Mexico Economy Minister Calls US NAFTA Autos Proposal ‘Not Viable’

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Wednesday that Trump administration demands for a U.S.-specific automotive content requirement in NAFTA were “not viable,” and he declined to specify when Mexico would formally respond.

At a news conference following a series of meetings with senior U.S. trade officials and lawmakers in Washington, Guajardo said that Mexico was still trying to understand the U.S. proposals that would require 50 percent of vehicles’ value content to be produced in the United States as part of updated North American Free Trade Agreement rules.

“I was clear that the domestic content [requirement] is something that is not viable at this point,” Guajardo said.

He added that Mexico would eventually make a counterproposal on automotive rules of origin, but declined to specify the timing of that response.

His visit was partly aimed at bolstering support in Congress for NAFTA at a time when tax legislation is consuming lawmakers’ attention and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is growing frustrated with the slow pace of NAFTA talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the trade agreement if it cannot be renegotiated to shrink U.S. trade deficits and return manufacturing jobs to the United States.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said after meeting with Guajardo earlier  Wednesday that congressional Republicans “are determined” to strengthen trade ties with Mexico.

“I expect the administration will continue to work with us to modernize NAFTA and bolster our robust relationship with such an important ally,” Ryan said in a statement.

US waiting on counterproposals

After the last NAFTA negotiating round ended last week, Lighthizer complained that Mexico and Canada had not offered counterproposals to its demands on autos and other major areas aimed at “rebalancing” the trade pact.

The United States also is seeking to lift the regional value content requirement for NAFTA-produced cars and trucks to 85 percent from 62.5 percent. Guajardo said that once Mexico has a firm understanding of the U.S. autos proposal, it can work with its own stakeholders to see what adjustments could be made to regional content for autos.

But he said that the U.S. demand to move to 85 percent regional content within three years was “entirely unrealistic.”

Guajardo said he discussed with Lighthizer on Tuesday how to move the talks toward consideration of potential “rebalancing” outcomes. But first, he said, Mexico needed to be clear with its American and Canadian counterparts about unacceptable proposals and its priorities for keeping the pact beneficial to all parties.

“We have to start a process of looking at what’s next after we complete the modernization effort,” he added.

On dispute settlement, Guajardo said that Mexico would be willing to consider some adjustments to the investor-state dispute settlement system, after the United States proposed making the use of such arbitration panels optional.

“We can explore the opt-in, as long as we can define our own opt-in,” Guajardo said of the dispute settlement proposal, adding that otherwise, Mexico is “not interested.”

At a more limited round of NAFTA talks in mid-December in Washington, Guajardo said it would be important to agree on key issues in order to close some NAFTA chapters, such as those on food safety, telecommunications, regulatory practices and digital commerce.

France’s Macron to Give Saudi Arabia Extremist List

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he would draw up a list of extremist organizations to convey to Saudi Arabia after its crown prince pledged to cut their funding.

Saudi Arabia finances groups overseen by the Mecca-based Muslim World League, which for decades was charged with spreading the strict Wahhabi school of Islam around the world.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to modernize the kingdom and cleave to a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam.

“He never did it publicly, but when I went to Riyadh (this  month), he made a commitment, such that we could give him a list and he would cut the financing,” Macron said during an interview with France 24 television.

“I believe him, but I will follow up. Trust is built on results,” Macron added.

The crown prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive next year.

The head of the Muslim World League told Reuters last week that his focus now was aimed at annihilating extremist ideology.

“We must wipe out this extremist thinking through the work we do. We need to annihilate religious severity and extremism which is the entry point to terrorism,” Mohammed al-Issa said in an interview.

Macron, speaking from Abidjan, said he had also sought commitments to cut financing of extremist groups from Qatar, Iran and Turkey.

The French leader will make a quick trip to Doha on Dec. 7, where he will discuss regional ties and could sign military and transport deals, including the sale of 12 more Rafale fighter jets.

Qatar has improved its ties with Iran since Saudi Arabia and other Arab states boycotted it over alleged ties to Islamist groups and its relations with Tehran.

Macron said he still intended to travel to Iran next year, but wanted to ensure there was a discussion and strategic accord over its ballistic missile program and its destabilization activities in several regional countries.

 

Facebook Suspends Ability to Target Ads by Excluding Racial Groups

Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday it was temporarily disabling the ability of advertisers on its social network to exclude racial groups from the intended audience of ads while it studies how the feature could be used to discriminate.

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told African-American U.S. lawmakers in a letter that the company was determined to do better after a news report said Facebook had failed to block discriminatory ads.

The U.S.-based news organization ProPublica reported last week that, as part of an investigation, it had purchased discriminatory housing ads on Facebook and slipped them past the company’s review process, despite claims by Facebook months earlier that it was able to detect and block such ads.

“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Sandberg wrote in the letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to a copy posted online by ProPublica.

It is unlawful under U.S. law to publish certain types of ads if they indicate a preference based on race, religion, sex or certain classifications.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 2.1 billion users and $36 billion in annual revenue, has been on the defensive for its advertising practices.

In September, it disclosed the existence of Russia-linked ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The same month it turned off a tool, also reported by ProPublica, that had inadvertently let advertisers target based on people’s self-reported jobs, even if the job was “Jew hater.”

Sandberg said in the letter that advertisers who use Facebook’s targeting options to include certain races for ads about housing, employment or credit will have to certify to Facebook that they are complying with Facebook’s anti-discrimination policy and with applicable law.

Sandberg defended race- and culture-based marketing in general, saying it was a common and legitimate practice in the ad industry to try to reach specific communities.

U.S. Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Facebook’s action was appropriate.

“When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed,” Kelly, a Democrat, said in a statement. “When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated. Thankfully, we’ve been able to establish a constructive pipeline of communication that’s resulted in a positive step forward.”

Opposition Leader to Become Iceland’s Prime Minister

Iceland’s opposition leader Katrin Jakobsdóttir will become the country’s new prime minister, after her Left-Green Movement on Wednesday agreed to form a coalition government, state broadcaster RUV reported.

Her party, which emerged as the second biggest party in snap parliamentary elections Oct. 28, entered coalition talks with the Independence Party, the main partner in the current government coalition, and the Progressive Party two weeks ago.

Current Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson of the right-wing Independence Party called the snap election in September, after less than a year in government, as a scandal involving his father prompted a government ally to drop out of his ruling coalition.

Economic rebound

The Nordic island of 340,000 people, one of the countries hit hardest by the 2008 financial crisis, has staged a remarkable economic rebound spurred by a tourism boom.

The formation of a broad coalition government could bring an end to political instability triggered by a string of scandals.

The previous snap election took place late in 2016, after the Panama Papers revelations showed several government figures involved in an offshore tax haven scandal.

Coalition criticized

Still, some Left-Green members and voters have criticized the party’s plan to enter a coalition with Benediktsson and his Independence Party.

Two of Left-Green’s mandates did not support the new coalition, giving the three parties a total of 33 of parliament’s 63 seats.

Jakobsdóttir, 41, campaigned on a platform of restoring trust in government and leveraging an economic boom to increase public spending.

She failed to form a left-leaning government earlier this month, but said on election night she was open to forming a broad-based government.

While both the Left-Greens and the Independence Party parties agree that investment is needed in areas like welfare, infrastructure and tourism, they disagree over how it should be financed.

The Left-Greens want to finance spending by raising taxes on the wealthy, real estate and the powerful fishing industry, while the Independence Party has said it wants to fund infrastructure spending by taking money out of the banking sector.

Benediktsson will become finance minister in the new government.

Search for Argentine Sub Narrows to Area of Explosion

The international effort to find a missing Argentine submarine has come up empty after scouring more than two-thirds of the search area, the navy spokesman said Wednesday.

The final contact with the ARA San Juan, which had 44 crew members aboard, was Nov. 15.

Two weeks later, the search is focused on a patch of the South Atlantic about 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) around the point of the explosion that likely doomed the vessel, as well as calculations based on the sub’s direction and speed, Argentina’s navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters.

Aircraft and ships from 18 countries looking for the submarine have covered 68 percent of the search area, Balbi said.

The search is taking place about 450 kilometers (279 miles) off Argentina’s southern coast, in an area where the depth of the ocean floor varies between 200 and 1,000 meters.

Balbi said it was hard to tell when the ships and planes will have covered all of the search area. 

“It depends on the weather,” he said. “It is a slow sweep.”

Weather conditions will be favorable Wednesday and Thursday, Balbi said, adding that at least eight ships are operating in the search area.

In their last message, the submarine crew reported an electrical short-circuit caused by sea water, which had started a fire, an Argentine TV channel reported Monday.

The submarine said sea water had entered the ventilation system, causing a battery on the diesel-electric vessel to short-circuit and start a fire, according to the text of the message, which was reported by the A24 television channel.

Russian Network RT Loses US Capitol Hill Credentials

Broadcast reporters for Russian state-funded TV channel RT will no longer be able to report daily from the U.S. Capitol.

A committee that governs Capitol Hill access for broadcast journalists has withdrawn credentials for RT after the company complied earlier this month with a U.S. demand that it register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law applies to people or companies disseminating information in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments, political parties and other “foreign principals.”

The action also comes just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation allowing Russia to register international media outlets as foreign agents, an act seen as the Kremlin’s retaliation for the Trump administration decision on RT. The new rules require disclosures to the Russian government and are seen as stigmatizing the news outlets as promoters of American propaganda.

 

In Washington, C-SPAN’s Craig Caplan informed RT that its credentials were being withdrawn after a unanimous vote of the executive committee of the Congressional Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries.

Caplan, the chairman of that committee, wrote that gallery rules “state clearly that news credentials may not be issued to any applicant employed by ‘any foreign government or representative thereof.’ ” He said the FARA registration made the network ineligible to hold news credentials, and their withdrawal is effective immediately.

Many news outlets with ties to foreign governments are required to similarly register. English-language newspaper China Daily is registered due to its affiliation with the Chinese government, for example. But the pressure on RT has angered Russian officials, who have said they will retaliate with restrictions on U.S. news outlets.

The letter was sent to Mikhail Solodovnikov of RT’s U.S.-based production company, T & R Productions. RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged RT served as a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin as part of a multi-pronged effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia denies interfering.

 

VP: Venezuela’s Maduro to Seek 2nd Term in 2018

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro — who is battling a crippling economic crisis in his oil-rich, cash-poor nation — will seek re-election next year, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Wednesday.

In 2018, “we will have, God willing, people willing, the re-election of our brother Nicolas Maduro as president of the republic,” El Aissami told a meeting of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Next year’s presidential election in the South American country — a member of OPEC — is scheduled for December, but some experts believe it could be brought forward to March.

Venezuela’s prolonged crisis has resulted in crippling shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs, fueling inflation which at 1,000 percent is the world’s highest.

Ratings agencies have found the country in partial default on massive international loans, estimated at $150 billion.

Maduro is also under fire internationally for marginalizing the opposition and stifling independent media.

Earlier this year 125 people were killed in several months of violent protests against his rule.

The announcement was criticized by opposition leaders, who blame Maduro for the crisis.

“If Maduro wants the economic crisis resolved in 2018, all he has to do is leave and allow Venezuela to choose an honest and efficient government,” opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup wrote on Twitter.

Maduro was elected in 2013 after the death of then-president Hugo Chavez, who had anointed him as successor.

Analysts see the early declaration of intent as a move to dissuade challengers inside the ruling party who may be encouraged to run by the president’s low popularity rating of around 20 percent.

“There was an internal race between aspirants and this can be a way of putting down a marker and get ahead,” said political analyst Luis Salamanca.

Even if challengers emerge, a Socialist Party primary is unlikely. “It will be resolved internally,” said Salamanca.

Maduro’s government is due to begin talks with the main opposition coalition on Friday and Saturday in the Dominican Republic to try to put an end to the political crisis.

“The government isn’t sitting at the table because of political pressure, but because of economic pressure, because it has a brutal crisis and international sanctions that reduce its leeway,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

‘Widespread vicious abuses’

El Aissami’s announcement coincided with the release of a Human Rights Watch report that denounced “widespread vicious abuses,” including torture, against Maduro’s opponents.

The abuses include “egregious cases of torture, and the absolute impunity for the attackers,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at the rights monitoring group.

The report, produced jointly with the Venezuelan rights group Penal Forum, is based on interviews with more than 120 people, including victims and their families.

“These are not isolated abuses or occasional excesses by rogue officers but rather a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces,” Vivanco said, suggesting “government responsibility at the highest levels.”

The report documents 88 cases involving at least 314 people between April and September 2017.

“Security force personnel beat detainees severely and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault, and other brutal techniques,” the report said.

They also used “disproportionate force and carried out violent abuses” against people in the streets, as well as arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting government opponents, it added.

“Revolutionary victory”

Maduro’s re-election would be a response to the “coup” of the opposition and the “financial persecution and sanctions” of the United States, El Aissami told the Socialist Party members.

“We are ready to achieve a great revolutionary victory,” he said to applause.

The vice president pointed out that a second term for Maduro would round off a string of victories for the Socialist party.

In late July, a Constituent Assembly stacked with Maduro supporters was elected to take the place of the opposition-dominated National Assembly.

In regional elections in October, the ruling party won governorships in 18 of the country’s 23 states.

El Aissami predicted the ruling party would win “the vast majority” of open mayorships in upcoming municipal elections next month.

Snapchat Seeks to Attract More Users by Redesigning App

Snapchat is separating what friends share and what media organizations publish in an attempt to appeal to a broader range of users.

The photo messaging app has not been gaining enough users, especially beyond its core of younger people. Parent company Snap Inc.’s stock is down sharply since its initial public offering earlier this year.

Users will now see two separate feeds — one from friends and one from publishers and non-friend accounts they follow. Before, Snapchat was mixing those posts, much the way Twitter, Facebook and other rivals continue to do. Snap hinted at changes three weeks ago, but didn’t provide details then.

CEO Evan Spiegel took a jab at rivals, writing that social media “fueled ‘fake news’” because of this content mixing.

 

US, Britain, France Accused of Snubbing Anti-nuclear Nobel Prize

The anti-nuclear group which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize accused the United States, Britain and France on Wednesday of snubbing its disarmament work by

planning to send only second-rank diplomats to the award ceremony next month.

“It’s some kind of protest against the Nobel Peace Prize,” Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), told Reuters of a plan by the three nations to send only deputy chiefs of mission.

“They like their nuclear weapons very much and don’t like it when we try to ban them,” she said, accusing the three of wrongly opposing ICAN’s work “when North Korea and the United States are exchanging threats to use nuclear weapons”.

The annual December 10 Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo, attended by King Harald and Queen Sonja, is the highlight of the diplomatic calendar in Norway. The prize comprises a diploma, a gold medal and a check for $1.1 million.

Olav Njoelstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, confirmed the three nations would send only deputies. He said the awards committee always preferred to see chiefs of mission.

“That being said, we are neither surprised nor offended by the fact that sometime foreign governments prefer to stay away from the ceremony in protest or, as in this case, because they prefer to be represented by their deputy chiefs of mission,” he told Reuters.

“The Nobel Peace Prize is, after all, a political prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee takes notice of the joint decision of the British, French and U.S. embassies,” he said.

The British embassy confirmed it was sending a deputy ambassador and said in a statement “the U.K. is committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. We share this goal with our partners across the international community including U.S. and France.”

The U.S. and French embassies were not immediately available for comment. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Braithwaite to the post of ambassador in Oslo, currently held by an acting ambassador.

ICAN, a coalition of grassroots non-government organizations in more than 100 nations, campaigned successfully for a U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by 122 nations in July this year.

But the agreement is not signed by – and would not apply to – any of the states that already have nuclear arms, which include the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Israel neither confirms nor denies the widespread assumption that it controls the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.

It was not clear whether other nuclear powers would send Oslo ambassadors to the Nobel ceremony.

The absence of ambassadors from the United States, Britain and France “is disappointing but at the same time we are focused on getting a majority of states in the world to join this treaty,” Fihn said.

She said the three nuclear states were exerting pressure on other nations “not to engage in this treaty.”

 

With Deforestation Rising, Colombia Businesses Join Fight to End Destruction

Colombia’s palm oil industry and big businesses have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains as the country battles to reverse the growing destruction of its tropical rainforests.

The commitment signed this week makes Colombia the first country in the world to launch its own chapter of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global effort by governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations.

The TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance aims to help businesses shift to deforestation-free supply chains by sharing best practices, monitoring forest clearance and training small farmers in sustainable agricultural methods.

It also aims to promote development of certified sustainable products from beef to palm oil for consumers to buy in local supermarkets.

Rainforests in Colombia, Latin America’s largest palm oil producer, are coming under increasing pressure, and deforestation is rampant.

Deforestation in the country’s Amazon region rose 23 percent and across the country rose by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016, said Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s environment minister.

Norway is one of four main donor countries, along with the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, backing the TFA 2020, an initiative hosted by the World Economic Forum.

“These numbers have been higher than what we expected and that’s why it is important to intensify efforts,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Getting the private sector to commit to deforestation-free supply chains is a “critical part of the puzzle” to protect forests, he said.

First such cooperation

“This is the first time in Colombia we see the government and the private sector joining forces like this,” he said.

“My hope and belief is that this partnership will find ways of ensuring that it is not only an agreement on paper but something that will happen in practical terms.”

Protecting forests helps cut carbon emissions, a key driver of climate change. When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.

Colombia is home to a swath of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined and has declared a goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.

Its rainforests have been increasingly threatened since a 2016 peace deal to end its decades-long civil war opened up former conflict areas to business, agriculture and development, Helgesen said.

Trees also are being cleared for cattle ranching, illegal mining and growing coca — the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Signing up with the Alliance are about 25 palm oil producers and buyers, Colombia’s Federation of Oil Palm Growers and Alqueria S.A., its third-largest dairy company. Also signing up are retail giant Grupo Exito and international companies operating in Colombia such as consumer goods company Unilever.

“The launch of the TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance is important as a strengthening mechanism for joint action in Colombia to reach our deforestation goals,” said Mariana Villamizar, a spokeswoman for Grupo Exito.

Producers and buyers from the beef, dairy and timber sectors are expected to join the partnership soon.

Each company will set targets to achieve zero deforestation across their often complex supply chains, and the government and NGOs will help monitor deforestation.