds no light on their credibility as related to the criminal charges lodged against them.”

In a stinging dissent, Judge Madeline Singas wrote that the majority was “whitewashing the facts to conform to a he-said/she-said narrative,” and said the Court of Appeals was continuing a “disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence.”

“The majority’s determination perpetuates outdated notions of sexual violence and allows predators to escape accountability,” Singas wrote.

Weinstein, 72, has been serving a 23-year sentence in a New York prison following his conviction on charges of criminal sex act for forcibly performing oral sex on a TV and film production assistant in 2006 and rape in the third degree for an attack on an aspiring actress in 2013.

He will remain imprisoned because he was convicted in Los Angeles in 2022 of another rape and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Weinstein was acquitted in Los Angeles on charges involving one of the women who testified in New York.

Weinstein’s lawyers argued Judge James Burke’s rulings in favor of the prosecution turned the trial into “1-800-GET-HARVEY.”

The reversal of Weinstein’s conviction is the second major #MeToo setback in the last two years, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a Pennsylvania court decision to throw out Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction.

Weinstein’s conviction stood for more than four years, heralded by activists and advocates as a milestone achievement, but dissected just as quickly by his lawyers and, later, the Court of Appeals when it heard arguments on the matter in February.

Allegations against Weinstein, the once powerful and feared studio boss behind such Oscar winners as “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love,” ushered in the #MeToo movement. Dozens of women came forward to accuse Weinstein, including famous actresses such as Ashley Judd and Uma Thurman. His New York trial drew intense publicity, with protesters chanting “rapist” outside the courthouse.

Weinstein is incarcerated in New York at the Mohawk Correctional Facility, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Albany.

He maintains his innocence. He contends any sexual activity was consensual.

Weinstein lawyer Arthur Aidala argued before the appeals court in February that Burke swayed the trial by allowing three women to testify about allegations that weren’t part of the case and by giving prosecutors permission to confront Weinstein, if he had testified, about his long history of brutish behavior.

Aidala argued the extra testimony went beyond the normally allowable details about motive, opportunity, intent or a common scheme or plan, and essentially put Weinstein on trial for crimes he wasn’t charged with.

Weinstein wanted to testify, but opted not to because Burke’s ruling would’ve meant answering questions about more than two-dozen alleged acts of misbehavior dating back four decades, Aidala said. They included fighting with his movie producer brother, flipping over a table in anger and snapping at waiters and yelling at his assistants.

“We had a defendant who was begging to tell his side of the story. It’s a he said, she said case, and he’s saying ‘that’s not how it happened. Let me tell you how I did it,'” Aidala argued. Instead, the jurors heard evidence of Weinstein’s prior bad behavior that “had nothing to do with truth and veracity. It was all ‘he’s a bad guy.'”

Aidala also took issue with Burke’s refusal to remove a juror who had written a novel involving predatory older men, a topic the defense lawyer argued too closely resembled the issues in Weinstein’s case.

A lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, argued that the judge’s rulings were proper and that the extra evidence and testimony he allowed was important to provide jurors context about Weinstein’s behavior and the way he interacted with women.

“Defendant’s argument was that they had a consensual and loving relationship both before and after the charged incidents,” Appellate Chief Steven Wu argued, referring to one of the women Weinstein was charged with assaulting. The additional testimony “just rebutted that characterization completely.”

Wu said Weinstein’s acquittal on the most serious charges — two counts of predatory sexual assault and a first-degree rape charge involving actor Annabella Sciorra’s allegations of a mid-1990s rape — showed jurors were paying attention and they were not confused or overwhelmed by the additional testimony.

The Associated Press does not generally identify people alleging sexual assault unless they consent to be named; Sciorra has spoken publicly about her allegations.

The Court of Appeals agreed last year to take Weinstein’s case after an intermediate appeals court upheld his conviction. Prior to their ruling, judges on the lower appellate court had raised doubts about Burke’s conduct during oral arguments. One observed that Burke had let prosecutors pile on with “incredibly prejudicial testimony” from additional witnesses.

Burke’s term expired at the end of 2022. He was not reappointed and is no longer a judge.

In appealing, Weinstein’s lawyers sought a new trial, but only for the criminal sexual act charge. They argued the rape charge could not be retried because it involves alleged conduct outside the statute of limitations.

Biden administration aims to clean up power sector with revamped rules

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced it has finalized rules targeting carbon, air and water pollution from power plants that

it says could cut over 1 billion metric tons from carbon emissions by 2047 even as demand for electricity grows.

The Environmental Protection Agency tightened a proposal to slash carbon emissions from existing coal and new gas plants, and updated and finalized long-standing rules to reduce mercury and toxic air pollutants and clean up wastewater and coal ash discharge.

“EPA is cutting pollution while ensuring that power companies can make smart investments and continue to deliver reliable electricity for all Americans,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Regan had said in 2022 he intended to take on several regulations together to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, and help states, utilities and plant operators make better investment and plant retirement decisions.

The new rules come as electric utilities brace for a spike in demand from data centers powering technology like generative AI, as well as from the growth of electric vehicles.

The United States is projected this year to add more electric generation capacity than it has done in two decades, with 96% being clean energy, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters.

Among the changes the EPA made to the carbon rule is dropping hydrogen as a “best system of emission reduction” for gas plants to achieve new standards.

Now it is just carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) that could be used for the longest-running existing coal units and new gas turbines that run more than 40% of the time. The EPA initially proposed that the standards apply to plants that run more than 50% of the time.

The agency also said coal plants that plan to run past 2039 will be required to install CCS technology starting in 2032 in the final rule. It had initially proposed requiring CCS for plants that will be running past 2040.

The Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group, said it appreciated EPA’s approach of bundling the different pollution rules to ease compliance, but was disappointed the agency didn’t heed its concerns around CCS viability.

“CCS is not yet ready for full-scale, economy-wide deployment, nor is there sufficient time to permit, finance, and build the CCS infrastructure needed for compliance by 2032,” EEI President Dan Brouillette said.

Regan told reporters the agency was confident in the technology, which has been bolstered by Inflation Reduction Act tax incentives, and support from “multiple power companies.”

The agency also said it has launched a process to get feedback on how to reduce carbon emissions from existing gas plants. The EPA removed coverage of existing gas plants from the initial proposal last month and gave no new timeline for developing a rule to cover the current fleet.

The EPA also reduced mercury emissions limits for lignite coal plants by 70% and emissions limits associated with toxic metals by 67%, the first update of that rule since 2012, while also finalizing measures that would eliminate 660 million pounds of pollution per year being discharged into U.S. waterways and protect communities from coal ash contamination.

Environmental groups praised the rules for helping to drive down power sector emissions alongside the IRA, putting the administration closer to its goal of net-zero emissions in the sector by 2035.

“The age of unbridled climate pollution from power plants is over,” said Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, top Republican on the Senate environment committee, said she plans to introduce a resolution aiming to overturn the rules.

“President Biden has inexplicably doubled down on his plans to shut down the backbone of America’s electric grid through unachievable regulatory mandates,” she said.

US police clash with students who demand colleges cut financial ties to Israel

austin, texas — Police tangled with student demonstrators in the U.S. states of Texas and California while new encampments sprouted Wednesday at Harvard and other colleges as school leaders sought ways to defuse a growing wave of pro-Palestinian protests.

At the University of Texas at Austin, hundreds of local and state police — including some on horseback and holding batons — clashed with protesters, pushing them off the campus lawn and at one point sending some tumbling into the street. At least 20 demonstrators were taken into custody at the request of university officials and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

A photographer covering the demonstration for Fox 7 Austin was arrested after being caught in a push-and-pull between law enforcement and students, the station confirmed. A longtime Texas journalist was knocked down in the mayhem and could be seen bleeding before police helped him to emergency medical staff who bandaged his head.

At the University of Southern California, police got into a back-and-forth tugging match with protesters over tents, removing several before falling back. At the northern end of California, students were barricaded inside a building for a third day at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. The school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

Harvard University in Massachusetts had sought to stay ahead of protests this week by limiting access to Harvard Yard and requiring permission for tents and tables. That didn’t stop protesters from setting up a camp with 14 tents Wednesday following a rally against the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Dozens have been arrested on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police earlier in the day. The situation there remained tense, with campus officials saying it would continue talks with protesters for another 48 hours.

On a visit to campus, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, called on Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign “if she cannot bring order to this chaos.”

“If this is not contained quickly and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard,” he said.

Shafik had set a midnight Tuesday deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment, but the school extended negotiations, saying it was making “important progress.”

On Wednesday evening, a Columbia spokesperson said rumors that the university had threatened to bring in the National Guard were unfounded. “Our focus is to restore order, and if we can get there through dialogue, we will,” said Ben Chang, Columbia’s vice president for communications.

Columbia graduate student Omer Lubaton Granot, who put up pictures of Israeli hostages near the encampment, said he wanted to remind people that there were more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas.

“I see all the people behind me advocating for human rights,” he said. “I don’t think they have one word to say about the fact that people their age, that were kidnapped from their homes or from a music festival in Israel, are held by a terror organization.”

Harvard law student Tala Alfoqaha, who is Palestinian, said she and other protesters want more transparency from the university.

“My hope is that the Harvard administration listens to what its students have been asking for all year, which is divestment, disclosure and dropping any sort of charges against students,” she said.

Columbia encampment inspires others

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. The move backfired, acting as an inspiration for other students across the country to set up similar encampments and motivating protesters at Columbia to regroup.

On Wednesday about 60 tents remained at the Columbia encampment, which appeared calm. Security remained tight around campus, with identification required and police setting up metal barricades.

Columbia said it had agreed with protest representatives that only students would remain at the encampment and they would make it welcoming, banning discriminatory or harassing language.

On the University of Minnesota campus, a few dozen students rallied a day after nine protesters were arrested when police took down an encampment in front of the library. U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was among the demonstrators arrested at Columbia last week, attended a protest later in the day.

A group of more than 80 professors and assistant professors signed a letter Wednesday calling on the university’s president and other administrators to drop any charges and to allow future encampments without what they described as police retaliation.

They wrote that they were “horrified that the administration would permit such a clear violation of our students’ rights to freely speak out against genocide and ongoing occupation of Palestine.”

Netanyahu encourages police response

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on U.S. college campuses in a video statement released Wednesday, saying the response of several university presidents has been “shameful” and calling on state, local and federal officials to intervene.

Students at some protests were hiding their identities and declined to identify themselves to reporters, saying they feared retribution. At an encampment of about 40 tents at the heart of the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost every student wore a mask, which was handed to them when they entered.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. More than 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

Russia blocks UN resolution on peaceful use of outer space

new york — Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution Wednesday reaffirming the need to prevent a nuclear arms race in outer space.

The measure was proposed jointly by the United States, a nuclear power, and Japan, the only nation ever to be attacked with nuclear bombs.

“We have only begun to understand the catastrophic ramifications of a nuclear explosion in space,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “How it could destroy thousands of satellites operated by countries and companies around the world — and wipe out the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial and national security services we all depend on.”

The failed text recalled the responsibility of states to comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the basic framework on international space law. It says outer space is to be shared among nations and shall be free of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. The treaty also says the moon and other celestial bodies “shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes,” and astronauts shall be “regarded as the envoys of mankind.”

The proposed resolution also called on states “not to develop nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction specifically designed to be placed in orbit around the Earth, or to be installed on celestial bodies, or to be stationed in outer space in any other manner.”

Thomas-Greenfield noted that President Vladimir Putin has said publicly that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space.

“And so, today’s veto begs the question: Why? Why, if you are following the rules, would you not support a resolution that reaffirms them?” she asked. “What could you possibly be hiding? It’s baffling, and it’s a shame.”

Thomas-Greenfield just returned from Japan, where she visited Nagasaki, a city on which the United States dropped one of two atomic bombs at the end of World War II.

“It was a reminder of our profound responsibility to prevent the scourge of war and ensure that no place experiences the horror of nuclear weaponry ever again,” she said.

“Adopting this draft resolution would have been a positive and practical contribution to the promotion of the peaceful use and exploration of outer space,” said Japanese Ambassador Kazuyuki Yamazaki. “If adopted, we could have demonstrated our unity in reaffirming the principle of no placement of any weapons of mass destruction in outer space and in opposing the development of such capabilities.”

The proposed resolution, which had more than 60 co-sponsors, created no new international obligations, but reaffirmed existing ones. It was supported by 13 of the 15 council members. After failing to get an amendment added to it, Russia vetoed it and China abstained.

“Today, our council is once again being involved in a dirty spectacle prepared by the U.S. and Japan,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said. “This is a cynical ploy. We are being tricked.”

He said Moscow wanted a text that would have gone further, banning weapons of any kind in outer space.

China’s new U.N. ambassador, Fu Cong, echoed that, saying the draft needed “other substantive elements.” 

US concerns

In February, U.S. officials said Russia is developing a space-based weapon to attack satellites. They do not believe it would target people or cause destruction on Earth.

Analysts at the Washington-based Safe World Foundation think tank say on their website that Russia is most likely developing a system “that would use a nuclear explosion to create weapons effects, most likely an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), that would in turn disable or destroy satellites.”

There are thousands of satellites in space that run the gamut from sophisticated military purposes to running a car’s GPS or providing television programming.

Although the U.S. resolution was not adopted, Thomas-Greenfield said Washington would continue to pursue bilateral arms control discussions with Russia in good faith.

The U.S. also has concerns about China’s work in space, where officials say they are rapidly developing a range of counterspace weapons and using outer space to strengthen the capabilities of their military forces on Earth.

“Over the last six years they have tripled the number of intelligent surveillance and reconnaissance satellites in orbit, and they have used their space capabilities to improve the lethality, the precision and the range of their terrestrial forces,” said General Stephen Whiting, commander of the U.S. Space Command.

He spoke by phone to regional journalists Wednesday from Tokyo, where he is meeting with allies.

No longer a US priority, is Afghanistan a Central Asia problem now?

Washington — Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors are holding out hope that America, based on its pledges at September’s C5+1 summit, will expand its role in this neighborhood. The wish list includes delivering more humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, facilitating the expansion of trade, and combating the threats of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. 

Officials speaking with VOA suggest that more aid could be channeled into Afghanistan via Uzbekistan. Additionally, Washington could offer more military assistance to Central Asian states and tangibly support their regional connectivity initiatives. 

While no country has formally announced diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government, Central Asian nations have been engaging with the Taliban based on mutual interests, such as security, trade, and water sharing. Uzbekistan, which has extensive political and economic ties with Kabul, has been urging the West and the larger international community not to isolate Afghanistan. 

Nearly three years since the withdrawal of American forces, U.S. officials insist that they have not abandoned Afghanistan, pointing to ongoing efforts and consultations with Central Asian counterparts. However, they admit Washington’s priorities have shifted to other issues, such as Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

“It will take the U.S. a decade or two to recover from the fact that we lost the war,” said David Sedney, a veteran diplomat and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. “It took us 20 years before we were able to engage in Vietnam in a productive way,” he told VOA. 

Scott Worden, who heads the Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, thinks that Central Asian governments overestimate Washington’s leverage. 

“There are a lot of issues in the world that have to be addressed simultaneously,” he noted in an interview with VOA. “They [the U.S.] are balancing the leverage that they have against issues that are manageable and maybe achievable versus ones like women’s rights, which I think the administration cares strongly about.” 

“It’s just a really tough situation,” Worden added. “In my view, you should not condition humanitarian assistance. Any economic sanctions wind up hurting the Afghans that we want to support. It’s a difficult balance, and so I don’t think there is any obvious additional tool or leverage that could be deployed that they’re withholding.” 

Some Western nations including the United States, however, have filtered humanitarian aid programs through partner organizations that circumvent Taliban officials and deliver aid directly to Afghan civilians.

According to USAID, the U.S. supplied nearly $81 million in Afghan humanitarian aid in fiscal year 2024, and has supplied total funding for Afghanistan of “more than $2 billion since August 2021 … including more than $1.5 billion in [USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance] funding and nearly $550 million in [the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration] funding.”

“Provided through international partners on the ground,” says USAID, this assistance helps “meet the needs of the most vulnerable through food and cash support, nutrition, health care, protection for women and children, and agricultural inputs to support Afghans in meeting their immediate food needs.” 

Like Sedney, Worden suggests being realistic. “There is ample opportunity for the U.S. and other international partners to talk to the Taliban when they want to.” 

“This is all part of a very difficult global conversation,” he said. 

But for Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, known for advocating closer ties with the region, Afghanistan is “utterly ignored right now.” 

Starr emphasizes that this country is critical for regional integration and stability, two goals the U.S. has long vowed to support. 

Sedney observes that “not many people want to talk about Afghanistan,” not just in Washington but in other Western capitals as well. 

Speaking last week at the American Foreign Policy Council, these experts stressed that America’s two decades of involvement in Afghanistan left it with an obligation to go beyond the status quo. 

Starr approves of the steps Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have taken with Afghanistan, particularly regarding commerce, energy supply and water resources. 

Other observers, however, warn about tensions between the Taliban and Tajikistan, which officially supports the National Resistance Front, an armed alliance of anti-Taliban forces that is loyal to the previous regime and carries out guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan. Dushanbe continues to host the previous government’s ambassador. 

Worden identifies several key interests and objectives for Washington, most of which align with those of the region. The first and most important objective is counterterrorism, ensuring that Afghan territory is never again used to launch attacks on the U.S. or its allies. 

Others include negotiations on American hostages; the evacuation of Afghans that the U.S. promised to help following its withdrawal; women’s rights and other human rights; humanitarian assistance; and economic development. 

Perhaps the most abstract interest, according to Worden, “is trying to maintain an international diplomatic consensus on the broad conditions and expectations that we have for the Taliban, which include in the endgame a more inclusive society that is not a threat to itself and for its neighbors as well as these U.S. interests.” 

“It’s remarkable that no country in the world has recognized the Taliban,” he said, adding, however, that he sees a divergence between Western-allied emphasis on human rights and women’s rights and the neighboring countries’ economic and security concerns. 

In Worden’s view, the U.S. is pursuing a policy of “quiet engagement” on humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism. At the same time, there is a firm position of non-recognition and not wanting to legitimize the Taliban. 

“Can this dualism sustain over time?” asked Worden, who also sees a cleavage developing, where countries in the region will over time increase engagement with those in power in Afghanistan to achieve their economic and security interests. “Not that they like the Taliban, but they feel like talking to them is better than not.” 

Regardless of who inhabits the White House next January, Worden doubts that U.S. attention toward Afghanistan will increase unless there is an “acute crisis.” 

Republicans tend to “prefer coercion to engagement when you’re talking about regimes that we don’t have much in common with,” he said. “So yes, there is the wild card of potentially making a great deal, but I think the odds of support for armed opposition would increase.” 

U.S.-based Afghan journalist Samy Mahdi, who runs Amu Television out of Virginia, points out that the Taliban enjoy close relations with America’s adversaries, such as Iran, Russia and China. He argues that U.S. assistance has brought about minimum results, and that the Taliban is as radical and dangerous as it was in the 1990s. 

Mahdi recommends a full review of U.S. policy. 

“More communication and transparency are needed on Afghanistan,” he said at the American Foreign Policy Council forum. “We don’t hear much from the U.S. administration about Afghanistan.”

Facing repression in China, Muslims seek freedom in NYC

In a dramatic surge, U.S. border patrol authorities detained more than 24,000 Chinese citizens crossing the southern border in fiscal year 2023, a 12-fold increase from the previous year. Many come seeking asylum, and among those that do, a small group of China’s ethnic Hui Muslims stands out. Aron Ranen brings us the story from the Big Apple.

‘Loose Ends’ provides closure one project at a time

When a person dies, it often falls to their children, loved ones, lawyers or even friends to sort through the things they’ve left behind. Sometimes, those things are unfinished projects or hobbies, that’s where the group Loose Ends comes in. Nina Vishneva has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

US Senate passes bill to force TikTok divestment or ban

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted late Tuesday to send legislation to President Joe Biden that would require Chinese owner ByteDance to divest the popular short video app’s U.S. assets within about nine months or face a

Ban.

The measure, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday, has been driven by concerns that China could access Americans’ data or surveil them with the app and Biden has said he will sign it into law.

“For years we’ve allowed the Chinese Communist party to control one of the most popular apps in America that was dangerously shortsighted,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. “A new law is going to require its Chinese owner to sell the app. This is a good move for America.”

TikTok, which says it has not shared and would not share U.S. user data with the Chinese government, has argued the law amounts to a ban that would violate the U.S. free speech rights of its users.

The company did not immediately comment but over the weekend, it told its employees that it would quickly go to court to try to block the legislation.

“We’ll continue to fight, as this legislation is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of the 170 million Americans on TikTok… This is the beginning, not the end of this long process,” TikTok told employees on Saturday in an email seen by Reuters.

The Senate voted 79 to 18 in favor of the bill. 

Generative AI threatens voter confidence in what’s real   

Artificial intelligence surrounds U.S. political life, from fundraising to campaign advertising. Some lawmakers are looking to better police the use of generative content in this year’s presidential election as they say it threatens voter confidence in what is real. VOA correspondent Scott Stearns reports.

Myanmar junta slams US aid plan

WASHINGTON — Myanmar’s ruling junta, the State Administrative Council, is criticizing a U.S. aid package that is being funneled through opponents of the regime, saying the United States should consider whether its actions amount to support for terrorism. 

The assistance marks the first implementation of the BURMA Act, part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act aimed at helping pro-democracy forces battling the SAC. 

Under the act, the aid is intended to strengthen federalism in Myanmar by providing nonlethal assistance to armed groups, helping pro-democracy organizations, assisting aid organizations operating from Thailand, and financing investigations of junta human rights violations. The aid is restricted to ensure it does not benefit the SAC or any entity affiliated with the Myanmar military. 

“We believe the U.S. is manipulating Myanmar to counter China’s influence in the region,” the junta said in a statement provided to VOA on March 29. “Despite the U.S. presenting itself as a champion of democracy, the aid disproportionately benefits Myanmar’s opposition groups, particularly the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Force (PDF).” 

The NUG is the opposition’s shadow government; the PDF is made up of civilian armed groups battling the military. 

The junta statement calls on the United States to review its aid allocation “to reassess whether their actions, which some label as terrorism, represent a legitimate path to reclaiming power.” 

The junta, which has killed and imprisoned thousands of people since overthrowing the democratically elected government in February 2021, accuses the NUG and PDF of responsibility for the civilian deaths. The statement did not elaborate on the charge that U.S. support for resistance groups in Myanmar is linked to Myanmar’s adversarial relationship with China. 

The promise of the BURMA Act 

The Burma Unified Through Rigorous Military Accountability Act, commonly called the BURMA Act, says it aims to “continue to support the people of Burma in their struggle for democracy, human rights, and justice.” 

It identifies specific resistance groups as beneficiaries, including the NUG, and the National Unity Consultative Council, or NUCC, which comprises several opposition groups. 

Also named are the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which is made up of members of the ousted Myanmar parliament; the civil disobedience movement; “and other entities in Burma and in other countries” that seek to “bring about an end to the military junta’s rule.” 

The act promises to “hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations,” and to “hold accountable the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.” 

It provides $75 million for refugee assistance programs, including in Thailand and India, and $25 million for “technical support and non-lethal assistance” to the NUG and PDF. Smaller amounts are earmarked for governance programs, documentation of atrocities, and assistance to political prisoners, Rohingya and deserters from the junta’s military. 

The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, have faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, a military crackdown by the Myanmar army forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from the violence and persecution. 

The act authorizes appropriations to be allocated annually from fiscal years 2023 through 2027, with $121 million earmarked for FY 2024.  

Process of the funding 

During debate on the bill, the U.S. House of Representatives initially proposed a more limited $50 million aid package but agreed to the larger sum advocated by the Senate before final passage. 

“We are pleased with the $121 million proposed by the Senate, instead of the $50 million proposed by the House. However, we believe this amount is insufficient, and should be closer to $300 million to meet the humanitarian needs on the ground,” said James Shwe, from the Los Angeles Myanmar Movement, which works with Myanmar activists in the United States. 

In a Zoom call with VOA, Shwe also criticized what he sees as the high administrative costs of aid distribution. 

“Because of the lack of state-to-state cooperation in a case such as Myanmar, where the aid is meant for humanitarian assistance, but not for the ruling power, this leads to several layers of management,” he said. 

“The aid is funneled through USAID partners, the biggest of which is the U.N., which has to operate under the rules of the junta. In many cases, the U.N. will in turn deal with [non-governmental organizations]. The NGO then needs to distribute that aid to [civil society organizations] on the ground. This leads to ever-increasing administrative costs and less actual assistance to those in need.” 

Shwe said administration costs eat up around 45% of aid funds. 

“Only $75 million of the $121 million is allocated for cross-border aid, which we believe will be more effective than channeling funds through the U.N., the largest partner of USAID,” Shwe added. But he welcomed the lawmakers’ decision to specifically name the NUG and the NUCC in the act, ensuring that they will play a role in the allocation of the funds. 

Hopes for assistance amid U.S. engagement 

Hopes for continued humanitarian assistance to Myanmar are on the rise after U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and USAID Assistant Administrator Michael Schiffer met this month with representatives from the NUG. 

“The meeting underscores the ongoing commitment of the United States to engage with Myanmar’s NUG leadership and support their endeavors to promote democracy, peace, and stability in the region,” said an April 11 State Department press release. 

Chollet also met in late March with ethnic armed organizations allied with the NUG.

“Met today with leaders of Burma’s ‘K3C’ ethnic group alliance on their extraordinary efforts to pursue a federal democracy in Burma,” he wrote on X on March 28. “We discussed steps for the international community to expand assistance to those in need and secure a better future for the people of Burma.”

The K3C alliance, comprising the Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, is politically aligned with the NUG and collaborates militarily with its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force. 

“We briefed them on the political and military situation in our state, as well as the humanitarian situation,” said Aung San Myint, secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party, who shared details of the meeting with VOA by phone.  

“Following our presentation, they assured us of continued collaboration as the U.S. Department of State. … We have hope for increased humanitarian aid as discussions progress with U.S. officials.”

US sanctions four over ‘malicious cyber activity’ for Iran’s military

Washington — The U.S. ramped up its sanctions against Iran on Tuesday, designating four people and two companies it says were “involved in malicious cyber activity” on behalf of the country’s military.  

“These actors targeted more than a dozen U.S. companies and government entities through cyber operations, including spear phishing and malware attacks,” the U..S Treasury Department said in a statement. 

The individuals and companies were working “on behalf of” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cyber Electronic Command (IRGC-CEC), the Treasury said. 

“Iranian malicious cyber actors continue to target U.S. companies and government entities in a coordinated, multi-pronged campaign intended to destabilize our critical infrastructure and cause harm to our citizens,” the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in a statement. 

“The United States will continue to leverage our whole-of-government approach to expose and disrupt these networks’ operations,” he added.  

Tuesday’s sanctions are the latest to be levied against Tehran by the United States and its allies for supporting anti-Israel proxies in the Middle East and for providing military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

Last week, the U..S and Britain announced widespread sanctions against Iran’s military drone program in response to Tehran’s large-scale attack against Israel earlier this month.  

That attack came in response to an April 1 airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus — widely blamed on Israel — that killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals. 

A day after those sanctions were unveiled, the U.S. fined a Thailand-based firm $20 million for more than 450 possible Iran sanctions violations. 

They included processing close to $300 million in wire transfers for a company jointly owned by the National Petroleum Company of Iran.  

Alongside Tuesday’s sanctions, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have indicted the four individuals in question “for their roles in cyber activity targeting U.S. entities,” the Treasury Department said.

 

Blinken returns to China amid ongoing tensions, with no breakthrough expected

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to China this week for talks with senior officials in Shanghai and Beijing to discuss a range of issues, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East crisis, the South China Sea, and human rights. State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching has more.

Columbia’s ongoing protests cause canceled classes and increased tensions

NEW YORK — Columbia University held virtual classes Monday on the sixth continuous day of student protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

University president Nemat “Minouche” Shafik sent an email to the Columbia community announcing that classes would be held virtually. 

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” Shafik wrote. “These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

More than 100 students were arrested at the school April 18, after the university’s president authorized police to clear away protesters. Some of the students also received suspension notices from the school. 

Columbia’s action prompted an onslaught of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at other universities and responses from faculty and politicians.

The arrests occurred after students calling themselves Columbia University Apartheid Divest erected dozens of tents on a lawn at the center of the campus, establishing it as the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Following the arrests and the demolition of the original encampment, another pro-Palestine encampment sprung on an adjacent lawn.

Students aren’t the only demonstrators experiencing tensions on campus and with the university administration.

Monday morning, Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai was denied entry to the university for an attempted pro-Israel counter-protest on the occupied lawn after he refused to comply with the university’s counter-protest policies. 

“I am a professor here; I have every right to be everywhere on campus. You cannot let people who support Hamas on campus, and me, a professor, not on campus. Let me in now,” he said after Columbia COO Cass Halloway stopped him and other pro-Israel protesters at the entrance gates.

He has repeatedly called student protesters “violent maniacs” and “pro-Hamas terrorists.” A petition calling for Davidai’s dismissal has amassed nearly 9,000 signatures as of last Thursday night; additional grievances have been shared on social media and with the university.

Some Jewish students at Columbia say that many criticisms of Israel are antisemitic and make them feel unsafe.

Since the arrests, many student groups and Columbia affiliate groups have released statements condemning the university’s decision to arrest students, citing discriminatory enforcement of rules that limit students’ freedom of speech. 

Monday, hundreds of faculty members from across Columbia and Barnard staged a rally and walkout to urge the university to reverse the students’ suspensions. Some faculty members wore their graduation regalia and sashes reading “We support students.”

The backlash from the protests has even reached the ear of U.S. President Joe Biden. When asked about the recent events at the university by reporters Monday, Biden said, “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Other campuses, such as Yale, Stanford, and New York University have also rallied around the Palestinian cause, calling for their universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel and for a ceasefire in Gaza. Many have put up tent encampments on their campuses. About 50 students were arrested at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, Monday after they refused to leave their encampment.

Student protesters at Columbia have urged organizers of rallies outside the campus to “remember what we are protesting for” and focus on the war in Gaza, rather than just expressing solidarity with protesters. 

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and the Associated Press.

 

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