Mexico, US Express Cautious Optimism on NAFTA Deal

Top U.S. and Mexican officials on Thursday expressed cautious optimism that the North American Free Trade Agreement will be renegotiated, speaking ahead of the next round of trade talks later this month.

Asked on local television whether it was more likely the $1.2 trillion trilateral trade pact would survive or die, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said there was cause for optimism, though Mexico should be prepared for all eventualities.

“We should be prepared for a future with or without NAFTA,” he said.

In Washington, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said it was a priority for the Trump administration to renegotiate NAFTA, declining to speculate on the consequences if the United States withdraws from talks.

The seventh round of negotiations in Mexico City will take place Feb. 25 to March 5, starting and ending a day earlier than initially planned.

There is a “window of opportunity” for concluding the talks in March or April, said Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby.

“That’s the objective,” Kalach told reporters.

Talks to renegotiate the 1994 pact have stalled as Canada and Mexico are at loggerheads with the United States over some of the most contentious proposals its negotiators have put on the table.

“I am cautiously hopeful that [U.S. Trade Representative] Ambassador Lighthizer will be renegotiating this deal,” Mnuchin told the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade matters in the U.S. Congress.

“It is a major priority of ours,” he added U.S. President Donald Trump has called NAFTA one of the worst deals in history, blaming it for U.S. manufacturing job losses, and has threatened to quit the agreement unless he can rework it to better suit U.S. interests. His remarks have unsettled financial markets.

At the last round in Montreal, Canada made several proposals to address the U.S. insistence on raising the North American content of autos. Washington also wants a clause that would allow any member to withdraw after five years.

The early March deadline for concluding talks has been extended to at least early April, officials have said. But participants have conceded privately it could take months longer.

If talks run past Mexico’s July presidential election, Mexico’s private sector will work with the president-elect to update NAFTA, Kalach said.

The current frontrunner, leftist contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said Mexico should suspend talks until after the election.

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White House Blames Russia for ‘NotPetya’ Cyber Attack

The White House on Thursday blamed Russia for the devastating “NotPetya” cyber attack last year, joining the British government in condemning

Moscow for unleashing a virus that crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers in countries across the globe.

The attack in June of 2017 “spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the Americas,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

“It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict,” Sanders added. “This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences.”

The U.S. government is “reviewing a range of options,” a senior White House official said when asked about the consequences for Russia’s actions.

Earlier on Thursday, Russia denied an accusation by the British government that it was behind the attack, saying it was part of a “Russophobic” campaign that it said was being waged by some Western countries.

The so-called NotPetya attack in June started in Ukraine where it crippled government and business computers before spreading around Europe and the world, halting operations atports, factories and offices.

Britain’s foreign ministry said in a statement released earlier in the day that the attack originated from the Russian military.

“The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The attack masqueraded as a criminal enterprise but its purpose was principally to disrupt,” it said.

“Primary targets were Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors. Its indiscriminate design caused it to spread further, affecting other European and Russian business.”

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EU Not Happy With Facebook, Twitter Consumer Rule Remedies

The European Commission says social media giants Facebook and Twitter have only partially responded to its demands to bring their practices into line with EU consumer law.


The Commission asked the two companies a year ago to change their terms of service following complaints from people targeted by fraud or scams on social media websites.


The EU’s executive arm said Thursday that the firms only partly addressed “issues about their liability and about how users are informed of possible content removal or contract termination.”


It said changes proposed by Google+ appear to be in line with demands.


Europe’s consumer affairs commissioner, Vera Jourova, said “it is unacceptable that this is still not complete and it is taking so much time.” She called for those flouting consumer rules to face sanctions.


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Airbus Expects Strong Growth, Looks Past Plane Troubles

Shares in European plane maker Airbus flew higher on Thursday after the company reported improved earnings and was more upbeat about the future following problems to several of its key aircraft programs.


The company said that it surged to a net profit of 1 billion euros ($1.25 billion) in the fourth quarter, from a loss of 816 million euros a year earlier, while revenue was stable around 23.8 billion euros. Airbus delivered a record 718 aircraft last year and expects that figure to rise further in 2018, to 800.


CEO Tom Enders credited “very good operational performance, especially in the last quarter.”


Shares in the company jumped about 10 percent on Thursday in Paris. Investors seem optimistic that the company is putting behind it the worst of its troubles with three airplane production programs.

Airbus, which is based in Toulouse, France, said it took another charge of 1.3 billion euros on its A400 military plane, which has had cost overruns for years. It said, however, that it had reached a deal with the governments that are buying the planes on a new delivery schedule that should rein in any new charges on the program.


The company also acknowledged that it had had more struggles with engines supplied by Pratt & Whitney for the A320neo, a narrow-body plane that’s popular with regional airlines. The supplier had had problems with the engines last year, which it fixed, but reported a new issue more recently that could affect 2018 deliveries, Airbus said.


Another of Airbus’ troubled plane models, the A380 superjumbo jet, now has a more stable outlook after the company reached a deal with Emirates airline that will cover the cost of production for years.


The various problems with these production programs risked overshadowing what was otherwise a strong year for Airbus in terms of earnings, as global demand for commercial aircraft grows. Airbus raised its dividend by 11 percent and said it expects one of its key earnings metrics — earnings before interest and tax — to rise 20 percent in 2018.




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US Senate Awaits Vote on Immigration Reform

 U.S. Senate deliberations on immigration reform descended into chaos Thursday as a war of words erupted between the White House and a bipartisan group of lawmakers over a proposal to help young undocumented immigrants and boost border security.

The White House signaled its intention to veto the measure if it ever got to the president’s desk. “That bill is officially, if it wasn’t already obvious, DOA (dead on arrival),” said a senior administration official in a background call with reporters referencing the bipartisan #ImmigrationReform proposed legislation.

In an earlier statement, the White House said the measure “would produce a flood of new illegal immigration” and “undermine the safety and security of American families” by “weakening border security and undermining existing immigration laws.”

Late Wednesday, 16 senators unveiled compromise legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, boost border security funding by $25 billion, and focus immigration enforcement efforts on criminals, threats to national security, and those arriving illegally after the end of June.

“This is the one and only bill that deals with immigration issues with broad bipartisan support,” Republican Susan Collins of Maine said at a news conference.

“This is a narrow bill designed to confront two (immigration) issues,” Maine Independent Angus King said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is the only bill that has a chance to get through the United States Senate.”

Hours earlier, the Department of Homeland Security slammed the Senate proposal’s directive on which undocumented immigrants should be targeted for removal as “the end of immigration enforcement in America.”

“Who the hell wrote this?” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. “It sounded like it came from a political hack, not DHS.”

Graham added that so long as immigration hardliners dominate in the Trump administration, “We’re going nowhere fast (on immigration reform) at warp speed.”

President Donald Trump backs sweeping reforms that include limits on family-based immigration and prioritizing newcomers who have advanced work skills.

Trump’s immigration agenda is encapsulated in legislation Republican lawmakers introduced earlier this week. Democratic senators countered with a proposal that pairs help for young immigrants with limited border security enhancements.

Neither partisan bill is expected to get the three-fifths backing required to advance in the chamber, and conservative Republicans joined the Trump administration in criticizing the bipartisan compromise, calling it a de facto amnesty for million of current and future undocumented immigrants.

“The race is on,” Oklahoma Senator James Lankford said. “If you can get into the country and across the border by June 30 of this year, you are in and you have amnesty. That (covers) every single individual in the country unlawfully.”

Democrats, meanwhile, accused Trump of blocking bipartisan solutions.

“President Trump … has stood in the way of every single proposal that has had a chance of becoming law,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said. “Now President Trump seems eager to spike (defeat) the latest bipartisan compromise, potentially, with a veto. Why? Because it isn’t 100 percent of what the president wants on immigration.”

Schumer added: “That’s not how democracy works. You don’t get 100 percent of what you want in a democracy, maybe (you do) in a dictatorship.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, argued the president’s case for major changes to immigration law.

“The DACA issue is just a symptom of our broken immigration system,” McConnell said. “So the president has made clear, and I strongly agree, that any legislation must also treat the root causes and reform legal immigration. And it must also include common sense steps to ensure the safety of the American people.”

Last year, the president rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama administration policy that allowed young undocumented immigrants to work and study in the United States. Trump gave lawmakers six months to craft a permanent legislative replacement.

Trump put an end to DACA benefits beginning March 5. While two courts have acted to extend the deadline, DACA beneficiaries could be at risk of deportation unless Congress acts.

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Pay-As-You-Go Service Offers Smartphone Access to the Cash-Strapped

Until recently, Javier, a 60-year-old line cook, couldn’t afford a smartphone.

Now, thanks to a Silicon Valley company, Javier has a Galaxy S8, one of Samsung’s high-end smartphones. Javier said he relies on it for everything.

Once a month, he walks into a mobile phone store near San Francisco and makes a cash payment. If he didn’t, the phone would be remotely locked. No YouTube, no Skype calls, no Facebook. He has never missed a payment.


WATCH: Pay-As-You-Go Smartphone Gives the Poor Access to Better Technology

Smartphones out of many people’s reach

Around the world, people rely more and more on their smartphones for connecting to the internet, and yet for many, the device is still cost prohibitive. For the roughly 1 in 10 American consumers without financial identities — no banking history or credit scores — it is difficult to get smartphones on one of the low-cost payment plans offered by the major carriers.

Javier, who declined to give his last name because he is an undocumented immigrant, is on his third phone from PayJoy, a company founded by former Google employees. PayJoy offers a pay-as-you-go model for the smartphone market aimed particularly at customers with little or bad credit histories.

“We work with immigrants from all over the world coming to the U.S., and we work with Americans who are just outside the financial system,” said Doug Ricket, PayJoy’s chief executive, who worked in the pay-as-you-go solar industry in Africa. “They can afford $10 a week, and they can get a great smartphone. And for PayJoy, we say, ‘Welcome to the 21st century and get all the modern apps.’”

A new way to figure out a person’s credit risk

PayJoy figures out a person’s risk differently than most companies. A customer provides a Facebook profile, a phone number and some sort of official government ID. PayJoy decides the person’s risk level before offering him or her credit for a phone. Then, a customer picks a payment plan and makes a down payment. PayJoy’s research has found that a Facebook profile can be useful in establishing a person’s identity.

“We’re starting from this pool of people who have no traditional credit score and we’re saying for most of them, we can actually find something that the credit agencies are not finding,” Ricket said.

No payment means no YouTube

If a customer doesn’t pay by 5 p.m. the day payment is due, PayJoy remotely locks the phone. A customer can only make emergency calls or call PayJoy’s customer service. The customer can see that friends are texting or messaging on Facebook, but cannot open the phone to read the messages.

“Now, when we look internationally, we see more people going from a flip phone to smartphones, and people upgrading from a really basic level to one that can handle Facebook, maps and Instagram,” Ricket said.

If customers stop paying, they can return the phone without penalty. But if they do pay off the phone, they can qualify for an even better one. PayJoy makes its money by charging monthly interest — as high as 50 percent in some cases — on the retail price of the phone.

Expanding into Africa, Asia and India

The company is operating in the United States and Mexico and has plans to expand into Kenya, Tanzania, southeast Asia and India. So far, PayJoy offers only smartphones running Android, the operating system created by Google, but Ricket hopes to offer iPhones one day.

PayJoy’s vision is to be not just a smartphone firm, but a financing company, offering customers a way to use their phones as collateral to pay off televisions and other household goods.

“Once the customer gets the smartphone, they can potentially use that smartphone either by buying the smartphone with PayJoy or just collateralize an existing smartphone to finance a TV or a sofa,” Ricket said.

If PayJoy takes off, people in emerging markets may be able to upgrade their phone choices, and have a new way to finance their purchases.

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US Senate Stalled on Immigration Solution

The US Senate began debate on a multitude of immigration proposals Wednesday but appeared no closer to a solution for the 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. With a March 5 deadline for those DACA recipients and a limited pledge to keep debate open from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, time appears to be running out. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.

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2018 Congressional Elections Seen as Referendum on Trump

2018 is a congressional election year in the United States with all 435 seats in the House of Representatives at stake and 34 of the 100 Senate seats. Midterm elections historically have not been kind to sitting presidents. On average, the president’s party loses 30 House seats and about two Senate seats. As VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington, President Donald Trump is urging his supporters to defy history, much as they did when he won the White House in 2016.

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Uber’s Net Loss Widens to $4.5B for Tumultuous 2017

Ride-hailing giant Uber’s full-year net loss widened to $4.5 billion in 2017 as the company endured a tumultuous year that included multiple scandals, a lawsuit alleging the theft of trade secrets and the replacement of its CEO.

The results also showed that Uber cut its fourth-quarter net loss by 25 percent from the third quarter as new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi moves to make the company profitable ahead of a planned initial public stock offering sometime next year.

The full-year loss grew from $2.8 billion in 2016, a year with results skewed by a gain from the sale of Uber’s unprofitable business in China. Uber also said its U.S. ride-hailing market share fell from 82 percent at the start of last year to 70 percent in the fourth quarter. Uber said the share has now stabilized.

Gross revenue for the year rose 85 percent over 2016, to $37 billion.

For the fourth quarter, Uber’s net loss was $1.1 billion, down from $1.46 billion it lost in the third quarter. Bookings from fares rose 14 percent to just over $11 billion for the quarter.

While the losses are significant, the results still are positive for Uber with revenue rising and losses falling in three of four quarters in 2017, said Rohit Kulkarni, managing director of SharesPost, a research group focused on privately held companies.

The numbers show that Uber under Khosrowshahi is on a path toward profitability and a sustainable economic model, Kulkarni said. “If you draw that out further, a year from now, this could be a significant IPO waiting to happen,” he said.

Uber considers adjusted earnings before taxes as a better indicator of its financial performance rather than net earnings based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which include losses for accounting purposes. On an adjusted basis, excluding stock-based compensation, legal costs, taxes and depreciation, the company lost $2.2 billion for the full year. The fourth-quarter adjusted loss was $475 million, down from $606 million to in the third quarter.

San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc.’s results are difficult to report because only pieces are released. Khosrowshahi detailed them on a conference call with investors Tuesday, and the company made some results public by giving them to a website called The Information.

A person briefed on the results provided some numbers and confirmed the accuracy of The Information’s story to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The person didn’t want to be identified because Uber remains a private company.

Last year was a particularly bad one for Uber with its reputation tarnished by the company’s acknowledgement of rampant sexual harassment within its ranks, a yearlong cover-up of a major computer break-in, and the use of duplicitous software to thwart government regulators.

CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted in June and replaced by Khosrowshahi in August.

Earlier this month Uber ended the autonomous vehicle trade secrets lawsuit filed by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo for a payment of Uber stock valued by Waymo at $245 million.

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