Mexican Town Hit by Quake Welcomes Migrants, Quietly Defying Trump

An impoverished Mexican town nearly flattened by a 2017 earthquake welcomed thousands of tired and hungry Central Americans in a U.S.-bound caravan this week in quiet defiance of U.S. President Donald Trump’s condemnation of the group.

On Monday, the same day that Trump ordered 5,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to block the migrants, residents of the southern town of Niltepec, who still live among piles of rubble that once were their homes, prepared for the caravan with homemade soup, medical tents, and diapers for children.

“We wish we had a space dignified enough to offer our visitors,” said Zelfareli Cruz Medina, Niltepec’s mayor.

As she spoke, caravan members were stringing up garbage bags to use as tents in Niltepec’s main square. Surrounding buildings were scarred with cracks and gaping holes caused by the 8.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the region on Sept. 7, 2017.

Of 1,720 homes in Niltepec, 1,602 were damaged in the quake, according to town officials, while 530 collapsed entirely. At least 100 families are still without homes, they said.

A tower atop Niltepec’s main church was stripped down to its fragile wood skeleton by the quake and Cruz said the town needed help to rebuild its library and the mayor’s offices, which were serving as a shelter for the caravan’s women and children.

But a willingness to help the needy comes as almost second-nature to residents of the hardscrabble town in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, Cruz said. “We know now what it means to suffer,” she said.

Near the church, three local families gathered at lunchtime in the shared backyard of rebuilt homes to cook an offering of chicken soup for the migrants, many of whom have said they are fleeing violence and grinding poverty in their homeland.

Later Monday evening, Mariela Escobar, 52, a part-time cleaner, pored over a vat of fuming tamales – “hundreds of them,” she said – to hand out free for dinner.

“People helped us greatly,” said her neighbor, Angela Moreno Galves, 81. “So now, of course, we want to help too.”

Setting out from Honduras on Oct. 13, the caravan quickly swelled to number several thousand people. The latest estimates put its size at 3,500 to more than double that – matching or exceeding Niltepec’s population of 3,800.

The warmth of the welcome in Niltepec stood in deliberate, stark contrast to Trump’s hostility, said Jorge Luis Fuentes, a senior town official.

“It’s a form of struggle,” he said. “It’s a way to demonstrate that rights are universal.”

Many Residents of Border Communities Say Extra Troops Unnecessary

By the end of the week, more than 5,200 soldiers will be deployed to the southwestern border of the U.S. and Mexico in anticipation of a caravan of migrants from Central America heading northward. The military presence is drawing reaction from those who live and work in border communities on both sides of the fence. VOA’S Elizabeth Lee reports from San Diego, California.

Bolsonaro’s Economic Guru Urges Quick Brazil Pension Reform

The future economy minister tapped by Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro insisted on Tuesday that he wanted to fast-track an unpopular pension reform to help balance government finances despite mounting resistance to getting it done this year.

Paulo Guedes, whom Bolsonaro selected as a “super minister” with a portfolio combining the current ministries of finance, planning and development, has urged Congress to pass an initial version of pension reform before the Jan. 1 inauguration.

“Our pension funds are an airplane with five bombs on board that will explode at any moment,” Guedes said on Tuesday. “We’re already late on pension reform, so the sooner the better.”

He called the reform essential to controlling surging public debt in Latin America’s largest economy and making space for public investments to jump-start a sluggish economy. Markets surged in the weeks ahead of Bolsonaro’s Sunday victory on the expectation that he could pull off the tough fiscal agenda.

Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index rose 3.7 percent on Tuesday, boosted by strong corporate earnings and the resolve shown by Guedes on pension reform.

Yet the University of Chicago-trained economist, who is getting his first taste of public service, met with skepticism from more seasoned politicians.

Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, said on Tuesday that reform is urgent, but cautioned that the conditions to pass it were still far off.

Major Olimpio, a lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s own party who helped run his campaign, agreed the political climate was not ready for reform.

Even Bolsonaro’s future chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said in a Monday radio interview that he only expects to introduce a reform plan next year.

After a meeting with Lorenzoni, Guedes said the decision on timing was ultimately a political one that the chief of staff would weigh.

“We can’t go from a victory at the ballot box to chaos in Congress,” Guedes told journalists.

On other issues, Guedes made clear he was the final word on economic matters, laying out plans to give the central bank more institutional independence and clarifying comments made by Lorenzoni about exchange-rate policy.

“You are all scared because he is a politician talking about the economy. That’s like me talking about politics. It’s not going to work,” Guedes said.

Hot Button Issues

While advisers work out the details of his economic program, Bolsonaro revisited some of his most contentious campaign promises on Monday night: looser gun laws, a ban on government advertising for media that “lie,” and urging a high-profile

judge to join his government.

In interviews with TV stations and on social media, Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former Army captain who won 55 percent of Sunday’s vote after running on a law-and-order platform, made clear he would push through his conservative agenda.

Bolsonaro said he wants Sergio Moro, the judge who has overseen the sprawling “Car Wash” corruption trials and convicted former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of graft, to serve as his justice minister.

Barring that, he said he would nominate Moro to the Supreme Court. The next vacancy on the court is expected in 2020.

Bolsonaro had not formally invited Moro as of Tuesday afternoon, and the judge remained noncommittal on the proposal.

“In case I’m indeed offered a post, it will be subject to a balanced discussion and reflection,” Moro said in a statement.

Media Showdown

Late on Monday, Bolsonaro said in an interview with Globo TV that he would cut government advertising funds that flow to any “lying” media outlets.

During his campaign, the right-winger imitated U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of aggressively confronting the media, taking aim at Globo TV and Brazil’s biggest newspaper, the Folha de S.Paulo.

“I am totally in favor of freedom of the press,” Bolsonaro told Globo TV. “But if it’s up to me, press that shamelessly lies will not have any government support.”

Bolsonaro was referring to the hundreds of millions of reais the Brazilian government spends in advertising each year in local media outlets, mainly for promotions of state-run firms.

The UOL news portal, owned by the Grupo Folha, which also controls the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, used Brazil’s freedom of information act as the basis for a 2015 article that showed Globo received 565 million reais in federal government spending in 2014. Folha got 14.6 million reais that year.

Globo said on Tuesday that federal government advertising represented less than 4 percent of the revenue for its flagship channel, TV Globo, without providing more detailed figures.

Grupo Folha did not reply to requests for comment.

Guatemala Lawmakers Propose Jail for Some Political Speech

Five lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that would punish with prison time certain kinds of speech criticizing elected officials and candidates in Guatemala, prompting charges that it would violate constitutional measures guaranteeing freedom of expression. 

The initiative targets “those who make acts of pressure, persecution and harassment” against politicians “in any medium of diffusion and/or on digital platforms, with the end of impeding the exercise of their political rights.” 

It calls for sentences of two to three years. 

Eva Monte, a lawmaker who has supported President Jimmy Morales, denied that the bill would stifle free speech and said it aims to crack down on defamation. 

“This will serve to punish, for example, when a candidate or politician is linked to cases of corruption but in reality is not being investigated or accused,” Monte said. “That would be a kind of coercion and should be punished.”

“This also seeks to protect lawmakers, the vice president and the president,” she added. 

Morales is suspected of accepting illicit campaign finance contributions, but a request to withdraw the immunity from prosecution that he enjoys as sitting president was not approved by congress. The president denies wrongdoing. 

Human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas warned that the measure is unconstitutional. 

“It goes against the free expression of thought,” Rodas said. “Politicians should mind their actions to avoid criticism.”

The bill goes first to a congressional commission for analysis of its constitutionality. Two similar initiatives earlier this year were heavily criticized, including by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and failed to win approval by lawmakers.

Amid allegations of possible illegal activity against Morales, family members and political associates, the president has moved to defang a U.N. commission investigating corruption in the country. 

The president recently declined to renew the commission’s mandate for another two years, giving it until the end of its current term next September to wrap up its activities and leave the country. 

Google Spinoff to Test Truly Driverless Cars in California

The robotic car company created by Google is poised to attempt a major technological leap in California, where its vehicles will hit the roads without a human on hand to take control in emergencies.

The regulatory approval announced Tuesday allows Waymo’s driverless cars to cruise through California at speeds up to 65 miles per hour. 

The self-driving cars have traveled millions of miles on the state’s roads since Waymo began as a secretive project within Google nearly a decade ago. But a backup driver had been required to be behind the wheel until new regulations in April set the stage for the transition to true autonomy. 

Waymo is the first among dozens of companies testing self-driving cars in California to persuade state regulators its technology is safe enough to permit them on the roads without a safety driver in them. An engineer still must monitor the fully autonomous cars from a remote location and be able to steer and stop the vehicles if something goes wrong.

Free rides in Arizona

California, however, won’t be the first state to have Waymo’s fully autonomous cars on its streets. Waymo has been giving rides to a group of volunteer passengers in Arizona in driverless cars since last year. It has pledged to deploy its fleet of fully autonomous vans in Arizona in a ride-hailing service open to all comers in the Phoenix area by the end of this year.

But California has a much larger population and far more congestion than Arizona, making it even more challenging place for robotic cars to get around.

Waymo is moving into its next phase in California cautiously. To start, the fully autonomous cars will only give rides to Waymo’s employees and confine their routes to roads in its home town of Mountain View, California, and four neighboring Silicon Valley cities — Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Palo Alto.

If all goes well, Waymo will then seek volunteers who want to be transported in fully autonomous vehicles, similar to its early rider program in Arizona . That then could lead to a ride-hailing service like the one Waymo envisions in Arizona.

Can Waymo cars be trusted?

But Waymo’s critics are not convinced there is enough evidence that the fully autonomous cars can be trusted to be driving through neighborhoods without humans behind the wheel. 

“This will allow Waymo to test its robotic cars using people as human guinea pigs,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director for Consumer Watchdog, a group that has repeatedly raised doubts about the safety of self-driving cars.

Those concerns escalated in March after fatal collision involving a self-driving car being tested by the leading ride-hailing service, Uber. In that incident, an Uber self-driving car with a human safety driver struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a darkened street in a Phoenix suburb.

Waymo’s cars with safety drivers have been involved in dozens of accidents in California, but those have mostly been minor fender benders at low speeds.

 All told, Waymo says its self-driving cars have collectively logged more than 10 million miles in 25 cities in a handful of states while in autonomous mode, although most of those trips have occurred with safety drivers.

Will Waymo save lives?

Waymo contends its robotic vehicles will save lives because so many crashes are caused by human motorists who are intoxicated, distracted or just bad drivers.

“If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed,” the company said Tuesday.

Senior US Official: Venezuela a Threat to Regional Stability, Security

Venezuela poses a clear threat to regional stability and its economic collapse could drag down key U.S. allies in Latin America such as Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, a senior Treasury Department official warned Tuesday.

Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, also accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro of contaminating Venezuelan water supplies at gold mining sites.

“Venezuela poses a clear threat to regional stability and security on top of the horrific humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes,” Billingslea told the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“This is a hemispheric issue and the implosion of the regime there is a direct challenge for us,” he added.

Oil-rich Venezuela’s economy has sunk into crisis under Maduro forcing tens of thousands of Venezuelans into neighboring countries amid hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and power cuts.

Billingslea said Maduro’s government was “one of the largest criminal enterprises in the Western Hemisphere” involved in money laundering, graft, fraud and illegal mining schemes, including mining gold and sending it to Turkey for processing.

“It is being done not just illegally, but it is being done at enormous environmental expense,” he said. “The regime has basically awarded itself control over a huge percentage of the country and is now stripping this gold out and dumping massive amounts of chemical and mercury contaminants into water supplies.

“We have highlighted the fact that a lot of this non-monetary gold appears to be destined for Turkey,” he added.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment about Billingslea’s remarks.

The Trump administration has sought to pressure Maduro, his relatives, and senior members of the Socialist Party through sanctions but the government has shown no willingness to hand over power or negotiate a transition.

Billingslea said the United States was collaborating with countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Argentina and Spain to block assets stolen from Venezuela.

“We are on the hunt for Maduro and [his wife] Cilia Flores’ money and we are not going to stop until we find it,” Billingslea said, adding: “It’s not their money, it’s money they stole.”

UN Says Planned Elections in E. Ukraine Could Contradict International Agreements

The U.N.’s political chief cautioned Tuesday that planned local elections in two separatist areas of eastern Ukraine next month could contradict international agreements. 

“The U.N. urges all parties to avoid any unilateral steps that could deepen the divide or depart from the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreements,” Rosemary DiCarlo told a Security Council meeting on the issue. 

In 2015, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists signed the Minsk agreement in the Belarus capital. It seeks to halt the fighting through a cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops and heavy weapons, and open the way to a permanent, legal and political solution to the conflict in Ukraine, which began in 2014. 

De facto authorities in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have announced that they plan to hold elections on Nov. 11. 

“As we understand, two separate ballots in both Donetsk and Luhansk are reportedly being planned: one for the “head of Republic” and one for the “People’s Councils,” DiCarlo said. She said the posts will reportedly be for five-year terms. 

She noted that election-related matters are covered in the Minsk agreements. 

“I therefore caution that any such measures taken outside Ukraine’s constitutional and legal framework would be incompatible with the Minsk agreements,” she said. 

Western council members echoed her concerns and condemned the planned ballot.

“These sham elections staged by Russia run directly counter to efforts to implement the Minsk peace agreements,” said U.S. deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen. “The elections also obstruct and undermine efforts to end the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

“We do see these so-called elections as illegitimate,” said British Ambassador Karen Pierce. “They are the latest example in the Russian campaign to destabilize Ukraine. They are a clear breach of the Minsk agreements, and they are illegal under Ukrainian law.”

Even China, a close ally of Moscow, expressed concerns. 

“China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine, and opposes the interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs by any external forces,” Beijing’s deputy envoy told the council. 

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed the criticism. 

“Today, we are witnesses of the latest round of hypocrisy — the total and inexcusable sabotage by Kyiv of the Minsk agreements, over the long term, factually from Day One, has been completely ignored,” Nebenzia said. “Instead of recognizing this fact, in the discussion in the Security Council we are discussing the forthcoming elections in November, which are a necessary measure in conditions of sabotage by Kyiv of its political commitments.”

He said European and American sanctions imposed on Moscow because of the Ukrainian situation is an invitation to Kyiv to continue undermining its Minsk obligations because Russia will be the one to pay for it. 

Ukraine’s ambassador, Volodymyr Yelchenko, said holding these “so-called early elections’ would amount to putting armed gangs’ leaders in seats in illegitimate representative bodies.” He said the move is a “provocation” and a “further escalation” of the situation by Russia. 

While he acknowledged to reporters later that there is little Kyiv authorities can do to stop the voting from going forward, he said the results would be null and void and not be recognized by Ukraine or the international community. 

After a brief calm over the summer months, the U.N. said during the past six weeks, cease-fire violations have spiked, and casualty levels have risen. It also reports increased tensions in the Sea of Azov, warning there is a “need to avoid any risk of escalation, provocation or miscalculation.” 

The Kyiv government has been clashing with Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The United Nations says more than 3,000 civilians have been killed, and up to 9,000 injured since the start of the conflict.

Merkel Looks to Africa to Cement A Legacy Shaped by Migration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged on Tuesday a new development fund to tackle unemployment in Africa, a problem spurring the mass migration that has shaped her long premiership as it nears its end.

Merkel hosted a summit of African leaders a day after her announcement that she would retire from politics by 2021, which sent shockwaves across Europe and started a race to succeed her.

She needs the Compact with Africa summit to show that progress has been made in addressing the aftermath of one of the defining moments of her 13 years in power: her 2015 decision to open Germany’s doors to more than a million asylum seekers.

The Berlin summit, attended by 12 presidents and prime ministers including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, is designed to showcase the continent as a stable destination for German investment.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde is also there, along with a host of international development officials.

The aim is to create good jobs for Africans, easing the poverty which, along with political instability and violence, has encouraged large numbers to head for Europe. But with Africa’s population growing at almost three percent a year, the task is enormous.

“We Europeans have a great interest in African states having a bright economic outlook,” Merkel said in her opening speech, announcing the fund to help small and medium-sized enterprises from both Europe and Africa to invest on the continent.

The 119,000 Africans who arrived in Europe in 2018, according to the International Organization for Migration, are the tip of the iceberg. International Labor Organization figures show that 16 million migrants were on the move within Africa in 2014.

While European Union countries invested $22 billion in Africa in 2017, breakneck economic growth will be needed to help bring down the migrant numbers.

Berlin hopes Germany’s manufacturing-based economy, which drove Eastern Europe’s rapid economic growth after the 1989 collapse of Communism, could turn things round.

Merkel needs results fast if she is to ensure the leadership of her Christian Democrats passes to a centrist ally, such as its general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

A marshall plan for Africa?

Other candidates for the party leadership, including Health Minister Jens Spahn or her old rival, the strongly pro-business Friedrich Merz, are well to her right politically and could be expected to want to challenge much of her legacy.

Merkel has said she will remain chancellor but that her current, fourth term up to 2021 will be her last. A whopping 71 percent of Germans welcomed Merkel’s decision, a poll released Tuesday by broadcasters RTL and n-tv showed.

Germany has introduced tax incentives for its companies to set up plants in Africa, reflecting her view that state aid must give way to private investment if jobs are to be created in their millions.

This would be part of a “Marshall Plan for Africa” – named after the U.S.-funded plan that helped to rebuild European states including Germany after World War II – that she sees as central to her legacy.

Merkel presented her decision to open Germany’s borders in 2015 as an unavoidable necessity driven by the vast scale of the human tide, that year mostly fleeing the civil war in Syria.

An agreement with Turkey sharply curtailed the arrival of refugees into the EU through Greece. But hundreds of thousands of mainly African migrants continued to travel across the Mediterranean, a flow that finally began to abate in the past year with improved efforts to halt smuggling from Libya.

The crisis has upturned European politics, bringing the far right to power in Italy and Austria, and in Germany revitalizing the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose demand that the country shut its borders to migrants helped to fuel its surge into parliament in last year’s election.

A successful outcome to the summit may help to strengthen Merkel’s case for remaining chancellor even after stepping down from the party leadership, and could quieten her coalition partners in Bavaria’s conservative CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD).

All three parties have suffered punishing setbacks in regional elections this month, building internal party pressure for them to switch leaders or break up the coalition.