Turkey Furious at France, US Over Armenian Remembrance

France on Wednesday observed it first “national day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide” provoking a furious reaction from Turkey. 

April 24, 1915, is considered the start of the World War I-era massacres of ten of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. 

France was the first major European country to recognize the massacres as genocide in 2001.  Turkey disputes the description, saying the toll has been inflated and considers those killed to be victims of a civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says nations who accuse Turkey of genocide should look at their own “bloody past.”  Erdogan has previously accused France of of being responsible for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda’s government has also accused France of being complicit in the mass killings of minority Tutsi community by majority Hutus. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also strongly criticized a statement issued by the White House on the Armenian killings. 

“Today, we commemorate the Meds Yeghern and honor the memory of those who suffered in one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1915, one-and-a-half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire,” the White House statement said. 

Turkey objected to the Trump administration’s use of the Armenian term, Meds Yeghern, which means “the great calamity.” 

“We reject the statement by U.S. President Trump on the 1915 incidents on April 24, 2019,” the Turkish statement said. “Based on the subjective narrative fictionalized by the Armenians, this statement has no value at all. The distortion of history for political objectives is unacceptable.”

Microsoft Surges Toward Trillion-Dollar Value as Profits Rise

Microsoft said profits climbed in the past quarter on its cloud and business services as the U.S. technology giant saw its market value close in on the trillion-dollar mark.

Profits in the quarter to March 31 rose 19 percent to $8.8 billion on revenues of $30.8 billion, an increase of 14 percent from the same period a year earlier.

Microsoft shares gained some 3% in after-hours trade, pushing it closer to $1 trillion in value. 

It ended the session Wednesday with a market valuation of some $960 million, just behind Apple but ahead of Amazon.

In the fiscal third quarter, Microsoft showed its reliance on cloud computing and other business services which now drive its earnings, in contrast to its earlier days when it focused on consumer PC software.

“Leading organizations of every size in every industry trust the Microsoft cloud,” chief executive Satya Nadella said in a statement.

Commercial cloud revenue rose 41% from a year ago to $9.6 billion, which now makes up nearly a third of sales, Microsoft said.

Some $10.2 billion in revenue came from the “productivity and business services” unit which includes its Office software suite for both consumers and enterprises, and the LinkedIn professional social network.

The “more personal computing” unit which includes its Windows software, Surface devices and gaming operations generated $10.6 billion in the quarter.

Conservatives Reject Move to Topple PM Theresa May, for Now

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s job is safe, for now, after Conservative lawmakers decided against enabling a new challenge to her leadership.

Graham Brady, chairman of a powerful party rules committee, said Wednesday the body had decided not to change the rule that a party leader can only face one no-confidence vote in a year.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives are angry with May’s failure to take Britain out of the European Union, almost three years after voters backed leaving. They want her replaced with a more staunchly pro-Brexit leader.

But May survived a Conservative no-confidence vote in December, leaving her safe for 12 months.

May says she’ll step down once Parliament has approved a Brexit deal.

Brady said, however, that May must provide more clarity about her departure and provide “a clear roadmap forward.”

Mexican President Says New Airport Construction to Start Next Week

Construction at a military base that is slated to host the Mexican capital’s new commercial airport will begin next week, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said at the site of the project on Wednesday.

“We will being construction of Mexico City’s new airport next Monday,” said Lopez Obrador in a speech at the Santa Lucia military air base, north of the sprawling capital in the neighboring State of Mexico.

He did not further detail the construction plans, and it is not the first time the president has announced a start time. Lopez Obrador said in late December that construction would begin in January for the controversial airport project being overseen by the military.

The plan is a replacement for a part-built $13 billion Mexico City airport on the capital’s eastern flank which Lopez Obrador canceled on Oct. 29, a few weeks before taking office. Markets were shocked by that decision, which sparked a major sell-off in Mexican financial assets.

The now-scrapped airport on the dried-out bed of Lake Texcoco was the biggest public works project launched by Lopez Obrador’s predecessor as president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

The leftist Lopez Obrador dismissed the Texcoco plan as tainted by corruption, geologically unsound and too costly. Lopez Obrador’s idea is to convert the Santa Lucia base into a commercial airport and upgrade the capital’s current hub as well as another in the nearby city of Toluca.

The plan for Santa Lucia, which lies some 29 miles (47 km) north of the current Benito Juarez International Airport, is not popular with a number of prominent business leaders who were angry about he cancellation of the Texcoco airport.

Critics of the project argue that Santa Lucia’s distance from the capital will deter tourism and could complicate travel for connecting flights from Mexico City.

In addition, engineering experts have said the Santa Lucia airport may not be able to operate at the same time as the current hub because of conflicting flight paths.

 

Diplomats Walk Out as Venezuela Hits US in UN Speech

Several dozen diplomats walked out from the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday to protest a speech by Venezuela’s foreign minister, who denounced U.S. calls on the world body to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza took the General Assembly rostrum in the name of the Non-Aligned Movement as part of a special U.N. session devoted to the value of multilateralism. 

Walking out were between 30 and 40 diplomats from the Lima Group, the coalition of Latin American nations and Canada that have nearly all recognized Guaido and declared the leftist Nicolas Maduro to be illegitimate after widely criticized elections.

In his speech, Arreaza accused the United States of wanting to “impose a dictatorship” at the United Nations through its “blatant attempt to expel or withdraw recognition of the credentials of member-states with full rights such as Venezuela.”

“This is discriminatory and unacceptable,” he told the session, in which the United States was not participating.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence traveled earlier this month to the United Nations where he denounced Maduro as a  “dictator,” part of a U.S. push for the world body to recognize Guaido instead.

Venezuela is facing the worst crisis in its modern history with inflation expecting to soar a mind-boggling 10 million percent this year, contributing to a shortage of basic goods that has caused more than 2.7 million people to flee since 2015, according to the United Nations. 

Iran, another nation under heavy U.S. pressure, also appealed at the U.N. session for more multilateralism.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced the “unlawful, unilateralist policies” of President Donald Trump, ranging from withdrawing from a European-backed denuclearization deal with Iran to threatening the International Criminal Court for taking up accusations of war crimes against U.S. troops.

“To defend multilateralism, it is imperative to deny the U.S. any perceived benefit from its unlawful actions and to forcefully reject any pressure it brings to bear on others to violate international law and Security Council resolutions,” Zarif said.

NYT: Potential Russian Meddling in 2020 US Election Sensitive Issue for Trump

Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia engaged in “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 U.S. election  to help Donald Trump become president, but a new account says the issue is still too sensitive to discuss in front of Trump as it relates to what Moscow might do when he runs for re-election in 2020.

Former Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen tried to focus the attention of top U.S. officials on combating Russian influence in next year’s election in the months before Trump forced her to resign in early April after protracted conflict over immigration policies, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

But the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior Trump administration official as saying that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney warned Nielsen against raising the issue in front of Trump, who has equated discussion of Russian meddling in the 2016 election with questions of whether his election victory was legitimate.

The Times quoted a senior administration official as saying Mulvaney told Nielsen that Russian meddling in the upcoming presidential election “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

Mulvaney disputed the account, saying, “I don’t recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting.”

He blamed Trump’s predecessor, former president Barack Obama, for not forcefully confronting Russia about its ongoing election interference, although Obama and others raised the issue with Moscow in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

“Unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future,” Mulvaney said.

“In fact, for the first time in history, state, local and federal governments have coordinated in all 50 states to share intelligence. We’ve broadened our efforts to combat meddling by engaging the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, among others, and we have even conducted security breach training drills to ensure preparedness,” Mulvaney said.

Mueller concluded that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was widespread, including fake postings on U.S. social media accounts aimed at helping Trump defeat his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and hacking and disclosing emails written by Democratic officials that reflected poorly on Clinton.

But the prosecutor also concluded that while there were numerous contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russians, neither Trump nor his campaign conspired with Russia. In Trump’s frequent refrain, there was “no collusion.”

Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, said Tuesday that Mueller’s 22-month investigation was “more harmful” to the U.S. than Russia’s 2016 election interference.

“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It’s a terrible thing,” Kushner said. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

“I think they said they spent $160,000,” Kushner said. “I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign. If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful.”

 

Notre Dame Fire Highlights Plight of France’s Underfunded Patrimony

France’s government met Wednesday to draft a framework for donations to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. While more than $1 billion has been raised in response to last week’s massive blaze, many other historic monuments across France crumble for lack of funds to preserve them. 

The 12th-century Senanque Abbey — also called Notre Dame — in southern France is gradually decaying. Massive cracks in the abbey’s structure have forced the Cistercian monks living there to close part of it to visitors, and there are not sufficient funds available to fully restore it.

“We do not feel forgotten, but maybe a bit underestimated,” the abbey’s prior, Father Jean Marie, told French TV.

While Paris’ Notre Dame is grabbing the headlines, many other French monuments are also suffering. The Cistercian monastery has managed to raise several hundred thousand dollars for needed repairs, but it is still short about half-a-million.

Experts estimate about 2,000 historical monuments are at risk across France, including many cathedrals and village churches.

Public financing to preserve the country’s cultural heritage has shrunk steadily over the years.Today, France’s patrimony budget amounts to a tiny fraction of state spending. Local governments and the private sector are in charge of many historic monuments, but their budgets are limited.

President Emmanuel Macron’s patrimony adviser, Stephane Berne, told French radio that revitalizing rural communities starts with restoring local historic monuments that can deliver returns on the investment with jobs and tourism.

Berne is in charge of a new lottery program to raise money for preservation, but that totals just more than $20 million annually for all of France’s cultural heritage sites, compared to the billion-plus dollars raised for Notre Dame Cathedral.

“In each village, there is a Notre Dame that sometimes burns by the flame of indifference,” one group wrote in an editorial this week. 

However, private fundraising efforts are growing. A couple of years ago, for example, a crowdfunding campaign raised nearly $2 million to save a 13th-century chateau in western France. Like Notre Dame, it had been partially destroyed by fire.

And some people have suggested reallocating a portion of the Notre Dame donations — which may exceed what is needed to restore the cathedral — to save other cultural treasures.

EU Envoy: Trump Cuba Policy Worries European Companies

The Trump administration’s crackdown on business with Cuba’s communist government is causing unprecedented concern among European companies on the island, according to the European Union’s ambassador.

“There’s enormous worry,” Ambassador Alberto Navarro told The Associated Press.

“There are businesspeople who’ve been here 20, 30 years, who’ve made bets on investing their financial resources in Cuba to stimulate commerce, tourism, international exchange, and many of them tell me that they haven’t lived through a similar situation,” Navarro said in an interview at the EU embassy Tuesday afternoon.

The Trump administration announced last week that it would allow Americans to sue foreign companies whose partnerships with the Cuban government make use of commercial and industrial properties confiscated from Americans in Cuba’s 1959 revolution. The measure also allows suits by the large number of Cubans who fled the island and later became Americans.

The first lawsuits can be filed starting May 2.

Navarro said the European Union will vigorously defend European companies doing business in Cuba in court and before the World Trade Organization.

“I think I have said with great clarity, any country can adopt whatever legislation it wants, and apply the law within its own country, we can criticize whether we like it or not. What that country cannot do is impose its legislation on others,” Navarro said.  “We are the front line of defense in Cuba, and obviously have legitimate interests in Cuba and we want to defend them and protect our citizens and our investors.”

The EU is Cuba’s largest trading partner, with some 2.6 billion euros in annual trade with the island, all but 400 million euros a year in exports from the EU to Cuba.

The Trump administration has imposed a series of recent measures meant to damage the Cuban economy, saying they are meant to prevent Cuba from aiding President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist administration in Venezuela.         

 

Disaffected Venezuelan Military Tell of Rising Desertions to Brazil

Venezuelan military personnel are deserting to Colombia and Brazil in growing numbers, refusing to follow orders to repress protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, six of them told Reuters.

A lieutenant and five sergeants of the National Guard, the main force used by the Maduro government to suppress widespread demonstrations, said the bulk were going to Colombia, the most accessible border, but others like themselves had left for Brazil.

Colombian immigration authorities said some 1,400 Venezuelan military had deserted for Colombia this year, while the Brazilian Army said over 60 members of Venezuela’s armed forces had emigrated to Brazil since Maduro closed the border on Feb. 23 to block an opposition effort to get humanitarian aid into the country.

“Most military people that are leaving are from the National Guard. They will continue coming. More want to leave,” said a National Guard lieutenant, speaking earlier this month. She had just crossed into Brazil on foot, arriving in the frontier town of Pacaraima after walking hours along indigenous trails through savannah.

Officials in both countries said the pace of desertion has sped up in recent months as political and economic turmoil in Venezuela has worsened.

The deserters, who asked to withhold their names due to fear of reprisals against their families, complained that top commanders in Venezuela lived well on large salaries and commissions from smuggling and other black market schemes while the lower ranks confronted conflicts in Venezuela’s streets for little pay.

“They already have their families living abroad. They live well, eat well, have good salaries and profits from corruption,” said the lieutenant.

The Venezuelan government’s Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries, did not reply to requests for comment.

In February, Maduro’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, told a Security Council meeting the number of military desertions had been exaggerated. Foreign ministry spokesman William Castillo said at the time that just 109 of the 280,000-strong armed forces had deserted under Maduro.

‘Bad orders’

A Venezuelan sergeant, who proudly donned his National Guard uniform for an interview in a hotel room in Pacaraima, said he could not provide for his two small sons on his $12-a-month salary.

“We risked our lives so much for the little we were paid,” he said. “I left because of this and the bad orders the commanding officers were giving us.”

The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led congress, Juan Guaido, backed by most Western nations, is trying to oust Maduro on the basis that the socialist president’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

But top armed forces commanders have remained loyal to Maduro because they earn well in dollars and have too much to lose by abandoning him, according to the National Guard deserters.

Maduro has placed military chiefs in high-level jobs running state companies so they do not turn against him, the sergeant said.

“Maduro knows that if he removes them from those posts, the military will turn their backs on him and could oust him in a coup,” he said.

Maduro has called Guaido a U.S. puppet trying to foment a coup, and blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. sanctions.

Inmates in uniform

Rebellion in the middle ranks of the National Guard has been contained by intimidation and threats of reprisals against officers’ families, the deserters told Reuters. They said phones of military personnel suspected of anti-Maduro sympathies were tapped to watch their behavior.

With desertions on the rise and dwindling support for Maduro, the government has used armed groups of civilians known as “colectivos” to terrorize Maduro opponents, the interviewees said. Rights groups in Venezuela have warned of rising violence meted out by the militant groups.

The government has also released jail inmates and put them in National Guard uniforms, to the disgust of soldiers with years of military career behind them, the six deserters said. It is unclear if the former inmates or militants are paid by the government.

A lack of food, water and medicines, along with extended blackouts, have added to a sense of anarchy, the deserters said.

The uniformed sergeant said he feared bloodshed at the hands of the “colectivos” trying to keep Maduro in power if the armed forces balked at government orders to repress protests.

“There won’t be enough soldiers left with hearts of stone to fire on the people,” he said. “We military know that among the crowds on the streets there are relatives of ours protesting for freedom and a better future for Venezuela.”

Technology Ethics Campaigners Offer Plan to Fight ‘Human Downgrading’

Technology firms should do more to connect people in positive ways and steer away from trends that have tended to exploit human weaknesses, ethicists told a meeting of Silicon Valley leaders on Tuesday.

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin are the co-founders of the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology and the ones who prompted Apple and Google to nudge phone users toward reducing their screen time.

Now they want companies and regulators to focus on reversing what they called “human downgrading,” which they see as at the root of a dozen worsening problems, by reconsidering the design and financial incentives of their systems.

Before a hand-picked crowd of about 300 technologists, philanthropists and others concerned with issues such as internet addiction, political polarization, and the spread of misinformation on the web, Harris said Silicon Valley was too focused on making computers surpass human strengths, rather than worrying about how they already exploit human weaknesses.

If that is not reversed, he said, “that could be the end of human agency,” or free will.

Problems include the spread of hate speech and conspiracy theories, propelled by financial incentives to keep users engaged alongside the use of powerful artificial intelligence on platforms like Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, Harris said.

YouTube and other companies have said they are cracking down on extremist speech and have removed advertising revenue-sharing from some categories of content.

Active Facebook communities can be a force for good but they also aid the dissemination of false information, the campaigners said. For example, a vocal fringe that oppose vaccines, believing contrary to scientific evidence that they cause autism, has led to an uptick in diseases that were nearly eradicated.

Facebook said in March it would reduce the distribution of content from groups promoting vaccine hoaxes.

In an interview after his speech, Harris said that what he has called a race to the bottom of the brainstem – manipulation of human instincts and emotions – could be reversed.

For example, he said that Apple and Google could reward app developers who help users, or Facebook could suggest that someone showing signs of depression call a friend who had previously been supportive.

Tech personalities attending included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, early Facebook funder turned critic Roger McNamee and MoveOn founders Joan Blades and Wes Boyd. Tech money is also backing the Center, including charitable funds started by founders of Hewlett Packard, EBay, and Craigslist.

The big companies, Harris said, “can change the incentives.”