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Venezuelan Crisis Spawns Boom in Gambling

Players line up beside a small kiosk in a poor neighborhood to choose animals in a lottery game that has become a craze in Venezuela even as the oil-rich country suffers a fourth year of brutal recession.

It seems more and more Venezuelans are turning to gambling in their desperation to make ends meet amid the country’s unprecedented economic crisis.

Though more people lose than win overall, the illusion of a payday has become more alluring as Venezuelans endure the world’s highest inflation, shortages of basics from flour to car batteries, and diminished real-term wages. 

Among multiple options from race courses to back-street betting parlors, the roulette-style “Los Animalitos” (or the Little Animals) is currently by far the most popular game on the street.

“Most people I see playing the lottery are unemployed, trying to make a bit extra this way because the payouts are good,” said Veruska Torres, 26, a nurse who recently lost her job in a pharmacy and now plays Animalitos every day.

Torres often plays more than a dozen times daily at the kiosk in Catia, spending between 5,000-10,000 bolivars, but sometimes making up to 50,000 or 60,000 bolivars in winnings – more than a quarter of the monthly minimum wage.

When that happens, she splits the money between buying food and diapers for her baby boy, and re-investing in the lottery.

The Animalitos game, whose results appear on YouTube at scheduled times, is hugely popular because it goes through various rounds, holding people’s interest, and provides more chances to win than most traditional betting options.

The cheapest ticket costs just 100 bolivars – a quarter of a U.S. cent at the black market currency rate, and more than 10 times less than that at the official exchange level.

“It helped me a lot,” said Eduardo Liendo, 63, of a timely win. He recently lost his house and lives in a car in Caracas’ Propatria neighborhood, but had a successful punt on the Animalitos, choosing the dog figure after his own had died.

There is no hard data on betting figures, and the government’s betting regulator did not answer requests from Reuters for information. But those behind Venezuela’s gambling businesses, run by a mixture of private companies and local regional authorities, said trade was booming, with lines longer and busier than ever – because of, not despite, the hard times.

“In a crisis like the one we’re going through, people drink and gamble more to escape from reality,” said psychologist Rosa Garcia from the rural state of Barinas.

The latest scarcity in Venezuela is cash – as authorities cannot produce enough notes to keep up with dizzying inflation – so many bars, shops and betting parlors have quickly switched from cash to electronic transactions to keep money flowing.

That has hit the Caracas hippodrome, where cash is still king. But thousands still go there at weekends, pushing against fences in front of the sand track to cheer their horse on as salsa music booms in the background.

Trump Warns North Korea: Do Not ‘Try Us’

In a speech to South Korea’s National Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump has sent a message north of the border, calling on leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to give up all his nuclear weapons for a chance to step on to “a better path.”

Trump on Wednesday also warned, “Do not underestimate us and do not try us. We will defend our common security, our shared prosperity and our sacred liberty.”

His words were underscored by the presence of three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and nuclear submarines, which the president said “are appropriately positioned” near the peninsula.

The U.S president referred to North Korea as a failure, a “twisted regime” ruled by a cult and a tyrant who enslaves his people – a characterization certain to provoke a harsh rhetorical reply from Pyongyang, which has repeatedly accused the United States of preparing to attack and refers to Trump as a deplorable crazed man.

 

“The world cannot tolerate the menace of a rogue regime that threatens it with nuclear devastation,” said Trump in his speech. “All responsible nations must join forces to isolate the brutal regime of North Korea – to deny it any form of support.”

Trump had effusive praise for South Korea, contrasting its economic success with the dark situation in the North.

“The more successful South Korea becomes, the more decisively you discredit the dark fantasy at the heart of the Kim regime,” said the U.S. president. 

Trump’s 35-minute address, which he was still editing at the last minute, according to the National Assembly speaker, came after a surprise but aborted Wednesday morning trip to the Korean DMZ. But it ended on a hopeful note, which is the Korean dream: the peaceful reunification of the peninsula.

But with Kim’s weapons of mass destruction posing a greater threat, Trump warned, “the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows and the few the options become.”

President Trump generally took a more optimistic view of diplomacy during his visit to Seoul, which included meetings on Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He said progress has been made to diffuse heightened tensions in the region, a striking departure from the tone of his tweets in recent weeks suggesting talks with Pyongyang to resolve the nuclear crisis were “a waste of time.” 

The president will now travel to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping that are expected to focus on the situation in North Korea as well as trade.

Democrats Notch Big Wins in Virginia, New Jersey

Tuesday delivered a string of high-profile victories for Democrats in gubernatorial races. 

Democrat Ralph Northam decisively won the Virginia governor’s race in what had become a nail-biter of a contest, defeating Republican Ed Gillespie in the election to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Northam, currently Virginia’s lieutenant governor, held a comfortable lead in many voter opinion surveys until Gillespie launched a series of television ads attacking Northam on such issues as gang crime, immigration and preserving statues honoring Virginians when the Commonwealth and other southern states broke away from northern states during the 19th-century era American Civil War — tactics similar to those used by Donald Trump in his successful 2016 White House bid.

“Today, Virginians have answered, and have spoken — Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” Northam said in his victory speech. “We need to close the wounds that divide and bring unity to Virginia.”

Northam’s victory led a Democratic sweep of all statewide races in the Commonwealth, including the offices lieutenant governor and attorney general. The party also posted several upset legislative victories, winning 14 seats in the House of Delegates, just three seats shy of wresting control from Republicans. The Democratic victors included Danica Roem, who beat veteran lawmaker Robert Marshall to become the Commonwealth’s first openly transgender elected official. Marshall was known as a strong opponent of gay and lesbian rights.

Trump, who is on a 12-day five nation trip to Asia, vouched for Gillespie in a series of tweets early Tuesday. But that changed after Northam’s victory was apparent:

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” the president tweeted from South Korea. “Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy prevailed as expected over Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in the race to replace outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie. Guadagno was hurt by her association with Christie, a candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, whose approval rating have hit a record low as he finishes his eight years in office. 

Murphy, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, has touted a liberal agenda that includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing taxes on millionaires, boosting funding for schools and legalizing marijuana.

Tuesday’s balloting provides an important early indication of how the electorate views President Trump, as the Republican and Democratic parties try to gain momentum before next year’s mid-term elections. The victories in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as other states and localities, will surely boost morale among Democrats still reeling over Trump’s upset win over Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential campaign.

Republicans were hoping wins will help soothe intra-party bickering between Trump and key congressional Republicans.

US Senate Panel Targets Chinese Banks with North Korea Sanctions

The U.S. Senate Banking Committee unanimously backed new sanctions targeting Chinese banks that do business with North Korea on Tuesday, just before President Donald Trump visits Beijing for the first time since taking office.

As well as strengthening existing sanctions and congressional oversight, the measure will target foreign financial institutions — in China and elsewhere — that provide services to those subject to North Korea-related sanctions by the U.S. Congress, a presidential order or U.N. Security Council resolution.

All 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats on the panel voted for the “Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act,” clearing the way for its consideration by the full Senate.

The bill was named after a U.S. student who died earlier this year after he was imprisoned in North Korea, further chilling already poor relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

“For too long, we’ve been complacent about the growing and gathering threat from the North Korean regime,” Republican Pat Toomey, one of the bill’s authors, said after the committee voted.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, another author, said that in addition to Chinese banks, Malaysian financial institutions might end up in its sights.

Trump is due to wrap up a visit to Seoul on Wednesday with a major speech on North Korea, and then shift focus to China, where he is expected to press a reluctant President Xi Jinping to tighten the screws further on Pyongyang.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, as well as many Democrats, have been critical of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric about North Korea, and have called for the use of economic tools like sanctions or more negotiations before talking of war.

Washington so far has largely held off on imposing new sanctions against Chinese banks and companies doing business with North Korea, given fears of retaliation by Beijing and possibly far-reaching effects on the world economy.

Van Hollen told reporters on Monday ahead of the committee vote that he wished Trump would follow the model of President Theodore Roosevelt and “speak softly and carry a big stick,” adding: “We’re trying to give him a little bigger stick with the sanctions.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers said last week they had reached a bipartisan agreement on the sanctions bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

The leaders of the Republican-led Senate have not said when the chamber might vote on the legislation.

 

 

Exploring Egypt’s Great Pyramid From the Inside, Virtually

A team of scientists who last week announced the discovery of a large void inside the Great Pyramid of Giza have created a virtual reality tour that allows users to “teleport” themselves inside the structure and explore its architecture.

Using 3-D technology, the Scan Pyramids Project allows visitors wearing headsets to take a guided tour inside the Grand Gallery, the Queen’s Chamber and other ancient rooms not normally accessible to the public, without leaving Paris.

“Thanks to this technique, we make it possible to teleport ourselves to Egypt, inside the pyramid, as a group and with a guide,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director of Scan Pyramids, which on November 2 announced the discovery of a mysterious space inside the depths of the Pyramid.

The void itself is visible on the tour, appearing like a dotted cloud.

“What is new in the world of virtual reality is that from now on, you are not isolated,” Tayoubi said. “You’re in a group — you can take a tour with your family. And you can access places which you usually can’t in the real pyramid.”

While partly designed as a fun experience, the “collaborative immersion” project allows researchers to improve the technologies they used to detect the pyramid void and think about what purpose it may have served.

Ancient wonder

The pyramid, built around 2,500 B.C. and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was a monumental tomb soaring to a height of 479 feet (146 meters). Until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the Great Pyramid stood as the tallest man-made structure for more than 4,000 years.

While there are passageways into it and chambers in various parts, much of the internal structure had remained a mystery until a team from France’s HIP Institute used an imaging method based on cosmic rays to gain a view inside.

So-called muon particles, which originate from interactions with rays from space and atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere, are able to penetrate hundreds of meters through stone before being absorbed. That allows for mapping inside stone structures.

“Muon tomography has really improved a lot due to its use on the pyramid, and we think that muography will have other applications in other fields,” said Tayoubi. “But we also wanted to innovate and imagine devices to allow the wider public to understand what this pyramid is, understand it from within.”

When looking through their 3-D goggles, visitors can see the enormous stones of the pyramid as if they were real, and walk virtually along its corridors, chambers and hidden spaces.

As they approach the pyramid from the outside, the tour even includes audio of Cairo’s deafening and ever-present traffic.

National Assembly: Venezuela’s January-October Inflation 826 Percent

Inflation in Venezuela’s crisis-hit economy was 826 percent in the 10 months to October and may end 2017 above 1,400 percent, the opposition-controlled National Assembly said Friday.

The government stopped releasing price data more than a year ago but congress has published its own figures since January and they have been close to private economists’ estimates.

As well as the alarming Jan-Oct cumulative rise, the legislative body, which has been sidelined by President Nicolas Maduro’s government, put monthly inflation at 45.5 percent for October, compared with 36.3 percent in September.

Opponents say Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have wrecked a once-prosperous economy with 18 years of state-led socialist policies from nationalizations to currency controls.

The government says it is victim of an “economic war” including speculation and hoarding by pro-opposition businessmen, combined with U.S. sanctions and the fall in global oil prices from mid-2014. OPEC member Venezuela relies on crude oil for more than 95 percent of its export revenues.

Prices in Venezuela, which has long had one of the highest inflation rates in the world, rose 180.9 percent in 2015 and 274 percent in 2016, according to official figures, although many economists believe the real data was worse.

Announcing the October calculations, opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado told the National Assembly that inflation next year could reach 12,000 percent.

“This is dramatic, this is Venezuelans’ big problem, it’s what keeps workers awake at night, it’s what’s killing the people with hunger,” Alvarado said.

In a research note this week, New York-based Torino Capital estimated Venezuela’s 2017 inflation would be 1,032 percent.

A central bank spokeswoman could not provide official data.

Twitter Doubles Character Limit to 280 for (Nearly) Everyone

Twitter says it’s ending its iconic 140-character limit — and giving nearly everyone 280 characters.

 

Users tweeting in Chinese, Japanese and Korean will still have the original limit. That’s because writing in those languages uses fewer characters.

 

The company says 9 percent of tweets written in English hit the 140-character limit. People end up spending more time editing tweets or don’t send them out at all. Twitter hopes that the expanded limit will get more people tweeting more, helping its lackluster user growth. Twitter has been testing the new limit for weeks and is starting to roll it out Tuesday.

 

The company has been slowly easing restrictions to let people cram more characters into a tweet. It stopped counting polls, photos, videos and other things toward the limit. Even before it did so, users found creative ways to get around the limit. This includes multi-part tweets and screenshots of blocks of text.

 

Twitter’s character limit was created so that tweets could fit into a single text message, back when many people were using texts to receive tweets. But now, most people use Twitter through its mobile app; the 140-character limit is no longer a technical constraint but nostalgia.

In Silicon Valley, the Homeless Illustrate a Growing Divide

In the same affluent, suburban city where Google built its headquarters, Tes Saldana lives in a crowded but tidy camper she parks on the street.

She concedes it’s “not a very nice living situation,” but it also is not unusual. Until authorities told them to move, more than a dozen other RVs filled with people who can’t afford rent joined Saldana on a tree-lined street in Mountain View, parked between a Target and a luxury apartment complex.

Homeless advocates and city officials say it’s outrageous that in the shadow of a booming tech economy – where young millionaires dine on $15 wood-grilled avocado and think nothing of paying $1,000 for an iPhone X – thousands of families can’t afford a home. Many of the homeless work regular jobs, in some cases serving the very people whose sky-high net worth is the reason housing has become unaffordable for so many.

Across the street from Saldana’s camper, for example, two-bedroom units in the apartment complex start at $3,840, including concierge service. That’s more than she brings home, even in a good month.

Saldana and her three adult sons, who live with her, have looked for less rustic accommodations, but rents are $3,000 a month or more, and most of the available housing is distant. She said it makes more sense to stay in the camper near their jobs and try to save for a brighter future, even if a recent city crackdown chased them from their parking spot.

“We still need to eat,” said Saldana, 51. “I still want to bring my kids, once in a while, to a movie, to eat out.”

She cooks and serves food at two hotels in nearby Palo Alto, jobs that keep her going most days from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. Two of her sons, all in their 20s, work at a bakery and pay $700 toward the RV each month. They’re all very much aware of the economic disparity in Silicon Valley.

“How about for us people who are serving these tech people?” Saldana said. “We don’t get the same paycheck that they do.”

It’s all part of a growing crisis along the West Coast, where many cities and counties have seen a surge in the number of people living on the streets over the past two years. Counts taken earlier this year show 168,000 homeless people in California, Oregon and Washington – 20,000 more than were counted just two years ago.

The booming economy, fueled by the tech sector, and decades of under-building have led to an historic shortage of affordable housing. It has upended the stereotypical view of people out on the streets as unemployed: They are retail clerks, plumbers, janitors – even teachers – who go to work, sleep where they can and buy gym memberships for a place to shower.

The surge in homelessness has prompted at least 10 local governments along the West Coast to declare states of emergency, and cities from San Diego to Seattle are struggling to come up with immediate and long-range solutions.

San Francisco is well-known for homeless tent encampments. But the homeless problem has now spread throughout Silicon Valley, where the disparity between the rich and everyone else is glaring.

There is no firm estimate on the number of people who live in vehicles in Silicon Valley, but the problem is pervasive and apparent to anyone who sees RVs lining thoroughfares; not as visible are the cars tucked away at night in parking lots. Advocates for the homeless say it will only get worse unless more affordable housing is built.

The median rent in the San Jose metro area is $3,500 a month, yet the median wage is $12 an hour in food service and $19 an hour in health care support, an amount that won’t even cover housing costs. The minimum annual salary needed to live comfortably in San Jose is $87,000, according to a study by personal finance website GoBankingRates.

So dilapidated RVs line the eastern edge of Stanford University in Palo Alto, and officials in neighboring Mountain View have mapped out more than a dozen areas where campers tend to cluster, some of them about a mile from Google headquarters.

On a recent evening, Benito Hernandez returned to a crammed RV in Mountain View after laying flagstones for a home in Atherton, where Zillow pegs the median value of a house at $6.5 million. He rents the RV for $1,000 a month and lives there with his pregnant wife and children.

The family was evicted two years ago from an apartment where the rent kept going up, nearing $3,000 a month.

“After that, I lost everything,” said Hernandez, 33, who works as a landscaper and roofer.

He says his wife “is a little bit sad because she says, ‘You’re working very hard but don’t have credit to get an apartment.’ I tell her, ‘Just wait, maybe a half-year more, and I’ll get my credit back.'”

The plight of the Hernandez family points out one of the confounding problems of the homeless surge along the West Coast.

“This is not a crisis of unemployment that’s leading to poverty around here,” said Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency, a nonprofit based in Mountain View. “People are working.”

Mountain View, a city of 80,000 which also is home to Mozilla and 23andMe, has committed more than $1 million over two years for homeless services, including money for an outreach case manager and a police officer to help people who live in vehicles. At last count, there were people living in more than 330 vehicles throughout the city.

Mayor Ken Rosenberg is proud of the city’s response to the crisis – focusing not on penalties but on providing services. Yet he’s also worried that the peace won’t last as RVs crowd into bike lanes and over-taxed streets.

Last week, Mountain View officials posted signs banning vehicles more than 6 feet high on some parts of the street where Saldana, Hernandez and others living in RVs were parked, saying they were creating a traffic hazard. The average RV is well over that height.

That follows similar moves over the summer by Palo Alto, which started cracking down on RVs and other vehicles that exceed the 72-hour limit on a busy stretch of El Camino Real.

In San Jose, officials recently approved an ordinance pushed by an interfaith group called the Winter Faith Collaborative to allow places of assembly – including gyms and churches – to shelter homeless people year-round.

Ellen Tara James-Penney, a 54-year-old lecturer at San Jose State University, parks her old Volvo at one of those safe haven churches, Grace Baptist Church, and eats in its dining hall. She is paid $28,000 a year to teach four English classes and is carrying $143,000 in student debt after earning two degrees.

She grades papers and prepares lessons in the Volvo. At night, she leans back the driver’s seat and prepares for sleep, one of two dogs, Hank, by her side. Her husband, Jim, who is too tall for the car, sleeps outside in a tent cot with their other dog, Buddy.

The Bay Area native remembers the time a class was studying John Steinbeck, when another student said that she was sick of hearing about the homeless.

“And I said, ‘Watch your mouth. You’re looking at one.’ Then you could have heard a pin drop,” she said. “It’s quite easy to judge when you have a house to live in or you have meds when you’re depressed and health care.”

In response to growing wealth inequities, unions, civil rights groups and community organizations formed Silicon Valley Rising about three years ago. They demand better pay and benefits for the low-income earners who make the region run.

SEIU United Service Workers West, for example, organized roughly 3,000 security guards who work for companies that contract with Facebook, Google and Caltrain, the mass transit system that connects Silicon Valley with San Francisco.

One of those workers is Albert Brown III, a 46-year-old security officer who recently signed a lease for half of a $3,400 two-bedroom unit in Half Moon Bay, about 13 miles from his job.

He can barely afford the rent on his $16-an-hour salary, even with overtime, but the car that doubled as his home needed a pricey repair and he found a landlord willing to overlook his lousy credit. Still, Brown worries he won’t be able to keep up with his payments.

His feet have been hurting. What if a doctor tells him to rest for a few days or a week?

“I can’t miss a minute. If I miss a minute or a shift? No way, man. A week? Forget it, it’s over. It’s all downhill from there,” he said.

“It’s a sad choice. I have to decide whether to be homeless or penniless, right?”

One Year On, Trump’s Election Draws Protests, Re-Evaluation

Thousands of Americans are planning to “scream helplessly at the sky” in a show of what organizers say is disgust and frustration at Donald Trump’s election as president exactly one year earlier.

 

The unprecedented protest being played out in many American cities has been mocked by conservatives, sparking incendiary exchanges on the Internet that illustrate the depth of the partisan chasm that divides the significant minority of staunch Trump loyalists and the equally vocal, and arguably larger group that detests him.

 

“American politics had begun to polarize long before President Trump, and crystallized into a sense of tribalism that now pervades politics,” said Dan Mahaffee, executive director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. “We increasingly see ardent Democrats, ardent Republicans, and little in the middle in terms of pragmatism.”

 

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week is evidence that Trump is the least popular president in the 70 years since polling began. Fewer than four in 10 Americans say they approve of his handling of the job. Almost 60 percent say they disapprove, most of them “strongly”.

 

Even many members of Trump’s traditional Middle American support base say he’s not their ideal president.

“He can be awfully hard to like,” said retired Colorado business executive Eugene Bourque. “But I want someone in the White House who I believe supports the four Cs [Christianity, Capitalism, Conservatism and the Constitution] and is willing to fight down and dirty to protect them.”

 

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shrugs off the low approval ratings, noting public dissatisfaction with Congress is significantly greater.

“His numbers are a lot better than the Congress. I’d take the president’s numbers over Congress any day,” Huckabee Sanders said during a panel discussion at George Washington University marking the election anniversary.

Bad press

 

The press secretary attributes Trump’s unpopularity in part to overwhelmingly negative reporting from a hostile press. She cited an independent study showing coverage on several TV networks had been 93 percent negative, compared to 40 percent negative during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

 

“For people to pretend like there isn’t a greater sense of hostility towards this administration, I think would be to ignore real facts.”

 

Faced with this perceived animosity, Trump has rewritten the rulebook on presidential communications.

“Trump uses [Twitter] to bypass the press in ways that convey an utter disregard for the role of journalism in democratic societies,” says Stanford University professor of communications Theodore Glasser. “Presidents often have an adversarial relationship with journalists, but I can’t think of a single president, including Richard Nixon, who comes close to Trump in terms of his fear of public scrutiny.”

 

Presidential scholar Mahaffee said Trump understood early-on how to exploit the partisan divide and public distrust of the media.

 

“Social media allows for rancor and sensationalism to triumph over fact and reason,” Mahaffee told VOA. “President Trump harnessed these divides for his own ends to get elected, and his approach has been to further them for his own ends to govern.”

Results?

 

When it comes to assessing Trump’s accomplishments, academics interviewed for this report were generally dismissive. “What accomplishments?” replied Stanford’s Theodore Glasser, noting that Republicans had failed to fulfill promised health care and tax reform despite controlling both houses of Congress.

 

Spokeswoman Huckabee Sanders, however, pointed to successes on foreign policy, battling Islamist extremism and the economy.

“He’s done a very good job of developing relationships with a lot of key partners and allies, particularly…[Japanese Prime Minister] Abe and [Chinese President] Xi that are helping to grow the amount of pressure being put on North Korea.”

 

Huckabee Sanders called Trump’s Middle East trip a “major moment in his presidency.”

“In Saudi Arabia, the speech he gave to, I believe it was 68 Muslim majority countries, bringing a lot of those individuals to talk about working together to combat terrorism; that was a historic moment,” she said.

 

The economy is doing remarkably well since Election Day, but economists disagree about how much is the “due to the “Trump effect.”

“Ahead of the election, everyone thought Trump would tank markets — futures markets fell the night of the election as it became clear he had won. But as he gave his victory speech, sentiment changed, and by the morning, stocks were up,” analyst Emily Stewart of thestreet.com told VOA .

 

In a tweet this week Trump noted that market value has increased $5.4 trillion since Election Day, and remains at record high levels.

Unemployment is down to 4.1 percent, lowest in 17 years. 1.5 million new jobs created since I took office. Highest stock Market ever, up $5.4 trill

 

Experts say that among the factors spurring the steady market growth is one Trump rarely trumpets. Yahoo News White House correspondent Olivier Knox told last week’s George Washington University panel discussion that rolling back regulations is Trump’s untold success story.

 

“It’s one of the signal successes of the Trump administration, something that doesn’t get as much coverage as the latest tweet, but it’s a very important story. The systematic methodical rollback of regulations,” Knox said.

 

Rights Groups Urge Trump to Address China’s Human Rights Violations

Rights advocates at home and abroad are calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to use his first presidential visit to China to address the country’s deteriorating human rights situation.

Advocates are calling for the release of Liu Xia, the widow of the late Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and many other Chinese political prisoners including four rights lawyers who are either awaiting trial or verdicts. They are also calling for the release of a Taiwanese rights activist detained in China for more than 230 days.

Failing to do so, they warn, will only worsen the situation Chinese rights defenders face. Room for dissent and alternative views in China has been shrinking rapidly since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013.

Deteriorating rights conditions

“The international environment, in which few leaders are willing to stand up for human rights internationally and particularly in relations to China, has emboldened the Chinese government even further in undermining human rights at home,” Maya Wang, China researcher of Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

The most recent case that has gained the attention of rights advocates is the criminal detention of lawyer Li Yuhan. Li has been missing since early last month and officially charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” in late October by the Public Security Bureau in Shenyang, Liaoning province, according to Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

It’s not clear if she will be able to hire a lawyer of her own choosing. And her family has also been denied any visits to her in prison.

Shenyang authorities have “made various attempts to revenge her as she used to report the police’s malpractices…. It is apparent to us that both power abuses and malfeasances form part of the case,” the Hong Kong-based rights group said in a written statement.

Retaliation by authorities

Li, 60, suffers from hypertension and has a heart condition. But despite that, she has taken up a series of sensitive cases including that of lawyer Wang Yu, one of the main targets of a massive nationwide crackdown on lawyers in China that began over two years ago. She has also taken on other religious freedom cases as well as the case of a wronged police officer in Anhui.

Rights advocates believe her decision to take on Wang Yu’s case is the main reason behind her detention.

“It may be related to her legal representation for Fengrui lawyer Wang Yu that maybe a possibility as a retaliation against her by the authorities” after she had visited the Wang’s in Mongolia, said Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International, calling on the international society, including President Trump, to address Li’s case as well as other rights violation cases in China.

Amnesty International joined other international rights groups as well as 85 Chinese lawyers and citizens to call for the immediate release of Li while expressing concerns over her health and the possible use of torture against her.

Shaky trade relations

However, rights advocates at home and abroad said the chance that President Trump will criticize China’s human rights records is slim as he, like many other world leaders, is likely to put more emphasis on trade relations with China.

But true progress in trade, some argue, is dependent on advances in human rights.

“It’ll be a sad thing if [trade] cooperation with China is prioritized before [the improvement of] human rights. I believe human rights pave the core foundation for the world’s development. Without [the protection of] human rights, any such economic cooperation won’t be sustainable,” said Ou Biaofeng, a rights activist from Human province.

Under the banner of “America First” the Trump administration has pledged not to interfere in other countries domestic politics and that is sending a worrying signal, one analysts worry may heighten authoritarianism in the region.

International calls

United Nations’ human rights experts have urged Hong Kong to uphold the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly before the court heard a final appeal of Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, who were granted bail on Oct 24, against their respective jail sentences of six months and eight months.

The top court in Hong Kong on Tuesday decided to grant a bid by Wong and Law to appeal their prison terms in a hearing to be scheduled in January.

In Taiwan, various non-governmental organizations gathered in Taipei on Tuesday to voice their support for the Taiwanese rights activist Lee Ming-che, whom China has detained since late March, pending a verdict.

Lin Hsiu-hsin, Taiwan Association of University Professors president, told the Associated Press that “China not only didn’t respect international regulations and human rights, but also didn’t care about its own laws because it has detained a Taiwanese citizen,” who hasn’t been freed yet.

Free Liu Xia

Meanwhile, last week, more than 50 internationally-celebrated writers, artists and supporters of PEN America, including Chimamanda Achibie, Margaret Atwood, and Khaled Hosseini, issued a written petition urging China to end all restrictions and surveillance imposed on Liu Xia, saying the only reason for her detention is her connection to her deceased husband.

The writers further called upon President Trump to seek the release of Liu, who was last seen in an online video in late August.

Also, international rights groups are concerned that thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are being held in re-education camps, which are now formally referred to as “Professional Education Schools,” without contact with their families under a policy designed to counter extremism in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, according to local officials.

 

 

Indonesia Threatens to Block WhatsApp Messaging Over Obscene Content

Indonesia on Monday vowed to block Facebook’s WhatsApp Messenger within 48 hours if the service did not ensure that obscene Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) images were removed.

WhatsApp, which is widely used in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, said message encryption prevented it from monitoring the animated graphics files, known as GIFs, that are available on the app through third-party services.

WhatsApp said in a statement on Monday that it asked the government instead to work with those providers, which integrate their technology into WhatsApp to allow users to enter keywords to search for GIFs.

Indonesia’s internet is partly censored, with access blocked to websites providing criticism of Islam, dating services and sex education, according to research published in May by Tor Project, a nonprofit maker of Web browsing tools.

Semuel Pangerapan, a director general at Indonesia’s communications and informatics ministry, said WhatsApp would be blocked within 48 hours unless the images supplied by third parties were taken off the service.

“Yes, true. They have to follow the rules of the host,” Pangerapan said of the proposed block.

The ministry had sent three letters to WhatsApp over the issue, he said.

“They have responded, but asked us to speak directly to the third party. The GIFs appeared in their apps. Why do we have to be the one speaking to the third party? They are supposed to be the ones managing it,” said Pangerapan.

Third party responds

Tenor Inc, one of the third parties, said it was attempting to release a “fix.” Giphy, another provider, did not respond to requests to comment.

Jennifer Kutz, a Tenor spokesperson, said in a statement that the company is working “to address the content issues raised by the Indonesian government within the next 48 hours.”

Kutz said the company “regularly” works with “local entities to make sure our content reflects the cultural mores and legal requirements.”

She declined to identify the proposed fix or existing regions with content restrictions. Tenor allows integrators of its service to block potentially objectionable image results or a defined list of search terms.

“In the case of WhatsApp, we’re taking on this responsibility,” Kutz said in an email.

Giphy, a New York City company that also works with WhatsApp, offers its partners a feature for filtering inappropriate images.

Indonesia’s warning did not appear to target Gboard, a keyboard app developed by Google that provides comparable GIF search results but must be installed separately from WhatsApp on most devices.

Past battles

Indonesia had 69 million monthly active Facebook users as of the first quarter of 2014, ranking the country fourth globally after the United States, India and Brazil, company data showed.

Some reaction on Indonesian social media to the threatened block was skeptical.

“While you’re at it, why don’t you block Twitter too, (and) if necessary all browsers in the Playstore, because it’s way easier to search for porn there than on WhatsApp,” wrote one Twitter user, with the handle @jnessy.

The country’s regulators have reached settlements with several technology companies after threatening to shut them down. In August, Indonesia announced it would block Giphy’s website for showing gambling-related ads. Access soon was restored after it agreed to cooperate with regulators.

Bans similarly were rescinded in recent years on social media websites such as Vimeo and Tumblr and the chat app Telegram, which regulators had said was “full of radicals and terrorist propaganda.”

The Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) had urged the communications ministry to block pornographic GIF images accessible via emoticons, complaining that children could easily reach them, according to news website kompas.com. Terms of use for WhatsApp, Tenor and Giphy say users must be 13 years old.

Snapchat Outage Prompts Complaints on Twitter

Snapchat faced a worldwide outage for at least four hours on Monday, prompting a flood of complaints on rival mobile application Twitter a day before posting its third quarterly earnings as a public company.

“We’re aware of the issue and working on a fix,” Snapchat said on its support Twitter account, recommending that users stay logged on. 

Many users tweeted about being unable to sign on after logging off the app, which is popular among people under 30 for posting pictures that are automatically deleted within 24 hours.

Twitter user @bradleykeegan11 wrote, “(Snapchat)Won’t let me log in and keeps saying ‘could not connect’.”

A spokesman for the Snap Inc unit did not immediately respond to a query about the size and cause of the outage.

Snapchat had at least a couple of technical issues in October, according to its Twitter support page.

Snap, which went public in May, is scheduled to report third quarter earnings on Tuesday. Its stock closed down 2.8 percent at $14.83 on Monday, below its initial public offering price of $17.

US Cancels Immigration Benefits for 2,500 Nicaraguans

The Trump administration has ended the immigration benefits for nearly 2,500 Nicaraguan nationals who are in the United States, but extended benefits for 57,000 Hondurans.

The Central American migrants were allowed to live and work in the U.S. under a program called Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

The Department of Homeland Security gave the Nicaraguans TPS recipients 12 months after the January 5 expiration of their protected status to arrange their affairs and either leave the country or obtain legal status through a different visa category.

The Nicaraguan and Honduran TPS recipients have been living in the U.S. under protected status since Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 across Central America in 1998. That means many of them have been living in the United States for two decades.

Martha Irraheta, a Nicaragua native who arrived in the Miami area about 25 years ago and works as a cook at Islas del Caribe restaurant, said she fears having to return to her homeland. “I am very afraid. I don’t want to return to my country, with the violence the way it is – no way.”  She will have to leave behind a 22-year-old U.S.-born daughter who is a citizen.

Roger Castaño, U.S. representative of Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights said the government in Managua cannot guarantee the safety of those who would be forced to return. “How is the United States going to deport or send back all those thousands of people?” he asks.

Another 195,000 Salvadorans and 46,000 Haitians are awaiting the decision on their fate, as DHS must decide in coming weeks what to do with TPS recipients from those countries whose legal residency will expire early next year.  The TPS designation for Haitians expires on January 22, 2018, while that of the Salvadorans on March 9.  Federal officials are required to announce 60 days before any TPS designation expires whether it will be extended.

These immigrants are among more than 320,000 from 10 nations who have time-limited permission to live and work in the U.S. under TPS because of war, hurricanes, earthquakes or other catastrophes in their home countries that could make it dangerous for them to return.

VOA’s Spanish Service and reporter Jose Pernalete in Miami contributed to this report.

 

Catalonia Faces 10 Percent Tourism Hit in Fourth Quarter

The restive Spanish region of Catalonia faces a potential $500 million financial hit in the fourth quarter as business-related travel dips following the attack in Barcelona and the uncertainty generated by the disputed independence referendum.

 

In an interview Monday with The Associated Press at the World Travel Market in London, Catalonia’s top tourism official Patrick Torrent said the region will likely see a 10-12 percent fall in tourist numbers during the fourth quarter, which would equate to around 450 million euros. The large bulk of that fall is related to a drop-off in business travel to events such as conventions.

 

Despite the anticipated fourth-quarter decline, the executive director at the Catalan Tourist Board, said Catalonia is set to see revenues this year outstrip those last year and that the expectation is that revenues will rise again next.

 

However, more insight will emerge at the turn of the year when the bulk of pre-reservations are made. His staff, he said, are “on alert” about the impact on the main booking season.

 

The worry among many economists is that deteriorating business environment in Catalonia, which has seen around 1,500 firms move their headquarters out of the region, could worsen further amid all the uncertainty. Credit ratings agency Moody’s has warned that the region’s financial recovery is being jeopardized

 

“Moody’s believes that the political instability will negatively affect the region’s economy, in particular foreign investor sentiment and the tourism sector, and add pressure to the region’s already weak finances,” it said last week.

The Catalan tourism industry, a key income generator in what is Spain’s richest region, has had a difficult few months. After the August attacks in Barcelona and a nearby town that saw 16 people killed, the region has been embroiled in a battle of wills with Spain over the disputed independence referendum in early October which prompted Madrid to impose direct rule and seek the arrest of members of the Catalan government, including its leader, Carles Puigdemont, who has fled to Brussels.

 

The impact of the attack in Barcelona on holiday travelers was short-lived, according to Torrent, and “less important” than other cities in Europe, such as Brussels or Paris.

 

“The perception of Barcelona and Catalonia as a safe destination has not suffered any impact,” he said, noting figures showing tourism numbers higher in September.

 

Torrent said he met up with Alvaro Nadal, the Spanish minister of energy, tourism and digital matters, on Monday for the first time since the triggering of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which imposed direct rule on Catalonia.

 

Torrent said the Spanish government has made no requirements upon him or his staff and that it is “business as usual” until an early Catalan regional election on Dec. 21.

 

“It’s not intervention. It’s more a kind of coordination,” he said. “It’s easy, it’s not complicated, with good relations without problems, at this moment.”

 

Before direct rule, Torrent would speak with Spanish tourism officials two or three times a month. Now, it’s that amount of times a week.

Torrent urged all participants in upcoming demonstrations in Catalonia before the election, including one this Saturday, to remain peaceful and law-abiding.

 

“It’s important to say that our streets are normal, our restaurants are working as usual, our destination is exactly the same situation,” Torrent said.

Stephen Hawking Says Technology Could End Poverty But Urges Caution

Technology can hopefully reverse some of the harm caused to the planet by  industrialisation and help end disease and poverty, but artificial intelligence (AI) needs to be controlled, physicist Stephen Hawking said on Monday.

Hawking, a British cosmologist who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease aged 21, said technology could transform every aspect of life but cautioned that artificial intelligence poses new challenges.

He said artificial intelligence and robots are already threatening millions of jobs — but this new revolution could be used to help society and for the good of the world such as alleviating poverty and disease.

“The rise of AI could be the worst or the best thing that has happened for humanity,” Hawking said via telepresence at opening night of the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon that is attended by about 60,000 people.

“We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”

Hawking’s comments come during an escalating debate about the pro and cons of artificial intelligence, a term used to describe machines with a computer code that learns as it goes.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc and rocket company SpaceX, has warned that AI is a threat to humankind’s existence.

But Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, in a rare interview recently, told the WSJ Magazine that there was nothing to panic about.

Hawking said everyone has a role to play in making sure that this generation and the next are fully engaged with the study of science at an early level to create “a better world for the whole human race.”

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be,” said Hawking, who communicates via a cheek muscle linked to a sensor and computerized voice system.

“You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted, or expected, and to think big. We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting — if precarious — place to be and you are the pioneers,” he said.

 

 

Saudi Economy Vulnerable as Corruption Probe Hits Business Old Guard

Two weeks ago the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh was the site of an international conference promoting Saudi Arabia as an investment destination, with over 3,000 officials and business leaders attending.

Now the hotel is temporarily serving as a luxury prison where some of the kingdom’s political and business elite are being held in a widening crackdown on corruption that may change the way the economy works.

By detaining dozens of officials and tycoons, a new anti-corruption body headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to dismantle systems of patronage and kick-backs that have distorted the economy for decades.

But it is a risky process, because the crackdown is hurting some of the kingdom’s top private businessmen — leaders of family conglomerates who have built much of the non-oil economy over the past few decades.

Many industries could suffer if investment by these families dries up in coming months, at a time when the economy has already fallen into recession because of low oil prices and austerity policies.

New breed of companies

Meanwhile, a new breed of state-backed companies is rising to compete with the old guard; many of the new enterprises are linked to the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s top sovereign wealth fund. But it is not clear how smoothly the transition to these firms will happen.

“The rules of the game are changing. But they’re changing indiscriminately,” said one financial analyst in the region, declining to be named because of political sensitivities. “Even people who thought they were within the rules don’t know if they will still be within those rules tomorrow. There’s just uncertainty.”

Some private businessmen in Saudi Arabia are now trying to move their money out of the country “while they still can,” the analyst said.

For many foreigners, the most shocking aspect of the purge has been the detention of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the flamboyant, internationally known chairman of investment firm Kingdom Holding.

But for Saudis, the names of other detainees have been equally stunning: Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar, founder of the Al Tayyar Travel group; billionaire Saleh Kamel; and Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the huge Saudi Binladin construction conglomerate.

State contracts

The saga of the Binladin group underlines how the business environment is changing. Binladin and another big construction group, Saudi Oger, long enjoyed preferential access to the kingdom’s biggest projects and control over pricing as a result of their close relationships with royal patrons.

But the bottom fell out from under both companies last year, when a cash squeeze resulting from low oil prices caused the government to cancel or suspend projects and delay payments.

The firms faced multi-billion dollar debt restructurings; Binladin has laid off tens of thousands of people while Oger’s bankers say it has essentially stopped operating.

New construction company

At the same time, state oil giant Saudi Aramco is moving to set up a construction company with local and international partners to build non-oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia — potentially taking billions of dollars of business that would previously have gone to the family conglomerates.

Aramco and PIF, the sovereign fund, have also linked up with U.S. construction firm Jacobs Engineering to form a management company for strategic projects in the kingdom.

Many in the Saudi business world are celebrating the downfall of the old patronage system and the shift toward a “cleaner” business environment.

“It’s great news for the clean ones among us — 99.99 percent are ecstatic,” said one senior executive.

But others express disquiet about the possible economic fallout of the purge. Some are concerned that banks could start calling in loans to families implicated in the probe, using loan clauses that permit this in cases of legal jeopardy; this could collapse companies’ share prices.

Business deals put in limbo?

Many new business deals may be put on hold. A businessman at a foreign technology services firm told Reuters he had been considering a venture with a Saudi partner, but decided against it this week because of the partner’s ties to the detained Bakr bin Laden.

The new anti-corruption commission has broad authority to seize assets at home and abroad. Some businessmen wonder if these powers could be used to pressure firms into participating in Prince Mohammed’s economic development projects.

“It’s the old royal fiefdoms that are not in the Al Salman branch of the royal family that are now being purged,” said a Western analyst. “It’s a further centralising of political and economic power, and a seizing of the private assets that those fiefdoms have accumulated.”

 

Dudley Retirement Reflects Broad Turnover of US Federal Reserve Leadership

A revamping of the Federal Reserve’s leadership is widening with the announcement Monday that William Dudley, president of the New York Fed and the No. 2 official on the Fed’s key interest rate panel, will retire next year.

 

Just last week, President Donald Trump chose Fed board member Jerome Powell to replace Janet Yellen as Fed chair in February. The post of Fed vice chair remains vacant. So do two additional seats on the Fed’s seven-member board. And a fourth seat may open as well next year.

The unusual pace of the turnover has given Trump the rare opportunity for a president to put his personal stamp on the makeup of the Fed, which operates as an independent agency. Investors are awaiting signals of how Trump’s upcoming selections might alter the Fed’s approach to interest rates and regulations.

 

Trump has made it known that he favors low interest rates. He has also called for a loosening of financial regulations. The Fed has played a key role in overseeing the tighter regulations that were enacted after the 2008 financial crisis, which nearly toppled the banking system.

 

The uncertainty surrounding the Fed’s top policymakers has been heightened by the slow pace with which the Trump administration has moved to fill openings.

To date, the administration has placed one new person on the Fed board: Randal Quarles, a veteran of the private equity industry who is thought to favor looser regulations, was confirmed as the first vice chairman for supervision. That still left three vacancies on the Fed’s board: Just as Quarles was joining the board last month, Stanley Fischer was stepping down as Fed vice chairman.

 

And Yellen herself could decide to leave the board when her term as chair ends on Feb. 3, even though her separate term on the board runs until 2024.

 

Dudley’s announcement that he plans to retire by mid-2018 also creates an opening on the committee of board members and bank presidents who set interest rate policies. Dudley’s position is particularly crucial: As head of the New York Fed, he is a permanent voting member of the Fed committee that sets interest rates.

 

The committee is composed of the board members and five of the 12 regional bank presidents. Unlike the New York Fed president, the other regional bank presidents vote on a rotating basis. The New York Fed president also serves as vice chairman of the rate-setting panel.

 

Some economists said that while financial markets have so far registered little concern about the number of key open Fed positions, that could change quickly, especially if investors begin to worry that the central bank will accelerate interest rate hikes.

 

“We need to get rid of this uncertainty, and until these seats are filled, there is going to be uncertainty,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at DS Economics.

 

Analysts are trying to read the two decisions Trump has made — picking Powell for the top job and Quarles for the key post for banking supervision — as signs for where he might be headed. With Powell, the president opted for continuity on rates by selecting someone who for years was the lone Republican on the board but who remained a reliable vote for the gradual approach to rate hikes Yellen favored.

And in the bank supervision post, analysts say Trump might have been signaling that he wants to reverse, or at least weaken, Yellen’s backing of the reforms instituted by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law. During the campaign, Trump argued that Dodd-Frank was harming the economy by constraining back lending.

 

Quarles has been critical of aspects of that law. To a lesser extent, so, too, has Powell, who will be the first Fed chairman in nearly 40 years to lack a degree in economics. Powell, a lawyer by training, amassed a fortune as an investment banker at the Carlyle Group.

 

“With his background, Powell can be expected to work well with Wall Street and the business community in general,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands.

 

A senior administration official indicated that one important attribute for the open positions will be a diversity of backgrounds.

 

“We believe the Fed will function best with a wide range of skill sets,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel decisions. This official would not give a timetable for when the administration’s next nominations for the Fed might occur.

Though Trump will choose officials to fill the openings on the board, the choice of Dudley’s replacement will fall to the board of the New York Fed. The New York Fed said a search committee had been formed to choose a successor to Dudley, who joined the New York Fed in 2007 after more than two decades at Goldman Sachs.

 

The announcement from the New York Fed said Dudley, 64, intended to step down in mid-2018 to ensure that his successor would be in place well before the mandatory end of Dudley’s term in January 2019.

 

After overseeing the New York Fed’s securities operations for two years, Dudley succeeded Timothy Geithner as its president after Geithner was tapped by President Barack Obama to become Treasury secretary in 2009.

 

Dudley won praise for the work he did with Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to contain the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Dudley supported Yellen’s cautious approach to raising the Fed’s benchmark rate and the plan the central bank has begun to gradually shrink its $4.5 trillion balance sheet, which is five times its size before the financial crisis.

 

The balance sheet contains $4.2 trillion in Treasurys and mortgage bonds that the Fed bought since 2008 to try to hold down long-term borrowing rates and help the economy recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s.

 

In a statement, Yellen praised Dudley for his “wise counsel and warm friendship throughout the years of the financial crisis and its aftermath.”

US Commerce Chief Defends Investment in Russian Shipper Linked to Putin Inner Circle

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday defended his sizable business links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, saying “there is no impropriety.”

Ross, a 79-year-old billionaire industrialist, has a 31 percent stake worth $2 million to $10 million in a shipping venture, Navigator Holdings, with connections to Putin’s son-in-law and an oligarch who is subject to U.S. sanctions and is Putin’s judo partner, according to newly leaked documents.

But Ross, a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, said on the sidelines of a business conference in London, “I think the media has made a lot more out of it than it deserves.”

Navigator earns millions of dollars a year shipping natural gas for Russian energy giant Sibur, which is partly owned by Kirill Shamalov, the husband of Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, and Gennady Timchenko, the oligarch who is Putin’s judo partner, according to the documents. Timchenko is subject to the U.S. sanctions because of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists fighting the Kyiv government’s forces in eastern Ukraine.

‘Nothing whatsoever improper’

But in a pair of interviews with the BBC and Bloomberg TV, Ross dismissed concern about his involvement in the operation. He said the Sibur deal was arranged before he joined Navigator’s board.

“There’s no interlocking of board, there’s no interlocking of shareholders, I had nothing to do with the negotiation of the deal,” he said. “But most importantly the company that is our client itself, Sibur, was not then sanctioned, is not now sanctioned, and never was sanctioned in between. There’s nothing whatsoever improper.”

Ross told Bloomberg, “We have no business ties to those Russian individuals who are under sanction.” Ross said he has been selling his stake in Navigator, “but that isn’t because of this.”

Ross sold off numerous holdings when he joined Trump’s Cabinet earlier this year to avoid conflicts of interest while he promotes U.S. commerce throughout the world. But he kept his Navigator stake, which has been held in a chain of partnerships in the Cayman Islands, an offshore tax haven where Ross has placed much of his estimated $2 billion in wealth.

‘Paradise papers’

Ross did not disclose the Russian business link when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as commerce secretary, but it surfaced in a trove of more than 13 million documents leaked from Appleby, a Bermuda-based offshore law firm that advises the wealthy elite on global financial transactions as they look to avoid billions of dollars in taxes.  Appleby says it has investigated all the allegations and found “there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, either on the part of ourselves or our clients.”

The cache of documents, called the Paradise Papers, was first leaked to a German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and dozens of other media outlets around the world, including The Guardian in Britain, The New York Times and NBC News in the U.S., all of which reported on the Ross investment on Sunday.

The disclosure of Ross’ financial interests in Russia comes as a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, and three congressional panels are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an effort the U.S. intelligence community has concluded was led by Putin in an effort to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump win the White House.

Several Trump campaign associates have come under scrutiny, but until the disclosures about Ross’ holdings, there have been no reports of business links between top Trump officials and any member of Putin’s family and his inner circle.

The disclosures could put pressure on world leaders, including Trump and British Prime Minister, Theresa May, who have both pledged to curb aggressive tax avoidance schemes.

“Congress has the power to crack down on offshore tax avoidance,” said Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “There are copious loopholes in our federal tax code that essentially incentivize companies to cook the books and make U.S. profits appear to be earned offshore. The House tax bill introduced late last week does nothing to close these loopholes.”

‘Paradise Papers’ Reveal Inner Workings of Elite Tax Havens

Media organizations across the world revealed a massive leak of millions of financial documents Sunday that outlined the elaborate steps taken by elite politicians and other wealthy individuals to shield their wealth from tax collectors.

The leak, which has been dubbed the Paradise Papers, contained more than 13 million files taken mostly from a single Bermuda-based legal services company, Appleby.

The files were initially leaked to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared them with around 100 different media outlets affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The disclosures date back as far as 70 years ago and show the murky, but mostly legal, ways in which some of the biggest names in politics and media protect their wealth through various offshore schemes.

So far, the documents have revealed how millions of dollars’ from the Queen’s private estate wound up in a Cayman Islands fund, numerous offshore dealings by high-ranking members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet and shown how Russian state financial institutions invested millions of dollars in Twitter and Facebook.

Also implicated in the Paradise Papers is Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief fundraiser, Stephen Bronfman, who helped move millions of dollars through a complex web of offshore accounts.

Appleby claims to have investigated all the allegations contained in the Paradise Papers and found “no evidence of wrongdoing, either on the part of ourselves or our clients.”

“We are a law firm which advises clients on legitimate and lawful ways to conduct their business. We do not tolerate illegal behavior,” the company added, in a statement to The Guardian.

The Paradise Papers leak marks the second largest data leak in history and closely resembles the Panama Papers leaked last year from the law firm Mossack Fonseca. Those leaks similarly showed the ways in which the wealthy use secretive offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.

VOA’s Ray Choto is among the journalists involved with the Paradise Papers. He says it is much bigger than the Panama Papers in terms of files and that more journalists were involved.

Kingdom-wide Arrests in Saudi Arabia See Crown Prince Tighten His Grip

The writers of the television drama series “Game of Thrones” would be hard pressed to pack into one episode what happened in Saudi Arabia Saturday, which saw breathtaking arrests of scores of princes and ministers once considered untouchable.

The kingdom-wide swoop has left international investors shocked and analysts scrambling. It drove up the price of oil to its highest close in two years.

Included in the unprecedented roundup ordered by King Salman and overseen by his son, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, was one of the world’s richest men, Prince Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire businessman who co-owns the Four Seasons hotel chain and is a major investor in Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire.

Others among the 50 who have been detained and corralled in opulent hotels across the Saudi capital include Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, the owner of the largest satellite television network in the Middle East, MBC, and Bakr bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden and chairman of the Gulf kingdom’s biggest construction company.

And along with them prominent military figures, including Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, a former defense minister, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the minister of the elite 100,000-strong National Guard and son of the late King Abdullah, whose death two years ago led to Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as Crown Prince by his ailing father, the kingdom’s 81-year-old current monarch.

The round-up, which saw palaces surrounded in the dead of night and the grounding of private jets at Jeddah’s airport to prevent those targeted from fleeing, is being described as an anti-corruption drive by Saudi officials. The detainees’ assets have been frozen.

But the scale of what is being dubbed by analysts “a purge”, further consolidates the power of the 32-year-old Crown Prince and future king. He will chair a commission to monitor and investigate corruption, which King Salman’s communique described as the “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest.”

The commission has the authority to investigate, arrest, issue travel bans and freeze assets, say Saudi officials. They suggested more royals, the ruling House of Saud comprises an estimated 15,000 family members, could be detained in the coming days, and more assets seized. “The amounts, which prove to be linked to corruption issues, would be returned to the treasury of the State of Saudi Arabia,” the Information Ministry said Sunday.

Few Saudi-watchers believe weeding out corruption is the main point of the high-risk swoop. State finances and private finances of the members of the House of Saud have long been hopelessly mixed and seen as one and the same thing. The arrests have as their goal the tightening of the Crown Prince’s grip on power, say Saudi-watchers. Their scale suggests mounting fears by the Crown Prince and his father that a coup against them might have been in the throes of being hatched.

“The determination to consolidate power in the hands of the crown prince suggests both ambition and anxiety,” says analyst Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and author of the upcoming book “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR.”

Family divisions

Writing for the website Al Monitor, Riedel says, “The young prince is a man in a hurry with a sweeping vision of transforming his country. But Mohammed bin Salman is also aware that his rise to power has alienated many in the royal family who have been sidelined.”

He says the large-scale wave of arrests “suggests deep opposition to the young prince’s ambitions.”

The kingdom is at a crossroads and has seen several of the policies being pushed by the future king fail to come off. Saudi Arabia has been locked in a two-and-a-half-year war in neighboring Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels. A move to discipline another neighbor, Qatar, with an five-months-long economic blockade has failed to pay dividends.

And the kingdom’s principal rival in the region, Iran, has been gaining increasing influence across the Middle East.

Radical reforms

With that as a backdrop, the Crown Prince has been pushing radical reform, from recently lifting a ban on women driving to launching an ambitious economic overhaul designed to make the country less dependent on oil. He has pledged to steer Saudi Arabia towards a moderate interpretation of Islam.

Reform makes enemies, say analysts. The House of Saud’s control of the kingdom has been based on twin pillars, oil-wealth that has allowed it to reward all the extended family, and appeasement of the austere ultra-conservative religious movement known as Wahhabism.

According to Zubair Iqbal, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, the House of Saud “has been broken into two parts between the traditionalists, who believe in consensus, against those who say they are going to enforce rules, regulations and policies without going through the process of consensus, which takes too much time and ends up diluting the intended policy.”

He told VOA, “The conflict is being taken care of by taking arbitrary measures against those who don’t agree with you,” adding he worries the Crown Prince is too impatient in how he is implementing change.

Some analysts who believe the crackdown’s scale and timing indicate fears of a coup, point to a mysterious helicopter crash Sunday near the Yemen border in which a senior Saudi prince, the son of another prominent royal pushed aside by King Salman, and seven top-ranking officials were killed. The Saudi Interior Ministry has not given a cause for the crash.

“Fear of a coup,” tweeted Jane Kinnenmont, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, a policy research group, “different from an actual coup.” Along with other analysts, she maintains that if the roundup Saturday was part of the crushing of a coup already unfolding, there would have been more arrests.

 

 

Both Candidates Claim Momentum in Virginia Governor’s Race

Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam both claim momentum is on their side with one day to go before Election Day in Virginia’s high-stakes, closely watched race for governor.

The candidates are racing across the state Monday after a weekend spent trying to trying to rally supporters ahead of the Tuesday vote.

 

Northam felt strong enthusiasm from his supporters and said he was heartened by the high number of absentee votes that had been cast so far compared with four years ago, particularly in Democratic-leaning areas. Northam predicted turnout could be significantly higher than recent past gubernatorial elections.

 

“We may get well over 50 percent, which would be real good for our party,” Northam said.

 

Gillespie told supporters at a rally Sunday that Republicans were set to sweep statewide races.

 

“We no longer just have momentum — we have the lead,” Gillespie said.

 

Virginia is one of only two states electing a new governor this year, and the contest is viewed by many as an early referendum on President Donald Trump’s political popularity.

 

Democrats are eager to prove they can harness anti-Trump energy into success at the polls, while Republicans are looking to show they have a winning blueprint in a blue-leaning state. Most public polls have shown a close race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is term limited.

 

Northam, a pediatric neurologist and the state’s lieutenant governor, spent Saturday in voter-rich northern Virginia, where Democrats have run up huge leads in recent statewide elections. He attended rallies with union members, immigrant groups and others where he sought to use anti-Trump energy as a motivating factor.

 

“Do you all remember how you felt when you woke up on November the 9th of 2016?” Northam asked a group of canvassers in a supporter’s backyard in Ashburn, referring to the day after Trump won the presidential campaign. “We cannot take any chances and wake up like that again.”

 

National Democrats, still stinging from last year’s presidential race, are hoping a strong showing by Northam will help motivate the party ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections. A string of high-profile surrogates, including former President Barack Obama, have campaigned on his behalf.

 

Some volunteers helping Northam said Trump’s victory had spurred them to get involved in a political campaign for the first time.

 

“Really, a lot of us feel unsettled,” said Kee Jun, a Korean-American from Northern Virginia who helped introduce Northam to voters at a restaurant Saturday. “I feel an obligation to my children, Virginia residents and the nation.”

 

But some Republicans said they felt Trump’s victory has energized their party in a lasting way that will help Gillespie.

 

“People realize they can have a voice and can make a difference in an election,” said John Ancellotti, a retired Coast Guard captain and federal agent who attended a Gillespie rally Sunday.

 

Gillespie, a White House adviser to President George W. Bush and former lobbyist, has kept Trump at a distance and has not campaigned with him. But in a bid to rally Trump supporters, Gillespie has run hard-edge attacks ads against Northam focused on immigrants in the country illegally and preserving Confederate statues. The approach has drawn bipartisan criticism, but Gillespie supporters say he’s been unfairly maligned for taking positions that are popular with voters but may not be politically correct.

 

“Ed is willing to take those arrows,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who campaigned with Gillespie on Sunday.

 

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said Saturday that Gillespie’s tack to the right will help him “pull this out,” according to the pro-Trump website Breitbart News.

 

Gillespie did not mention the president during Sunday rallies in Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, instead focusing his message on his plan to boost the state’s economy.

 

Republicans said a controversial last-minute ad by the Latino Victory Fund, which features a Gillespie supporter chasing down children of different minority groups in a pickup truck, has helped galvanize Gillespie supporters at a key time.

 

“That was God’s way of helping him,” said Robin Milewski, a York County Republican volunteer.

 

 

 

Supreme Court Rejects Samsung Appeal in Apple Patents Case

The Supreme Court has rejected Samsung’s appeal of court rulings that it impermissibly copied features of Apple’s iPhone.

The justices on Monday left in place rulings in favor of Apple involving its patents for smartphone features that include auto-correct and a slide that unlocks the device.

In 2014, a jury awarded Apple $120 million in damages for Samsung’s infringement of the patents.

The case is part of a series of disputes between the technology rivals that began in 2011. Last year, the high court ruled in favor of Samsung in a legal fight over the similar appearances of the two companies’ smartphones.

Deterring Sheep Rustlers with High Tech

Rustlers, the villains in countless Wild West movies, are a very real threat to ranchers and farmers today. In Britain, sheep farmers are resorting to technology to protect their flocks. Faiza Elmasry reports on some high tech ways farmers are tracing their animals. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Prosecutors: Manafort Needs to Detail Finances Further in Bail Talks

Special Counsel Robert Mueller pushed back on Sunday against Paul Manafort’s efforts to avoid house arrest, arguing that President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager needed to further detail the finances behind his proposed $12 million bail agreement.

In a court memorandum, Mueller and his attorneys argued that the court should only agree to a bail agreement if Manafort fully explains his finances to the court.

Prosecutors said his team had not been able to substantiate the value of one of the three properties, as well as several life insurance policies, Manafort wants to pledge for bail.

Manafort, who ran Trump’s presidential campaign for several months last year, and associate Richard Gates pleaded not guilty last week to a 12-count indictment by a federal grand jury. They face charges including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as foreign agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government. The two are currently under house arrest, and prosecutors have argued they could pose a flight risk.

The charges are part of Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian efforts to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor and potential collusion by Trump associates, allegations that Moscow and the Republican president deny.

In a Saturday court filing, Manafort offered to limit his travel and pledged life insurance worth about $4.5 million as well as about $8 million in real estate assets, including a property on Fifth Avenue in New York that was identified by some media outlets as an apartment in Trump Tower.

But prosecutors said they needed an independent appraisal of that Fifth Avenue property, since Manafort was claiming a fair-market value of the unit that appeared to exceed other outside estimates.

Prosecutors also argued they needed time to talk to Manafort’s insurance company about his policies. The prosecutors noted that Manafort would be required to forfeit one of those policies, worth $2.6 million, should he be convicted, creating additional questions about its value in a potential bail agreement.

In the document, Mueller said his team was in talks with Manafort’s counsel about striking a bail agreement but that Manafort had not provided enough detail yet on his finances.

“Those discussions are best described as ongoing, and the government is not prepared to consent to a change in the current conditions of release at least until Manafort provides a full accounting of his net worth and the value of the assets that he proposes to pledge,” Mueller said in the court memorandum.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said on Thursday that initial bail terms would remain in place and set a bail hearing for Monday to consider changes.