US Slaps Tariffs on Steel, Aluminum from EU, Canada, Mexico  

The United States is escalating trans-Atlantic and North American trade tensions, imposing a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico beginning on Friday.

The U.S. also negotiated quotas or volume limits on other countries, such as South Korea, Argentina, Australia and Brazil, instead of tariffs, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also told reporters by telephone. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said such measures are necessary to protect American jobs and industries in key manufacturing sectors. 

“The president’s actions are about protecting American steel, American aluminum,” a White House spokesman, Raj Shah, said on Fox News. “They’re critical for national security.”

But the negative reaction from some of America’s most important strategic allies has been quick and fierce.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the tariffs “totally unacceptable” and vowed retaliation. 

“This decision is not only unlawful, but it is a mistake in many respects,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, warning that “economic nationalism leads to war.”

France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, who met Ross earlier on Thursday, said the U.S. shouldn’t see global trade like the Wild West or Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

‘Bad day for world trade’

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the U.S. move marked “a bad day for world trade,” announcing there is “no choice” but to proceed with a World Trade Organization dispute settlement case and additional duties on numerous U.S. imports.

The retaliatory tariffs from the Europeans are expected to target several billion dollars’ worth of American goods, including such iconic American products as Harley Davidson motorcycles and Levi’s jeans, as well as Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

Ross, in Paris, interviewed on CNBC after the announcement, brushed off the retaliation saying, “It’s a tiny, tiny fraction of 1 percent” of trade.

Ross, a banker known for restructuring failed companies prior to joining Trump’s Cabinet, also predicted America’s trading partners “will get over this in due course.”

“The United States is taking on the whole world in trade and it’s not going to go well,” predicted Simon Lester, trade policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

The action is also not popular with some members of Congress, including those from Trump’s own party, whose states are dependent on exports. 

“Imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on our most important trading partners is the wrong approach and represents an abuse of authority intended only for national security purposes,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican.

“You don’t treat allies the same way you treat opponents,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said on Twitter. “Blanket protectionism is a big part of why we had a Great Depression. ‘Make America Great Again’ shouldn’t mean ‘Make America 1929 Again.’ ”

Tennessee has three major auto assembly plants. Nebraska is a significant exporter of cattle, corn, soybeans and hogs. 

Mexico said, in response, it will penalize U.S. imports, including pork bellies, apples, grapes, cheeses and flat steel.

“There’s a reason why” the countries are carefully selecting which American products to target in response, said William Reinsch, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

“Most of bourbon is made in Kentucky, which is the state of the Senate majority leader. Harley Davidsons are made in Wisconsin, which is the state of the speaker of the House,” Reinsch told VOA News. “Usually when other countries retaliate, and the Chinese have done something similar, is they’re good at maximizing political pain by picking out products that are made in places where people are politically important.”

“Tariffs on steel and aluminum imports are a tax hike on Americans and will have damaging consequences for consumers, manufacturers and workers,” said Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate’s finance committee and is a longtime advocate of breaking down trade barriers. 

One side of equation 

Expected higher prices for U.S. consumers on some products is only one side of the equation, said Ross, who noted that steel and aluminum makers in the United States are adding employment and opening facilities as a result of the U.S. government action.

“You can create a few jobs, however, you’re going to lose more in the process,” as consuming industries will be placed at a disadvantage of paying more for raw materials compared to their foreign competitors, Lester told VOA News.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, is warning a trade war will also damage public trust in leaders. 

“First of all, those who will suffer most are the poorest, the less privileged people, those who actually rely on imported goods to have their living,” Lagarde said at a meeting in Canada of finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of Seven nations, adding that long-standing supply chains also would be disrupted.

NAFTA agreement less likely

Also Thursday, it appeared the U.S. tariffs made it less likely America, Mexico and Canada would reach an agreement on NAFTA.

Trudeau, who said he offered to meet personally with Trump to discuss the pact, said, “There was the broad lines of a decent win-win-win deal on the table.”

But the Canadian prime minister said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told him Tuesday that a precondition for meeting with Trump would be for Trudeau to agree to a five-year “sunset clause” on NAFTA. A sunset clause would allow any one of the three countries to exit the pact after five years. Trudeau said he refused.

Late Thursday, the White House said in a statement, “The United States has been taken advantage of for many decades on trade. Those days are over.”

The statement said a “message was conveyed” to Trudeau that the U.S. “will agree to a fair deal, or there will be no deal at all.”

Markets fall

Trump, in March, announced the United States would impose such tariffs, but he granted exemptions that expire Friday to the European Union and other U.S. allies.

The angst about global trade tensions helped send stock prices lower in the United States on Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 1 percent, while the broader S&P 500 was off nearly 0.7 percent.

Carol Castiel contributed to this report.

Mexico to Investigate Disappearances in Border City

Mexico is sending its national commissioner for missing persons to the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo after the U.N. said it documented the disappearance of 23 people there _ likely at the hands of a security force.

 

Mexico’ Attorney General’s Office also opened an investigation after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights asked about the situation.

The U.N. says there are strong indications a federal security force was responsible for the disappearances. Human rights advocates and victims’ families in Nuevo Laredo blame marines.

The government’s statement late Wednesday night said that its response to violence cannot come outside the law.

Jessica Molina says she had reported to the Attorney General’s Office that her husband was taken by marines in March, but there was no follow-up.

Russia Bewildered by Staging of Journalists Death in Ukraine

A Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russia is glad journalist Arkady Babchenko is alive, but that the faking of his death was “strange.”

The prominent Russian war correspondent and Kremlin critic had been reported to be shot dead in the stairwell of his Kyiv apartment on Tuesday. But Babchenko stunned reporters when he appeared alive and well Wednesday as Ukrainian security officials explained the death had been faked as part of a sting operation to save the reporter’s life.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday he did not know if the result of the case justified the actions taken, and that the situation does not change Russia’s view that Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists.

Reporters Without Borders condemned Babchenko’s faked death, saying it was “distressing and regrettable” for Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) to play with the truth.

“Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death,” said the group’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak stood alongside Babchenko at Wednesday’s television briefing as he recounted events leading up to the foiled assassination attempt.

Operation fake death

The operation began with a tip from an anonymous source who said an unidentified Ukrainian national had been inquiring about buying weapons for a contract assassination in Kyiv, which triggered the SBU probe. Officials said he had been asked to find and hire someone to carry out the contract killing.

During the negotiations, Hrytsak said, the man claimed Russia’s Secret Service had offered him $40,000 to organize and carry out the hit. He said the suspect was a former separatist fighter who had fought in eastern Ukraine.

SBU investigators then recruited Babchenko into the sting operation designed to catch Russian agents in the act of conducting an extrajudicial killing on foreign soil.

Investigators said the intermediary who had been tasked with hiring the gunman was in custody, and officials said they had additional hard evidence linking Russia’s secret service to the assassination plot, though they did yet want to unveil that evidence.

Babchenko apologizes

Addressing reporters, Babchenko told his family he was sorry for faking his own death.

 

“I’d like to apologize for everything you’ve had to go through,” he said. “I’ve been at the funeral of many friends and colleagues, and I know this nauseous feeling. Sorry for imposing this upon you, but there was no other way.

 

“Special apologies to my wife for the hell she’s been through these two days,” he added. “Olya, excuse me, please, but there was no other option.”

 

Police reports that followed initial reports of the shooting say it was Babchenko’s wife who discovered him lying in a pool of blood at the entry of their Kyiv apartment.

It is not clear whether his wife was involved in the sting.

“As far as I know, this operation was prepared for two months. A result of that was this special operation,” Babchenko told the briefing. “They saved my life. I want to say thanks. Larger terrorist attacks were prevented.”

Tuesday’s news of the shooting shocked the Ukrainian capital, prompting Kyiv and Moscow officials to blame each for the reporter’s death.

 

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman suggested Russia had orchestrated the killing, while Kremlin spokesman Peskov rejected that claim.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said after Babchenko’s reappearance Wednesday that Ukrainian officials had circulated a false story as “propaganda.”

Kyiv police and officials from Ukraine’s Interior Ministry had announced on Tuesday Babchenko had died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital after being shot in the back at his home in Kyiv, where he has lived in exile since August 2017.

News of the 41-year-old’s reported death had shocked colleagues and added to tension between Moscow and Kyiv, whose ties have been badly damaged by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and backing for separatist militants in a devastating war in eastern Ukraine.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service, with some reporting by AP and RFE

Nicaragua Protest Ends in Gunfire

A massive march in Nicaragua against President Daniel Ortega’s government ended in violence Wednesday after gunmen opened fire on marchers.

The gunshots sent thousands of demonstrators running for cover in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, and there were unconfirmed reports of about a dozen people wounded.

An Associated Press photographer saw one person with a wound to the head carried off in a stretcher with a sheet covering his upper body, apparently dead.

The gunfire appeared to come from government supporters near the end of the march, but demonstrators armed with improvised bottle-rocket launchers also opened fire in the skirmish.

Human rights observers say more than 80 people have been killed amid a harsh crackdown by government security forces and allied civilian groups on protests that began in April, along with nearly 900 wounded and over 400 arrested.

Calls for early elections

Earlier in the day, influential business leaders called for early elections to resolve weeks of deadly unrest.

Carlos Pellas Chamorro, the country’s most prominent businessman and believed to be the Central American nation’s first billionaire, said in an interview with La Prensa newspaper that the Ortega government’s political model is “worn out.” He called for the election of a new government through “a free and transparent process.”

“We must find an orderly solution, within the constitutional framework,” Pellas added, “which implies reforms that entail moving up the elections” that right now are set to take place in 2021.

Pellas urged the immediate resignation of the entire electoral council, which has been accused of manipulating things to allow Ortega to consolidate power during his last 11 years in office.

Ortega told a counter-demonstration that he wasn’t leaving.

Ortega most recently won re-election in November 2016, when opposition leaders had called for a boycott, alleged that the president had rigged things in his favor and accused him of dynastic ambitions for picking first lady Rosario Murillo as his vice presidential running mate.

Grupo Lafise Bancocentro, one of the largest conglomerates in Nicaragua, also called for the next presidential vote to be moved up.

“Let it be the will of the people through early elections that establishes justice, democracy and freedom in our country,” read the statement signed by the group’s president, Roberto Zamora.

​Protest expanded

Protests that began in April over now-scrapped social security changes have since expanded into a broader movement seeking Ortega’s exit.

Amnesty International issued a report this week accusing authorities of a strategy of repression characterized by the excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions, control of the media and the use of para-political groups to quash protests.

On Wednesday, which was Mothers’ Day in Nicaragua, mothers of the victims organized a protest march along main streets in the capital, Managua.

Talks sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church on ending the crisis were suspended indefinitely last week because of a lack of progress.

Pellas, whose fortune is estimated to be more than $1.1 billion, is president of Grupo Pellas and has interests in sugar, automobiles, liquor, banking, health care and media, among other sectors.

US Judge Dismisses Kaspersky Suits to Overturn Government Ban

A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday dismissed two lawsuits by Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab that sought to overturn bans on the use of the security software maker’s products in U.S. government networks.

The company said it would seek to appeal the decision, which leaves in place prohibitions included in a funding bill passed by Congress and an order from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The bans were issued last year in response to allegations by U.S. officials that the company’s software could enable Russian espionage and threaten national security.

“These actions were the product of unconstitutional agency and legislative processes and unfairly targeted the company without any meaningful fact finding,” Kaspersky said in a statement.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington said Kaspersky had failed to show that Congress violated constitutional prohibitions on legislation that “determines guilt and inflicts punishment” without the protections of a judicial trial.

She also dismissed the effort to overturn the DHS ban for lack of standing. Kaspersky Lab and its founder, Eugene Kaspersky, have repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said the company would not help any government with cyber espionage.

The company filed the lawsuits as part of a campaign to refute allegations that it was vulnerable to Kremlin influence, which had prompted the U.S. government bans on its products.

That effort includes plans to open a data center in Switzerland, where the company will analyze suspicious files uncovered on the computers of its tens of millions of customers in the United States and Europe.

Canada to Impose Sanctions on More Venezuelan Officials

Canada will impose targeted sanctions on 14 Venezuelan officials, adding to its previous moves to put pressure on President Nicolas Maduro’s government, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

The sanctions were in response to Venezuela’s “illegitimate and anti-democratic presidential elections,” it said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Maduro won a new six-year term in an election that was denounced by a string of countries as unfair, triggering fresh sanctions from the United States.

The new Canadian sanctions include freezing the assets of the officials and prohibiting Canadians from having property or financial dealings with them.

“These sanctions send a clear message that the Maduro regime’s anti-democratic behavior has consequences,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

Last September, Canada imposed sanctions against 40 Venezuelan senior officials, including Maduro.

Critics say Maduro has plunged the nation into its worst-ever economic crisis.

Canada is a member of the 12-nation Lima Group, which is trying to address the crisis.

Ross: US-EU Trade Deal Could be Reached

 

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Wednesday a U.S.-European Union trade deal could still be reached even if the United States imposes tariffs on EU steel and aluminum imports.

EU and U.S. officials are holding last-minute negotiations two days before U.S. President Donald Trump decides to apply tariffs on Europe.

The threat of tariffs has increased prospects of retaliation and a global trade war that could hinder the global economy.

“There can be negotiations with or without tariffs in place,” Ross said at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. “There are plenty of tariffs the EU has on us. It’s not that we can’t talk just because there’s tariffs.”

The Trump administration is also exploring possible limits on foreign auto imports, citing national security. 

The EU wants exemptions on steel and aluminum tariffs, which Trump hopes will benefit the U.S., or impose tariffs on U.S. peanut butter, orange juice and other products.

In a speech at the OECD, French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe should stand its ground in the face of unilateral actions and warned against trade wars.

“Unilateral responses and threats over trade wars will solve nothing of the serious imbalances in world trade. Nothing,” he proclaimed.

In an apparent reference to Trump’s proposed tariffs, Macron said, “These solutions might bring symbolic satisfaction in the short term. …. One can think about making voters happy by saying, ‘I have a victory. I’ll change the rules. You’ll see.’” 

Macron also called on the EU, the U.S., China and Japan to draft a World Trade Organization reform plan for the G-20 summit in Argentina later this year.

“The new rules must meet the current challenges of world trade: massive state subsidies creating distortions of global markets, intellectual property, social rights and climate protection,” he said. 

But Macron’s multilateral approach has produced limited results to date, as Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and is threatening to disrupt trade relations between China, the EU and other economic powers.

 

 

Italy’s Political Turmoil Sends Shock Waves Across Europe

Europe’s financial markets are in a swoon, Italy is in political turmoil, a fresh eurozone debt crisis is in the offing and the continent’s euroskeptic populists are predicting gleefully the fast-approaching demise of the European Union.

So, what’s new?

For the past few years, all of the above could have been written virtually any day of the week, much of it fueled by hyperbole. But the political drama unfolding in Italy is of a different order and shaping up to be a much greater existential threat to the European Union than Britain’s Brexit vote two years ago, analysts say.

That is unless Italy can gain firmer political ground, and quickly.

“Italy is, not for the first time, in political crisis,” said Nick Ottens, chief editor of the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel. “But this time, what happens in Rome could have a big impact on financial markets, the euro, and the longer-term future of the European Union as a whole.”

Tuesday, the global financial markets saw massive sell-offs of European equities and bank stocks, and currency traders dumped the euro, sending it plummeting to its lowest level against the dollar in nearly a year. Bond markets also swooned as global investors headed for the safety of U.S. Treasury securities, reviving memories of the debt crisis that bankrupted Greece and threatened to fracture the eurozone.

The sell-off came as Italian politicians struggled to shape an orderly way toward fresh elections after Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, vetoed the selection of an anti-euro finance minister by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and anti-immigrant Lega. That collapsed the nascent coalition government and prompted the resignation of the prime minister nominee after just 90 hours — a stunning turnaround even by Italy’s chaotic political standards. 

Mattarella’s decision to turn to a former IMF economist, Carlo Cottarelli, to head a caretaker government remains beset by problems. The president’s plan appears to have involved delaying elections until next year.

But Cottarelli, a Europhile, isn’t expected to win a vote of confidence in the Italian parliament because of opposition from the two populist parties, who together command a parliamentary majority, forcing Mattarella to call a populist-demanded early election, possibly as soon as July.

‘On Verge of Panic’

The Italian political turmoil is sending shock waves across Europe amid alarm the country is on a political trajectory to exit the eurozone, despite polling data suggesting Italians would prefer to stick with the euro, although they remain resentful of Brussels and EU-dictated austerity policies.

“On Verge of Panic,” was how the normally sober Economist magazine headlined its coverage Wednesday of the political crisis in Rome and what it may entail for Europe.

Brinkmanship and miscalculation by both old guard politicians in Italy and upstart populists risks worsening the Italian domestic crisis and transforming it into a continent-shaking European one, analysts and investors warn.

On Tuesday, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros said he feared the European Union could be heading toward another major financial crisis triggered by populist political parties intent on ripping the bloc apart. “The EU is in an existential crisis. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” he said in a speech in London.

Italy is the third-largest country in the eurozone, the fifth-largest in the European Union, and as one of its founding members, conflict with Brussels will test the bloc far more than Brexit.

‘Italian democracy’s darkest night’

EU officials fear the Italian populists will grab an even bigger share of the popular vote in rerun parliamentary elections and only four months after Italians voted in a bad-tempered national poll, marred by violence, that resulted in a hung parliament.

“The political risk is becoming very complex,” said Mauro Vittorangeli of Allianz Global. “The political situation is totally unpredictable,” he added.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini intends to frame his party’s election campaign as a referendum on Italy’s EU relationship, arguing the populists’ plan for a coalition government failed because of interference from the “powers-that-be, the markets, Berlin and Paris” who want Italy to be “a slave, scared and precarious.”

A poll released last week suggested 61 percent of Italians believe their voice isn’t being heard in Brussels. Pollsters put the Lega’s support at 22 percent, five points up from its vote share in March’s election.

Likewise, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, whose party won 32 percent of the March vote, is also blaming entrenched elites, foreign and domestic, for crashing the proposed populist coalition government. He has called on party supporters to attend to protest Mattarella’s actions, which he says amount to “Italian democracy’s darkest night.”

One thing that may hurt the populists and reduce their electoral support, argues economist Alberto Mingardi of the Istituto Bruno Leoni research group, is if voters start fearing “an impending financial disaster.” Or if Italians decide the populists are more to blame for the crisis than Italy’s president.

UN: More Than 1 Million Children Going Hungry in Mali

UNICEF is warning that hundreds of thousands of severely malnourished children in Mali are at risk of dying, as the security situation in the country worsens.

The United Nations reports that attacks by extremists and criminals in northern and central Mali are rising at an alarming rate, with many civilians being deliberately targeted.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac says more than a million children are going hungry because of severe food shortages.

“More than 850,000 children under the age of 5 are at risk of global acute malnutrition this year, including 274,000 children facing severe malnutrition and at imminent risk of death,” he said. “This represents a 34 percent increase and is largely due to the worsening food security situation in parts of the country.”

The U.N. reports 20 percent of the country is suffering from food insecurity and 1.2 million people lack water, sanitation and basic hygiene.

UNICEF says severe acute malnutrition rates are highest in the conflict affected areas in the north, exceeding the emergency level of 15 percent in Timbuktu. It cites Mali as one of the countries with the highest newborn and maternal mortality rates in the world.

Boulierac also says newborn deaths are rising because of malnutrition and lack of basic health services.

Northern Mail has been in turmoil since 2012, when Islamist militant groups temporarily seized control of the region.

​On a visit to Mali’s capital Bamako on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres paid homage to the U.N. peacekeepers who have been killed while serving what is considered the world body’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission.Twenty-one peacekeepers were killed in attacks by extremists last year.

While in Mali, Guterres appealed for funds to support the G5 Sahel force, which is composed of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.The force was created to contain the West African jihadists active in Mali and nearby countries.

UNICEF calls the crisis in Mali one of the most forgotten in the world. It notes nearly 80 percent of the agency’s $37 million humanitarian appeal for this year remains unfunded.