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AP Exclusive: US talks secretly to Venezuela socialist boss
By JOSHUA GOODMAN | Mon, August 19, 2019 05:49 EDT
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The U.S. has opened up secret communications with Venezuela’s socialist party boss as members of President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle seek guarantees they won’t face retribution if they cede to growing demands to remove him, a senior U.S. administration official has told The Associated Press.
Diosdado Cabello, who is considered the most-powerful man in Venezuela after Maduro, met last month in Caracas with someone who is in close contact with the Trump administration, said the official. A second meeting is in the works but has not yet taken place.
The AP is withholding the intermediary’s name and details of the encounter with Cabello out of concern the person could suffer reprisals. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the talks, which are still preliminary. It’s not clear whether the talks have Maduro’s approval or not.
Cabello, 56, is a major power broker inside Venezuela, who has seen his influence in the government and security forces expand as Maduro’s grip on power has weakened. But he’s also been accused by U.S. officials of being behind massive corruption, drug trafficking and even death threats against a sitting U.S. senator.
The administration official said that under no circumstances is the U.S. looking to prop up Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute Maduro. Instead, the goal of the outreach is to ratchet up pressure on the regime by contributing to the knife fight the U.S. believes is taking place behind the scenes among competing circles of power within the ruling party.
Similar contacts exist with other top Venezuelan insiders, the official said, and the U.S. is in a listening mode to hear what it would take for them to betray Maduro and support a transition plan.
At a press conference Monday, Cabello shied away from discussing any details of the meeting, at one point likening it to “a lie, a manipulation.” But he also said he has long stood welcome to talk to anyone, so long as any discussions take place with Maduro’s approval.
He added that he’d only meet with “the owners of the circus” — an apparent reference to the U.S.
“Whatever happens, Nicolás Maduro and I will be in the same row, defending the homeland,” he said.
An aide said the U.S. has been increasingly knocking on Cabello’s door, desperately looking to establish contact. The aide rejected the notion Cabello was somehow betraying Maduro, saying that Cabello would only meet with Americans if it contributes to lifting sanctions he blames for crippling the oil-dependent economy. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss political affairs publicly.
A person familiar with the July encounter said Cabello appeared savvy and arrived to the meeting with the U.S.-backed envoy well prepared, with a clear understanding of Venezuela’s political problems. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the matter.
As Venezuela’s crisis grinds on, a predictable pattern has emerged where Juan Guaidó, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader, has been unable to woo the military and take power but Maduro lacks enough strength to apprehend his rival or rescue the collapsed economy amid ever-tightening U.S. sanctions. This month, the U.S. slapped a new round of sanctions that seizes all of the Maduro government’s assets in the U.S. and threatens to punish companies from third countries that continue to do business with him.
Talks sponsored by Norway between the opposition and government have been slow-going and were suspended this month by Maduro, who accused Guaidó of celebrating the U.S.’ “brutal blockade.” Neither Cabello, the Venezuelan military or U.S. government are a party to those talks.
To break the stalemate, some conspirators are looking to the U.S. to devise a plan to protect government insiders who turn against Maduro from future prosecution. The U.S. has repeatedly said it would offer top socialists relief from sanctions if they take “concrete and meaningful actions” to end Maduro’s rule. In May, it quickly lifted sanctions against Maduro’s former spy chief, Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, after he defected during a failed military uprising.
As head of the constitutional assembly, Cabello has the power to remove Maduro, a position that could come in handy in any negotiated transition. But to date he’s run the institution, which the U.S. considers illegitimate, as a rubber-stamping foil to the opposition-controlled congress, showing no signs of possible deception.
It’s not clear who initiated the contact with Cabello. But the U.S. official said Cabello was talking behind the back of the embattled socialist despite his almost daily displays of loyalty and frequent harangues against President Donald Trump.
An opposition politician briefed on the outreach said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol are among those in indirect contact with the Americans, underscoring the degree to which Maduro is surrounded by conspirators even after an opposition-led military uprising in April was easily quashed. The politician spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the talks. The AP was unable to verify the opposition politician’s account.
Cabello has long been seen as a rival to Maduro, someone who has more pragmatic economic views and is less ideologically aligned with communist Cuba. He sat to the right of Hugo Chávez when the late socialist designated Maduro, to his left, to be his successor in his last public appearance before dying of cancer in 2013.
By all accounts Cabello was not among the high-placed officials who were in on a plot to remove Maduro in April, when Guaidó and his mentor Leopoldo López appeared on a bridge in eastern Caracas surrounded by a small contingent of armed troops. Since the uprising’s failure, the retired army lieutenant has seen his influence in the government and security forces expand, with the appointment of close allies to head the army and the feared SEBIN intelligence police.
He also remains popular with the Chavista base, having crisscrossed the country the past five years with a much-watched program on state TV that is a vehicle for pounding the opposition and U.S.
“A fraternal salute, brother President,” Cabello said in the most-recent program, where Maduro called in as a special guest. “We have no secrets, no lies here. Every time we do something we will inform the people, so that with a clear conscience they can take informed decisions and fix positions.”
The U.S. has tried to negotiate with Cabello before. In 2015, Thomas Shannon, who was then counsellor to Secretary of State John Kerry, met with Cabello in Haiti to pave the way for legislative elections that the opposition won by a landslide.
But until now, the Trump administration has shown deep scorn for Cabello, hitting him with sanctions last year for allegedly organizing drug shipments and running a major graft network that embezzled state funds and invested the stolen proceeds in Florida real estate. The U.S. also believes he discussed a plot to kill Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has called him “Venezuela’s Pablo Escobar.”
“Cabello is one of the worst of the worst inside of Venezuela,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior national security adviser on Latin America to both President Barack Obama and Trump. “If the strategy is to try to negotiate with the mafia boss, he’s your guy. But that’s a strategy that carries some heavy risks.”
Follow Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed to this report.
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California governor signs law to limit shootings by police
By DON THOMPSON | Mon, August 19, 2019 10:37 EDT
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Spurred by the fatal police shooting of a young unarmed black man that roiled California’s capital city, state lawmakers approved changes to the nation’s oldest law governing when officers can use deadly force and it was signed by the governor Monday, though even supporters aren’t sure it will save many lives.
“It’s an open-ended question,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said after adding his signature to the bill during a ceremony in an open courtyard to hold the crowd of legislators, family members of those killed in police shootings and advocates, many of them black or Latino. “This is remarkable to get to this moment on a bill that was so controversial, but it means nothing unless we make this moment meaningful.”
Supporters and law enforcement officials said the new standards, which take effect Jan. 1, are among the nation’s most comprehensive when combined with more police training. But they must be coupled, Newsom said, with cultural and systemic changes, including more transparency and a rebuilding of trust with the community.
California’s old standard made it rare for police officers to be charged following a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. It was based on the doctrine of “reasonable fear,” meaning if prosecutors or jurors believed officers had a reason to fear for their safety, they could use lethal force.
The new law will allow police to use deadly force only when “necessary” to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious injury to officers or bystanders.
It passed with bipartisan support after major police organizations won concessions and ended their vehement opposition.
Lawmakers dropped an explicit definition of “necessary” that said officers could use maximum force only when there was “no reasonable alternative.” They also removed an explicit requirement that officers try to de-escalate confrontations. Law enforcement officials said that would have opened officers to endless second-guessing of what often are split-second, life-and-death decisions.
The bill’s lead author, Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, said the major elements of the bill “are still there, and they will make a difference in California and the nation.”
The measure still contains the strongest language of any state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which proposed the bill and negotiated the changes.
Yet several police agencies said the new law, which replaces one passed in 1872, simply codifies policies already used in major California cities that emphasize de-escalation.
A more significant deterrent is a pending Senate bill requiring that officers be trained in ways to defuse confrontations, alternatives to opening fire and how to interact with people with mental illness or other issues, said California Police Chiefs Association President Ron Lawrence.
“Officers, when they’re in that moment of fight or flight … they’re going to resort to muscle memory and what they’ve been trained to do,” said Lawrence, chief of the Citrus Heights police department in suburban Sacramento. “Are they going to worry about the law and potentially being criminalized? Of course, but at the end of the day they’re going to resort to the way they’ve been trained.”
One catalyst was last year’s fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, whose death sparked major protests in the state capital and reverberated nationwide. Sacramento police chased the 22-year-old black vandalism suspect into what they later learned was his grandparents’ backyard, firing 20 times when he turned with something in his hand that turned out to be a cellphone. Clark’s relatives were among those at the signing ceremony.
Yet Plumas County sheriff’s Deputy Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force consultant to law enforcement agencies, said the new law wouldn’t have saved Clark nor changed prosecutors’ decision not to charge the officers.
“It’s a false sense of security to those that think this is going to shift the needle,” Obayashi said.
Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and an expert on use-of-force law, said he expects even the scaled back law to make a difference.
“The original impetus, of course, was to have a very, very dramatic change in the law which would significantly limit the legal power of the police to use lethal force,” he said.
But the standard already set by court rulings is that officers must have thought in the heat of the moment that deadly force was necessary, so the law’s new language “is really a kind of nominal and maybe symbolic change,” Weisberg said. “It’s still all going to be about what is reasonably necessary.”
Yet it may prompt a new attitude by police, prosecutors and the public, he said, making it less likely that police will shoot first and more likely that they could be prosecuted and convicted if they do.
“I don’t want to cast doubt on the ability of this law to change attitudes and to change police behavior,” Weisberg said. “I think that it will.”
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Lawsuit accusing ex-bishop of drunken sexual assault settled
By JOHN RABY | Wed, August 21, 2019 06:48 EDT
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A lawsuit accusing the former bishop of West Virginia’s Roman Catholic diocese of molesting boys and men has been settled.
The terms of the recent settlement are confidential, Wheeling-Charleston Diocese spokesman Tim Bishop said in a statement. The diocese declined further comment.
A former personal altar server sued ex-Bishop Michael Bransfield and the diocese in March, saying he was sexually assaulted in 2014 and harassed for years prior. The filing asserted Bransfield would consume at least half a bottle of liqueur nightly and had drunkenly assaulted or harassed seminarians.
Coming on the heels of a new wave of sex abuse allegations in the U.S., the Bransfield scandal added to the credibility crisis in the U.S. hierarchy. Several top churchmen received tens of thousands of dollars in church-funded personal gifts from Bransfield during his tenure in Wheeling-Charleston, which covers the entirety of one of the poorest U.S. states.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a statement Wednesday it hopes the settlement encourages other clergy abuse victims to come forward.
While acknowledging the plaintiff’s need for privacy, SNAP urged the Catholic church to share “as much information about these crimes as they can. Only when abusers are exposed and those who enabled the abuse are identified and disciplined can we be confident that future cases will be prevented rather than covered-up.”
Bransfield resigned in September 2018 amid allegations of sexual and financial misconduct. His replacement, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Mark Brennan, is set to be installed Thursday in Wheeling. The Wheeling-Charleston diocese includes nearly 75,000 Catholics and 95 parishes throughout West Virginia
In the past year, the diocese released the names of 40 priests or deacons credibly accused of sexual misconduct since the 1950s. Bransfield wasn’t included.
Last month, Pope Francis barred Bransfield from public ministry and prohibited him from living in the diocese, while warning that he will be forced to make amends “for some of the harm he caused.” Brennan, 72, will now help decide the extent of those reparations as he seeks to restore trust among the Catholic faithful.
After Bransfield’s resignation, Francis asked Baltimore Archbishop William Lori to oversee the diocese temporarily and complete a full investigation. The findings, first reported by The Washington Post, determined Bransfield had spent church funds on dining out, liquor, personal travel and luxury items, as well as personal gifts to fellow bishops and cardinals in the U.S. and Vatican.
Lori has said that Bransfield was able to get away with his behavior for so long because he created a “culture of fear of retaliation and retribution” that weakened normal checks and balances in the diocese. The diocese’s vicars have all resigned and been reassigned to parish work, and Lori recently announced new auditing and other measures to ensure church funds are properly administered.
Bransfield had been investigated for an alleged groping incident in 2007 and was implicated in court testimony in 2012 in an infamous Philadelphia priestly sex abuse case. He strongly denied ever abusing anyone and the diocese said it had disproved the claims. He continued with his ministry until he offered to retire, as required, when he turned 75 last year.
He has disputed the findings of Lori’s investigation, telling The Post “none of it is true,” but declining detailed comment on the advice of his lawyers.
Earlier this year, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey accused the diocese and Bransfield in a lawsuit of knowingly employing pedophiles and failing to conduct adequate background checks on camp and school workers.
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Trump’s fake accent angers Asian Americans as they veer left
By TERRY TANG | Wed, August 21, 2019 06:14 EDT
When Amanda Berg heard reports that President Donald Trump mocked the accents of the leaders of South Korea and Japan at a recent fundraiser, it brought back painful memories from her childhood.
Berg, a Korean American who grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, recalled kids doing the “stereotypical pulling at the eyes and the mocking accent.” It made her feel like she was a foreigner in her own community.
Berg, a registered Democrat, is among a growing and crucial bloc of Asian American voters leaning further to the left in the age of Trump, and his stunt, reported by the New York Post, angered her and many others.
“It empowers people who would be predisposed to doing that kind of thing anyway,” said Berg, a high school English teacher in Denver. “And it makes it acceptable to be openly, increasingly discriminating.”
Trump has used racist rhetoric to fire up his conservative base ahead of the 2020 election — most notably against four Democratic congresswomen of color. Telling them to “go back” to their home countries triggered widespread outcry last month, but his reported mocking of Asian accents garnered a more tepid reaction.
Some worry the frequency of Trump’s racially offensive remarks makes them easier to shrug off, a concern that could weigh on an Asian American voting group that’s only growing in power.
The Asian American voting-age population has more than doubled in the past two decades, leaping from 4.3 million in 1998 to 11.1 million in 2018 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A majority of those new voters lean Democratic.
By 2016, some Asian ethnic groups that had leaned Republican shifted into the Democratic camp, said Natalie Masuoka, an associate professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A larger share of Asian American Republicans voted for John McCain in 2008 than for Trump in 2016.
A Pew Research Center survey said 53% of Asian American registered voters in 1998 identified with the Democratic Party. That figure rose to 65% in 2017.
“They are adding more and more new voters to the electorate,” Masuoka said. “Alongside Latino immigrants, they’re important for candidates to mobilize.”
Asian American voters also could become a key factor in swing states. In Nevada, Asians make up 5% of registered voters and 9% of the eligible voting population. They comprise 5% of registered voters in Virginia and are 6% of the eligible voting population.
The GOP, meanwhile, remains appealing to Asian Americans who are strongly anti-communist, as many are in Vietnamese communities. Some data also suggests that a large proportion of Filipinos and wealthy, higher-educated Chinese Americans are more likely to go Republican, Masuoka said. There is no solid answer for why, but religion is one often cited reason, she added.
But it may be hard for some to look past Trump’s reported words.
“He’s willing to use Asian stereotypes, Asian accents in his public speeches,” Masuoka said. “In that way … the way Americans are talking about race is now shifting possibly back to what historically was effective before the civil rights revolution” — explicit and sometimes offensive talk about race.
The New York Post reported that Trump imitated South Korea President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both close U.S. allies, at a fundraiser in the Hamptons this month. Trump used a fake accent to boast about Moon relenting in negotiations over the costs of U.S. military aid to South Korea and when rehashing talks with Abe had about trade tariffs, according to the newspaper.
Trump has imitated Asian people before. At an August 2015 campaign rally in Iowa, he talked about his ability to deal with Asian negotiators and used broken English, saying, “When these people walk into the room … they say ‘We want deal!'”
In the past, such comments have led to outrage.
In 1995, then-New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato used a faux Japanese accent when discussing O.J. Simpson trial Judge Lance Ito, who is Japanese American, in a radio interview. The Republican senator’s apology was criticized at the time by the Asian American Defense and Education Legal Fund.
“It was a time where even though we were very offended by the remarks, we thought it might make a difference to ask for an apology. But with President Trump, one doesn’t expect that,” said Margaret Fung, the group’s executive director. “That’s part of the way he speaks, the way he acts which is offensive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the kind of attention that maybe it should.”
Officials for Trump’s re-election campaign defended his record with Asian Americans.
“The Asian American community has never been stronger than under President Trump’s leadership,” campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “Millions of Asian Americans have secured access to the strongest economy in modern history, with the Asian American unemployment rate hitting a record low under the leadership of President Trump.”
A representative for the White House did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Trump supporters like Farhana Shah, of the Arizona GOP Asian American Coalition, however, say his personality is irrelevant. She praised Trump for creating jobs, passing a tax cut and keeping the country safe. Shah, who emigrated from Bangladesh in 2006 and is self-conscious at times about her own accent, also disagrees that his reported words were racist or done out of cruelty.
“He has a humorous attitude. He has a funny way of expressing things,” Shah said. “Did he harm any political negotiations? Did the leaders (themselves) react to that? If not, then it didn’t do any big harm. So why should I get offended?”
Shah has gotten into debates with those who question her support for Trump.
“President Trump might not speak very posh, but he is trying to resolve these problems,” Shah said.
Associated Press Polling Editor Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report. Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP
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Economic twilight zone: Bonds that charge you for lending
BY DAVID McHUGH and PAUL WISEMAN | Wed, August 21, 2019 04:56 EDT
FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Imagine lending money to someone and having to pay for the privilege of doing so. Or being asked to invest and informed of how much money you’ll lose.
Sounds absurd, but increasingly that’s the global bond market these days. A rising share of government and corporate bonds are trading at negative interest yields — a financial twilight zone that took hold after the financial crisis and has accelerated on fear that a fragile global economy will be further damaged by the U.S.-China trade war.
On Wednesday, for the first time ever, the German government sold 30-year bonds at a negative interest rate. The bonds pay no coupon interest at all. Yet bidders at the auction were willing to pay more than the face value they would receive back when the bonds mature.
The sale added to the mountain of negative-yielding bonds around the world that investors have gobbled up, suggesting that they expect global growth and inflation to remain subpar for years to come. After all, accepting a negative yield on a bond — agreeing, in effect, to lose money in exchange for parking money in a safe place — could reflect expectations that yields will sink even further into negative territory.
“You’re essentially paying a warehouse fee by paying these negative rates,” said Jim Bianco of Bianco Research in Chicago.
Worldwide debt with negative rates has surged to $16.4 trillion from $12.2 trillion in mid-July and $5.7 trillion in October, Bianco said.
“Until a few months ago, negative-yielding debt was an interesting curiosity,” he said. “In the last three months, it’s become a mainstay in the marketplace.”
The negative-yield phenomenon — 87% of it in Europe and Japan combined — is above all sign of pessimism about the future.
“This is like a temperature gauge for the economy, and it says the economy is sick,” said Sung Won Sohn, business economist at Loyola Marymount University in California.
The bond market is also responding to expectations that many central banks such as the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank will respond to economic weakness and the raging trade conflict between the U.S. and China by unleashing more stimulus to try to drive down interest rates. The ECB has indicated that it may decide on a stimulus package as soon as its Sept. 12 meeting.
Despite its strong credit rating and demand for its bonds, Germany is a big part of the growth problem for the eurozone. The German economy shrank 0.1 percent in the second quarter and could tip into recession with another quarter of falling output.
Negative rates aren’t just an indicator of economic distress. They can cause problems in the financial system, too. They make it harder for banks to turn a profit or for insurance companies to fund their future payouts.
“Why would you want to lend money when you can’t make money?” Sohn said.
Indeed, bank stocks have tumbled — 24% in Europe and 23% in Japan — over the past year.
Most of the negative-yielding debt is in government bonds, in part because they are seen as ultra-safe. But there are also about $60 billion U.S. corporate bonds that are in negative territory.
Something similar is going on with U.S. government debt: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note has sagged to 1.57% — a rate that would amount to a negative one after accounting for inflation. Japan has been stuck in years of low inflation and sluggish growth. And growth rates in Europe have slowed in recent quarters.
German bonds are prime candidates for negative rates. The country’s financial solidity means that safety-seeking investors will at least receive most of their money back. German 10-year bonds yield negative 0.69%. Other countries with negative yields on government bonds include Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Spain.
What was especially unusual about the German bond sale was its long maturity. As anyone who has shopped for a bank CD knows, you usually get more interest the longer your money is tied up. Yet bond yields are sagging not just for shorter term issues but also for longer-term bonds.
The negative yields on German bonds have fueled debate over the government’s insistence on running budget surpluses and avoiding new debt, even though the government could borrow to spend more on roads and bridges and in effect be paid to do so.
Economists and such outside voices as the U.S Treasury and the International Monetary Fund say Germany could support growth at home and abroad by spending more. Germany’s economy shrank 0.1% in the second quarter, held back by slowing global trade and the auto industry’s adjustment to tough emissions standards and new technologies.
A little bond math helps to understand things. Bond yields and prices move in opposite directions. If investors think inflation and interest rates will rise above levels now reflected in bond yields, they may sell the bond, sending its yield higher. Conversely, demand for bonds — as seen now — drives the price up and the yield down. The more investors foresee low growth and low inflation ahead, the more willing they become to buy bonds that offer low returns. They can earn healthy returns from rising bond prices, even when the yields are negative.
One big reason for falling yields is purchases by central banks. The European Central Bank bought 2.6 trillion euros in government and corporate bonds as part of a stimulus program that ended in December. As the economic picture has worsened, the bank has signaled those purchases might start again.
In addition to its signal about the economy, negative yields can make it harder to fund retirement savings. The high bond prices reflected in the low yields also raise the possibility of a bond market plunge if sentiment changes.
That could happen if the economies of Europe and Japan begin to regain momentum and their central banks call off their easy money policies.
“The worst thing that can happen for these bonds is, God forbid, the economies recover,” Bianco said.
Wiseman contributed from Washington.