Pentagon Names Three-Star General to Head Up Puerto Rico Relief

The Pentagon has appointed Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane response efforts in Puerto Rico.

Buchanan, a three-star general, is expected to arrive in Puerto Rico later Thursday, according to VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb.

The Trump administration has been criticized for not responding more quickly to the crisis in the U.S. territory, which was wracked by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 17.

On Thursday, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert defended the eight-day period between the declaration of an emergency in Puerto Rico and the naming of a leader for recovery efforts.

“It didn’t require a three-star general eight days ago,” he told reporters at a White House news briefing. Bossert also said some of the information he has heard on the news has been out of date. “The coverage in some cases is giving the appearance that we are not moving fast enough,” he said.

He told reporters that currently there are 44 operational hospitals in Puerto Rico, out of 69 total.

Acting Homeland Secretary Elaine Duke told reporters at the same briefing that 200 gas stations are open for people to fuel their power generators.

Bossert also added, “The president and I have absolute, 100 percent confidence in what Secretary Duke, [FEMA Director] Brock Long, and the men and women of Puerto Rico are doing. They are going to get through this.”

FEMA regional administrator John Rabin told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government has so far delivered 1.1 million liters of water and about 1 million meals to the island of 3.5 million.

 

WATCH: US Officials Say Damaged Infrastructure Slows Aid Distribution in Puerto Rico

But he added that ships, not planes, are needed to get more supplies to the island.

“The only way we are going to get significant amounts of water and food is through ports and through barges and shipping,” he said. “You can’t get enough through the aircraft.”

He said officials are “very focused” on getting supplies from the ports to the distribution centers.

Army Brigadier General Richard Kim told reporters there are 4,400 Defense Department personnel in Puerto Rico, including Puerto Rican National Guard members.

Earlier Thursday, the Trump administration suspended a law that had been hampering delivery of desperately needed aid to hurricane victims, while House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief account would receive an additional $6.7 billion boost within days.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Thursday that the law known as the Jones Act had been waived for 10 days at the request of Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rossello.

Rossello said the island’s 3.4 million people are facing a humanitarian disaster. “This is the single biggest, major catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico, bar none, and it is probably the biggest hurricane catastrophe in the United States,” Rossello told reporters as he delivered aid Wednesday in the southern town of Salinas.

The island’s power grid was nearly destroyed by two hurricanes that hit the island in rapid succession, leading officials to predict it may take many months to completely restore reliable electricity service — affecting access to medical treatments and running water, as well as depriving millions of air conditioning in tropical heat.

“Recovery is not going to be an overnight thing,” said Duke. “It is going to take a long time.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday after briefing President Donald Trump, Duke said, “Everything has been prioritized. We went to hospitals first, now we’re on gas stations. This is a conscious effort to make sure we don’t have loss of life.” She said the federal government has 7,200 troops and more than 2,500 others on the ground to assist with emergency response.

Among the top priorities, Duke said, is restoring communications. “We have to get, for instance, AT&T in. They are rebuilding the cellular phone system. That is the priority right now. We have food and water. We have plenty of diesel fuel,” she told reporters.

Officials acknowledged, however, that huge challenges still exist in aid delivery and in heading of a public health crisis. Thousands of 20-food containers of life-saving food and water that have arrived in recent days are stacked up on the docks in the port of San Juan, waiting for distribution. A shortage of truck drivers, however, is holding up the operation.

Trump is slated to visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands next Tuesday, but he has been roundly criticized for the slowness of Washington’s response to the island’s plight.

Critics had noted that Trump had issued Jones Act waivers more quickly following hurricanes that hit recently in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. After the president suggested that Puerto Rico was “in deep trouble in part because of problems that predated Hurricane Maria,” a Washington Post opinion piece bluntly asked, “Did Trump Just Figure Out Puerto Ricans are Americans?”

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, House Democrats called for urgent legislation to assist Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

During a briefing, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, said she found conditions “shocking” when she visited the area last Friday.

“Those images were burned into my mind. Yet, what I also saw was inspiring. The spirit of the Puerto Rican people who refuse to quit, who will not give up and who want to get back to rebuilding the island they love,” she added.

Prominent Puerto Rican and Caribbean athletes and entertainers have urged the administration to act more forcefully to help victims who have been without basic needs for days. The singer Rihanna, a native of Barbados, Thursday posted a picture of a New York Daily News front page pleading with the president to act.

Apparently stung by the criticisms, administration officials have emphasized the complexity of delivering aid to the storm-ravaged territory.

“This is an insular island, a territory that stands some distance from the United States,” Bossert said.

“The constraints and limitations are different from a contiguous state here in the United States. We can position hundreds of trucks in Florida or Texas for restoration of line services. We can’t do that in Puerto Rico.”

Even With Billions Online, Digital Gender Divide Persists

Around the world, women are using technology to overcome barriers in education and employment. Getting online, however, remains a challenge for many women in developing countries.  

In the United States, the issue isn’t access to technology, but the lack of women pursuing technical careers.

Beginning Oct. 4 in Orlando, Florida, female leaders will discuss the digital gender divide at Voice of America’s town hall at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

“The tech ecosystem has, sadly, not been welcoming to women,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of ReadySet, a diversity consultancy that works in the tech industry.

Women struggle for access

Globally, women struggle for access to technology. Proportionally, the number of women using the internet is 12 percent lower, compared to men. In the least developed countries, only one in seven women is using the internet, compared to one in five men, according to a 2017 study.

“The digital divide is basically this phenomenon that some people have more access to digital technology than others or use it more than others, which is actually an unavoidable thing,” said Martin Hilbert, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. “Every innovation that comes to society doesn’t form uniformly from heaven. It diffuses through society.”

In a study of 25 countries in Africa and Latin America, Hilbert noted that if he adjusted for income, education and job opportunities, more women than men were online. “The fact that they turn up less is because they have less access to money, education and work opportunities,” he said.

Cultural barriers

Women also face some cultural barriers, said Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan.

The biggest reason she sees for why women are not getting online is what she describes as “the cultural norms or the family values.”

“The middle-class families or lower-class families think that access to computers or access to technologies is a boy’s basic rights and not the girls’ because the girls don’t need it,” she said.

Tara Chklovski, founder and chief executive of Iridescent, an organization that works to promote girls in tech worldwide, said her organization has worked with local partners to overcome barriers.

“There’s a country in Africa, where it is not cool for girls to own phones, only middle-age men,” she said. “When we came in and said we want to teach girls, they said why don’t you teach boys or why don’t you teach these men. We had to work for many years to address barriers.”

Women ‘held to higher bar’

In the U.S., there is a lively debate over why women continue to lag behind men in the tech industry. Women make up about 20 percent of companies’ technical workforce and about the same in leadership roles, said Caroline Simard, research director at the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford University.

“Often women are held to a higher bar to be successful,” said Simard. “They have to work harder to prove the same amount of competence.”

And when it comes to venture capitalists, who finance the startup ecosystem, not many are women.

“I joke in my profession, I don’t have to stand in line for a bathroom,” said Kate Mitchell, a partner at Scale Venture Partners. “Five to 10 percent of investing partners are women, depending what study you look at.”

VOA town hall

Women in tech roles inside a firm are at a higher risk of leaving the profession mid-career. Some say they felt they never belonged.

At VOA’s town hall at the Grace Hopper Celebration, leaders in technology will talk about what it will take to continue to close the digital gender divide.

“For the first time in history, technology can really help girls have a strong voice and help us have a society that has equality,” said Chklovski.

Deana Mitchell contributed to this report.

Officials Praise Large Gang Roundups in US, Central America

Authorities in the U.S. and Central America say they have indicted thousands of violent street gang members since March, including a powerful MS-13 leader who allegedly ordered bloodshed on the East Coast while imprisoned in El Salvador.

Law enforcement officials planned to announce the arrests Friday in Miami, where Justice Department officials are meeting with attorneys general from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The notoriously brutal street gang has roots in Central America and the U.S., and authorities are touting the indictments of 3,800 members in six months as a sign that bolstered cooperation among the countries is paying off.

MS-13 has become a prime target of the Trump administration, which discusses its violence in suburban, immigrant communities in an effort to build support for a broader crackdown on immigration. President Donald Trump directed federal law enforcement to focus resources on combating transnational gangs during his first weeks in office. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions flew to El Salvador in July, in part to learn more about how the gang’s activities there affect crime in the U.S.

​​Rewarding work for prosecutors

Sessions’ aggressive work against MS-13 is one way he continues to carry out Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department, even as the president remains openly critical of his decision months ago to recuse himself from the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia. During a White House dinner with conservative leaders this week, Trump expressed “almost disdain” for Sessions when asked about a technical matter involving the Justice Department, according to a participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

For federal prosecutors who have long worked to quash the gang, the new emphasis has been rewarding.

The arrests include more than 70 people in the U.S. during roundups in Los Angeles, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, the Long Island suburbs of New York and Columbus, Ohio. Among those charged is Edwin Manica Flores, known as “Shugar,” who investigators say led the gang’s East Coast operation from prison in El Salvador, according to a racketeering indictment unsealed in Boston Thursday. It says he encouraged recruitment in the U.S. and taught his counterparts ways to evade law enforcement.

Northern Triangle

Law enforcement in the Northern Triangle arrested hundreds more, including members of the rival 18th Street gang, seizing guns and luxury cars and in some cases entire businesses, officials said.

U.S. cases are so often linked to those in Central America that investigators from all of the countries will use the Miami visit as a chance to swap intelligence and share strategies that can help build cases against gang members in the U.S., said Kenneth A. Blanco, acting head of the Justice Department’s criminal division.

“The fact that we are hitting them on both sides is really what’s important,” Blanco said.

MS-13 is believed by federal prosecutors to have more than 10,000 members in the U.S., a mix of immigrants from Central America and U.S.-born members. The gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.

Entire towns under gang control

MS-13 and rival groups in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras now control entire towns, rape girls and young women, kill competitors and massacre students, bus drivers and merchants who refuse to pay extortion.  That violence has prompted a migration of people trying to escape, especially children, some of whom are then recruited into the gang once in the U.S.

Associates in the U.S. send money to gang leaders in El Salvador, who use it to buy weapons and cellphones. Gang leaders imprisoned there use the phones to instruct members in the U.S. to kill rivals and extort immigrants. Authorities say the indictment in Boston illustrate how the gang operates.

“The more work we do down there, the more it helps us up here,” said David Rybicki, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division, who oversees the organized crime and gang unit. “We can’t effectively work on our cases here without information from El Salvador.”

Good timing

The timing of the get-together is critical, as the indictments will change gang dynamics, said Zach Terwilliger, who prosecuted gangs in the Eastern District of Virginia before taking a position in the deputy attorney general’s office.

“The gang feels as though it’s under a microscope,” he said.

Dismantling gangs like MS-13 has always been a goal of federal prosecutors, but Sessions has made it a priority of his Justice Department, in comparison to his predecessors, who viewed other threats as more urgent, like homegrown extremism and cyberattacks from foreign criminals.

 

Beyond Brexit: EU Looks at Future for Its 27 Other Nations

Germany and France are in sync on what it will take to strengthen the European Union once its breakup with Britain is completed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday as leaders of the 27 remaining members of the bloc met for a two-day summit.

 

“As far as the proposals are concerned, there is a high degree of agreement between Germany and France, but of course we still have to talk about the details,” Merkel said ahead of a summit dinner of EU leaders.

 

French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker set out their visions for the bloc’s future in recent days with keynote speeches on reforming the EU to keep it together.

 

In the past, that idea often was held back by a halfhearted Britain. The U.K. decision to leave the bloc has provided a new impetus for the others to move ahead. Thursday’s summit dinner was the first time EU leaders would make a joint assessment of plans for putting the visions into practice.

 

Up until now, Merkel was absorbed in a national election campaign. That left the EU limelight to Macron, who planned to elaborate on his plans for a more perfect Europe during the dinner.

Macron offered a way forward on Tuesday during a speech in which he described the EU as too slow, weak and ineffective. He called for a joint budget, shared military force and harmonized taxes.

 

“He made clear that Germany and France want to work very closely together. I also find the proposals for the harmonization of corporate taxes, for example, and insolvency law between Germany and France positive,” Merkel said before heading into a bilateral meeting with Macron.  

 

Juncker, for his part, insisted two weeks ago that the EU’s economy was healthier than it has been for more than a decade and ready to move on from Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also was to attend the dinner — the menu includes mushroom cappuccino, roasted black Angus beef with eggplant caviar and juniper sauce, and chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet — and Brexit will never be far away from the discussions.

 

The more upbeat tone after this week’s divorce negotiations between the UK and the EU would only increase this.

 

“Our future is now so intertwined with Brexit. To talk about Brexit cannot be dissociated from how we will build a future of 27,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders during a briefing Thursday.

Like many others, founding nation the Netherlands will be looking at France and Germany to drive the EU onwards.

 

Gender Justice? Women Judges to Dominate Colombia War Tribunals

Women will make up more than half of all judges in Colombia’s war tribunals, a historic move that gives women an equal say in building peace after half a century of war.

Under a peace deal signed last year between the government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), war tribunals will seek to prosecute those responsible for human rights atrocities committed in the civil war.

Women will account for 53 percent of those people selected to serve as court judges, promoting gender equality in the top echelons of justice.

“The top courts have been a restricted space for women, especially for Afro-Colombian and indigenous women,” said Xiomara Balanta, an Afro-Colombian woman, and one of 27 female judges out of 51 people appointed.

While Colombia has made progress in recent decades in increasing women’s participation in politics and the judiciary, gender parity is still a distant goal.

“We’re properly prepared to participate .. this is a historic moment,” Balanta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Colombia’s war has claimed the lives of 220,000 people, and women have borne the brunt of the conflict, including sexual violence, rape and forced displacement.

Of the women judges appointed, more than 10 percent are Afro-Colombian and a further 10 percent come from indigenous groups.

Having a more gender equal and ethnically diverse set of judges means they are more likely to recognize that Colombia’s war affected different groups in society in different ways.

“Women have an affinity for gender issues .. that women, and the LGBT community, have suffered [the conflict] and have felt pain in different ways,” Balanta said.

Rights groups applauded the move, saying it was “without precedent” and an “early victory” for women to ensure they play their rightful role as leaders in peace building.

“We celebrate this triumph of women in decision-making scenarios,” the National Summit of Women and Peace, a network of women’s rights group in Colombia, said in a statement.

Ensuring female participation strengthens prospects for sustainable peace, while having women at the negotiating table increases the chance of a peace accord lasting 15 years by 35 percent, according to a 2015 study by the International Peace Institute.

Under the accord, Colombia will have a so-called ‘Special Jurisdiction for Peace’ (JEP) of tribunals, truth commissions and investigative units to try former rebel fighters, state military and civilians who have committed rights abuses.

Balanta said judges will hear thousands of testimonies over the next 15 years of human rights atrocities, including rape, forced disappearances and massacres, aiming to uncover the truth about what happened during the war.

Lawmakers are currently debating a bill to provide the legal framework for the JEP, with a decision expected in November.

War tribunals are likely to come under great scrutiny and pressure by those Colombians who demand tougher sanctions and jail time for FARC rebels.

“Colombia has to understand this is a process that requires reconciliation and forgiveness,” Balanta said. “It’s about restorative and not just punitive justice.”

Brazil Poll Shows Temer Approval Plummets on New Graft Charges

The approval rating for Brazilian President Michel Temer’s scandal-plagued government has sunk further since new corruption charges were brought against him, and 92 percent of Brazilians do not trust him, a new poll published on Thursday showed.

The survey by pollster Ibope said the number of people who consider Temer’s government “bad” or “terrible” rose to 77 percent from 70 percent in the previous survey carried out in July. The proportion of those who rate his government as “great” or “good” slipped to just 3 percent from 5 percent.

Only 6 percent of Brazilians still trust Temer, down from 10 percent, the poll said.

The government’s approval rating collapsed in July after Temer was hit by a first corruption charge that was blocked by Congress in August, which saved him from standing trial before the Supreme Court.

But federal prosecutors filed new accusations against him of obstructing justice and being a member of a criminal organization in a corruption case involving the owners of the world’s largest meatpacker JBS SA.

They accused Temer of taking bribes in return for political favors and of conspiring to buy the silence of a witness who could implicate the president.

The lower house of Congress, which has the authority to decide whether a president should be put on trial, is expected to vote on the new charges in mid-October at the earliest.

Analysts expect the Congress to again reject a Supreme Court trial for Temer, putting him on course to serve out his term until the end of 2018.

But the corruption debate will delay passage of his plan to overhaul Brazil’s costly pension system, a key measure to bring a gaping budget deficit under control.

“He was already a very unpopular president proposing unpopular measures. Now there is the perception that he, his cabinet and his ruling coalition are involved in a series of wrongdoings,” said Lucas de Aragão, partner at the Brasilia-based political risk consultancy Arko Advice.

Temer’s ratings have fallen below the worst result of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff, whom he succeeded when she was impeached last year.

Rousseff and her Workers Party called her ouster a “coup” orchestrated by Temer and his allies so they could shield themselves from corruption investigations.

Thursday’s poll was commissioned by the National Confederation of Industry lobby and surveyed 2,000 people between Sept. 15-20 across Brazil. It has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Switzerland Tests Delivery by Drone in Populated Areas

Drones will help deliver toothbrushes, deodorant and smartphones to Swiss homes this fall as part of a pilot project, the first of its kind over a densely populated area.

Drone firm Matternet, based in Menlo Park, California, said Thursday it’s partnering on the Zurich project with Mercedes-Benz’s vans division and Swiss e-commerce startup Siroop. It’s been approved by Switzerland’s aviation authority.

Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos says the drones will take items from a distribution center and transport them between 8 to 16 kilometers to awaiting delivery vans. The van drivers then bring the packages to homes. Raptopoulos says drones will speed up deliveries, buzzing over congested urban streets or natural barriers like Lake Zurich.

 

The pilot comes as Amazon, Google and Uber have also been investing in drone delivery research.

Greece: 25 Migrants Rescued, 1 Child Dies in Boat Accident

More than 20 migrants or refugees were rescued and one child died Thursday on a Greek island after the boat they set sail in overnight from the nearby Turkish coast either capsized or sank, Greek authorities said.

A vessel from the European border agency Frontex patrolling the area initially picked up six people – one man, two women and three children – it spotted in the sea off the small southeastern island of Kastellorizo in the early hours of Thursday, the Greek coast guard said. The six were transported to land immediately because one of the children, a 9-year-old girl, needed medical attention, but she later died, the coast guard said. Another four of the survivors were hospitalized.

Greek authorities launched a search operation with patrol boats and a helicopter, and crews later found and rescued another 20 people – five children, two women and 13 men – who had managed to swim to a rocky coast on the island. One of the group was also hospitalized.

It was unclear what type of vessel the migrants had used and whether it sank or capsized. The coast guard said all on board had been accounted for and there were no missing people reported. Those injured were being transported to a hospital on the island of Rhodes.

Greece was the preferred route for refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in their homelands to seek access into the European Union until last year, when an EU-Turkey deal drastically reduced the number of people heading to Greek islands from the Turkish coast.

Despite the deal and the overcrowded conditions in the camps on the Greek islands, hundreds still make the journey every week, using often unseaworthy and overcrowded inflatable dinghies or small wooden boats.

Moldovan Official Says Joining EU is Key Priority

A top Moldovan official says its parliament plans to amend the constitution to explicitly state that joining the European Union is a key goal for the ex-Soviet republic.

 

Moldova, located between Ukraine and Romania, has been divided between moving closer to the EU and returning to the Russian orbit.

 

Parliament speaker Andrian Candu acknowledged that Moldovans lost confidence in pro-European politicians after some of them were accused of involvement in the looting of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014. But he says trust is slowly being restored with a series of anti-corruption measures.

 

The ruling Democratic Party says changing the constitution will clarify Moldova’s future regardless of election results and other developments.

 

Many Moldovans favor closer relations with Russia. Pro-Russian President Igor Dodon was elected last year.

 

 

 

Catalan Official Calls for EU Support Ahead of Referendum

Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief has appealed for support from the European Union before a disputed referendum calling for independence from Spain.

 

Raul Romeva, speaking to journalists Thursday in Brussels, said that EU institutions need to “understand that this is a big issue.” Romeva spoke a day after Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont accused the EU, in an interview with The Associated Press , of “turning its back” on Catalonia in its conflict with Spain’s central government.

 

Romeva accused the Spanish government of a “brutal crackdown” on Catalan officials to try to prevent Sunday’s referendum, which Spain considers to be illegal, and that it’s “generated an unprecedented level of shock.”

 

He said that he doesn’t expect violence, because “it’s not in the Catalan DNA to use violence to solve political problems.”