Category Archives: News

worldwide news

Senator to Call for Vote Against Easing Sanctions on Russian Companies

U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Saturday he will force a vote soon on a resolution to disapprove the Trump administration’s decision to relax sanctions on three Russian companies connected to oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

“I have concluded that the Treasury Department’s proposal is flawed and fails to sufficiently limit Oleg Deripaska’s control and influence of these companies and the Senate should move to block this misguided effort by the Trump administration and keep these sanctions in place,” Schumer said in a news release.

The U.S. Treasury announced Dec. 20 that it would lift sanctions imposed in April on the core businesses of Deripaska, including aluminum giant Rusal its parent En+ and power firm EuroSibEnergo, watering down the toughest penalties imposed since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

After lobbying by European governments that followed the imposition of sanctions, Washington postponed enforcement of the sanctions and started talks with Deripaska’s team on removing Rusal and En+ from the blacklist if he ceded control of Rusal.

The businessman, who has close ties to the Kremlin, also had ties with Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, documents have showed.

An FBI agent said in an affidavit attached to a 2017 search warrant unsealed earlier this year that he had reviewed tax returns for a company controlled by Manafort and his wife that showed a $10 million loan from a Russian lender identified as Deripaska.

On Thursday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted that the Trump administration would keep tight control on companies linked to Deripaska, despite the decision to ease restrictions.

Mnuchin said the firms would face consequences including the reimposition of sanctions if they failed to comply with the terms.

Schumer said given Deripaska’s potential involvement with Manafort, and because of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has not yet concluded, “It’s all the more reason these sanctions must remain in place.”

Passage of the resolution of disapproval of Treasury’s decision would require the approval of both the Democratic-majority house and the Senate, led by Trump’s fellow Republicans who are unlikely to break with his policy.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Zimbabwe Promises New Currency as Dollar Shortage Bites

Zimbabwe will introduce a new currency in the next 12 months, the finance minister said, as a shortage of U.S. dollars has plunged the financial system into disarray and forced businesses to close.

In the past two months, the southern African nation has suffered acute shortages of imported goods, including fuel whose price was increased by 150 percent Saturday.

Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency in 2009 after it was wrecked by hyperinflation and adopted the greenback and other currencies, such as sterling and the South African rand.

But there is not enough hard currency in the country to back up the $10 billion of electronic funds trapped in local bank accounts, prompting demands from businesses and civil servants for cash that can be deposited and used to make payments.

​Two weeks of reserves

Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube told a townhall meeting Friday a new local currency would be introduced in less than 12 months.

“On the issue of raising enough foreign currency to introduce the new currency, we are on our way already, give us months, not years,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s foreign reserves now provide less than two weeks cover for imports, central bank data show. The government has previously said it would only consider launching a new currency if it had at least six months of reserves.

Bad memories of Zimbabwean dollar

Locals are haunted by memories of the Zimbabwean dollar, which became worthless as inflation spiraled to reach 500 billion percent in 2008, the highest rate in the world for a country not at war, wiping out pensions and savings.

A surrogate bond note currency introduced in 2016 to stem dollar shortages has also collapsed in value.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa is under pressure to revive the economy but dollar shortages are undermining efforts to win back foreign investors sidelined under his predecessor Robert Mugabe.

Mnangagwa told reporters Saturday that the price of petrol had increased to $3.31 per liter from $1.32 since midnight but there would be no increase for foreign embassies and tourists paying in cash U.S. dollars.

Locals can pay via local debit cards, mobile phone payments and a surrogate bond note currency.

With less than $400 million in actual cash in Zimbabwe, according to central bank figures, fuel shortages have worsened and companies are struggling to import raw materials and equipment, forcing them to buy greenback notes on the black market at a premium of up to 370 percent.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries has warned some of its members could stop operating at the end of the month because of the dollar crunch.

Cooking oil and soap maker Olivine Industries said Saturday it had suspended production and put workers on indefinite leave because it owed foreign suppliers $11 million.

A local associate of global brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev said this week it would invest more than $120 million of dividends and fees trapped in Zimbabwe into the central bank’s savings bonds.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Selective shutdown? Trump Tries to Blunt Impact, Takes Heat

The government shutdown is wreaking havoc on many Americans: Hundreds of thousands of federal employees don’t know when they’ll see their next paycheck, and low-income people who rely on the federal safety net worry about whether they’ll make ends meet should the stalemate in Washington carry on another month.

But if you’re a sportsman looking to hunt game, a gas company planning to drill offshore or a taxpayer awaiting your refund, you’re in luck: This shutdown won’t affect your plans.

All administrations get some leeway to choose which services to freeze and which to maintain when a budget standoff in Washington forces some agencies to shutter. But in the selective reopening of offices, experts say they see a willingness to cut corners, scrap prior plans and wade into legally dubious territory to mitigate the pain. Some noted the choices seem targeted at shielding the Republican-leaning voters whom Trump and his party need to stick with them.

The cumulative effect is a government shutdown — now officially the longest in U.S. history — that some Americans may find financially destabilizing and others may hardly notice.

Russell T. Vought, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the overarching message from Trump has been “to make this shutdown as painless as possible, consistent with the law.”

“We have built on past efforts within this administration not to have the shutdown be used to be weaponized against the American people,” he said.

Others say such a strategy suggests a lack of urgency and a willingness to let the political impasse in Washington drag on indefinitely.

“The strategy seems to be to keep the shutdown in place, not worry about the effect on employees and furloughed people and contractors, but where the public might be annoyed, give a little,” said Alice Rivlin, who led OMB during the 21-day shutdown in 1996, the previous recordholder for the longest in history.

That’s a clear difference between then and now, Rivlin said.

“We weren’t trying to make it better. We were trying to emphasize the pain so it would be over,” she said. “We wanted it to end. I’m not convinced the Trump administration does.”

The Trump administration earlier this week announced that the IRS will issue tax refunds during the shutdown, circumventing a 2011 decision barring the agency from distributing refunds until the Treasury Department is funded. The National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit, arguing its workers are being unconstitutionally forced to return to work without pay.

Some agencies are finding creative ways to fund services they want to restore.

The administration has emphasized continued use of public lands in general, and particularly for hunters and oil and gas developers, angering environmental groups. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using funds leftover from 2018, this week announced it will direct dozens of wildlife refuges to return staffers to work, ensuring planned activities on those lands, including organized hunts, continue.

Barbara Wainman, a spokeswoman for the agency, said most refuges have remained accessible to hunters throughout the shutdown, and the decision to staff them was made based on three criteria: resource management, high visitation and previously scheduled programming, which includes organized hunts and school field trips. Wainman said 17 of the 38 refuges have scheduled hunts that would have been canceled without the restaffing effort.

The IRS is using user fees to restore the income verification program, used by mortgage lenders to confirm the income of a borrower and considered a critical tool for the banking industry. After national parks were left open but unstaffed, causing damage to delicate ecosystems, the National Park Service announced it would take “an extraordinary step” and use visitation fees to staff some of the major parks. And despite the shutdown, the Bureau of Land Management is continuing work related to drilling efforts in Alaska.

Trump has refused to sign spending bills for nine of the 15 Cabinet-level departments until Congress approves his request for $5.7 billion in funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have refused. The president initially said he would be “proud” to own the partial shutdown, but he quickly shifted blame onto Democratic leaders and has flirted with taking some extraordinary measures to find money for the wall. Although most Republicans have stood by the president, others have expressed discomfort with the strategy.

The focus on services that reach rural voters, influential industries and voters’ pocketbooks is intended to protect Republicans from blowback, said Barry Anderson, who served as assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1988 to 1998.

During the 1996 shutdown, Anderson said, he and others met each day to review which offices and services should be deemed essential. He said tax refunds never made the cut.

“A government agency may employ services in advance of appropriations only when there’s a reasonable connection between the functions being performed and the safety of human life or protection of property,” he said. “How does issuing tax refunds fall under either of those categories? It’s not a human life or property issue. I don’t know the proper word: surprised, aghast, flabbergasted.

“This,” he said, “is to keep Republican senators’ phones silent.”

OMB has held regular conference calls with agencies and is fielding a high volume of requests for services they’d like to resume. In addition, OMB officials are intentionally working to legally reopen as much of the government as possible, according to a senior administration official, adding that agencies are permitted to update their lapse plans as the shutdown progresses. The official was not authorized to discuss the internal discussions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Across the government, agencies are scrambling. The Food and Drug Administration has scaled back on food inspections. The Department of Agriculture recently announced that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food aid to nearly 40 million low-income Americans, will continue to operate through February because of a loophole in the short-term spending bill, which expired Dec. 22. But should the shutdown stretch into March, the department’s reserves for the program, $3 billion, won’t cover a month of benefits for all who need them. Other feeding programs, such as school lunch, food distribution and WIC, which provides nutrition aid to pregnant women, mothers and babies, are also in jeopardy should the shutdown last until March.

Hundreds of federal contracts for low-income Americans receiving housing assistance are expiring. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is unable to renew them and has instead directed private owners to dip into their reserves to cover shortfalls.

As time goes on, more and more programs will become vital, said Linda Bilmes, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the meaning of what’s essential will shift.

“Even apart from the fact that there may be particular instances of things that are being manipulated for political purposes,” she said, “there are also realities that government agencies are facing as they reassess what is absolutely essential to do now that we’re here, with no immediate end in sight.”

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

‘No Pathway’ to Grand Bargain Ending US Government Shutdown

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has all but given up efforts to negotiate a compromise to end the U.S. government shutdown that would fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall in exchange for extending legal protections for thousands of young undocumented immigrants and others who recently have lost legal status under the Temporary Protected Status program.

As late as Wednesday, Graham expressed hope that such a grand bargain could be reached.

“There is a deal to be had. It’s always been there. I think I have been boring you all for a month about how this movie ends. It’s got to be wall plus something else,” said Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and close ally to Trump.

But on Thursday, Graham admitted that a legislative resolution to this standoff is likely out of reach, and indicated that President Donald Trump may soon invoke emergency powers to build the wall without congressional approval.

“There’s no pathway forward that I can see. The president believes that’s his power, seems to me the only way left is for him to exercise that authority. I don’t see any action in the Congress,” Graham said.

DACA and TPS

Graham’s proposal would have given President Trump the $5.7 billion he wants to build the border wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, along with giving Democrats a significant concession by reaffirming former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that granted legal status to more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children.

The Trump administration attempted to terminate DACA in 2017, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently blocked the presidential rescission order, saying it was “arbitrary and capricious under settled law.”

The administration has appealed the matter to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide in the coming days whether it will take the case.

TPS is in similar limbo. The program, which grants temporary legal status and work permits to citizens of countries suffering from natural disasters or armed conflict, was canceled by the Trump administration for about 400,000 people.

But a federal court ruled in October the U.S. government violated the law when it ended TPS for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. This case, too, may be taken up by the Supreme Court.

Last year, the Senate attempted to pass a similar bipartisan plan to extend the DACA population legal status and authorize $25 billion over the next decade for southern-border-security construction projects, including $18 billion for the wall. Various versions of proposed legislation ultimately were rejected, as some Democrats opposed the tough immigration restrictions included and many conservative Republicans objected to any form of amnesty being granted.

​Uncompromising Democrats

The sharp political divide in Washington has only deepened since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives this month, following the party’s gains in midterm elections. And neither the Democrats nor Trump seem willing to compromise to end the government shutdown.

Many Democrats don’t want to link support for legal status for young immigrants known as Dreamers, a position that most Americans support, to funding the border wall, which remains a highly controversial issue.

“That is not the negotiation we should be having. It doesn’t make any sense at all, to trade something that absolutely can and should be done for good policy and moral reasons, for something that actually should not be done for policy or moral reasons,” said Tom Jawetz, an immigration policy analyst at the Democratic leaning Center for American Progress policy institute.

The Democratic leadership, Jawetz says, does not trust Trump to support any deal, and believes the president wants to keep immigration and border security as divisive issues to energize his core supporters in the 2020 election.

Immigration opposition

Trump’s demand for border wall funding to end the government shutdown, after earlier indicating he would sign a short-term funding bill with no money for the wall, is seen by many as a reaction to conservative media criticism that he was capitulating on his central campaign promise to “build the wall.”

But some hard-line anti-immigration groups that support Trump, like the Center for Immigration Studies, view the wall as more symbolic than essential to significantly restrict illegal immigration. Granting a mass amnesty in exchange for the wall is a deal they would not support.

“A wall is not the most important enforcement procedure, and it’s also not the thing we want most in terms of immigration reform. So to give away something big like an amnesty for people who aren’t even supposed to be in the country, we would want some significant concession,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Increasing the number of agents, judges and detention facilities at the border, reforming the immigrations system to quickly deport most asylum-seekers that critics say are actually economic migrants, and increasing enforcement efforts to ensure U.S. businesses do not hire undocumented immigrants, Camarota says, would more effectively deter illegal immigration.

But the Trump administration may not have liked the linkage either. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Thursday that DACA is not up for negotiation until the Supreme Court weighs in.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

SpaceX Reportedly to Lay Off About 10 Percent of Workforce 

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX will reduce its workforce by about 10 percent of the company’s more than 6,000 employees, it said on Friday.

The company said it will “part ways” with some of its manpower, citing “extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead.”

“To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space based

Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations,” a spokesman said in an email.

In June, Elon Musk fired at least seven people in the senior management team leading a SpaceX satellite launch project, Reuters reported in November. The firings were related to disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s Starlink program is competing with OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat to be the first to market with a new satellite-based internet service.

The management shakeup involved Musk bringing in new managers from SpaceX headquarters in California to replace a number of the managers he fired in Seattle.

Last month, SpaceX launched its first U.S. national security space mission, when a SpaceX rocket carrying a U.S. military navigation satellite blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX was raising $500 million, taking its valuation to $30.5 billion.

The Hawthorne, California-based company had earlier outlined plans for a trip to Mars in 2022, to be followed by a manned mission to the red planet by 2024.

Another Elon Musk company, electric car maker Tesla Inc , said in June it was cutting 9 percent of its workforce by removing several thousand jobs across the company in cost reduction measures.

 

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

U.S. to Seek Comprehensive Agriculture Access in EU Trade Talks

The United States on Friday signaled it would not bow to the European Union’s request to keep agriculture out of planned U.S.-EU trade talks, publishing negotiating objectives that seek comprehensive EU access for American farm products.

The objectives, required by Congress under the “fast-track” trade negotiating authority law, seek to reduce or eliminate EU tariffs on U.S. farm products and break down non-tariff barriers, including on products developed through biotechnology, the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office said.

Agricultural issues were among the major sticking points in past negotiations for a major U.S.-EU trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), before talks were shelved after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Washington on Wednesday that the 28-country bloc could not negotiate on agriculture in a new, more limited set of negotiations expected to start this year.

“We have made very clear agriculture will not be included,” Malmstrom told reporters after meeting Lighthizer, adding that the two sides had not yet agreed on the scope of the talks.

Trump and EU president Jean-Claude Juncker agreed last July to re-launch negotiations to cut tariffs on industrial goods, including autos, and also discuss ways for Europe to buy more U.S. soybeans.

Trump told Juncker that he would refrain from levying threatened 25-percent tariffs on EU-produced cars and auto parts, which he is considering imposing worldwide on national security grounds.

Trump has long complained about Europe’s 10-percent import tariff on autos. The U.S. passenger car tariff is only 2.5 percent, although U.S. tariffs on pickup trucks and other commercial trucks are 25 percent.

The U.S. negotiating wish list does not specifically mention autos, but pledges to seek duty-free market access for U.S. industrial goods that eliminate non-tariff barriers such as “unnecessary differences in regulation.”

USTR’s decision to push for a full-fledged trade negotiation on agricultural goods follows a hearing in December at which U.S. farm, food and beverage groups argued for their products to be included.

Influential lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa farmer, have warned they might not support an EU deal that did not include agriculture. Now that the U.S. objectives have been published, the USTR may be ready to formally launch negotiations in as little as 30 days.

But the EU’s own negotiating mandates on industrial goods and regulatory cooperation need to be cleared by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, and approved by member states, and it is unclear how long that process will take.

The United States had a $151 billion goods deficit with the EU in 2017, despite two-way annual trade of about $1.1 billion. USTR also said it will seek commitments by Europe not to impose duties on any digital downloads of U.S. software, movies, music and other products nor any rules that restrict cross-border data flows or require data localization, USTR said.

In an objective aimed at Europe’s efforts to tax products and services from U.S.-based internet giants, including Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Amazon.com, USTR said it would seek a “guarantee that these products will  not face government-sanctioned discrimination based on the nationality or territory in which the product is produced.”

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Democratic Hawaii Rep. Gabbard Running for President in 2020

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has announced that she is running for president in 2020.

Gabbard said in a CNN interview slated to air Saturday night that she will be formally announcing her candidacy within the next week.

The 37-year-old Iraq War veteran is the first Hindu elected to Congress. She has visited New Hampshire and Iowa in recent months and has written a memoir that’s due to be published in May.

Gabbard was criticized in 2016 for traveling to Syria and meeting with President Bashar Assad, who has been accused of war crimes. She says it’s important to meet with adversaries if “you are serious about pursuing peace.”

Gabbard was one of the most prominent lawmakers to back Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. 

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Privacy, Please: Latest Gadgets Want Greater Peek into Lives

The latest gadgets want even greater access to your lives.

This week’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that can livestream the living room, a bathroom mirror that captures your face to offer beauty tips and a gizmo that tracks the heartbeat of an unborn child.

These features can be useful — or at least fun — but they all open the door for companies and people working for them to peek into your private lives. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave employees access to some customer video footage.

You’ll have to weigh whether the gadgets are useful enough to give up some privacy. First, you have to trust that companies making these devices are protecting your information and aren’t doing more than what they say they’re doing with data. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data. Or an ex might retain access to a video feed long after a breakup.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington professor who researches computer security and privacy.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process

Amazon’s video feeds

As with other security cameras, Ring’s can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home to give you a peek, through an app, of who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into peepholes for apartment dwellers or college students who can’t install one next to their doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

Living room livestream

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products. 

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel icky. 

Wellcam says video isn’t recorded until someone activates it from a phone and video is deleted as soon as the stream stops. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera, unless you unplug it or cover it up with something. 

Bathroom cameras 

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror — making it more important that personal data is protected. 

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need internet to work, she said. Even if it is connected, all data is stored on a local network. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information — such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon — but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

Bodily data

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information. 

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a pregnant belly and tracks the heartbeat. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And you can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy — potentially raising health risks and hence premiums.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!