Merkel, Rival Meet German President Amid Government Impasse

Germany’s president brought together Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, on Thursday night with the aim of breaking the impasse over the formation of a new government.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the party leaders together after talks between Merkel’s conservative bloc and two smaller parties to form a previously untried coalition collapsed.

Schulz, Merkel and her Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer agreed to meet at Germany’s presidential palace to explore the possibility of forming a so-called grand coalition like the one that makes up the outgoing government.

Schultz had initially refused to consider another “grand coalition” with Merkel after a disastrous showing of the Social Democrats in the election on Sept. 24, saying the Social Democrats needed to go into opposition. But he reversed course after Steinmeier’s appeal, and said his party is now open to holding exploratory talks.

Merkel this week said she hoped to talk with the Social Democrats “in a serious, engaged, honest way and obviously with the intention of success.”

Schulz sounded more skeptical, however, saying the talks hosted by Steinmeier would be about “if and in which form” they would continue discussions and “if it even makes sense to continue to talk with one another.”

He added that his party members would have to have a final say over any agreement.

Even if the two sides do agree to continue, they’ll first have to negotiate the prerequisites for coalition talks, then carry out the coalition talks themselves, meaning it will likely be several months before a new government is formed.

If Merkel can’t put together a coalition, the only options would be a minority government or a new election.

Meanwhile, she continues to head a caretaker government made up of her conservatives and the Social Democrats.

Italy’s Berlusconi Faces New Trial Ahead of 2018 Election

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been ordered to stand trial on charges that he bribed a witness to give false testimony at a trial four years ago where he eventually was acquitted of paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

The trial for the 81-year-old, four-time premier is set for February in the Tuscan city of Siena, not long before Berlusconi is set to try to reclaim control of the Italian government in new elections.

Berlusconi, leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, is accused of paying a piano player at his wild Bunga Bunga parties to lie at his trial about Berlusconi’s involvement with the prostitute, Karima El Mahroug, a 17-year-old Moroccan-born belly dancer who called herself Ruby the Heart Stealer.

Berlusconi has denied all charges in the case and maintained that the parties at his home near Milan were nothing more than elegant dinner parties.

He was originally convicted of paying to have sex with a minor and handed a seven-year prison sentence. But the verdict was overturned by an appellate court in 2014, which said there was no proof that Berlusconi knew the prostitute’s age.

Neglect, Corruption Left Puerto Rico’s Power Grid Ripe for Failure, Observers Say

Individuals long familiar with the inner workings of Puerto Rico’s publicly owned power authority say it should come as no surprise that the island was left entirely without electric power by Hurricane Maria or that, more than two months later, more than half its residents are still without electricity.

The late September storm hit the U.S. territory with unprecedented strength, leveling buildings and even whole forests with winds in excess of 250 kilometers per hour (155 mph). But former and current officials of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) say a decades-long culture of neglect and corruption had left the system unnecessarily vulnerable to Maria.

Long before Maria, signs of the power grid’s delicate state were everywhere. During Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and George in 1998, Puerto Ricans were left without power for up to three weeks, especially in remote areas. On September 21, 2016 — a year to the day before Maria left the island — a fire in PREPA’s southern Aguirre plant caused an island-wide blackout for six days.

Former senior PREPA executives and other analysts pointed to several long-standing problems that contributed to the system’s collapse and painfully slow recovery:

● The vast majority of power lines in Puerto Rico are suspended on reinforced concrete poles designed to withstand winds of between 225 and 240 kph, meaning they should have held up through most of Maria’s blast. But, according to former PREPA Executive Director Josue Colon, cable and telecommunications companies have been allowed to string their own fiber-optic cables on the poles, reducing their wind load capacity by an average of 80 kph.

Existing law requires these companies to coordinate with PREPA, but all too often, Colon said, they “just do what they want” without proper oversight or regulation.

● Generating units in Puerto Rico’s petroleum-based electrical system date back, on average, 45 years, compared with the U.S. national average of 18 years. When asked, in an interview with local media in 2015, to assess the condition of PREPA’s physical assets, a representative of a New York-based consulting firm said they were the worst of any corporation she had previously seen or worked with.

● Once the storm hit, the local government was slow in activating its energy restoration plan. The U.S. company initially hired to repair the grid, Whitefish Energy Holdings, wasn’t contracted until six days after Maria, and its crews did not begin arriving on the island until October 2 — 12 days after the power was knocked out. Florida, in contrast, had mobilized thousands of crews from around the country to begin work the day after Hurricane Irma subsided that same month.

PREPA’s executive director is required by law to report by May 31 each year on steps that have been taken to prepare for hurricanes or “other atmospheric disturbances.” That plan should include details of companies that have been contracted to initiate repairs in the case of a storm.

However Senator Carmelo Rios, majority speaker in the Puerto Rico legislature, said in a radio interview this month that this year’s report was not filed until August 30 — less than three weeks before Maria struck — and that it falsely claimed the utility was fully prepared to deal with any contingency. Neither the governor’s office nor that of PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos responded to VOA’s requests for comment.

● An individual with personal knowledge of PREPA’s workings, who declined to be identified while talking about company-employee relations, described systemic corruption that has allowed critical equipment to deteriorate while highly paid and underperforming employees are protected.

Reports that date back over 25 years, prepared by engineers charged with overseeing the corporation’s operations, show that PREPA employees on average perform only two hours of useful work per day. Yet a menial custodial position can pay upward of $90,000 a year with generous benefits.

UTIER, the union representing PREPA employees, has also negotiated severe restrictions on what employees can be asked to do, creating inefficiencies. Drivers, for instance, cannot help with any other work, even if that means they must wait and watch while others work.

UTIER did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VOA.

Changes in governing board

Inconsistent PREPA leadership has compounded other problems, with a new territorial administration appointing a new PREPA governing board every four years since 2000. This has affected PREPA’s ability to design, implement and execute a long-term strategic plan to solve its fiscal problems and prepare for emergencies.

The same type of problems that contributed to the island-wide blackout now threaten to plague the recovery effort.

Numerous local officials and environmental activists have argued strongly in favor of replacing the destroyed infrastructure with a decentralized electric grid, developing hundreds if not thousands of microgrids that can provide power to smaller sectors closer to where the power is being generated.

However, Colon points out that a network of seven such grids was already established across Puerto Rico as an emergency backup, but it was inoperable after Maria because of a lack of maintenance. He blames this on draconian austerity measures implemented by Alix Partners, the New York consulting firm brought in three years ago as PREPA neared insolvency.

VOA reached out to Alix Partners for comment by email, Facebook and Twitter but did not receive a reply.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that power in Puerto Rico may not be fully restored until March. Governor Ricardo Rossello, however, has publicly stated his goal of restoring power to 90 percent of the island before Christmas.

In reality, when power will be fully restored in the U.S territory is anybody’s guess.

Relatives of Argentina Sub Crew Want Probe of Disappearance

Some relatives of crew members on a missing Argentine submarine are asking to be plaintiffs in a judicial investigation of the disappearance, saying they want to ensure the case is fully studied.

Luis Tagliapietra said Thursday that he joined the case because he believes the navy has withheld information and lied to the families of crew members such as his son. He said seven other families have asked to join as plaintiffs.

 

The group wants judicial authorities to safeguard any evidence related to the voyage of the ARA San Juan, which hasn’t been seen or heard from since Nov. 15 despite an intensive multinational search in the South Atlantic. Hope for survivors has faded because experts say the 44 sailors had only enough oxygen to last up to 10 days if the sub remained submerged and undamaged.

“Until a bolt from the submarine appears, they could be anywhere, in any situation,” said Tagliapietra, the father of 27-year-old crewman Alejandro Tagliapietra.

 

“Of course, the days pass by and the anguish, fear and desperation rise. But in a way, I’m channeling all of this with this struggle, so that no matter what, we can find out the truth.”

The navy has said the vessel’s captain reported that water entered the snorkel and caused one of the submarine’s batteries to short circuit. The captain later communicated by satellite phone that the problem had been contained, the navy says.

Some hours later, an explosion was detected near the time and place where the San Juan was last heard from. A navy spokesman said this week that the blast could have been triggered by a “concentration of hydrogen” caused by the battery problem reported by the captain.

Tagliapietra criticized the navy’s response and its release of information. He noted that for days, officials spoke about a communication problem and didn’t acknowledge the battery problem until after it was leaked to news media.

 

He said that when he found out about the explosion from his son’s direct superior, he was told there was a possibility no one survived.

“I asked if they were all dead, and he said: ‘Yes,’” Tagliapietra said.

The San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric TR-1700 class submarine, was commissioned in the 1980s and was most recently refitted in 2014. Some family members have also denounced the age and condition of the vessel. President Mauricio Macri has promised a full investigation.

German Jobless Rate Hits Best Figure Since 1990 Reunification

Germany, Europe’s most robust economy, said Thursday that its unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in November, the lowest figure since West and East Germany were unified in 1990.

Even as Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Berlin politicians struggle to form a coalition government, the German economy remains strong, with a months-long dip in the country’s jobless rate and solid demand for German products from other countries.

The German report came as Eurostat, the statistics agency for the European Union, said the jobless rate for the 19-nation eurozone bloc that uses the euro currency dropped to 8.8 percent in October. It was the lowest figure since January 2009, when Europe and countries across the world were in the midst of a steep recession.

The German and European jobless rates trail those in the United States, the world’s largest economy, where unemployment has dropped to 4.1 percent, a 17-year low. But the U.S. and European numbers point to steady improvement that had been slow to emerge after the devastating job losses and high unemployment seven to nine years ago.

Eurostat said more than 14 million people remained out of work, but that was 1.5 million fewer than a year ago. In Spain, the jobless rate has been cut from about 25 percent to 16.7 percent.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said that while wages still are not increasing much, they could rise in the coming months as the continent’s economy continues to rebound.

Patrick Chovanex, chief strategist at New York-based Silvercrest Asset Management, told VOA the U.S. is in the eighth year of its recovery.

“It’s a recovery that has kind of waxed and waned,” he said. “One of the things that has been happening over the past couple years is that different parts of the economy were waxing and waning out of sequence with one another. So housing would be strong while manufacturing would be weak, and then vice versa. Every so often they happen to coincide.

“Right now we’re seeing a pattern of several elements of the economy being strong at once. Hopefully, that will continue.”

AU: Between 400,000 and 700,000 African Migrants in Libya

Between 400,000 and 700,000 African migrants are living in camps in Libya, often under “inhuman” conditions, the chairman of the African Union Commission said Thursday at the close of a summit of European and African leaders.

Moussa Faki Mahamat stressed the urgency of removing the thousands of migrants, including women and children, from the camps as he addressed the summit where migration was a top issue after recent footage of a migrant slave auction in Libya drew global horror and condemnation.

At least 3,800 migrants in one camp in Tripoli need to be removed as soon as possible, Mahamat said. Most of them come from West Africa.

“That’s just one camp,” he said. “The Libyan government has told us there are 42,” and some contain an even larger number of migrants.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 423,000 migrants had been identified in the chaotic North African country as of last month. The majority are men from impoverished countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

In a communique Thursday, the European and African leaders agreed to “accelerate exponentially” efforts to repatriate the migrants and vowed to combat the crimes committed against them.

The leaders also pledged to do more to help the migrants stranded in squalid detention centers in Libya, the main jumping-off point for desperate people setting out in unseaworthy boats in search of better lives in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron said leaders from EU and African countries, including Libya, and the United Nations were discussing going after human traffickers with “concrete, military and police actions on the ground to trace back these networks.”

“These smugglers are deeply linked to many terrorist networks and feed, sometimes finance, sometimes are the same as those who make war with us and who kill people every day in much of northern Africa,” Macron told French broadcasters France 24 and RFI.

Some African nations are working to bring their citizens home.

 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday that all Nigerians stranded in Libya and other parts of the world will be brought home and “rehabilitated,” calling it appalling that “some Nigerians were being sold like goats for few dollars in Libya.”

Nigeria’s government said on Twitter that 242 Nigerian migrants returned home from Libya on Tuesday and that more than 4,000 stranded there have “safely retuned home” this year.

Ivory Coast’s government in the past week repatriated 316 citizens stranded in Libya.

Europe has struggled to slow the flow of tens of thousands of Africans making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. European countries are trying to discourage the stream of migrants with development aid and other means, including funds to tighten border controls. But many Africans feel pressured to make the journey, risking death and abuse, saying high unemployment and climate change leave them little choice.

At least 3,000 drown or go missing annually in attempts to cross the Mediterranean, but with Africa’s population forecast to rise significantly in coming decades many more are likely to take the risk.

To focus efforts, the EU, the African Union and the United Nations also announced that they would set up a special task force to help protect migrants, notably those detained in conflict-torn Libya.

 

Details of its work must be fleshed out, but the main aim is to “save and protect lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya.”

The task force, which will work closely with Libyan authorities, will also try to speed up the process of returning willing migrants to their home countries and finding new homes for those fleeing violence or conflict and who need international protection.

Associated Press writer Lorne Cook contributed.

Venezuela Arrests 2 Top Former Oil Officials

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor says two former top oil bosses have been arrested as part of a widespread crackdown on corruption.

Attorney-General Tarek Saab said former Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino and Nelson Martinez, former president of state oil company PDVSA, were arrested early Thursday. Both had been removed from their positions Sunday by President Nicolas Maduro in a Cabinet shakeup.

Last week, Venezuelan authorities arrested the acting president of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA, along with five other senior executives, for alleged corruption.

Members of the Venezuelan opposition argue that recent investigations do not demonstrate a genuine intention of the government to eradicate corruption, but only reflect internal struggles of PDVSA.

Venezuela is one of OPEC’s top producers, but figures show the country’s production has fallen, reaching a 28-year low in October.  Analysts say PDVSA has not been able to come up with the money to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure. Critics say mismanagement and corruption are to blame.

Tensions Rise as Vote Count in Honduras Drags on

Protests were growing in Honduras as incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez emerged with a slim lead Thursday for re-election following a reported computer glitch that shut down vote counting for several hours.

Challenger Salvador Nasralla has alleged fraud and said he won’t respect the official results. He’s watched an initial five-point lead diminish in recent days as official results have trickled out.

By early Thursday, Hernandez was ahead by about 22,000 votes, with about 88 percent of Sunday’s votes processed. He had 42.4 percent of the vote to Nasralla’s 41.7 percent.

Opposition supporters protested through the night outside the electoral court’s facilities, setting up some highway roadblocks and lighting fires in the streets. Police responded with tear gas as calls to maintain calm were increasingly unheeded.

Nasralla via Twitter asked his supporters to continue to protest peacefully and not be provoked into violence.

Court president David Matamoros said complete results will be available Thursday afternoon.

Both candidates have declared themselves the winner. Late Wednesday, Nasralla disavowed an agreement he and Hernandez had signed with the Organization of American States to respect the official results.

“I signed that document before the electoral court’s computing center went down, and that was a trap,” Nasralla said at a news conference. “The agreement with the OAS was to respect trustworthy results without alterations … and the court has altered the documents in the last two days. That is unacceptable.”

Hernandez said he would respect the result and called for calm while the final votes were counted.

Matamoros said the computer problem was resolved and did not affect the vote.

More Than Half the World’s Population Lacks Social Protection

The International Labor Organization says a majority of the world’s population, four billion people, have no social protection, leaving them mired in an endless cycle of poverty. 

The report says 45 percent of the global population is covered by at least one social benefit.  But that leaves 55 percent without any social protection, a situation ILO Director General Guy Ryder calls unacceptable.

“That means that they do not receive any child benefit, any maternity benefit, any unemployment protection, any disability benefit, any old age pension and that they do not actively contribute to social security systems,” Ryder said.

The consequences are severe and tangible.  The report finds the lack of social protection leaves people vulnerable to illness, poverty, inequality and social exclusion.  The ILO regards the situation as a significant obstacle to economic growth and social development.

Ryder tells VOA governments would benefit from considering social protection as an investment in their populations.

“Social protection is a human right and we should be pursuing it because it is a human right,” Ryder said. “But, also, I think there is a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that when social protection systems are in place and where they function well and one can think of the whole cycle of protection from kids right through to old age, then you reap economic benefits from it.” 

The report says the lack of social protection is most acute in Africa, Asia, and the Arab States.  It recommends those regions increase their public expenditure to at least guarantee basic social security coverage to all their people.

British Fury as Trump Retweets Extreme Right Group’s Videos

British lawmakers have reacted with anger after U.S. President Donald Trump retweeted videos posted by an extreme right-wing anti-Muslim group. The tweets, originally posted by the deputy leader of the group Britain First, appear to show acts of violence carried out by Muslims, although doubt has been cast on the reliability of at least one of the videos. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.