Category Archives: News

worldwide news

Sharp Divisions on Display as Americans Mark Independence Day

The July 4th Independence Day holiday holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. All across the country, citizens traditionally gather for picnics and fireworks on July 4th to celebrate the country’s birth in 1776 and to reaffirm the vibrancy of U.S. democracy. But in recent years, democracy has increasingly come under strain in a politically polarized country where voices are often raised in anger and common ground is hard to find. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more.

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Fears Mounting Over Possible Trade War

President Donald Trump continues to turn up the heat on trade, a tactic that he insists will result in better deals for the American people. But the president’s rhetoric has economists concerned about a trade war. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has more.

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Cuban Flagship Airline’s Woes Deepen After Crash

In the busy summer travel period in Cuba, a long line of people wait for hours in the sweltering heat outside the Havana office of state-owned airline Cubana, many of them eager to visit families in the provinces.

But they are not waiting to book flights. Instead, they hope to get their money back on plane tickets or exchange them for bus tickets across the island.

Cubana, which has a virtual monopoly on domestic flights, has suspended nearly all of them due to a lack of working aircraft, plunging travel on the Caribbean’s largest island into chaos and highlighting problems at what was once a vanguard of Latin American aviation.

The flight suspensions were made a month after a Cubana flight crashed after takeoff from Havana airport in May, killing 112 people. They come at a time when Communist-run Cuba is trying to stimulate tourism, one of the few bright spots in its economy, by promoting beach resorts and colonial towns hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the capital.

“Now I will have to take a 16-hour bus ride to Guantanamo, but what other options do I have?” said kindergarten teacher Marlene Mendoza, who was bathed in sweat and got a bus ticket to eastern Cuba after queuing for more than seven hours.

Analysts say Cubana’s troubles stem largely from dual ills that afflict the whole state-run economy: the U.S. trade embargo and a problematic business model.

Cubana did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

Founded in 1929 as one of Latin America’s first airlines, Cubana was nationalized after Fidel Castro’s leftist 1959 revolution. In its heyday, it flew Cuban troops to Africa and passengers to allied socialist countries around the globe.

For decades it got around U.S. sanctions that restricted it from buying planes with a certain share of U.S. components — including European Airbus and Brazilian Embraers — by acquiring first Soviet and then Russian aircraft.

The carrier maintained a decent safety record, but its reputation for mediocre service and delays prompted many foreign tourists to use mostly land transport.

Then, over the past year, it started canceling more flights than usual, often putting passengers up in hotels for days, without commenting publicly on the disarray.

After the Boeing 737 crashed on May 18, Cubana said it had leased the plane from Mexican company Damojh due to a lack of its own aircraft. A second Damojh plane has been grounded pending a safety audit of its fleet by Mexican authorities, data from Flightradar24 shows, aggravating the shortage.

Cuban, Mexican and U.S. authorities are still investigating the crash and have not commented on possible causes. Damojh has said in a press release that is fully cooperating with those investigations into the “lamentable accident.”

Just four of Cubana’s own 16 planes are flying, according to a Reuters examination of data on Flightradar24 and Planespotters.net.

Not flying high

Over the past month, the airline announced it was axing several routes mainly used by Cubans and reducing the frequency of flights to Santiago, Holguin and Baracoa, all popular tourist destinations. In a statement, it said it was working to resolve the situation and apologized for the disruption.

Cubana also suspended all international routes except to Buenos Aires and Madrid, several staff told Reuters. The company did not comment publicly, leaving would-be travelers sharing their confusion on online forums.

“It has lost a lot of prestige. It’s already not the famous Cubana that used to fly to all parts of the world,” said one former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, who retired 6-1/2 years ago after working for Cubana for 40 years. “Anywhere else in the world, a company like Cubana would have folded.”

Cubana said in mid-June it did not have enough aircraft largely because of maintenance issues and lack of parts, which aviation experts say can cost millions of dollars.

The airline sells tickets to Cuban citizens at heavily subsidized prices. Its budget is also stretched by ferrying official delegations around sometimes at a financial loss, a former Cuban diplomat familiar with Cubana operations said.

Cash-strapped Cuba points the finger at the 56-year-old U.S. trade embargo, saying it has cost its flagship carrier millions of dollars.

The coup de grace was possibly the purchase of six AN-158 regional jets from Ukrainian manufacturer Antonov since 2013.

Cubana has said those planes have had technical problems and getting parts for the joint Russian-Ukrainian project has proven difficult since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

An Antonov representative told Reuters that Cubana had not been paying for the necessary work, but it had signed a deal in April with the airline to cooperate “to resume the use of AN-158 planes before the end of the current year.”

Typically, airlines lease planes when theirs are undergoing maintenance or there is a spike in demand, but the U.S. embargo and financial constraints likely complicate this for Cuba, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of U.S. aviation consulting company the Teal Group.

In May, Lithuanian lessor Avion Express and Italian lessor Blue Panorama both ended their contracts with Cubana, the companies told Reuters, without explaining why. Data from Flightradar24 shows they withdrew respectively four Airbus A320s and one Boeing 737.

That is around the time when Cubana turned to the little-known Damojh, leasing the 39-year-old Boeing 737.

Damojh has faced safety concerns in other countries in the region. Guyana’s aviation authority told Reuters it had revoked Damojh’s permit to fly there last year due to issues such as overloading planes. The airline declined to comment on the matter.

The crash in May has undermined trust in Cubana.

“I like to travel by plane. It’s faster and more comfortable,” said Maylin Lopez, 48, waiting at Havana’s bus station for her 15-hour ride to eastern Cuba. “But I can’t even imagine doing that now.”

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How Much Artificial Intelligence Surveillance Is Too Much?

When a CIA-backed venture capital fund took an interest in Rana el Kaliouby’s face-scanning technology for detecting emotions, the computer scientist and her colleagues did some soul-searching — and then turned down the money.

“We’re not interested in applications where you’re spying on people,” said el Kaliouby, the CEO and co-founder of the Boston startup Affectiva. The company has trained its artificial intelligence systems to recognize if individuals are happy or sad, tired or angry, using a photographic repository of more than 6 million faces.

Recent advances in AI-powered computer vision have accelerated the race for self-driving cars and powered the increasingly sophisticated photo-tagging features found on Facebook and Google. But as these prying AI “eyes” find new applications in store checkout lines, police body cameras and war zones, the tech companies developing them are struggling to balance business opportunities with difficult moral decisions that could turn off customers or their own workers.

El Kaliouby said it’s not hard to imagine using real-time face recognition to pick up on dishonesty — or, in the hands of an authoritarian regime, to monitor reaction to political speech in order to root out dissent. But the small firm, which spun off from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research lab, has set limits on what it will do.

The company has shunned “any security, airport, even lie-detection stuff,” el Kaliouby said. Instead, Affectiva has partnered with automakers trying to help tired-looking drivers stay awake, and with consumer brands that want to know whether people respond to a product with joy or disgust. 

New qualms

Such queasiness reflects new qualms about the capabilities and possible abuses of all-seeing, always-watching AI camera systems — even as authorities are growing more eager to use them.

In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s deadly shooting at a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, police said they turned to face recognition to identify the uncooperative suspect. They did so by tapping a state database that includes mug shots of past arrestees and, more controversially, everyone who registered for a Maryland driver’s license.

Initial information given to law enforcement authorities said that police had turned to facial recognition because the suspect had damaged his fingerprints in an apparent attempt to avoid identification. That report turned out to be incorrect and police said they used facial recognition because of delays in getting fingerprint identification.

In June, Orlando International Airport announced plans to require face-identification scans of passengers on all arriving and departing international flights by the end of this year. Several other U.S. airports have already been using such scans for some departing international flights.

Chinese firms and municipalities are already using intelligent cameras to shame jaywalkers in real time and to surveil ethnic minorities, subjecting some to detention and political indoctrination. Closer to home, the overhead cameras and sensors in Amazon’s new cashier-less store in Seattle aim to make shoplifting obsolete by tracking every item shoppers pick up and put back down.

Concerns over the technology can shake even the largest tech firms. Google, for instance, recently said it will exit a defense contract after employees protested the military application of the company’s AI technology. The work involved computer analysis of drone video footage from Iraq and other conflict zones.

Google guidelines

Similar concerns about government contracts have stirred up internal discord at Amazon and Microsoft. Google has since published AI guidelines emphasizing uses that are “socially beneficial” and that avoid “unfair bias.”

Amazon, however, has so far deflected growing pressure from employees and privacy advocates to halt Rekognition, a powerful face-recognition tool it sells to police departments and other government agencies. 

Saying no to some work, of course, usually means someone else will do it. The drone-footage project involving Google, dubbed Project Maven, aimed to speed the job of looking for “patterns of life, things that are suspicious, indications of potential attacks,” said Robert Work, a former top Pentagon official who launched the project in 2017.

While it hurts to lose Google because they are “very, very good at it,” Work said, other companies will continue those efforts.

Commercial and government interest in computer vision has exploded since breakthroughs earlier in this decade using a brain-like “neural network” to recognize objects in images. Training computers to identify cats in YouTube videos was an early challenge in 2012. Now, Google has a smartphone app that can tell you which breed.

A major research meeting — the annual Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, held in Salt Lake City in June — has transformed from a sleepy academic gathering of “nerdy people” to a gold rush business expo attracting big companies and government agencies, said Michael Brown, a computer scientist at Toronto’s York University and a conference organizer.

Brown said researchers have been offered high-paying jobs on the spot. But few of the thousands of technical papers submitted to the meeting address broader public concerns about privacy, bias or other ethical dilemmas. “We’re probably not having as much discussion as we should,” he said.

Not for police, government

Startups are forging their own paths. Brian Brackeen, the CEO of Miami-based facial recognition software company Kairos, has set a blanket policy against selling the technology to law enforcement or for government surveillance, arguing in a recent essay that it “opens the door for gross misconduct by the morally corrupt.”

Boston-based startup Neurala, by contrast, is building software for Motorola that will help police-worn body cameras find a person in a crowd based on what they’re wearing and what they look like. CEO Max Versace said that “AI is a mirror of the society,” so the company chooses only principled partners.

“We are not part of that totalitarian, Orwellian scheme,” he said.

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India Demands Facebook Curb Spread of False Information on WhatsApp

India has asked Facebook to prevent the spread of false texts on its WhatsApp messaging application, saying the content has sparked a series of lynchings and mob beatings across the country.

False messages about child abductors spread over WhatsApp have reportedly led to at least 31 deaths in 10 different states over the past year, including a deadly mob lynching Sunday of five men in the western state of Maharashtra.

In a strongly worded statement Tuesday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the service “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” when messaging platforms are used to spread misinformation.

“The government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that Whatsapp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such mala fide activities,” the ministry added.

Facebook and WhatsApp did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but WhatsApp previously told the Reuters news agency it is educating users to identify fake news and is considering changes to the messaging service.

The ministry said law enforcement authorities are working to apprehend those responsible for the killings.

WhatsApp has more than 200 million users in India, the messaging site’s largest market in the world.

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Over 40 Countries Object at WTO to US Car Tariff Plan

Major U.S. trading partners including the European Union, China and Japan voiced deep concern at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Tuesday about possible U.S. measures imposing additional duties on imported autos and parts.

Japan, which along with Russia had initiated the discussion at the WTO Council on Trade in Goods, warned that such measures could trigger a spiral of countermeasures and result in the collapse of the rules-based multilateral trading system, an official who attended the meeting said.

More than 40 WTO members — including the 28 countries of the European Union — warned that the U.S. action could seriously disrupt the world market and threaten the WTO system, given the importance of cars to world trade.

The United States has imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports and is conducting another national security study that could lead to tariffs on imports of cars and car parts. Both sets of tariffs would be based on concerns about U.S. national security.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on June 29 that the probe would be completed in 3 to 4 weeks.

But the European Union has warned the United States that imposing import tariffs on cars and car parts would harm its own automotive industry and likely lead to countermeasures by its trading partners on $294 billion of U.S. exports.

A Russian official told the WTO meeting that the issue of U.S. investigations had been raised over the past year in different WTO meetings, only to see things change for the worse.

The United States was losing its reputation as a trusted trade partner, the Russian delegate told the meeting, adding that the United States could soon start an investigation into the case for import tariffs on uranium products.

China, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Turkey, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Singapore, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Qatar, Thailand and India all echoed the same concerns and said they doubted the U.S. tariffs were in line with WTO rules.

The U.S. diplomat at the meeting said the matter was already the subject of formal disputes at the WTO, so it should not be on the committee’s agenda, the official who attended the meeting said.

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Small Shop Owners Protest Walmart Entry to India’s Online Market

Worried that Walmart’s $16 billion deal to takeover India’s biggest e-commerce company will force millions of mom and pop stores out of business, hundreds of shop owners in several cities have led protests against the U.S. retail giant.

 

India’s fast-growing retail trade is dominated by millions of small traders that have long opposed efforts by Walmart to establish its stores in the country. Now they are concerned its entry in the online market will drive down prices, making them uncompetitive, and are demanding the government block the deal.

WATCH: Anjana Pasricha’s video report

Raising slogans such as “Walmart Go Back” at a sit-in protest Monday in New Delhi, Praveen Khandelwal, the secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders expressed fears that “Walmart will dump globally sourced material in India and ultimately the level playing field will be vitiated.” He says they fear practices like “deep discounting and predatory pricing” by large chains with deep pockets will “kill the competition.”

 

Although Walmart has eyed India’s retail market for more than a decade, its efforts to make inroads have been hampered by tough regulations for overseas retailers in opening brick and mortar stores. The regulations are meant to protect the livelihood of 15 million small store owners.

Flipkart Deal

 

But Walmart’s deal with Indian e-commerce retailer Flipkart, which sells goods ranging from soaps to appliances, clothes and accessories, will allow it to access Indian consumers through the online route and establish a foothold in a fast growing market. In the past five years, millions in India have begun logging onto websites to shop and the e-commerce market is expected to grow exponentially during the next decade. Flipkart has approximately 100 million users.

In a statement, Walmart said it has been supporting local manufacturing in India by sourcing from small and medium suppliers, farmers and businesses run by women. “Our partnership with Flipkart will provide thousands of local suppliers and manufacturers access to consumers through the marketplace model,” Rajneesh Kumar, senior vice president, Walmart India, stated.

But that has failed to reassure Indian shopkeepers and traders. Ajay Bajaj, of Bajaj Vacco in New Delhi, has been selling household appliances for more than five decades and sells his goods through online companies like Flipkart. He is not opposed to e-commerce, but he says he worries Walmart will make his business unviable as it procures cheaper goods from countries like China.

“Our apprehension is only that instead of me or my colleagues who are producing in India, if foreigners were to come here and make produce [goods] elsewhere and then sell here, first of all we will be out, because it will certainly be survival of the fittest and also the money game,” says Bajaj.

$700 billion market

But retail analysts dismiss worries that cheaper goods sourced from outside India would be a threat to small shop owners.

Ankur Bisen of retail consultancy, Technopak, points out that such products already flood the Indian market and are sold in thousands small stores across the country. “You are getting containers of Diwali lighting, containers of idols, of cheap stationery in India, why are you not stopping that?” he questions. “Same mom and pop stores are selling Chinese goods, they are selling imported goods.”

The protests against Walmart this week were however much smaller than those witnessed about a decade ago when traders feared the U.S. retailer would be allowed to open stores.

India’s retail market is worth about $700 billion. “It’s a growing space, it’s a profitable space,” says Bisen pointing out there is ample space for big and small retailers.

But traders continue to be suspicious, pointing out that Walmart has traditionally been a brick and mortar retailer. “Walmart is an off-liner, why Walmart is coming through e-commerce? Naturally there is a hidden agenda to control the vibrant retail trade of the country,” says Khandelwal.

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Zimbabwe’s Government Dismisses HRW Report on Child Labor

Zimbabwe’s government is denying a report from Human Rights Watch that documented extensive child labor on the country’s tobacco farms. Some of the children are as young as 10 years old, and the report says many have experienced acute nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco plants.

The 105-page report, titled “A Bitter Harvest,” documents how children working on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe are denied time in school and have to perform tasks that threaten their health and safety.

According to Human Rights Watch, one of the most serious risks is “Green Tobacco Sickness,” which is caused by absorbing nicotine through the skin from tobacco plants.

The rights group said the 14 child workers it interviewed, and most of the adults, said they had experienced at least one symptom consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness.

In an interview with VOA, the secretary for the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, Ngoni Masoka, said the Human Rights Watch report is “not factual” and has not been independently confirmed.

But he acknowledged that the youngsters face hazards working on Zimbabwean farms.

“What we need to do, we need to do a survey to determine the nature and extent of the child labor problems in our farms; that’s what we want to do,” said Masoka.

Masoka noted the problem is not limited to Zimbabwe. Millions of children around the world perform work on farms for little or no pay. Some are helping their families; others are working for low wages. In Zimbabwe, kids on tobacco farms earn less than $10 per day.

Ida Tsitsi Chimedza is programs coordinator of the International Labor Organization in Zimbabwe. She said the issue of child labor persists because of chronic poverty, which she called “the key driver of child labor,” and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which forces children to support themselves when a parent dies.

Zimbabwe’s government has ratified the ILO convention that calls for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor, she notes. She says employers now have to get the message.

“We also talk of sensitization because it’s important that the people who employ should be aware that it is not right to employ children who are underage.”

Labor Secretary Masoka said the government has a commitment toward eliminating child labor in all forms.

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Trump Interviewing More Potential Supreme Court Nominees

U.S. President Donald Trump is interviewing two or three more possible Supreme Court nominees this week after four on Monday before making his selection to fill a pivotal life-time appointment to the country’s highest tribunal.

Trump plans to announce his choice next Monday before heading to Europe for NATO meetings and later to London for face-to-face talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May and then Helsinki for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump described the four federal appellate court judges he met with Monday – reported to be Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge and Amul Thapar – as “very impressive… incredible people in so many different ways, academically and in every other way.”

Among other possibilities, Trump is expected to meet with another appellate court judge, Thomas Hardiman, who news reports say was among the president’s finalists last year when he ultimately selected Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appeals court judge who won Senate confirmation and has served on the court for more than a year.

Trump remains undecided on a new choice, White House aides say, and the selection process remains fluid. But some Republicans say that Kavanaugh, who worked in the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush, and Barrett, a former Notre Dame Law School professor, are possible favorites.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined Tuesday to say who else Trump would be interviewing, but said, “I can tell you that he’s got a great list and we’re excited about who he’s going to pick.”

Trump is choosing from a list of 25 conservative Supreme Court nominees he developed when he was running for the White House and during his presidency to assure his most ardent political supporters that he would pick someone to their liking. If confirmed by the Senate, Trump’s selection would become one of the nine justices, replacing long-time Justice Anthony Kennedy, who last week announced his retirement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will oversee Republican efforts to win approval for Trump’s selection in the politically divided Senate, said Monday of the coming fight over the nomination, “I think there will be a big national, campaign rage. But in the end, I’m confident we’ll get the judge confirmed.”

Sanders said Trump met with each of the first four candidates for about 45 minutes on Monday. She said Trump is looking for someone who will uphold the U.S. Constitution and who has the “right intellect” and “right temperament.”

When asked if Trump is looking for a candidate who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, Sanders reiterated Trump’s stance that he is not asking the candidates their views on abortion rights.

“The president is pro-life, but in terms of the process of selecting a Supreme Court nominee, as the president said last week, he is not going to discuss specific cases with the nominees,” Sanders said.

Trump said Friday that he thinks the topic of Roe v. Wade is “inappropriate to discuss.”

Trump has also said that his final list of potential Supreme Court nominees includes two women.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in an opinion column in The New York Times that people should pressure senators to oppose Supreme Court nominees who would overturn abortion rights. Schumer argued that while Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans in the Senate, 51-49, a majority of senators support abortion rights.

A new poll Monday shows that 63 percent of American voters agree with the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide. Thirty-one percent of Americans disagree with the ruling, according to the Quinnipiac University National Poll.

The survey also found that 50 percent of Americans think the Supreme Court is mainly motivated by politics, while 42 percent think it is primarily motivated by law. The survey was based on telephone answers from 1,020 voters nationwide from June 27-July 1.

 

The retirement of Kennedy, the key swing vote between four conservatives and four liberals on the court, gives Trump a coveted opportunity to make a second appointment to the nation’s highest court.

 

Trump nominated Gorsuch in January 2017. The president said last week that he is looking for another justice who closely models Gorsuch, saying he has been an “outstanding” justice for the Supreme Court.

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