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AP Explains: Mexico president raises hopes, ruffles feathers
By MARK STEVENSON | Sat, November 30, 2019 12:00 EST
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office one year ago, vowing to transform Mexico. He has focused on austerity and fighting corruption, because corrupt, high-living politicians have angered Mexicans perhaps more than anything else. He pledged a presidency close to the people, without privileges for officials, with punishment for the corrupt, with safety and economic wellbeing for all. One year later, how is AMLO, as he is known, doing?
HAS HE BEEN WORKING HARD?
López Obrador’s daily schedule in his first year includes almost super-human efforts for a 66-year-old with past heart problems and high blood pressure. He has never once sat down in the course of 255 morning news conferences, each lasting an average of about two hours. In over 500 hours of answering questions from the press, he has never been seen taking a sip of water. Once a fan of greasy roadside restaurant, has even stopped posting photos of himself eating.
HAS HE BROUGHT PROSPERITY TO MEXICO?
Mexico may be no richer, but the wealth may be spread around a little better. The first three quarters of his administration were marked by zero growth in GDP. López Obrador has raised the minimum wage, though it is still a paltry $5 per day. What he has done is target the poorest sectors, especially indigenous people, with scholarships, training programs, farm subsidies and payments to the elderly.
HAS HE BROUGHT MEXICO’S CRIME AND VIOLENCE UNDER CONTROL?
López Obrador says he meets with his security cabinet every morning at 6:00 a.m. and calls the anti-crime effort his top priority. But Mexico’s murder rate actually inched up 2% in the first 10 months of his first year in office, to historically high levels. In November, drug cartel gunmen slaughtered three women who held U.S. citizenship and six of their children.
He has also been criticized for ordering the army and the new National Guard force to avoid confrontations, but he says his strategy is to solve the underlying social problems that lead people into crime. Under López Obrador, the detention of drug lords has fallen, and seizures of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines are all down in the first 10 months of his administration, compared to the same period of previous years.
HAS HE LIVED UP TO HIS AUSTERITY PLEDGE?
He cut his own salary, refused to live in the sprawling presidential compound, and takes commercial, tourist-class flights. He has cut perks for government employees and set up auctions of luxury goods seized from drug traffickers and tax cheats, giving the proceeds to Mexico’s poorest towns. The downsides of his austerity are budget cuts that run so deep hospitals for a time were running short of medicine and staff. The head of the environment department publicly complained that his agency’s 2020 budget was less than half of what it was in 2015. There were also steep cuts for the judiciary, the federal electoral agency and the federal freedom of information agency.
HAS HE BEEN CLOSE TO THE PEOPLE?
Almost too close. He travels by highway whenever possible; he put the presidential jet up for sale and likes to stop and shake hands with people on the highway. But he has sometimes been out of contact with the rest of the government because of spotty cellphone coverage in rural Mexico. He has since had a satellite phone system installed in one of his tour vehicles, but at key moments, like a massive drug cartel gunfight in Culiacan in October, he has appeared out of touch because he was on tour.
He constant tours the country: he has visited over 80 rural hospitals in farming hamlets across the nation, along with 19 indigenous communities and dozens of towns and cities. This contrasts to his number trips abroad: exactly zero since he took office.
HAS HE MAINTAINED GOOD RELATIONS WITH THE US?
Yes, though that has meant cracking down on Central American migrants travelling through Mexico, to please President Donald Trump. Trump had threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican goods unless he did so. Right now, López Obrador would dearly like the U.S. Congress to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, but that is being held up by Democratic concerns about Mexico’s still-lax labor standards. His policy change on Central American migrants has shocked some people. He once welcomed them into Mexico, and now tries to keep them out, albeit under U.S. pressure.
HAS HE BROUGHT MEXICO TOGETHER?
Not really. Mexico is quite polarized. López Obrador is accustomed to using strong language, especially toward conservatives, who he has called “hypocrites,” “corrupt,” “miserly,” “arrogant” and “two-faced know-it-alls.” He’s been almost as hard on what describes as the conservative “frivolous press,” which he claims has “distorted everything.” He has called some media outlets “our adversaries” and “pimps.” Oddly, in 255 news conferences since he took office Dec. 1, Lopez Obrador has rarely said a harsh word about the drug lords.
While several polls suggest his approval numbers have dropped perhaps 10 percentage points from their peak soon after he took office, López Obrador continues to get approval from about two-thirds of the population.
EarthLink – News
Vietnam receives last of 39 remains of trafficking victims
By HAU DINH | Sat, November 30, 2019 04:49 EST
DO THANH, Vietnam (AP) — The last remains of the 39 Vietnamese who died while being smuggled in a truck to England last month were repatriated to their home country on Saturday.
Photos by the official Vietnam News Agency showed the arrival at the Hanoi airport of 16 bodies and seven urns, which had been flown from London.
They were loaded into ambulances on a foggy morning for a trip to their hometowns in several provinces in northern and central Vietnam.
The bodies were found Oct. 23 in the English town of Grays, east of London. Police said the victims were aged between 15 and 44. While no cause of death has been officially established, the circumstances suggested asphyxiation.
The 31 men and eight women are believed to have paid human traffickers for their clandestine transit into England. Several suspects have been arrested in the U.K. and Vietnam.
Shortly after noon on Saturday, the body of one victim, 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung, arrived at Phu Tang church in the village of Do Thanh.
More than 100 Catholic villagers and family members waited for the body’s arrival at a highway leading to the village. They held white flowers, standing by the side of the road as the ambulance carrying the body passed.
After 15 minutes at the church, the mourners moved to Nhung’s home nearby. One of Nhung’s nieces held her portrait to lead the procession.
Nhung’s coffin was placed in the middle of the living room of the one-story house, with the family weeping by the sides. Relatives and neighbors came into the home to place incense.
A funeral will be held for Nhung at her home on Sunday, followed by a ceremony at the church before the burial.
An initial batch of 16 bodies were handed over to their families on Wednesday, and funerals were held the following day.
The impoverished villages the victims hailed from have largely been left out of the economic development that has turned urban centers in Vietnam such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi into boom towns, sending many on a risky journey looking for a better life abroad.
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Brazil’s president criticizes DiCaprio over Amazon fires
By DIANE JEANTET | Fri, November 29, 2019 08:51 EST
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Without offering proof, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday said actor Leonardo DiCaprio had funded nonprofit groups that he claimed are partly responsible for fires in the Amazon this year.
Bolsonaro’s remarks about the American actor were part of a wider government campaign against environmental nonprofit groups operating in Brazil.
“DiCaprio is a cool guy, isn’t he? Giving money to set the Amazon on fire,” the president said to supporters in Brasilia.
DiCaprio’s environmental organization Earth Alliance has pledged $5 million to help protect the Amazon after a surge in fires destroyed large parts of the rainforest in July and August. But the actor and committed environmentalist said in a statement sent to The Associated Press Friday his group had not funded any of the two nonprofits named by investigators so far.
“While worthy of support, we did not fund the organizations targeted,” the statement read. “The future of these irreplaceable ecosystems is at stake and I am proud to stand with the groups protecting them.”
Some members of Bolsonaro’s administration argue that civil society groups and environmental laws hinder economic development in the region.
Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are promoting development in some protected natural areas, even as intentional fires and deforestation in the Amazon have reached levels not seen in a decade.
The criticism of DiCaprio and environmental activists follows a police raid at the headquarters of two nonprofit groups in the Amazonian state of Para earlier this week. Local police also arrested four volunteer firefighters and say they are investigating them for allegedly igniting fires to obtain funding from sympathetic donors.
The volunteer firefighters denied any wrongdoing and a judge ordered their release.
Federal prosecutors say their investigations point to land-grabbers as primary suspects for fires in the area, not nonprofits or firefighters.
Cattle ranchers, farmers and illegal loggers have long used fire to clear land in the Amazon.
This is not the first time Brazil’s president has suggested, without evidence, that nonprofit groups are setting fires in the Amazon, or questioned warnings about climate change.
In August, in the midst of an international outcry over the Amazon fires, Bolsonaro blamed the “information war going on in the world against Brazil” and fired the head of the governmental space research institute that monitors deforestation.
Bolsonaro accused the institute’s president, Ricardo Galvão, of manipulating deforestation data to make his administration look bad.
But when an annual deforestation report released in November, three months after the incident, confirmed a double-digit percent uptick in deforestation, the government acknowledged that deforestation had increased year-on-year.
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AP Explains: What awaits Suriname’s convicted president?
Fri, November 29, 2019 05:58 EST
PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — A court in the South American country of Suriname has convicted President Desi Bouterse in the 1982 killings of 15 prominent political opponents and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The decision marks the end of a historic trial that began in 2007, the same year that Bouterse accepted “political responsibility” for the killings but insists he was not present.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
A panel of three judges issued its verdict while Bouterse is in China on an official visit. However, they did not issue an arrest order for Bouterse, who could not be immediately reached for comment and whose attorney called it a “political verdict” and appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, government officials have asked for calm among the nearly 600,000 people who live in Suriname, a former Dutch colony located in South America’s northeast coast whose economy is largely based on oil and gold exports. Bouterse is scheduled to arrive in Suriname on Sunday and then leave for Cuba shortly afterward for an official visit. It is unclear if those plans remain unchanged.
WHY DID THE TRIAL TAKE 12 YEARS?
The trial began in November 2007 and was hit by multiple setbacks, including efforts by Bouterse to end it. Shortly after he was elected president in 2010, Bouterse pushed through an amnesty law only to see it ruled unconstitutional. Then in 2016, he ordered Suriname’s attorney general to put a stop to legal proceedings in the name of national security, but a court ruled that he could not do so because the trial had already started. The murders are known as the “December killings” whose victims included well-known people such as lawyers, journalists and a university professor. At the time, the killings prompted the Dutch government to withdraw about $90 million in annual aid from Suriname.
WHO IS DESI BOUTERSE?
He first seized power in Suriname in a 1980 bloodless coup, five years after the country gained independence from the Netherlands. He then resigned under international pressure in 1987 in a move that led to a democratic election, only to briefly seize power again in 1990. He was later elected president in a parliamentary vote in 2010 and re-elected in 2015 unopposed. In 1999, Bouterse was convicted by a court in the Netherlands in absentia of drug trafficking but avoided an 11-year prison term because he cannot be extradited under Surinamese law. In 2015, his son, Dino Bouterse, was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison in the U.S. after he admitted he offered a home base in Suriname to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Dino Bouterse had previously been picked by his father to lead a counterterrorism unit in Suriname.
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France summons Turkish envoy over Erdogan jab at Macron
By SYLVIE CORBET | Fri, November 29, 2019 04:31 EST
PARIS (AP) — The French government summoned the Turkish ambassador Friday to seek explanations after his president described French President Emmanuel Macron as “brain dead.”
Ahead of a NATO summit next week that both men will attend, tensions have mounted around Turkey’s military operation in Syria, and its role within the trans-Atlantic defense alliance, which is also a member of the fight against so-called Islamic State.
Macron, complaining of a U.S. leadership vacuum, recently lamented the “brain death” of NATO and says the allies need “a wake-up call.” And on Thursday, he reiterated criticism of Turkey’s operation in northeast Syria against Kurdish fighters who were crucial in the international fight against IS extremists.
“I respect the security interests of our Turkish ally … but one can’t say that we are allies and demand solidarity, and on the other hand, present allies with a fait accompli by a military intervention which jeopardizes the action of the coalition against IS,” Macron said at a meeting with the NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg.
The comments angered Turkey’s leadership and prompted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shoot back Friday: “You should get checked whether you’re brain dead.”
“Kicking Turkey out of NATO or not, how is that up to you? Do you have the authority to make such a decision?” Erdogan asked, characterizing Macron as “inexperienced.”
Turkey also criticized Macron for agreeing to talks with a Syrian Kurd politician whom Ankara considers an extremist.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Ambassador Ismail Hakki Musa was summoned Friday to explain “unacceptable statements … that have no place in Turkish-French relations and cannot substitute for the necessary dialogue between the two countries.”
An official in Macron’s office said that NATO allies are expecting “clear answers” from Turkey about its intentions in Syria.
The Macron-Erdogan spat comes amid other problems within NATO that are expected to come to the fore at next week’s summit in London, including U.S. President Donald Trump’s complaints that other members don’t spend enough on defense and differences over the alliance’s post-Cold War mission.
Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed.