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Michael Cohen Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison Following Plea That Implicated Trump

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Michael Cohen Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison Following Plea That Implicated Trump

Michael Cohen, (right) Donald Trump’s former lawyer, arrives at federal court, with his children Jake and Samantha, for his sentencing in New York on Wednesday.

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Julio Cortez/AP

Updated at 12:57 p.m. ET

A federal judge sentenced Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen to three years in prison on Wednesday following Cohen’s guilty pleas to a number of political and finance crimes.

Those three years would be followed by three years of supervised release, and Cohen also is subject to forfeiture of $500,000, restitution of $1.4 million and a $50,000 fine.

Cohen faced a potential maximum penalty of some 45 years in prison, according to information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Cohen had asked for leniency. The Justice Department asked a judge to give Cohen some consideration for the information that he has provided to prosecutors but argued that Cohen nonetheless still deserved a “substantial prison term.”

Cohen’s sentence marked the latest drop in a precipitous fall from the elbow of the powerful man whom Cohen served for years, sometimes as a brutal but fiercely loyal fixer.

Now, Trump’s former lawyer has broken completely with his onetime boss and handed the president’s political opponents new weapons that could have serious implications for Trump.

First, Cohen told authorities that Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women ahead of Election Day in 2016 to keep them quiet about sexual relationships they said they had had with Trump — allegations Trump denies.

Federal authorities call that a violation of campaign finance law — one for which Trump also may be culpable.

Later, Cohen admitted that he and other Trump aides continued negotiations with powerful Russians about a potential real estate project in Moscow well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cohen had told Congress in 2017 that the talks ended in January, but his subsequent admission meant that Trump’s aides had a channel open with Russia even as Trump was becoming the GOP front-runner and was denying he had any ties to Russia.

Cohen “continues to tell the truth about Donald Trump’s misconduct over the years,” Lanny Davis, an adviser to Cohen, said in a statement issued after the sentence was handed down.

“Michael has owned up to his mistakes and fully cooperated with Special Counsel Mueller in his investigation over possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian meddling in the 2016 election,” Davis also said. “While Mr. Mueller gave Michael significant credit for cooperation on the ‘core’ issues, it is unfortunate that SDNY prosecutors did not do the same. To me, their judgment showed a lack of appropriate proportionality.”

Davis also suggested Wednesday that once the special counsel’s Russia investigation was complete Cohen would “state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump – and that includes any appropriate Congressional committee interested in the search for truth and the difference between facts and lies. Mr. Trump’s repeated lies cannot contradict stubborn facts.”

Trump: Nothing to do with me

Trump has dismissed Cohen’s allegations. Although he has acknowledged arranging the so-called hush-money payments to one of the women, he denies the underlying allegations by both women of sexual encounters with him years before the 2016 presidential race.

Trump called the payments a “simple private transaction” that had been elevated into something more serious by Democrats who are frustrated they haven’t been able to find anything damaging to Trump in the Russia investigation.

The president argued on Twitter that if Cohen broke the law in the payments, it had no meaning for him and might not even be a federal crime anyway.

….which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s – but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2018

As far as the negotiations over a possible Trump Tower in Moscow, the president acknowledged he had “lightly” looked into the project at the same time as he was campaigning but that he’d done nothing wrong and decided not to pursue the project.

….Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2018

Trump says the accounts Cohen has given to investigators are lies he made up in order to reduce the sentence he was facing for other crimes. Cohen also pleaded guilty to tax evasion and bank fraud, which added to the potential sentence for which he was eligible.

An attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels, one of the women who received a hush-money payment arranged by Cohen, said in an impromptu press conference outside the Manhattan federal courthouse Wednesday that Cohen “is no hero. He is no patriot.” Attorney Michael Avenatti also said the scheme alleged by Cohen that formed the basis of the campaign-finance violations amounted to seeking to effectively buy an election back in 2016.

In a tweet posted before the sentencing, Avenatti also said that Cohen would learn his punishment “for his role in the Trump criminal enterprise and the rigging of an election.” After saying he intends to depose Cohen, Avenatti added “Trump is in a lot of trouble.”

Today Michael Cohen will be sentenced to substantial jail time for his role in the Trump criminal enterprise and the rigging of an election. We will then depose him under oath in order to fully disclose all of the facts to the American people. Trump is in a lot of trouble.

— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) December 12, 2018

Authorities said Cohen’s case demonstrates that even powerful people can’t get away with this kind of criminal conduct.

“Michael Cohen is a lawyer who, rather than setting an example of respect for the law, instead chose to break the law, repeatedly over many years and in a variety of ways,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami, whose office in Manhattan prosecuted Cohen.

“His day of reckoning serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone,” the federal prosecutor also said of Cohen.

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Our Favorite Latin Songs This Week

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Our Favorite Latin Songs This Week

SoCal vocalist Nancy Sanchez rings in the holidays with a new track this week.

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After a week spent ranking the best Latin music of 2018, it’s time to get back to recent releases. This time around, our playlist features nostalgic hits by Nancy Sanchez and Bad Bunny alongside exploratory tracks by Natti Natasha and Mula with Sol Pereyra.

This playlist, which you can listen to at the bottom of this page, is part of a series of NPR Music’s favorite Latin songs, updated weekly on Spotify. Catch our weekly thoughts and hot takes below.


Nancy Sanchez, "Mi Nueva Bici"

Courtesy of the artist

Nancy Sanchez, “Mi Nueva Bici”

Just in time for the holidays, Nancy Sanchez, one of my favorite SoCal jazz-slash-mariachi-slash-soul singers, brings us this melodic meditation on the joy of a new bicicleta under the tree and a Christmas with the familia, including a couple of tias media locas.

The beauty of “Mi Nueva Bici” is in the simplicity of the arrangement and how it reveals layers of memories and emotions. Sanchez is releasing a string of singles these days that show off her formidable vocal talents. The video for this track reminded me of days long past. Did I mention I’m a big fan? —Felix Contreras


Bad Bunny, "Desde el Corazón"

Courtesy of the artist

Bad Bunny, “Desde El Corazón”

Bad Bunny has an uncanny way of tugging at the heart when you least expect it. Like many kids in Puerto Rico, he grew up watching the Banco Popular Holiday Special, now in its 26th year. This year, he made his first contribution to the special in “Desde El Corazón,” an old-school urbano track accompanied by a cuatro that paints a picture in its music video of a young Benito Martinez in Vega Baja, P.R. escaping his homework to listen to Tego Calderón‘s “Pa’ Que Retozen” on his Walkman.

The childhood bedroom pans to the 24-year-old Bad Bunny. He gives a laundry list of the greats of reggaeton viejo that came before him, as essential to the island now as salsa. The song is uncompromising in its loyalty to homeland: “Y yo me quedo en Puerto Rico aunque venga María / En el calentón, esto nunca se enfría,” he says, praising “La Isla del Encanto, la tierra bendecida.”

“Cuales serán los vientos de mañana?” asks the special’s narrator, Puerto Rico’s treasured poet and filmmaker Jacobo Morales, following the video. Tomorrow’s vientos will be the music of Bad Bunny and all the other kids like us. —Stefanie Fernández


Mula and Sol Pereyra, "Antireversa"

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Sol Pereyra featuring Mula, “Antireversa”

The magic of a well-thought-out collaboration is allowing for the magic of spontaneity. This seems counter-intuitive, but it is especially true in music.

In the case of “Antireversa, the combination of Argentina’s Sol Pereyra with Mula from the Dominican Republic provides proof of my collab theory. Sol Pereyra mines the space between electronic and hip-hop with a series of albums that feature her sultry voice in a variety of stylistic settings. Mula features the twin sisters Anabel and Cristabel Acevedo who used to go by Las Acevedo.

This track benefits from the perfectly blended vocals but also from the spirit of exploration. A perfect pre-holiday pick-me-up. —Felix Contreras


Natti Natasha, "Me Gusta"

Courtesy of the artist

Natti Natasha, “Me Gusta”

Dominican reggaetonera Natti Natasha became one of the most-watched women on YouTube this year, thanks to the success of her videos for “Sin Pijama” with Becky G, the lovelorn bachata “Quién Sabe,” and the coattails of last year’s billion-view blockbuster “Criminal” with Ozuna. Next in the arsenal is “Me Gusta,” a slow jam about female desire consistent with Natasha’s will to take over the world — first, YouTube, next, outer space! — on her own terms.

While it’s true that Amazonian women like Natasha don’t have a hard time getting any kinds of views from male voyeurs, you don’t hit the billions in music videos with just looks. Natasha’s lyrics and production are sharp in their own right, indicative of a new wave in female-driven reggaeton. It’s about time. —Stefanie Fernández


This playlist is updated weekly.

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Economic Implications On Britain Of Brexit

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Economic Implications On Britain Of Brexit

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep speaks with George Parker, Financial Times political editor, about the potential economic impact of the latest Brexit developments.

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Customs And Border Protection Paid A Firm $13.6 Million To Hire Recruits. It Hired 2

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Customs And Border Protection Paid A Firm $13.6 Million To Hire Recruits. It Hired 2

Jobs with CBP have been notoriously difficult to fill, in large part because of the polygraph exam applicants are required to undergo.

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A scathing report by the Office of the Inspector General revealed that a consulting company hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to fill thousands of new jobs to satisfy President Trump’s mandate to secure the southern border, is “nowhere near” completing its hiring goals and “risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.”

The audit found that as of Oct. 1 CBP had paid Accenture Federal Services approximately $13.6 million of a $297 million contract to recruit and hire 7,500 applicants, including Customs and Border Protection officers, Border Patrol agents, and Air and Marine Interdiction agents. But 10 months into the first year of a five-year contract Accenture had only processed “two accepted job offers,” according to the report.

The inspector general called for immediate action. The report is titled: “Management Alert — CBP Needs to Address Serious Performance Issues on the Accenture Hiring Contract.” It alleges the consulting company — which CBP agreed to pay nearly $40,000 per hire — failed to develop an “efficient, innovative, and expertly run hiring process,” as the company pledged to do when it was awarded the lucrative contract. Instead, the probe concluded the company “relied heavily” on CBP’s existing infrastructure, resources and experts in all of its recruiting.

“We are concerned that CBP may have paid Accenture for services and tools not provided,” the report states. “Without addressing the issues we have identified, CBP risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract that is not meeting its proposed performance expectations.”

According to the report, CBP has bent over backward to accommodate Accenture.

When it became clear the company would miss a 90-day deadline to reach the “full operation phase” outlined in the agreement, the agency modified the contract granting Accenture another three months to ramp up operations to meet the terms of the contract.

CBP also allowed the company to use the government agency’s applicant tracking system when Accenture failed to deploy its own, leading to another contract revision.

The result of both changes meant that as recently as July 1, CBP staff continued to carry out a “significant portion of the hiring operations,” the OIG noted. And because there was no way to track which applicants were recruited through Accenture’s efforts, CBP agreed to “give credit and temporarily pay Accenture for a percentage of all applicants.”

The OIG’s conclusion: “CBP must hold the contractor accountable, mitigate risk, and devise a strategy to ensure results without additional costs to the Government.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog launched the investigation after receiving complaints about Accenture’s performance and management on an OIG hotline.

A spokeswoman for Accenture Federal Service — a subsidiary of Accenture, a global security consulting firm based in Ireland — didn’t answer questions from NPR, but instead emailed a statement that said the company remains “focused on fulfilling our client’s expectations under our contract.”

Meanwhile, Henry Moak, a senior CBP official, disputed the OIG’s findings in a letter dated Nov. 28. Moak argued that Accenture has successfully “created a hiring structure, tailored technology solutions to support and manage the hiring process” and has “recruited thousands of new applicants.” Further, Moak claimed that the suggestion that the changes in the contract were due to a failure on Accenture’s part is “inaccurate.” He said the changes were requested by CBP “because it offered better overall efficiency in our mutual hiring activities.” Additionally, for any cutbacks in Accenture’s responsibilities, the agency “made equitable adjustments to decrease the cost-per-hire.”

Accenture was awarded the contract in November 2017 as a way to help CBP meet the Trump administration’s Border Patrol staffing demands — a week after taking office Trump signed an executive order calling for an additional 5,000 Border Patrol and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Border Patrol jobs with the CBP have been notoriously difficult to fill, in large part because of the polygraph exam applicants are required to undergo. The AP reported that 2 out of 3 applicants fail the exam.

CNN reported:

“The US Border Patrol, the CBP’s law enforcement arm at the US borders, has a statutorily established minimum staffing level of just over 21,370 agents, not including the additional request from the president.

“Border Patrol staffing levels peaked in 2010 with 21,444 agents nationwide, down to 19,555 in 2018.

“However, there was a net gain of 120 agents in 2018 — the first year that had had a net gain since 2013, according to CBP data.”

Ultimately, CBP did agree to recommendations in the OIG report, including assessing Accenture’s performance and whether the payment system established in the contract is the most cost-effective way to hire new employees.

“While we take some exception to the OIG’s characterization of the contract, we do agree the contract has been a challenge, primarily due to the innovative efforts by both parties and we are reviewing how best to use it moving forward,” a CBP spokesperson told NPR in an emailed statement.

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Buffeted By Brexit Woes, Theresa May Embarks On Whirlwind European Tour

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Buffeted By Brexit Woes, Theresa May Embarks On Whirlwind European Tour

British Prime Minister Theresa May (center) leaves a meeting Tuesday in Berlin beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Faced with turmoil back home, May has embarked on an international trip to shore up assurances from the European Union.

Michael Sohn/AP


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Michael Sohn/AP

What happens to a deal deferred?

That’s the question lingering like a storm cloud over the U.K. For weeks, British lawmakers had eyed Tuesday with mounting anticipation. It was to be the day Parliament voted on the draft Brexit deal, a pivotal test for Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with the European Union — until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

Now, after May postponed the vote, admitting the deal would have suffered a resounding defeat, the embattled prime minister is hundreds of miles from the Houses of Parliament. Instead, she’s on the continent, trying to persuade her counterparts in the EU to make the agreement more palatable for its many skeptics in the U.K.

And so far, May’s European tour has encountered some turbulence.

“There is no room whatsoever for renegotiations,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told members of the European Parliament on Tuesday, pausing as applause rippled through the chamber.

“Of course, there is room — if used intelligently — there is room enough to give further clarifications and further interpretations without opening the withdrawal agreement,” he added. “This will not happen: Everyone has to know that the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened.”

He confirmed that he would be meeting with May later in the day, but said he remains convinced that the draft Brexit deal “is the best — and only — deal possible.”

I will meet @theresa_may this evening in Brussels. I remain convinced that the #Brexit deal we have is the best – and only – deal possible. There is no room for renegotiation, but further clarifications are possible.

— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) December 11, 2018

Earlier in the day, in Berlin, May met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There, after some brief, unfortunately timed trouble just getting out of her car, May reportedly received the same answer: renegotiation was simply out of the question.

European Council President Donald Tusk, after vowing that “we will not renegotiate the deal,” said on Twitter that he, too, had sat down with May for a “long and frank discussion.”

It’s “clear that EU27 wants to help,” he added. “The question is how.”

UK PM Theresa May arrives in Berlin for talks with Germany’s Angela Merkel aimed at rescuing her #Brexit dealhttps://t.co/UItujODwwF pic.twitter.com/HApPz3tyNA

— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) December 11, 2018

Still, the response May received in Europe, adamant as it was, has proved considerably tamer than the anger and frustration she left behind in London.

Since she announced the vote’s postponement in Parliament, the headwinds buffeting the deal from both the right and the left have only grown stronger.

Among members of her own Conservative Party, one major crux of the frustration rests with the status of Northern Ireland, a nation of the U.K. that shares an open border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. Many of the hard-line Brexiteers believe that the deal’s “backstop,” the plan of last resort if no other arrangement is reached, would leave the U.K. too wedded to EU regulations.

And these Brexiteers, MP Jacob Rees-Mogg among them, have revived their bid to force a no-confidence vote on May as party leader. So far, it remains unclear whether they have obtained the 48 letters needed to do so, but reports — fueled by anonymous sources speaking to media — are swirling that their goal is within reach.

Conservative member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, a hard-line Brexit supporter, poses for photographers Tuesday outside the Houses of Parliament in London.

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Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

“I do detect that in the last 24 hours, people have decided that this isn’t going to work out at all,” Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, told British broadcaster ITV. “And I have heard from a number of colleagues — I can’t name them now — that they were people that wouldn’t have put letters in and now are openly saying, ‘My letter’s going in.’ “

They’re not the only ones to have raised the prospect of a no-confidence vote, though.

On the other side of the aisle, among opposition lawmakers, the debate has centered on whether to push for a challenge of their own — not to May’s party leadership, but to her government as a whole.

Demonstrators take a break Tuesday outside the Palace of Westminster in London, where a critical parliamentary vote on the draft Brexit deal was postponed a day earlier.

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“Time is running out and the [prime minister’s] tactic is clearly to run down the clock. The opposition must not allow that to happen,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted Tuesday, one day after declaring the Scottish National Party’s support for a no-confidence vote if the Labour Party seeks one.

So far, however, Labour leaders themselves have resisted that call, saying they’re waiting until “the best opportunity to topple this rotten Government.”

“We are fully prepared to bring a no-confidence vote for the purpose of defeating the government and forcing a general election,” Labour Party Chairman Ian Lavery said in a recorded statement. “But we aren’t going to table one just for it to be defeated, which would strengthen May and unite the Tories.”

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Fantastic Negrito On World Cafe

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Fantastic Negrito On World Cafe

Fantastic Negrito performing live at WXPN’s Free At Noon Concert. Recorded live for this session.

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Senia Lopez/WXPN

  • “Plastic Hamburgers”
  • “A Boy Named Andrew”
  • “A Cold November Street”
  • “A Letter to Fear”

There is nothing subtle about Fantastic Negrito. When he came in to World Cafe, he was wearing this loud, funky, royal purple and gold-embroidered jacket, his hair was braided on the sides with this explosive shock of Mohawk. And where most of our guests sign our wall of fame with one Sharpie in some small spot that hasn’t already been taken up, Fantastic Negrito used two Sharpies and in big huge writing made sure we’d always know he was here.

Fantastic Negrito wants to be seen. He wants to stimulate conversation (as he explains, his chosen artist name is part of that.) And he wants to be heard. On his latest album, Please Don’t Be Dead, which was recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, he ignites and electrifies the blues to tackle addiction, poverty, racism and gun violence.

Fantastic Negrito’s own life story involves growing up in the ’70s with a strict Muslim father in New England as number eight of 14 kids. After his family moved to California, he ran away from home at 12 years old and taught himself to play music by sneaking into practice rooms at UC Berkeley. He eventually scored a million-dollar record deal that fell through and nearly died in a car accident that put him in a three-week coma and almost destroyed his right hand.

We first learned of Fantastic Negrito when he won NPR Music’s inaugural Tiny Desk Contest in 2015, and were blown away by his gripping story and thrilling performance in this session. Listen in the player above.

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Russians Pay Last Respects To Human Rights Defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva

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Russians Pay Last Respects To Human Rights Defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva

Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva speaks at a news conference in Moscow in 2012.

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Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Russians from all walks of life turned out on a damp and slushy Tuesday morning in Moscow to pay their last respects to Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva, a tireless defender of human rights and a contemporary of the Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Alexeyeva, who died Saturday at age 91 in a Moscow hospital, was one of the few public figures who could unify Russians across the political spectrum. Politicians from Russian President Vladimir Putin to his fiercest critic, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, expressed their condolences on the passing of the longtime human rights campaigner, who spent 16 years in exile in the United States during the Soviet era.

Police officers detain Alexeyeva during a New Year’s Eve anti-Kremlin protest in downtown Moscow in 2009.

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Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

“Thanks to the dignity of such people, our country still has dignity,” said Nikita Orlov, 49, a corporate manager waiting to lay flowers at Alexeyeva’s open casket in the Central House of Journalists in downtown Moscow.

“She gave me and my children — and I hope my grandchildren — the possibility to choose to think independently and not be guided what is carved in stone,” he said. “Thanks to such people, we are alive.”

Alexeyeva co-founded the Moscow Helsinki Group, now Russia’s oldest human rights group, in 1976. A year later, the Soviet Union’s Communist regime gave her a choice of emigration or prison. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexeyeva returned to Moscow to continue fighting for Russians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights

“In the last few days, a lot has been said about how important Lyudmila Mikhailovna was for Russia, but in fact she was important for the whole world,” said Viktoria Gromova, 35, a human rights activist who traveled from the town of Vladimir, 100 miles east of Moscow, to pay her respects. “Her story isn’t just about Russia, but about the U.S., Europe and Central Asia.”

Alexeyeva’s life spanned eras and continents. She was born in Crimea at a time when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was consolidating power; she came of age during the “thaw” under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev; and she faced the pain of exile during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. During her time in the United States, she became an American citizen. Russian news agencies report her ashes will be buried in the U.S., alongside her mother, husband and a son.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, tried to co-opt the legacy of human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva while she was still alive. He congratulated Alexeyeva last December during a ceremony to present the 2017 State Awards for Outstanding Achievements in Human Rights and and Charity Work in the Kremlin.

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Yuri Kochetkov/AP

“She was the matriarch of Russia’s human rights movement, and to us she’s always been ‘Grandma Lyuda,’ which is how she ironically referred to herself for at least the past two decades,” Tanya Lokshina, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told NPR.

“Possibly she is still with us, because her sharp wit and relentless optimism cannot possibly be taken away from us,” Lokshina said. “And that, I guess, is a consolation.”

Up to her last days, Alexeyeva criticized Russian authorities.

But the Kremlin’s attempts to co-opt her moral authority led to high-ranking officials and state media celebrating her as a Russian patriot after her death.

In a greeting she prepared from her hospital bed for Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, Alexeyeva urged fellow rights activists to act as mediators in “the difficult times” that lie ahead for Russia.

“Russian officials today continue to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, limiting freedoms in the hope of hanging on to power by using dictatorial methods — but in fact worsening their situation and increasing the probability of an uncontrollable collapse of the government,” Alexeyeva wrote.

At the same time, she said the weakness of Russia’s civil society and democratic institutions couldn’t be blamed on the government alone, but that everyone — including human rights defenders — shared responsibility for not doing enough to rid Russia of its totalitarian legacy.

Alexeyeva tried to do her part. In the 1970s, she produced samizdat, the secret printing and distribution of outlawed texts, by typing up copies of a banned journal, the Chronicle of Current Events.

In 1975, when the Soviet Union and Western countries signed the Helsinki Accords to ease Cold War tensions, Alexeyeva helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group, designed to monitor Soviet adherence to human rights commitments under the agreement. Soon afterward, she was forced into exile.

Following Alexeyeva’s return to Russia in 1993, she became head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and joined several governmental advisory councils on human rights. She criticized Putin’s prosecution of a war against Chechen separatists and used her lines of communication to raise objections directly with the Kremlin.

As Putin tightened his grip over Russian civil society, Alexeyeva didn’t slow down, attending street protests in Moscow into her 80s.

She provided hope and inspiration to younger colleagues dismayed by the government crackdown on civil liberties, says Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.

“She’d just shrug and say: ‘I saw the Soviet Union fall, and that severe, totalitarian regime lost in the end to a small group of people so much weaker than Russian civil society is today. So, yes, things are bad, but it’s not the end of the world — it cannot even be compared to what we faced all those years back,'” Lokshina said.

In 2012, Alexeyeva announced that the Moscow Helsinki Group would stop taking contributions from foreign donors to avoid being designated a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin.

Putin’s embrace of Alexeyeva in her later years was intended to send a signal that “good” human rights defenders didn’t accept foreign money, as opposed to “enemy organizations” that did, says Lokshina.

Last year, Putin showed up at Alexeyeva’s apartment to congratulate her on her 90th birthday. The president arrived with a bottle of champagne and a picture of Yevpatoria, her hometown in Crimea. Lokshina believes the present was intended to solicit Alexeyeva’s unwitting endorsement of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

On Tuesday, at Alexeyeva’s memorial ceremony, Putin made a point of bringing flowers to her casket. There was a heavy security presence at the building, and policemen cleared the area half an hour before Putin’s motorcade came thundering up the street from the Kremlin.

“For the government, it’s important to demonstrate how they supposedly respect human rights,” Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s first prime minister and now an opposition politician, said as he waited with other mourners. “In fact it’s the opposite: human rights in Russia are being trampled on a daily basis, and that’s what Lyudmila Mikhailovna fought against.”

One person who was prevented from paying his respects to Alexeyeva was her old friend and colleague, human rights defender Lev Ponomaryov, 77. Earlier this month, he was jailed for 16 days for posting a call to an illegal rally on Facebook. His request to attend Alexeyeva’s funeral was declined.

“Instead of Lev Ponomaryov, Vladimir Putin will bid farewell to Alexeyeva. That’s what’s called spitting on someone’s grave,” Russian journalist Viktor Shenderovich wrote on Facebook.

Putin didn’t stay long. His next appointment was at the unveiling of a statue of dissident writer Solzhenitsyn.

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U.S. Navy Sends Hospital Ship To Colombia To Treat Venezuelan Migrants

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U.S. Navy Sends Hospital Ship To Colombia To Treat Venezuelan Migrants

The USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy medical ship, floats off the coast of Riohacha, Colombia. The medical vessel is on a four-country tour of the region, providing medical assistance.

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Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

For Daniel Pérez, a Venezuelan bus driver, getting surgery to remove his gallstones turned into an excruciating, four-year odyssey.

He hit one dead end after another in crisis-wracked Venezuela where hospitals lack everything from doctors to antibiotics. In February he emigrated to Colombia — only to discover local health clinics jammed with Venezuelan migrants. All the while he had to sleep on his left side due to the pain.

Pérez finally found relief last month through an unlikely benefactor: the U.S Navy.

“This is a blessing,” said Pérez, 33, shortly before undergoing gall bladder surgery aboard the USNS Comfort.

Painted white with huge red crosses, the 10-story-tall, 895-foot-long Comfort is a former oil tanker that’s been converted into a floating hospital. The Comfort treats injured soldiers during wars but is also deployed to disaster zones, like Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year and New York Harbor after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In late November, it spent a week off the Colombian coast near the border with Venezuela.

Its main mission was to provide temporary backup for Colombia’s health-care system that, especially in border regions, has been overloaded. That’s largely due to an influx of more than 1 million Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia amid food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation and a government crackdown on political dissent.

Navy doctors and nurses treated minor ailments in the coastal town of Riohacha but getting surgery patients to the ship required some logistical gymnastics. Due to a lack of port facilities in Riohacha, the Comfort was stationed 15 miles off shore in the Caribbean. Patients donned helmets, goggles and life vests and were strapped into the back of Black Hawk helicopters for the short flight to the ship.

Once below deck, it was hard to distinguish the Comfort from a normal hospital. Hallways were jammed with gurneys and boxes of medical supplies. Surgeons worked from 12 operating rooms positioned near the center of the ship to minimize the rolling effect of ocean waves.

All told, medical personnel provided free treatment for nearly 5,000 patients (most of them on shore) and performed 116 surgeries for everything from cataracts to hernias to foot defects.

Santiago Efer, 2, and his father, Francisco, in the The USNS Comfort. Surgeons treated Santiago for an umbilical hernia and an undescended testicle that was lodged in his abdomen since birth.

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John Otis for NPR

One of their patients was two-year-old Santiago Efer, who since birth suffered from an umbilical hernia and an undescended testicle that was lodged in his abdomen. His father, Francisco, fled to Colombia in April after he was unable to secure treatment for his son in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo.

“There were power outages in the operating room and no air conditioning,” he said. “The clinic kept deteriorating. You can’t live in Venezuela anymore.”

Venezuela is rich in petroleum and holds the largest oil reserves the world. But critics accuse the country’s socialist and increasingly authoritarian government of squandering the wealth through corruption and misguided policies. The IMF predicts Venezuela’s economy will contract by 18 percent this year and that annual inflation could hit 1 million percent.

Among the hardest hit sectors is health care, says Rafael Gottenger, a Venezuelan plastic surgeon who immigrated to Miami and volunteered for the medical mission. He said cases of tuberculosis and malaria, diseases that had been largely eradicated in Venezuela, are skyrocketing. He relocated to Miami 20 years ago but has been back and forth.

“HIV patients are dying because there is no medication to treat HIV. Cancer patients have no cancer medication,” he said.

Gottinger belongs to the Venezuelan American Medical Association, which is based in Miami and is providing 14 Venezuelan doctors and nurses for the Comfort’s mission. They include Ariel Kaufman, a urologist who moved from Caracas to Miami four years ago. He says that working aboard the Comfort is a way to reconnect with his homeland.

“It’s the best feeling,” Kaufman says before scrubbing in for surgery. “Nothing fills our heart more than helping these patients. Even with a small surgery, with touching their hands, holding them. It’s an amazing experience.”

Geopolitics are also at play. The U.S. and China are competing for influence in South America, and the Comfort’s mission came just two months after a Chinese hospital ship, the Peace Ark, visited Venezuela as part of an 11-nation tour.

The Comfort’s mission – its sixth to Latin America — ends this month in Honduras after stops in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

“We are doing this from a sort of a hearts-and-minds standpoint” said Amanda Antonio, a U.S. Navy doctor. “We’re trying to show that the American military cares about these people down here.”

Freelance writer John Otis is based in Bogota, Colombia, and reports for NPR and The Wall Street Journal. Contact him @JohnOtis

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American Football Announces LP3 With Haunting 'Silhouettes'

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American Football Announces LP3 With Haunting 'Silhouettes'

American Football’s third self-titled album comes out March 22.

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Atiba Jefferson/Courtesy of the artist

If Braid‘s 2014 album No Coast was the blueprint for the return of the ’90s emo guard, then Rainer Maria and American Football are its wise tenants. The former’s S/T continued the graceful through-line of Rainer Maria’s career, proving to be the scene’s most consistently innovative. But American Football’s second self-titled album provoked something of an existential question: What happens to the notebook scribblings of a lost, 20-something hopeless romantic at middle age? They flourish at the crinkliest pages.

American Football has announced its third self-titled album (aka LP3), featuring guest vocals from Paramore‘s Hayley Williams, Land of Talk‘s Elizabeth Powell and Slowdive‘s Rachel Goswell. That’s a broad spectrum of singers who share that earnest feeling in which emo so deeply resides. None of them appears on the first single, but “Silhouettes” does signify a vivid shift in songwriting for the band.

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Vibraphone and bells are well trod territory, instruments that helped to originally distinguish American Football from its peers, but never have they been used to such compositional effect. Like the most exciting step forward from LP2 (“Give Me the Gun“) or its labelmates in Aloha, “Silhouettes” billows out from from shadows with minimalist overtones. “Oh, the muscle memory / It must take to stay close to me,” Mike Kinsella sings over rumbling atmospherics, those signature overlapping guitar arpeggios and a choir of ghosts. This song moves at an insistent, almost menacing pace, as synth strings and Nate Kinsella’s bellowing bass swarm with memory, haunting the melody.


American Football’s third self-titled album comes out March 22 via Polyvinyl Records.

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Macron Promises Minimum Wage Hike And Tax Cuts To End 'Yellow Vest' Protests

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Macron Promises Minimum Wage Hike And Tax Cuts To End 'Yellow Vest' Protests

French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a special address to the nation on Monday, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide “yellow vest” (gilet jaune) protests.

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Trying to quell violent protests across France’s major cities, President Emmanuel Macron on Monday introduced a series of new measures he hopes will chart a path out of the political crisis and put an end to the anti-government demonstrations.

In a 13-minute speech from the Elysée Palace, Macron declared “a state of social and economic emergency,” offering a handful of concessions to his critics, including promises to deliver tax relief for the poor and to cancel a tax increase on retirees.

It was his first public address after a week of silence, during which the gilets jaunesyellow vests — protests continued to wreak havoc and mayhem on the streets of Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon, Dijon and Toulouse for the fourth weekend in a row.

Macron’s plan to placate the yellow vests included a 100 euro per month minimum wage hike — equivalent to $114 per month — set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. He paired the raise with the elimination of tax on overtime and end-of-the-year bonuses, and he encouraged employers “who can” to give bonuses as a way of helping to solve the social crisis in France. He also rescinded a planned tax on pensions that are under 2,000 euro per month.

These were among a wide range of demands by the yellow vests protesters, whose movement has gained widespread support after initially rallying against Macron’s proposed fuel tax that was supposed to go into effect in January.

Macron cancelled the fuel tax last week hoping it would appease protesters and put an end to the rioting and looting in many cities.

In the four weeks since they started, the violent demonstrations have caused millions of euros in damages — in Paris alone, the city estimated the Dec. 1 protest caused about 3.4 million euros (nearly $4 million U.S.) in damage. And NPR’s Jake Cigainero reported the French commerce federation said businesses have lost at least a billion euros (more than $1.1 billion U.S.) in sales.

The president, who has been accused by the yellow vests of being arrogant, out of touch and committed only to representing the interests of the rich, addressed France’s struggling middle class and pensioners in soothing and sympathetic tones in the prerecorded speech on Monday. He said he understands the anger against his government runs deep and has been decades in the making.

“I may have given you the impression that this was not my concern, that I had other priorities. I take my share of responsibility. I know I have hurt some of you with my words,” Macron said.

Macron’s move to raise wages appeared to go against advice from Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud, who on Sunday told the Associated Press, “there will be no boost for the Smic (minimum wage),” because “it destroys jobs.”

Cigainero reported that French television station BFM TV, showed yellow vests protesters watching the most anticipated speech of Macron’s presidency huddled around small television sets in makeshift encampments.

One of them, Alain Bouché, acknowledged the president had made concessions but told the network yellow vest members will decide if Marcon’s emergency measures will be enough to stop the demonstrations.

“If they’re proposing it now, the government could have done it weeks ago,” Bouché said. “So why did they wait until there was conflict and violence?”

Although he admitted he is partly to blame for the protests, the president condemned the violence seen at yellow vest demonstrations. He said calm and order must reign.

“No anger justifies attacking a police officer, a gendarme, or damaging a shop or public building. When violence is unleashed, freedom ends,” Macron said.

He ended the brief speech by saying he would meet mayors region by region to chart a new program.

Then he addressed an issue that has not come up on the long list of demands by the yellow vests: He said his government would take measures to control immigration in what appears to be an attempt to prevent the narrative from being hijacked by the far right.

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