Pennsylvania Latinos Changing the Political Rhythm in Key Swing State

More than a half century ago, a group of Puerto Ricans moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, to work the nearby mushroom fields. Since then the Latino and Hispanic population of the city itself has mushroomed — to 65% of the total. That majority-minority population is being closely watched politically because it is a key constituency in a swing state considered a must-win for both parties in next year’s presidential election. VOA’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman reports from Reading.

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Trump Administration Revokes California’s Strict Emission Standards Despite Its Pollution

Remnants of tropical storm Imelda have caused serious flooding in eastern Texas, including parts of Houston, forcing evacuations, flight cancellations, school closures and causing some outages. Reports of other environmental disasters come from various parts of the world, as the United Nations General Assembly prepares to discuss climate change, which is linked to human activity such as pollution and gas-fueled transportation. Zlatica Hoke reports the Trump administration so far has shunned efforts to curb pollution, and there are no signs this will change.

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Remembering Afghanistan’s War Dead

Afghanistan has been awash in violence for decades, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in the fighting. A memorial designed to remember those lost and help survivors heal recently opened in Mazar-e-Sharif. VOA’s Mirwais Bezhan visited this exhibition and filed this report narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.

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‘Deeply Sorry’ Trudeau Begs Forgiveness for Brownface Photo

Canadian leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign moved to contain a growing scandal Thursday, following the publication of a yearbook photo showing him in brownface makeup at a 2001 costume party. The prime minister apologized and begged Canadians to forgive him.

Time magazine published the photo on Wednesday, saying it was taken from the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. It depicts the then 29-year-old Trudeau wearing a turban and robe, with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.

Trudeau, who launched his reelection campaign exactly one week ago, said he should have known better.

“I’m pissed off at myself, I’m disappointed in myself,” Trudeau told reporters traveling with him on his campaign plane.

The Canadian prime minister is but the latest politician to face scrutiny over racially insensitive photos and actions from their younger days. Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He denied being in the picture but admitted wearing blackface as a young man while portraying Michael Jackson at a dance party in the 1980s. Since then, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has acknowledged wearing blackface in college, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has publicly apologized for donning blackface during a college skit more than 50 years ago. None has resigned.

The photo of Trudeau was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year, Trudeau said, adding that he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.” The prime minister said it was not the first time he has painted his face; once, he said, he performed a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” during a talent show.

“I should have known better then but I didn’t, and I am deeply sorry for it,” Trudeau said. “I’m going to ask Canadians to forgive me for what I did. I shouldn’t have done that. I take responsibility for it.  It was a dumb thing to do.”

He said he has always been more enthusiastic about costumes than is “sometimes appropriate.”

“These are the situations I regret deeply,” Trudeau added.

The prime minister, who champions diversity and multiculturalism, said he didn’t consider it racist at the time but said society knows better now.

The photo’s publication could spell more trouble for Trudeau, who polls say is facing a serious challenge from Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

Trudeau has been admired by liberals around the world for his progressive policies in the Trump era, with Canada accepting more refugees than the United States. His Liberal government has also strongly advocated free trade and legalized cannabis nationwide.

But the 47-year-old son of late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was already vulnerable following one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the criminal prosecution of a company in Quebec. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the scandal rocked the government and led to multiple resignations earlier this year, causing a drop in the leader’s poll ratings.

Following the release of the brownface photo, Trudeau said he would talk to his kids in the morning about taking responsibility.

His quick apology did not stem the criticism from political opponents, who took the prime minister to task for what they said was troubling behavior.

“It is insulting. Any time we hear examples of brownface or blackface it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live, for what their lived experiences are. I think he has to answer for it,” said Leftist New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban and the first visible minority to lead a national party.

Scheer, the opposition Conservative leader, said brownface was racist in 2001 and is racist in 2019.

“What Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country,” Scheer said.

Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said he was “gobsmacked” at the development and wondered how it would land in Parliament and with voters.

“We’ll just have to see how the party reacts,” he said. “I’m very curious to know how Liberal members of Parliament that are black will react.”

He added: “The case has never been conclusively made that Justin is a person of substance. I mean he may well be. But that impression is just not out there.”  

How the scandal will affect Trudeau’s campaign remains in question. Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he didn’t think the photo’s release would cause people to vote differently. Wiseman said race and blackface play a much bigger role in U.S. politics than in Canada.

“I don’t think this will swing the vote, although the story will get a lot of media play for a couple of days,” Wiseman said.  “The Liberals may very well lose the election — they almost certainly will not do as well as in 2015 — but this is not the type of scandal that will drive voters to the Conservatives.”


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In new Sudan, Women Want More Freedom, Bigger Political Role

On her daily walks from home to her job at a primary school in the city of Port Sudan, Khalda Saber would urge people to join the protests against the three-decade rule of Sudan’s autocratic President Omar al-Bashir.
At school, she rallied fellow teachers to join the pro-democracy uprising.

“I was telling them that there is nothing to lose, compared with what we have already lost. I was telling them that we have to take to the streets, demonstrate and express our rejection to what’s happening,” she said.

One January morning, two months after the protests erupted, plainclothes security forces snatched Saber off a bus and took her to the feared security and intelligence agency’s local office.
There, she was detained in a newly built wing in a prison in the capital, Khartoum, alongside other protesters. She said security forces beat her and the other new arrivals for several hours.

Saber spent 40 days in detention. She was among many thousands of Sudanese women who risked their lives leading protests that eventually pushed the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April.

Several turbulent months followed as the protesters feared the military would cling to power, before a power-sharing deal in July. An interim, civilian-led government was sworn in last month.

Amid high hopes for a new era, many Sudanese women like Saber are looking for greater freedoms and equality. They seek to overturn many of the restrictive laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, that activists say stifle women’s rights.

“For sure the whole Sudanese people have an interest in this revolution, but we, the women, had a bigger interest and motivation to make it happen,” Saber said.

Al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, adopting a harsh interpretation of Islamic law that diminished the ability of women to participate meaningfully in public life, Human Rights Watch said in a 2015 report.

Public order laws imposed an Islamic dress code on women and restricted their ability to move freely or, if unmarried, with male colleagues, said Jehanne Henry, an associate Africa director at the New York-based rights group. Violators faced lashing in public and hefty fines.
But the end of al-Bashir’s rule would lead Saber, who worked with a local NGO on women’s rights issues for years, to flee the country. She spoke to The Associated Press from her home in self-imposed exile in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Along with her husband and two daughters, Saber escaped Sudan just two days after al-Bashir’s ouster on April 11.

She says the family was threatened, mainly by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias that al-Bashir used in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Saber had documented the RSF’s rights violations, especially against women, through testimonies before and during the uprising.

“There were threats that they would attack my daughters,” she said.
Following her release in March, she had immediately joined demonstrations at the main sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in Khartoum. “At this time, the threats were increased. I found no way but to leave (the country),” she said.

Saber’s story reflects a wave of violence against women during the protests. A Sudanese rights group, Sudanese Women Action, said in a report released earlier this month that women protesters faced an “unprecedented amount of violence and human rights violations” that amounted to “serious atrocities.” Twelve women and a 7-year-old girl were killed in the protests, it said.

The group said it documented at least 26 cases of rape as security forces broke up the protest camp outside the military headquarters in early June. Dozens more rape cases weren’t reported or documented “due to fears of reprisals or stigma,” the group alleged.

During the uprising, Saber said countless women in both rural and urban areas participated in the demonstrations.

“It was not strange to see so many women at the front in the marches,” she said. “This is because of growing awareness of women’s rights. Women in time realized they have to stick to their demands.”

After five months in Cairo, Saber remains wary. “Fear and dread still exist. It is too early to go back to Sudan,” she said.

Sudan’s democratic transition remains fragile. But the appointment of several women to the interim government _ including Sudan’s first female foreign minister, and two women in an 11-member sovereign council has raised hopes that the role women played in the uprising will lead to change.

Henry, the HRW associate director, said the new government is committed to several legal reforms, including changes needed to achieve gender equality. Family and inheritance laws “clearly discriminate against women, limiting their ability to inherit property equally,” she said.

Wifaq Gurashi, a women’s rights activist in Khartoum, said the government should prioritize annulling all laws that restrict women’s movement and freedoms, and implement policies that offer broader opportunities for women.

“With a little determination, we will be represented fairly,” said Gurashi, who was herself briefly detained during the uprising in February.

But, she said, women face formidable obstacles.

‘It’s a long way (to go), especially to get rid of the traditional way of thinking in this masculine and authoritarian society,” Gurashi said.

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Next-generation F-35 Fighter Jets Go to National Guard Unit

The Vermont Air National Guard is due to take delivery of the first two of what will become 20 F-35 fighter aircrafts, the first guard unit to receive the next-generation fighter.

The aircraft will be based at the Burlington International Airport and are being flown to Vermont on Thursday from the factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

The delivery follows years of hard work, planning and missions in the guard’s previous aircraft, F-16s that flew continuously for weeks over New York after the 9/11 attacks and in multiple combat tours in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East.

“The F-35 coming into Burlington really secures our mission and our future for, you are talking the next three or four decades, and that allows us to serve our nation, but also to be ready to serve our state as well,” Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing that is the new home to the F-35s, said before they arrived.

But for some members of the community, the arrival of noisier aircraft marks the failure of years-long efforts to keep the Air Force from delivering the planes to an airport located among residential neighborhoods and industrial complexes in the middle of Vermont’s most populous county.

Rosanne Greco, the former chair of the South Burlington City Council and a retired Air Force colonel, said she supported basing the plane in her home city until she learned by reading the Air Force’s environmental impact statement about how noisy the F-35 is and what she feels are the dangers of having a new, unproven weapon system at a suburban airport.

“All I had to do was read what the Air Force said about the impact it would have,” Greco said. “The evidence was overwhelming it would have a very negative effect on close to 7,000 people” who live near the airport.

Smith said the Air National Guard understands the concerns of the community. The guard has modified the traffic patterns the planes will use and checked the take-off times to minimize noise disruptions. As to safety, he said that so far more than 400 F-35s have been delivered and the planes have accumulated more than 200,000 flying hours.

“It’s really important to us too to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the community,” he said.

The Air Force describes the F-35 as its fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth technology with speed and agility. Different models are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and are being sold to American allies across the world.

It is also the U.S. military’s most expensive weapons system of all time, with an estimated total cost of $1.5 trillion over the expected half-century life of the program. The model of the planes that will be based in Burlington cost about $94 million each.

Assigning F-35s, which are designed to replace a number of aging fighter models, to Vermont shows the days are long gone when Air National Guard units received hand-me-down aircraft while new planes went exclusively to active duty Air Force units, said Ian Bryan, a retired Tennessee Air National Guard pilot who worked in Washington as a legislative liaison with the National Guard Bureau.

He said Vermont, and the guard, are at the forefront of learning how to make the best use of the new airplanes.

“Ten years from now, we need to have figured out how to use this F-35 thing and it’s going to be the lead as the wings fall off some of these old airplanes,” Bryan said.

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From Patients to Doctors, Fear Rules in Zimbabwe’s Hospitals

Fear is crippling Zimbabwe’s already struggling health system, as doctors and patients alike are staying away. The disappearance of an outspoken young doctor who led a strike for higher public-sector wages has only made the situation more dire. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Harare.

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Have Retired Jack Ma, Alibaba Steered Away From China Communist Party’s Clutches?

The recent retirement of Jack Ma, former chairman of the Alibaba Group, has set a positive example in China for entrepreneurs to plan succession, ensuring the long-term sustainability of their businesses, according to some analysts.    

But others insist it is still too early to tell if the world’s largest e-commerce giant and its charismatic founder have since steered away from the clutches of the Communist Party, which seemingly views large private companies as a threat.

“They key thing here is not to be too confident about any outcome yet, because we’re simply too early in the cycle here. Jack can still retire and then find himself in a lot of problems later,” said Fraser Howie, co-author of three books on the Chinese financial system, including “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundations of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

On the heels of his official retirement last Tuesday, rife speculation remains that Ma was forced out because he had become “too powerful and influential” and posed a challenge to the authority of China’s top leadership. His tech empire remains under the government’s close scrutiny.

State pressure

It is believed that through his retirement, Ma has avoided being caught up in the Chinese government’s crackdown of big dealmakers in recent years, such as HNA Group’s Wang Jian, Anbang Insurance Group’s Wu Xiaohui, and movie star Fan Bingbing. The latter two “disappeared” for months at one point, according to observers.

FILE – The company sign of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd is seen outside its headquarters in Beijing, China, June 29, 2019.

“He’s getting an airlift before the hammer falls because he clearly would have been the most high-profile scalp within the private sector,” said Howie, adding that Ma’s case also fires a warning shot across the bow of the country’s rich and famous.

Additionally, the fact that some of the country’s tycoons, including Ma, have pledged to hand over control of their businesses to the Communist Party, if needed, epitomizes the lopsided relationship between the state and the private sector under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

For example, shortly after Ma expressed his intention to step down, Alibaba’s online payment platform Alipay inked an agreement with state-owned UnionPay to cooperate on cardless and barcode payments — a development that led to much speculation that Alipay eventually would be nationalized.

Xi has good reason to view Ma as a threat because the tycoon’s popularity among the public has outshone that of any government officials in China, said Emmy Hu, former executive editor-in-chief of Global E-Businessmen, an online media platform under Alibaba.

“He is one of the most popular and iconic figures in China. Shall democratic and free elections be held, he would have won most votes across China if he’s up to,” Hu said.

Corporate rivalry

Ma is so popular in China that many fraudsters use the catchphrase “you’ll be the next Jack Ma” in an effort to entice victims, she noted.

It’s hard to imagine, therefore, that someone as hardworking, ambitious and successful as Ma would choose to step down at a young age of 55 if it weren’t for political pressure, according to Hu.

FILE – Jack Ma attends Alibaba’s 20th anniversary party at a stadium in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Sept. 10, 2019.

The journalist added that Ma’s success as a business leader, who has made a great contribution to the economy and provided a livelihood for more than 10 million vendors on Alibaba-owned online shopping site Taobao, made him an obvious target for the Communist Party as it tightened its grip on the private sector.    

“The pressure that the state has exerted on private enterprises is getting more and more evident. That includes policies requiring companies to set up (Communist) party committees or business executives to join the party” to name a few, Hu said.

Apart from the impact of the U.S.-China trade war, the business environment in China has become increasingly hostile toward private companies that state-owned companies see as rivals and hope to edge out to expand market shares, she said.

Succession model

Hu says from a purely business point of view, Ma set a marvelous example in Asia for businessmen to plan succession — an observation with which venture capitalist C.Y. Huang agrees.

“I think he is a role model who has completed a successful succession for peer mainland Chinese companies (to look up to). … In five years, he has groomed his successors … and proved that his company doesn’t necessarily rely on one person,” said Huang, a partner at FCC Partners, a Taipei-based investment bank.     

Daniel Zhang replaced Ma as Alibaba’s chief executive in 2015. Last week, he also took over Ma’s chairmanship.

Huang underscored that all too often, founding patriarchs of Asian companies have refused to hand over the reins, which then creates barriers for businesses to modernize. He pointed out that on a personal level, Ma sets an example for business people to enjoy their lives, and pursue dreams and goals outside of their businesses.


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