French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing.

The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy.

For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests.

The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.

Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said.

However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported.

The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12.

France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described the reform as a missed opportunity to improve labor relations.

“CFDT disappointed,” the union’s leader Laurent Berger told reporters after a meeting with the government, but he added: “Taking to the streets is not the only mode of action for unions.”

Studying Black Holes in a Bathtub

Mysterious black holes, thought to reside in the center of every galaxy, are difficult to study because even the closest one, in the center of our own Milky Way, is still some 27,000 light years away. But researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Quantum Gravity Laboratory have found that some of the physical phenomena linked to black holes can be studied in an ordinary bathtub. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around.

De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated.

The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Undocumented immigrants nervous

However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net.

In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect.

De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared that if they stayed they risked arrest.

Departing workers, he says, pose a problem for Houston in the wake of Harvey, which has caused flood damage to commercial buildings, houses, roads and bridges expected to run into tens of billions of dollars.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Undocumented workers perform a wide range of construction jobs, from framing and dry-walling to plumbing and wiring.

Shortage of U.S. trained workers

Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

Marek would like to see the federal government grant emergency work authorization for undocumented workers in the rebuilding effort, he said. Otherwise, those immigrants are likely to be hired by firms that do not pay payroll taxes or provide benefits like workers’ compensation and legally mandated overtime.

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.

About 25 percent of the construction workers involved in the cleanup of New Orleans were undocumented, according to a study by researchers at Tulane and UC Berkeley universities. Those without papers were “especially at risk of exploitation,” the study found.

Worker exodus

The labor shortages are likely to grow worse, many builders warn. Earlier this year, a group of Hispanic contractors sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott warning that the pending ban on sanctuary city policies would make it “difficult to find and retain experienced workers.”

Javier Arrias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas and one of the letter’s signers, told Reuters that “many construction workers are already moving to other states.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the role undocumented workers might play in the recovery.

Elizabeth Theiss, president of Houston-based anti-immigration group Stop the Magnet, sees another option besides looking to workers in the country illegally. She says the rebuilding effort should be used to help train U.S. veterans and other citizens who need jobs.

Theiss acknowledged that reconstruction might proceed more slowly, at least initially, if immigrants without work documents are not part of the effort, but she noted that rebuilding would be slow under any scenario.

Personal hardships

Whatever role undocumented people play in rebuilding Houston, they could face hardships rebuilding their own lives.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency food, water and medicine to anyone, regardless of immigration status, cash assistance and other longer term aid is only available to citizens and immigrants in households where at least one family member has legal status.

Immigrant advocates are launching private fundraising drives to help fill the void.

“It is deeply tragic and un-American that so many of those working men and women who will be rebuilding Houston and the rest of the state will be doing so while facing tragedy in their own lives,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

De Leon said his family was lucky and did not suffer flood damage. He is now busy rounding up supplies for immigrant families stuck at shelters who are afraid to seek out more help from authorities.

In the end, he says, President Donald Trump has to know “it’s going to be impossible to rebuild Houston without the labor force of immigrants. It is illogical, what he says with his words and what really has to happen.”

Record-setting NASA Astronaut Ready to Come Home

Records are made for breaking, and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is breaking them in droves. When she returns to Earth on Sept, 2, she’ll have earned a place among the nation’s greatest space explorers. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Michigan, North Dakota Among States Likely to be Hurt by NAFTA Changes

Michigan is likely to be the state most hurt by changes to the NAFTA trade agreement, according to a Fitch Ratings report released Wednesday, as U.S. President Donald Trump renewed threats to scrap the deal.

Trump has threatened three times in the past week to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, revisiting his view that the United States would probably have to start the process of exiting the accord to reach a fair deal for his country.

A second round of talks starts Friday in Mexico City to renegotiate the 1994 accord binding the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Business groups have largely praised NAFTA and hope to persuade all three governments to make minimal changes to the pact. U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade has quadrupled since NAFTA took effect in 1994, surpassing $1 trillion in 2015.

Michigan’s auto sector

While several other states export a significant amount of products to Canada and Mexico, Michigan is an outlier in Fitch’s analysis because of the state’s global role in the automotive sector and proximity to Canada, the report said.

Sixty-five percent of the Michigan’s exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2016, totaling 7.4 percent of its gross state product, it said.

“Any state that is particularly export dependent or exposed to trade, if there’s a falloff in trade it’s going to hit income and sales taxes and that’s going to weaken state revenues,” said Michael D’Arcy, a director of U.S. public finance at Fitch. “Cuts would have to be made.”

Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, said in a statement to Reuters that Canada, Michigan’s No.1 trading partner, has been important to the state’s economic recovery but he understands that sometimes policies need to change.

11 states trade heavily with Canada

According to the report, 11 U.S. states send at least 30 percent of their exports to Canada. By merchandise value, 82 percent of North Dakota’s exports went to Canada in 2016. Forty-three percent of New Mexico’s exports were sent to Mexico.

Several states also import a substantial amount of Canadian goods.

“A unilateral U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA would sharply increase import tariffs overnight, entailing potentially substantial costs for U.S. importers and consumers,” the report said.

Major metropolitan areas could also be affected by U.S. trade policy changes, with Texas’s El Paso MSA, or metropolitan statistical area, left vulnerable to NAFTA changes, the report said. Exports to Canada and Mexico accounted for 91 percent of the MSA’s exports.

‘Reprogrammed’ Stem Cells Fight Parkinson’s Disease in Monkeys

Scientists have successfully used “reprogrammed” stem cells to restore functioning brain cells in monkeys, raising hopes the technique could be used in the future to help patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Since Parkinson’s is caused by a lack of dopamine made by brain cells, researchers have long hoped to use stem cells to restore normal production of the neurotransmitter chemical.

Now, for the first time, Japanese researchers have shown that human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be administered safely and effectively to treat primates with symptoms of the debilitating disease.

So-called iPS cells are made by removing mature cells from an individual — often from the skin — and reprogramming them to behave like embryonic stem cells. They can then be coaxed into dopamine-producing brain cells.

The scientists from Kyoto University, a world-leader in iPS technology, said their experiment indicated that this approach could potentially be used for the clinical treatment of human patients with Parkinson’s.

In addition to boosting dopamine production, the tests showed improved movement in affected monkeys and no tumors in their brains for at least two years.

The human iPS cells used in the experiment worked whether they came from healthy individuals or Parkinson’s disease patients, the Japanese team reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“This is extremely promising research demonstrating that a safe and highly effective cell therapy for Parkinson’s can be produced in the lab,” said Tilo Kunath of the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the research.

The next step will be to test the treatment in a first-in-human clinical trial, which Jun Takahashi of Kyoto University told Reuters he hoped to start by the end of 2018.

Any widespread use of the new therapy is still many years away, but the research has significantly reduced previous uncertainties about iPS-derived cell grafts.

The fact that this research uses iPS cells rather human embryonic stem cells means the treatment would be acceptable in countries such as Ireland and much of Latin America, where embryonic cells are banned.

Excitement about the promise of stem cells has led to hundreds of medical centers springing up around the world claiming to be able to repair damaged tissue in conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

While some treatments for cancer and skin grafts have been approved by regulators, many other potential therapies are only in early-stage development, prompting a warning last month by health experts about the dangers of “stem-cell tourism.”

Matt Damon Goes Mini in Venice Opener ‘Downsizing’

Downsizing has generated jumbo-sized buzz at the Venice Film Festival — not least as viewers debate how to describe it.

Is it a science fiction film, a romantic comedy, a political parable, an apocalyptic thriller? Alexander Payne’s movie mixes all those elements in its story of a man, played by Matt Damon, who tries to solve his problems by shrinking himself.

Damon and co-stars Kristen Wiig and Hong Chau joined Payne on the red carpet for the film’s Venice premiere Wednesday — the first of 11 days of galas that will bring stars including George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence to the canal-crossed Italian city.

The Venice opening-night slot has become coveted by filmmakers hoping to make a splash come awards season. Several recent Venice openers, including Gravity and La La Land, have gone on to win multiple Academy Awards.

Downsizing has ingredients that could help it strike a similar chord with audiences and awards voters: a likable, bankable star in Damon; a strong supporting cast that includes Wiig and Christophe Waltz; and an imaginative story laced with compassion and humor.

Payne says despite its sci-fi premise and international canvas, Downsizing is not so different to the films he’s best known for — funny-sad stories of middle-aged or Midwestern strugglers such as About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska.

 “It has the same sense of humor and basically the same tone,” Payne told reporters in Venice on Wednesday.

The movie applies Payne’s wry eye for human foibles to a plot that explores the power and limits of science and the threat of environmental catastrophe.

The script by Payne and Jim Taylor opens with a Norwegian scientist making a breakthrough he thinks will save humanity: a technique that can shrink people to 5 inches (12 centimeters) tall. That means they use a tiny fraction of the resources they once did — and need to pay less, allowing people of modest means to grow instantly rich by becoming small.

The movie has fun imagining what the miniaturized world would be like, as Damon goes to live in a luxury micro-city, a sort of retirement community for the tiny.

Then it takes a serious turn to ask whether science could be humanity’s salvation, or whether stubbornly fallible human nature is likely to be our species’ undoing.

Along the way, a movie that started in the familiar Payne territory of Omaha, Nebraska, takes viewers all the way to an underground bunker in a Norwegian fjord.

Many will find the journey unexpected, but reviewers in Venice were mostly happy to be swept along for the ride. The Guardian called the film a “spry, nuanced, winningly digressive movie,” while the Hollywood Reporter said it was “captivating, funny” and “deeply humane.”

Ultimately, the film rests on Payne’s knack for depicting human relationships. Damon’s Paul becomes friends with a louche European neighbor, played by Waltz, and develops feelings for Ngoc Lan, a former Vietnamese political prisoner working as a house cleaner.

Actress Hong Chau (Treme, Inherent Vice) is already being talked of as a potential awards nominee for her performance as the spirited, complex character.

“This is a character that is normally in the background, that is low-status character in the culture, and not one that you typically see in the forefront of a story,” she said.

Downsizing is the latest ordinary-Joe role for Damon, who exudes a likable everyman-under-duress quality whether he’s action hero Jason Bourne or a stranded astronaut in The Martian.

Damon said he thinks movies “are the greatest tool for empathy that we have.”

“What I love about this — what I love about a lot of these stories that I get to help tell — is it shows a relatable character whose life is different from our own but who we find common cause with,” he said. “This is a beautiful and optimistic movie. A journalist said to me, which I thought was really great: `This is Alexander’s most optimistic movie and it has the apocalypse in it.”‘

The film has been in the works for a decade, but in an AP interview, Damon said its environmental theme felt “torn from the headlines.”

“Though the [U.S.] administration wouldn’t say that,” he added. “They’re not acknowledging climate change as a reality.”

Alexa, Cortana Talk to Each Other in Amazon-Microsoft Deal

Microsoft and Amazon are pairing their voice assistants together in a collaboration announced Wednesday.

Both companies say later this fall, users will be able to access Alexa using Cortana on Windows 10 computers and on Android and Apple devices. They’ll also be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices such as the Amazon Echo.

Microsoft says the tie-up will allow Alexa customers to get access to Cortana features such as for booking meetings or accessing work calendars. Cortana users, in turn, can ask Alexa to switch on smart home devices or shop on Amazon’s website.

The use of voice assistants is growing. Google and Amazon already have smart speakers on the market. Apple has HomePod coming with its Siri assistant, while Samsung plans one with Microsoft’s Cortana.

Amazon has little to lose from the partnership, and Microsoft’s Cortana — which has been largely limited to laptops — might get discovered by more users because of it, said Carolina Milanesi, a mobile technology analyst at Creative Strategies.

“Cortana might get a little bit more out of it because it gets Cortana out of the PC,” she said. “For Cortana to really get to be more important, it needs to be consistently used every day for different tasks.”

Milanesi said that for Amazon especially, which wants more people to consider Alexa as their first choice, the partnership also might be designed to send a message to customers and rivals.

“They both get something out of it, which is mainly showing Apple and Google that they’re willing to work together to get stronger,” Milanesi said.

US Economic Growth Upgraded to 3 Percent Rate in Q2

The U.S. economy rebounded sharply in the spring, growing at the fastest pace in more than two years amid brisk consumer spending on autos and other goods.


The gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the April-June quarter, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. It was the best showing since a 3.2 percent gain in the first quarter of 2015.


The result is a healthy upward revision from the government’s initial estimate of 2.6 percent growth in the second quarter. The growth rate in the January-March quarter was a lackluster 1.2 percent.


Improvements in consumer spending, particularly on autos, and business investment powered second-quarter growth. Those revisions offset a bigger drag from spending by state and local governments.

This was the second of three estimates the government will provide for second quarter growth. Even with the upward revision, the weak start to the year means that growth over the past six months has averaged 2.1 percent, the same modest pace seen for the recovery that began in mid-2009.


During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump attacked the Obama administration’s economic record, pledging to double GDP growth to 4 percent or better. His first budget, sent to Congress earlier this year, projects growth rates will climb to a sustained annual rate of 3 percent, a goal that many private economists believe is still too optimistic.

 The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees growth averaging 1.9 percent over the next decade, a forecast much closer to estimates made by private economists.


Many economists had been forecasting growth in the current July-September quarter would be around 3 percent. Some are now saying that the devastation from Hurricane Harvey could shave about a half-percentage point off growth this quarter. However, analysts believe the pace of growth will bounce back once the rebuilding begins and oil refineries get back to full production, bringing down prices.

For the entire year, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, is forecasting growth of 2.1 percent. That would mark an improvement over last year when the economy grew a meager 1.5 percent, the poorest showing since 2009 when GDP shrank by 2.9 percent.

Zandi is forecasting that growth in 2018 will be an even stronger 2.8 percent. But he said 0.4 percentage point of that forecast reflects an assumption that the Trump administration will win a tax cut package that will take effect in early 2018. The economy will also be boosted by higher spending on the military and infrastructure projects, he said.


“For the first time since the Great Recession ended in mid-2009, the economy is not facing any significant headwinds,” Zandi said.



US Hosts World Cup Qualifier in New York Area for 1st Time

The U.S. is playing a World Cup qualifier in the New York metropolitan area for the first time, a critical match against Costa Rica on Friday night at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

The Americans have played plenty of matches in and near the Big Apple, mostly in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and exhibition games. Until now, the closest to New York a qualifier has been played was in 1989, a 2-1 win over Guatemala at Veterans Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut.

“This was a pipe dream, this stadium in Harrison,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars when the team was based at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. “For it to be there and to actually be playing games, you know, there’s no crowd like playing in front of your home crowd for me.”

Howard spoke Tuesday during a news conference in Manhattan, joined by coach Bruce Arena, captain Michael Bradley and teenage star midfielder Christian Pulisic.

After the U.S. opened the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, the U.S. Soccer Federation brought back Arena to replace coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The U.S. has recovered and is in third place with eight points, trailing Mexico (14) and Costa Rica (11). Panama (seven), Honduras (five) and Trinidad and Tobago (three) follow.

The top three nations qualify, and the fourth-place team advances to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

Perhaps no one understands the role fan support can play in an outcome more than Arena, a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame. The U.S. had a 16-year home unbeaten streak in qualifying going into a match against Honduras at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1, 2001. The majority of the sellout crowd of 54,282 backed Honduras, which won 3-2.

“Only in America, I guess, we’re fighting for a home-field advantage,” Arena, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, said at the time.

Costa Rica played a Gold Cup match at Harrison in July, but Arena expects a different crowd.

“We’re playing at home and I don’t care what anyone says. We have a home-field advantage,” Arena said. “My experiences in the short time that I’ve been here back with the U.S. team is that we have great support and I really believe that we’ll have great support on Friday, and hopefully the fact that Costa Rica played here in the Gold Cup is not going be a factor.”

At a venue with a 25,000 capacity that was built for Major League Soccer, the USSF and Red Bulls can control ticket allocation with pre-sales to Red Bulls season-ticket holders and national team regulars.

“We understand the challenges of playing at home versus going on the road in CONCACAF and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that in five or six weeks’ time we’ve punched our ticket to Russia,” Bradley said. “It’s on us to make sure that we can finish the job and allow ourselves the chance to look forward to playing at a World Cup next summer.”

The U.S. plays Honduras at San Pedro Sula on Sept. 5, and then closes the hexagonal against Panama on Oct. 6 at Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad four days later.

“All the work that we’ve put in this year was for these next four games, to make sure that we can find the right ways in the biggest moments when the lights come on brightest to make sure that we get the job done,” Bradley said.

Reality check

U.S. players also have their minds on teammates and their families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“I’ve heard DaMarcus (Beasley) speak of it. I haven’t yet had the chance yet to talk with Clint (Dempsey),” Arena said. “Hopefully his family’s safe. I know they’re in east Texas. I know it’s a tough week for them. I know for DaMarcus in particular it’s been very challenging. For him personally, for his friends and family ties to the Houston area. It’s difficult but all we can do is hope that the conditions improve in the Houston area and that everyone is safe.”

Added Bradley: “Some of the images and videos that have come out of Texas have been heartbreaking, and for all of us now as human beings, as fellow Americans, to find the right ways to show support and help that part of the country as they find the right ways to move on from this. That’s very important and obviously in our own very little way playing and representing the country in a really strong and proud way on Friday night is a little part of that.”

Source: US Sanctions on Venezuela Oil Company CFO Tangle Financial Deals

U.S. sanctions on the finance boss of Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA have led to some exports to the United States being blocked as banks and investment funds refuse to provide letters of credit to potential buyers, three financial sources said.

U.S. businesses are barred from dealing with a sanctioned person or company and one of the sources said the sanctions on PDVSA’s Finance Vice President Simon Zerpa were deterring some businesses from investments with the company as so many of its transactions are linked to the finance department he leads.

A Venezuelan oil shipment to the United States was blocked this month as lenders refused to provide letters of credit to PDVSA customers, the sources said.

Letters of credit, issued by banks, guarantee to a seller that a buyer will pay a specified amount on time when a shipment is accepted. Without a letter of credit, shipments cannot be delivered and the shipper does not get paid. Blocking letters of credit for PDVSA oil chokes off cash that is desperately needed in the OPEC nation.

Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., commonly known as PDVSA, is the financial motor of President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government, and it is operating within one of the deepest economic recessions Venezuela has ever experienced and widespread political unrest.

In one instance, U.S. refiner PBF Energy was unable to get a letter of credit for a Venezuelan crude cargo to be received at a U.S. port.

The Suezmax tanker Karvounis has been anchored in the U.S. Gulf for more than a month. It partially discharged its cargo on Aug. 23 in New Orleans, according to Thomson Reuters vessel tracking data. A trader close to the deal said PBF Energy ultimately agreed to a prepayment, removing the need for a credit letter. It was unclear what would happen with the rest of the cargo.

Some U.S. customers can import without a letter of credit if they pay up front.

In July, the United States imposed sanctions on 13 senior Venezuelan officials, including the head of Venezuela’s army, the national police chief, the director of elections, and Zerpa.

At the time, a U.S. official warned that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was readying tougher measures that could be part of a “steady drumbeat” of responses to the Venezuelan crisis.

The most serious potential future step would be financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country’ oil, starving the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, Venezuela’s biggest customer.

This month the United States imposed its first economic sanctions on Venezuela, banning debt trades for government-issued bonds and bonds issued by PDVSA. 

The problem could spread to more cargoes if banks refuse to extend credit to companies that have a commercial relationship with PDVSA, the sources said.

The sources said foreign oil companies funding projects in Venezuela and financial entities negotiating with PDVSA were avoiding signing agreements that could involve Zerpa.

Major oil company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has pulled back from funding some operations at its joint venture in Venezuela, a source at PDVSA said.

Neither PDVSA nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment. Zerpa was not immediately available to comment.

“PDVSA will face additional trouble just by keeping a sanctioned individual as CFO,” said Jorge Piedrahita, chief executive of broker-dealer Gear Capital Partners, who has been involved with Venezuelan debt for many years.

“Even the Russians and China’s Development Bank should be worried about signing something with him as they can be subject to collateral damage from sanctions just by association.”

A close Maduro ally, Zerpa, 34, rose to prominence by leading the bilateral Venezuela-China fund through which Caracas borrows from Beijing and repays loans in oil and fuel. Venezuela has borrowed over $60 billion from China, earning Zerpa the nickname “Zerpa the Chinese.”

Two additional financial sources said having Zerpa as the company’s head of finance had made it impossible for U.S. entities to assist PDVSA in debt refinancing, even before the U.S. economic sanctions.

Even basic activities, such as a conference call with bondholders, are now essentially unthinkable, the sources said.

Sanctions against Zerpa are having a knock-on effect on Wall Street, affecting imports of food and medicine to Venezuela made through funds headed by Zerpa, according to Delcy Rodriguez, president of Maduro’s new legislative assembly.

“This wasn’t done to affect Venezuelan officials but rather the entire population,” Rodriguez said on Monday.

Zerpa has held several high-profile posts including heading Venezuela’s state economic development bank Bandes and off-budget investment fund Fonden.

Opposition lawmakers have said he is an example of how the late Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialism” has allowed unprepared political figures to wield power over financial deals.

“I have a negative opinion of him because of the way he handled the Chinese fund,” said opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado, describing Zerpa as Maduro’s “finance tsar.”

U.S. pressure could force PDVSA to remove Zerpa from his post, at least on paper. However, PDVSA has had issues in the past that have led investors to tread cautiously with Venezuela.

“In part, the sanctions codify an already existing situation in which PDVSA and the Republic have little to no access to international financial markets due to the combination of political risk, unsustainable policies, concerns about legality

of new issues and reputational risk from providing funds to the Venezuelan government,” investment firm Torino Capital wrote in a report to clients after Friday’s sanctions.

Trump to Promote Tax Reform

U.S. President Donald Trump is traveling to the state of Missouri to try to build support for his goal of reforming the country’s tax code.

Administration officials say the president will focus on explaining the need for tax reform, but not the specifics of a plan to do so, during a speech Wednesday in the city of Springfield.  They say he will promote tax cuts as a way to help American workers.

Trump has in the past proposed cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent.

The U.S. tax code has not undergone a significant overhaul since 1986.

Trump’s Republican Party controls both houses of the U.S. Congress, but failed in its earlier efforts to overhaul another major program as leaders were unable to get enough votes to change the health care system.

New Peptide Could Help Fight Drug-Resistant ‘Superbugs’

Israeli scientists have developed a peptide that could be used in antimicrobial medicines which could help treat infections in a post-antibiotic era.  Faith Lapidus reports.

Finding Solutions to the World’s New Reality: Water Insecurity

According to the Water Project, more than 700 million people do not have easy access to clean, safe water. Solving the problem is the focus of an annual meeting of NGOs, charities and government leaders.  VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Study: Cities and Companies Team Up to Tackle Urban Water Crises

With rising urban populations and ever scarcer water supplies, cities and companies are teaming up to invest billions of dollars in water management projects, a report said on Tuesday.

Around two thirds of cities from London to Los Angeles are working with the private sector to address water and climate change stresses with 80 cities seeking $9.5 billion of investment for water projects, according to a report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a non-profit environmental research group.

Water investment opportunities are greatest in Latin America, with Quito in Ecuador seeking $800 million to manage its water supply, including building three hydropower stations and cleaning up its contaminated rivers and streams.

City in India prepares for future

The cities most concerned about their water supply lie in Asia and the Pacific, the report found, with serious risks also identified in Africa and Latin America.

The key issues for cities include declining water quality, water shortages and flooding.

The Indian city of Chennai faced extreme floods in 2015 which killed hundreds and left survivors without access to clean water, while businesses were also severely disrupted.

The city is now investing in boosting its resilience to future water crises, with water conservation education, building a storm water management system and new infrastructure.

“We are seeing critical shifts in leadership from cities and companies in response to the very real threat of flooding, for example, to local economies,” said Morgan Gillespy, head of CDP’s Water Program.

Climate change is another underlying threat to all cities with an increase in extreme weather events from droughts to floods, with cities in North America more concerned than those in Europe, the report found.

Tropical Storm Harvey, pounding the U.S. Gulf Coast, has killed at least eight people, led to mass evacuations and paralyzed Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city.

The storm is most likely linked to climate change, said the U.N. weather agency.

Companies are also concerned about the effects of climate change on water supplies, with $14 billion of water impacts such as loss of production reported by companies last year, the report found.

WATCH: Worrying About Water

UN predicts global water shortfall

The United Nations predicts a 40 percent shortfall in global water supply by 2030, while global demand is set to increase by 55 percent due to growing domestic use, manufacturing and electricity generation.

“From our work with cities around the world, water has consistently come up as a key resilience challenge,” said Claire Bonham-Carter, Principal and City Resilience Lead at AECOM, a global infrastructure firm and partner on the report.

“Many of them, regardless of size, from Mexico City, Mexico to Berkeley, California, are addressing both long-term water supply issues as well as chronic urban flooding.”

World’s Biggest Drone Drug Deliveries Take Off in Tanzania

Tanzania is set to launch the world’s largest drone delivery network in January, with drones parachuting blood and medicines out of the skies to save lives.

California’s Zipline will make 2,000 deliveries a day to more than 1,000 health facilities across the east African country, including blood, vaccines and malaria and AIDS drugs, following the success of a smaller project in nearby Rwanda.

“It’s the right move,” Lilian Mvule, 51, said by phone, recalling how her granddaughter died from malaria two years ago.

“She needed urgent blood transfusion from a group O, which was not available,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Malaria is a major killer in Tanzania, and children under age 5 often need blood transfusions when they develop malaria-induced anemia. If supplies are out of stock, as is often the case with rare blood types, they can die.

Tanzania is larger than Nigeria and four times the size of the United Kingdom, making it hard for the cash-strapped government to ensure all of its 5,000-plus clinics are fully stocked, particularly in remote rural areas.

The drones fly at 100 kph (62 mph), much faster than traveling by road. Small packages are dropped from the sky using a biodegradable parachute.

The government also hopes to save the lives of thousands of women who die from profuse bleeding after giving birth.

Tanzania has one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates, with 556 deaths per 100,000 deliveries, government data show.

“It’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery,” Zipline’s chief executive, Keller Rinaudo, said in a statement. “African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”

Companies in the United States and elsewhere are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs, but there are hurdles ranging from the risk of collisions with airplanes to ensuring battery safety and longevity.

The drones will cut the drug delivery bill for Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, one of two regions where the project will first roll out, by $58,000 a year, according to Britain’s Department for International Development, one of the project’s backers.

The initiative could also ease tensions between frustrated patients and health workers.

“We always accuse nurses of stealing drugs,” said Angela Kitebi, who lives 40 kilometers east of Dodoma. “We don’t realize that the drugs are not getting here on time due to bad roads.”

Are Consumers Ready to Give Augmented Reality a Try?

You might have gotten a taste of “augmented reality,” the blending of the virtual and physical worlds, as you chased on-screen monsters at real-world landmarks in last year’s gaming sensation, “Pokemon Go.”

Upcoming augmented reality apps will follow that same principle of superimposing virtual images over real-life settings. That could let you see how furniture will look in your real living room before you buy it, for instance.

While “Pokemon Go” didn’t require special hardware or software, more advanced AR apps will. Google and Apple are both developing technology to enable that. Google’s AR technology is already on Android phones from Lenovo and Asus. On Tuesday, Google announced plans to bring AR to even more phones, including Samsung’s popular S8 and Google’s own Pixel, though it didn’t give a timetable beyond promising an update by the end of the year.

As a result, Apple might pull ahead as it extends AR to all recent iPhones and iPads in a software update expected next month, iOS 11. Hundreds of millions of AR-ready devices will suddenly be in the hands of consumers.

But how many are ready to give AR a try?

Early applications

Of the dozen or so apps demoed recently for Android and iPhones, the ones showing the most promise are furniture apps.

From a catalog or a website, it’s hard to tell whether a sofa or a bed will actually fit in your room. Even if it fits, will it be far enough from other pieces of furniture for someone to walk through?

With AR, you can go to your living room or bedroom and add an item you’re thinking of buying. The phone maps out the dimensions of your room and scales the virtual item automatically; there’s no need to pull out a tape measure. The online furnishing store Wayfair has the WayfairView for Android phones, while Ikea is coming out with one for Apple devices. Wayfair says it’s exploring bringing the app to iPhones and iPads, too.

As for whimsical, Holo for Android lets you pose next to virtual tigers and cartoon characters. For iPhones and iPads, the Food Network will let you add frosting and sprinkles to virtual cupcakes. You can also add balloons and eyes — who does that? — and share creations on social media.

Games and education are also popular categories. On Apple devices, a companion to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” creates zombies alongside real people for you to shoot. On Android, apps being built for classrooms will let students explore the solar system, volcanoes and more.

Beyond virtual reality

Virtual reality is a technology that immerses you in a different world, rather than trying to supplement the real world with virtual images, as AR does. VR was supposed to be the next big thing, but the appeal has been limited outside of games and industrial applications. You need special headsets, which might make you dizzy if you wear one too long.

And VR isn’t very social. Put on the headset, and you shut out everyone else around you. Part of the appeal of “Pokemon Go” was the ability to run into strangers who were also playing. Augmented reality can be a shared experience, as friends look on the phone screen with you.

Being available vs. Being used

While AR shows more promise than VR, there has yet to be a “killer app” that everyone must have, the way smartphones have become essential for navigation and everyday snapshots.

Rather, people will discover AR over time, perhaps a few years. Someone renovating or moving might discover the furniture apps. New parents might discover educational apps. Those people might then go on to discover more AR apps to try out. But just hearing that AR is available might not be enough for someone to check it out.

Consider mobile payments. Most phones now have the capability, but people still tend to pull out plastic when shopping. There’s no doubt more people are using mobile payments and more retailers are accepting them, but it’s far from commonplace.

Expect augmented reality to also take time to take off.

Climate to Push Forest-eating Beetles to Northern US, Canada, Scientists Predict

Forests in the northeastern United States and southern Canada could be ravaged by tree-killing beetles in coming decades as a warming climate expands the pest’s habitat, a study has found.

Over the next 60 years, southern pine beetles could infest forests in new areas of the United States and Canada, disrupting industries and ecosystems alike, it said.

Warmer winter nights allow spread

The red-brown insects, the size of a grain of rice, known to feast on pine-tree bark, has typically only thrived in the hotter climate of Central America and the southeastern United States.

But in recent years warmer than usual winter nights have allowed it to survive the cold months and spread as far north as the U.S. state of New York. The coldest winter night has warmed by 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (3 to 4 degrees Celsius) over the past 50 years in various parts of the United States, the study’s authors said.

Using computer-based climate models, they predicted the beetles should gradually march north along the Atlantic coast, infesting forests including in the U.S. states of Maine and Ohio all the way to Canada’s Nova Scotia.

Pest moves fast

By 2080, the pest should proliferate to red — and jack-pine forests in a 270,000 square miles (700,000 square km) area of the United States and Canada — roughly the size of Afghanistan, the researchers wrote in Nature Climate Change.

That would not only upend ecosystems, but also disrupt several key industries “in already struggling rural areas,” said lead author Corey Lesk, a researcher at Columbia University in New York.

“Residents of these regions could see a direct hit to their pocketbooks,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday in a phone interview.

Infestations costly to timber industry

Where the southern pine beetle has struck in the past, timber industries have been hard hit.

Infestations of pine beetles have cost an estimated $100 million a year in timber losses from 1990 to 2004 in the southeastern United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Thousands of adult beetles can kill a tree in two to four months as the insects carve S-shaped tunnels under the bark, depriving their host of needed nutrients.

The tourism industry would also likely suffer, said Lesk, with the potential destruction of iconic forests including the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and Long Island.

Europe faces same problem

In Europe, previous research has shown that bark beetles have similarly been chewing through pine and spruce trees in forests from the Swiss Alps to Belarus alongside temperature increases.

Land managers have found the best way to fight off bark beetles has been thinning high-density forests and cutting out infested trees, though with limited success, the researchers said.

“The key question is whether those strategies would be able to keep up with rapid advance of the pest into regions with little or no experience managing it,” Lesk said.


US Spacecraft Readies for Fiery Plunge into Saturn After 13-year Mission

The U.S. space agency’s Cassini spacecraft will end its 13-year mission to Saturn in mid-September by transmitting data until the final moment before it plunges into the ringed planet’s atmosphere, officials said Tuesday.

Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, will make the last of 22 farewell dives between the planet’s rings and surface on Sept. 15. The spacecraft will then burn up as it heads straight into the gas giant’s crushing atmosphere.

Cassini’s final dive will end a mission that provided groundbreaking discoveries that included seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan’s resemblance to a primordial Earth, and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface.

“The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it’s coming to an end in about two weeks,” Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist, said on a telephone conference call with reporters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cassini’s final photo as it heads into Saturn’s atmosphere will likely be of propellers, or gaps in the rings caused by moonlets, said project scientist Linda Spilker.

The spacecraft will provide near real-time data on the atmosphere until it loses contact with Earth at 4:54 a.m. PDT (1154 GMT) on Sept. 15, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Spilker said Cassini’s latest data on the rings had shown they had a lighter mass than forecast. That suggests they are younger than expected, at about 120 million years, and thus were created after the birth of the solar system, she said.

During its final orbits between the atmosphere and the rings, Cassini also studied Saturn’s atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet’s rocky core.

Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004. It has provided enough data for almost 4,000 scientific papers.

Since the craft is running low on fuel, NASA is crashing it into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with Titan, Enceladus or any other moon that has the potential to support indigenous microbial life.

By destroying the spacecraft, NASA will ensure that any hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini will not contaminate the moons for future study.

World Bank: Tackle Middle East Water Scarcity to Save Money, Boost Stability

The Middle East and North Africa region loses about $21 billion each year because of an inadequate supply of water and sanitation, the World Bank said Tuesday, warning that urgent action is needed to prevent ripple effects on stability and growth.

Poor management of water resources and sanitation in the world’s most water-scarce region costs about 1 percent of its annual gross domestic product, with conflict-hit states losing as much as 2 to 4 percent each year, the bank said in a report issued at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

Deaths due to unsafe water and sanitation in some parts of the region, particularly countries affected by conflict, are higher than the global average, it added.

“As the current conflict and migration crisis unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa shows, failure to address water challenges can have severe impacts on people’s well-being and political stability,” the report said.

Peril in Yemen

In Yemen, which is reeling from more than two years of conflict, water supply networks serving its largest cities are at risk of collapse due to war-inflicted damage and disrepair, and about 15 million people have been cut off from regular access to water and sanitation, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) said in a separate statement Tuesday.

In Syria, where the conflict is well into its seventh year, water has frequently been used as “a weapon of war,” with pumps deliberately destroyed and water sources contaminated, and about 15 million people are in need of safe water, including an estimated 6.4 million children, UNICEF said.

Overall, 183 million people lack access to basic drinking water in countries affected by conflict, violence and instability around the world, it added.

Better management

With the urban population in the Middle East and North Africa expected to double by 2050 to nearly 400 million, a combination of policy, technology and water management tools should be used to improve the water situation, the World Bank report said.

“Water productivity — in other words, how much return you get for every drop of water used — in the Middle East in general is the lowest on average in the world,” said Anders Jägerskog, a specialist in water resources management at the World Bank and one of the report’s authors.

Middle Eastern and North African countries are using far more water than can be replenished, said the report.

To reverse the trend, technology and innovation are “essential but not enough,” Jägerskog told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Water governance — in particular, water tariffs and subsidies — must also be addressed, he said.

The region has the world’s lowest water tariffs and spends the highest proportion of GDP on public water subsidies. Such policies lead to excessive use of already scarce water supplies and are not sustainable, said Jägerskog.

Untreated wastewater

Another challenge is that more than half of the wastewater collected in the region is fed back into the environment untreated.

“Along with better water management, there is room for increasing the supply through nonconventional methods such as desalination and recycling,” Guangzhe Chen, senior director of the World Bank’s global water practice, said in a statement.

Improved water management could bring considerable financial returns, the report noted.

Governments could gain $10 billion annually by improving the storage and delivery of irrigation water to users, while increasing agricultural production by up to 8 percent, the report said.

Egypt, Syria and Iran — which have the largest proportion of irrigated land in the region — are the countries that could benefit most.