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A Debt Crisis Seems To Have Come Out Of Nowhere

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A Debt Crisis Seems To Have Come Out Of Nowhere
Illustration of looming debt crisis.

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It’s a problem that has come seemingly out of nowhere. Over the last five years a worrisome number of low income countries have racked up so much debt they are now at high risk of being unable to pay it back — with potentially devastating consequences not just for their economies but for their citizens, many of whom are already living in extreme poverty.

That’s the sobering finding of a report by the IMF. And it’s got some prominent experts calling for urgent action. Among them is Masood Ahmed. Twenty years ago, as a top official at the International Monetary Fund, he spearheaded a historic agreement to wipe the slate clean for 36 poor countries that were being crushed by their loan interest and repayment bills. NPR spoke with Ahmed — who is now president of the Washington-DC think tank Center for Global Development — to find out how this latest debt debacle was set in motion, why it has him so alarmed, and what can be done to avert it. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Just how far and how fast has this problem spread?

To get a sense, says Ahmed, consider that of the 59 countries the IMF classifies as “low-income developing countries,” 24 are now either in a debt crisis or at high risk of tipping into one. “That’s 40 percent of poor countries,” says Ahmed, “and it’s nearly double the number five years ago.”

Those in most trouble include two countries that have already defaulted on some of their loans: the Republic of Congo and Mozambique. Ahmed notes that these are not loans taken out by individual citizens. “This is money borrowed by governments,” he says. “So the definition of a debt crisis is that they are not able to meet their obligations. They are already unable to pay the interest on their debt or to keep to the repayment schedule they had agreed to.”

Four more countries are also already considered in “debt distress” because even though they haven’t outright defaulted they’ve reached a point where they are making only intermittent loan payments or cutting deep into their operations budget to pay off their debt. These are Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The remaining 16 are considered at high risk of falling into debt distress soon based on the IMF’s analysis of the amount of debt they’ve taken on compared to how much income their economies can actually be expected to generate in the near future. These too are mostly countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Ghana, Zambia and the Central African Republic. But the list also includes seven nations from other regions, such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Tajikistan and Yemen.

What happens when a country can’t pay its debt? What are the consequences for ordinary citizens?

Ahmed notes that even extremely poor countries offer all sorts of services to their citizens — keeping public order, maintaining health clinics and schools, providing food to people at risk of famine, investing in new infrastructure that can help grow the economy and so on. And even before reaching the point of actual default, governments with unsustainable levels of debt must begin diverting ever more of their budget away from such services so they can meet their debt payments.

The most vulnerable citizens are often the first to suffer. “For instance, people who show up to their local [public] health clinic that is already only open once a week may now find that it also doesn’t have medicines,” says Ahmed. “Or that school that was going to open this year to meet the needs of a particular neighborhood, it gets postponed.”

So this is very much an on-the-ground crisis. “It’s easy for us to think of these as abstract financial numbers. But it’s very important to recognize that behind these numbers are the lives of people who are already living in very difficult circumstances.”

And what if a government does default?

It gets far worse because the entire economy can be thrown into paralysis. When a government can’t meet its existing debt obligations, explains Ahmed, “that makes it very hard to access new money.” Lenders that provide this type of financing aren’t going to want to throw good money after bad. And to keep up daily operations, governments need continual access to credit. Ahmed adds that these operations often include not just the provision of services to citizens but business activities that generate much of a government’s income — extracting and exporting natural resources like copper or oil, for instance. These kinds of operations can become impossible without day-to-day credit. “Just like for a small business, you need to be able to borrow on a day-to-day basis for your cash flow,” he says.

And as the day-to-day turns into year-to-year?

The consequences can be just as debilitating, says Ahmed. Once a country has defaulted it can forget about taking out loans or floating bonds to fund investments in infrastructure or other measures that would help grow its economy long term. Pretty much every type of lender that poor countries rely on is going to balk. This includes even international financial organizations, such as the World Bank, whose mission is to provide poor countries with low-interest loans or outright grants to help them develop. The thinking of officials at the World Bank, says Ahmed, is going to be “I don’t want the money to just go to another creditor.”

And so a kind of deadly feedback loop could be created: The country’s debts would prevent its economy from creating the growth needed to pay off those very debts.

What about that massive debt forgiveness for 36 countries that you helped broker back in the 1990s — the “debt relief” campaign made so famous by celebrities like the rock star Bono. Wasn’t that agreement supposed to end debt crises like these once and for all?

Yes, says Ahmed. And for about ten years the agreement was, in fact, remarkably successful. All sides had recognized their sins — the governments of the borrowing countries that had taken on the excessive debt and also the lenders that had pushed what had been in many cases clearly unsustainable loans — including governments of rich countries like the U.S., commercial banks from those countries and even the IMF and World Bank. In exchange for writing off the debt everyone vowed to be more responsible moving forward.

“But after a decade, memories start to get cloudy,” says Ahmed. “And these commitments are, of course, not binding. If a country wants to go out and borrow money, they’re going to go out and borrow.”

And in recent years a whole new class lenders emerged to offer up easy credit — most notably the government of China and various associated Chinese banks and development agencies. “You had Chinese financial institutions and China as a country really expanding its presence and its financial role in developing countries,” says Ahmed. “I find really striking [that] between 2013 and 2016 China’s share of the debt of poor countries increased by more than the share of all these traditional lenders [who had made the loans back in the 1990s] put together.

Another factor: In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, interest rates in wealthier countries have been stuck at very low levels. “So people who have assets and want to invest their money all wanted to look for opportunities.” These include managers of investments funds, pension funds and the like from wealthy countries. They had not historically been major sources of financing for poor countries. But in recent years they started snapping up bonds issued by African countries — whose economies at the time seemed to be growing at a healthy rate. These bonds offered much higher rates of return than bonds from wealthy nations.

Surely the borrowing nations also face some responsibility?

“Some countries quite frankly just took advantage of the availability of money,” says Ahmed. He points to cases of outright fraud and corruption in Mozambique, Moldova and the Gambia — in which government officials borrowed money on behalf of their nations, then apparently pocketed it for themselves.

Then there are cases of countries that derive most of their income from exporting a few commodities — for instance, Zambia, which relies on copper. In recent years, the prices for many commodities fell sharply and stayed flat — depressing their national income.

“Suddenly you find that what you thought was a level of debt you could manage is harder to maintain,” Ahmed says. Adding to the problem, instead of cutting their national budgets to account for the lost revenue, these countries turned to borrowing to make up the difference.

And then there were the cases of simply less-than-ideal management. “I’m thinking of countries like Ghana and Ethiopia,” says Ahmed, “where they just felt, you know people are willing to give us the money, let’s do it.” And then they failed to use the money for productive investments. “In many of these countries about half the increase in borrowing was not associated with an increase in investment. It was just used to spend more on current spending, things like salaries.”

So is there a fix?

Ahmed says it’s clear some kind of debt re-structuring and forgiveness is going to be needed. It will require getting all the creditors to the table to agree on the terms. “And that is not an easy thing to do.”

Back in the 1990s it took years of grinding negotiations. This time around the process is likely to be even more complicated because so many of the creditors are new to the game. “The IMF is still a very good place from which to have this conversation,” he says. But it is essential to bring in China and let it play a leadership role.

Given the challenges, this effort needs to start now, he says. Yet there seems to be a lack of urgency among world leaders. While IMF officials will be discussing the debt issue in Washington this Saturday as part of their annual spring meetings, it’s just one of a host of topics on the agenda.

What’s more, while the amount of debt involved may be crippling to poor countreries, it’s just a drop in the bucket of the global economy. This debt crisis is not going to cause a worldwide financial meltdown. So unlike the classic debtors in financial crises who benefit from being too big to fail, these nations could find themselves too poor to warrant a bailout.

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Each Day That Passes, Pressure Grows For Chemical Inspectors Waiting In Syria

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Each Day That Passes, Pressure Grows For Chemical Inspectors Waiting In Syria

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have remained stuck in Damascus for nearly a week.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters

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Ali Hashisho/Reuters

As chemical weapons inspectors wait to investigate an alleged strike near the Syrian capital of Damascus, former inspectors say the challenges the current team faces are daunting.

The inspectors arrived in Syria on April 14, on a mission to investigate a suspected chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma seven days earlier. Unconfirmed reports from the scene suggest that dozens may have died.

But so far the inspectors have been unable to reach the location of the attack to verify the facts for themselves. A United Nations reconnaissance team that visited the area on Tuesday came under fire and was forced to turn back. For now, the inspectors are sitting in their hotel rooms, waiting.

“There’s nothing they can do. They can’t force their way in,” says Dieter Rothbacher, a former chemical weapons inspector. The team wants to gather the evidence while it’s fresh, he says. “Every day that passes the pressure gets bigger.”

The inspectors were sent by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. The OPCW is responsible for overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention — a 1997 treaty banning the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons. Syria signed up to the conventionin 2013 after a chemical attack in another Damascus suburb left hundreds dead.

Even though the Syrian government is legally obligated by the convention, the inspectors have limited powers, says Jerry Smith, another former inspector who worked in Syria in 2013 and 2014. “The OPCW is not the world police,” he says.

In an email, an OPCW spokesperson declined to comment on when the nine-person investigation team would be able to enter Douma: “We are unable to share operational details about this deployment. This policy exists to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process and its results as well as to ensure the safety and security of OPCW experts and personnel involved.”

Smith says during his time in Syria, he operated under the watchful eye of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He believes security forces were keeping close tabs on his every move. “I’m sure we were being listened to: our phone calls monitored and our computers hacked and our rooms bugged,” he says.

In 2013, chemical weapons inspectors working in the suburbs outside of Damascus were able to confirm the use of the nerve agent sarin.

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Stringer/Reuters

Smith went to Syria shortly after the government joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in order to avert U.S. strikes and appease its chief patron, Russia. He helped to destroy some 1,300 metric tons of declared chemical weapons and their precursors. Although Syrian government officials generally seemed happy to help the OPCW team, things could get tense. “Some of the visits, the inspectors had weapons pointed at them,” Smith says.

This time around, Syria invited the OPCW inspectors in to investigate the Douma attack. The invitation provided the inspectors with the legal basis to enter Syria, but it gives the Syrian government the ability to control their activities.

That makes the work of inspectors dramatically different from that of law enforcement. “In a police investigation, 99 percent of the stakeholders of that investigation want the truth to be found out,” Smith says. But in the case of the latest attack, a chief suspect is the same government that’s hosting the team.

Already the delays will make it difficult to determine what happened in Douma. Analysts and local rescue and medical workers who observed victims have suggested chlorine was used. Chlorine is a highly volatile compound that evaporates quickly, says Rothbacher. “The best places to sample now are the people who have supposedly been hit,” he says. But Syrian government officials will likely determine whom inspectors talk to and what they see.

Even if the inspectors can gather evidence, they won’t be able to point the finger at anyone. “The inspectors are basically there to collect facts,” says Ralf Trapp, a chemical weapons expert who has worked closely with the OPCW. “The question whether there was a violation of the chemical weapons convention, that’s a political question, that’s not really their job.”

The political process for ascribing blame is broken, Trapp adds. A U.N. system for investigating chemical weapons violations in Syria broke down last October, after Russia, a close ally of Syria, vetoed its renewal.

Without that political process, whatever facts the team can collect will likely be spun by all sides in the conflict. “Whatever they do will be imperfect, whatever they do will be criticized,” says Smith.

But the inspectors can do something few others can. The team is made up of scientists, medical experts and engineers from all over the world. Their work is careful and methodical. At the end of the day, it may be able to provide something sorely lacking: impartial data concerning the events in Douma.

“If you’re lucky with the science, the science will quite conclusively disprove some of the stories,” Smith says. But, he adds, “It’s a kind of a slow process.”

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Arizona Teachers Vote To Strike, Sparking First-ever Statewide Walkout

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Arizona Teachers Vote To Strike, Sparking First-ever Statewide Walkout

Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol protesting low teacher pay and school funding in Phoenix.

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Ross D. Franklin/AP

Teachers in Arizona held a strike vote on Thursday launching a first-ever statewide walkout turning down a proposed pay raise demanding instead increased school funding.

The Arizona Education Association and the grassroots group the Arizona Educators United announced that teachers will walk off the job April 26.

At issue is a plan crafted by Gov. Doug Ducey to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, starting with a 9 percent hike next year.

Initially, Ducey’s plan drew support from two education advocacy groups, Save Our Schools Arizona and the Arizona Parent Teacher Association (AZPTA). But both groups have withdrawn their support saying the plan is not sustainable and likely will come at the expense of others in the educational system.

AZPTA President Beth Simek, in a video statement, said that an analysis from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee staff, coupled with her group’s research, led to their decision to oppose Ducey’s plan.

“In light of the funding streams that have come to light regarding the #20 by 2020 plan, we can no longer support the governor’s proposal,” said Simek. “As a voice for children, we hope to see the governor and legislature find a sustainable, long-term permanent funding source that does not hurt others in the process.”

School support staff groups say they feel left out of the governor’s plan.

In a tweet, Save Our Schools Arizona said “It is now clear the existing proposal is not sustainable or comprehensive as a means of increasing educator pay and re-investing in Arizona’s classrooms and schools.”

Both groups said that they are still ready to work with the governor on a new plan.

Arizona’s teachers plan to strike is an unprecedented move and comes with high risk.

According to the Associated Press:

“Teachers themselves could face consequences in this right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory. The Arizona Education Association has warned its 20,000 members about a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion saying a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.”

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Missing Nazi Submarine Found Near Denmark; Spoiler: Hitler Is Probably Not Onboard

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Missing Nazi Submarine Found Near Denmark; Spoiler: Hitler Is Probably Not Onboard

Researchers from the Sea War Museum Jutland announced they found a Nazi U-boat that disappeared a day after Germans surrendered to Danish forces in 1945.

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AP

For more than 70 years historians have wondered what happened to a Nazi U-boat that disappeared after going “on the run” following the German surrender to Danish and Dutch forces at the end of World War II. And now there is an answer.

Researchers from the Sea War Museum Jutland, in northern Denmark, say they found the wrecked submarine earlier this month. Apparently, the U-3523, the most advanced sub of its day, has been partially buried in the seabed off the north coast of the country all along.

The discovery has put an end to decades of speculation that upon their defeat a crew of Nazis had used it to flee to South America. CBS reported some conspiracy theorists contended Adolf Hitler was with the officers who had been aboard and allegedly made it safely to Colombia.

“After the war, there were many rumors about top Nazis who fled in U-boats and brought Nazi gold to safety, and the U-3523 fed the rumors,” the museum said in a statement published on its website.

“The Type XXI was the first genuine submarine that could sail submerged for a prolonged time, and the U-3523 had a range that would have allowed it to sail nonstop all the way to South America,” officials said.

Researchers said no one knows what the intended destination of those onboard the submarine might have been. Nor is it currently evident whether it carries any valuables or additional passengers. What is certain is that all 58 crew members perished.

The museum reported the submarine was struck by British bombers on May 6, 1945, but the location given by the pilot at the time was off by 9 nautical miles. That explains how it went undiscovered for so long.

The museum used scanning technology to locate the sub, which was found 123 meters (404 feet) deep.

In the statement, the museum said:

U-3523 appeared on the screen during the museum’s scan of the seabed ten nautical miles north of Skagen, and the picture was very surprising. Most unusual the whole fore part of the U-boat lies buried in the seabed, while the stern is standing 20 meters [66 feet] above the bottom.

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Who Is The Mystery Man Behind @realDonaldTrump? (Besides The President)

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Who Is The Mystery Man Behind @realDonaldTrump? (Besides The President)

Journalist Robert Draper says White House social media director Dan Scavino has a hand in crafting about half of the president’s tweets.

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Just who controls the Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump? If you guessed the president, journalist Robert Draper says you might only be partially correct.

Draper’s recent New York Times Magazine article profiles White House social media director Dan Scavino — a man Draper estimates helps craft about half of the president’s tweets.

Scavino first met Trump on the golf course in 1990, when he worked as Trump’s caddie. Three decades later, Draper says, a certain golf-course dynamic still exists between the president and the man who helps manage his Twitter feed.

“Dan Scavino doesn’t have an ideology other than loving Donald Trump,” Draper says. “He does … whatever Trump wants him to do — and in that sense he was then and still is a kind of caddie.”

Draper says that Scavino deliberately shies away from the limelight: “[The White House] would prefer that we see [@realDonaldTump] as the unvarnished Donald Trump.” But, Draper adds, “Dan Scavino, a person most Americans have never heard of, is in a lot of ways a more acute window onto Trump than almost any other. … No one understands Trump’s base … more than Dan Scavino.”


Interview Highlights

On Scavino’s aggressive defense of the president on Twitter

Scavino is yet another individual who was a perfectly normal soul, so it seemed, until he fell down the Trump rabbit hole. As this Westchester County suburbanite, one would never have expected a person like Dan Scavino to become a Donald Trump attack dog, but that is, in fact, what has taken place — both on Trump’s Twitter account and on Dan Scavino’s personal Twitter account. … To the extent that Trump believes in (as he puts it) “counter-punching,” Dan Scavino is very much a part of that counter-punching mechanism.

On which of Trump’s tweets may have been crafted by Scavino

If you look at Trump’s Twitter page, you’ll see, for one thing, a few sort of anodyne things: “I’ll be at such-and-such a place at 1 o’clock.” Trump’s not writing that; Dan Scavino is.

Then you’ll see other things that will say, “I’m not the corrupt one; Hillary Clinton is corrupt.” And it will list three or four reasons why Hillary Clinton is the corrupt one, not Trump. Well, that’s Trump, but it’s Trump in “collusion,” as it were, with Scavino, who will supply the litany of examples.

There are also some tweets that Trump will dictate to Scavino and Scavino will then polish them up, make sure there are no grammatical errors or anything like that. Trump will look at them and then say, “OK, that looks good,” or “No, no. I want you to put this back in.” Then he’ll say, “Go ahead and hit send,” and Scavino will do so. …

There certainly are tweets that Trump himself writes in the dark of night or first thing in the morning that Dan Scavino sees when the rest of the world sees. That’s probably about half of the tweets overall. But of the 37,000 or so tweets that Trump has sent out, Dan Scavino is responsible for — at least as a “co-conspirator” to — about half of those.

On the Trump style of tweeting, with all-caps and exclamation points

Let’s for one thing establish … that none of us are in the room when individual tweets are happening. I would’ve loved to deconstruct a series of tweets for this story and say, “Here’s what Scavino supplied. Here’s what the first draft of this was.” I was unable. It happens to be an intimate act for President Trump … something that all takes place backstage.

Having said all of that, Trump more or less set his own template with the all-caps and saying “Sad!” but Scavino has added to that template. Trump didn’t know how to do a hashtag before [Scavino]. … [Trump] would have a general sentiment, but would lack specifics.

When we look at a Trump tweet, it is, in many ways, an amalgamation of Trump’s basic grievance — the establishment of a grievance or an establishment of a boast, supplied then with a few technical details such as hashtags and things. The all-caps is something Trump has been doing going back to, I’d say, 2012, before Scavino had any access to Trump’s Twitter account. He began, Scavino did, to “co-conspire” with Trump on the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account in 2015.

On the puzzling Trump tweet with the nonsense word “covfefe”

This was a tweet that took place, of course, six minutes after midnight on May 31, 2017, from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. It simply says, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” there’s nothing that takes place after that. Washington was roiling with an effort to decipher this word “covfefe,” scrambling in Urban Dictionaries trying to figure out its meaning. …

The reality is that, at the time, no one knew anything about that tweet. The word “covfefe” in the context of what that sentence seemed to be heading towards in all likelihood meant “coverage” and he just simply stopped writing. For what reason? We don’t know. Maybe his phone rang. Maybe he fell asleep. We’re not sure.

There’s a few tip-offs, by the way, as to why that tweet was completely Donald Trump. One of them is the hour, 12:06 am, the other is that it is a misspelling, a half-finished thought, a half-finished sentence. Scavino is essentially around to correct grammatical errors, correct misspellings.

The Trump White House was very resistant to deconstructing this stuff for me and elaborating on Dan Scavino’s role in President Trump’s individual tweets, but they did concede to me that yes, Scavino will correct misspellings and all that. Therefore it defies any rational imagination that Scavino would’ve allowed this to pass. This was in fact, for better or worse, the unvarnished Donald Trump at work.

On why Scavino refuses to be interviewed

Scavino is reticent for a couple of reasons. One of them is that he has watched one staffer after the next — most famously Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted for 10 days or so — to fall on their sword, to self-emulate, pick your metaphor, but basically to call too much attention to themselves, which is something the president can’t stand. As President Trump said when he was candidate Trump to Corey Lewandowski in 2016 when there was a glowing profile of Lewandowski that got a lot of attention he said to Lewandowski, “There’s only one star in this campaign.”

Scavino has learned that all too well. For that reason he has been reluctant to submit to any interviews. But the other reason, of course, is the one that we’re talking about, which is that this is a surprisingly sensitive subject. Trump values a lot of things, and Scavino supplies those: He values loyalty, he values love, but he also values the primacy of his “personal printing press” and wants the world to believe that it’s his and his alone.

On President Trump referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “rocket man” in a tweet

It has created heartburn for everybody in the West Wing when the president does something like that, going after a leader of a foreign country and attacking them, calling them names. The recognition that there will be repercussions is not lost on someone like Scavino, but no one tries to prevent him from doing it.

In the Bush administration I remember they used to say that people who would come in to tell the president something he didn’t want to hear was on the order of “walking into the helicopter propellers.” But Bush could actually take criticism far better than President Trump does. … Telling Trump you can’t or shouldn’t say this or that on Twitter is a grave offense to him. Scavino has learned, like anyone else who is a survivor in the West Wing, that there are some battles that just aren’t worth fighting.

On reporting by the Washington Post that shows Scavino’s possible ties to Russia

There were emails that indicated communications between Scavino in his capacity as social media director for the Trump campaign and a Russian Facebook page, a Russian version of Facebook, wanting to help out on the Trump campaign, wanting to post things on the site. There was a particular American intermediary, Rob Goldstone, who figures into a lot of this “Russiagate” stuff, who was putting Scavino in touch with these Russians.

Scavino’s reply, according to the emails that were read to The Washington Post, he replied with enthusiasm, “Yes indeed, I’d love to know more about this.” We now know, of course, that Russia had an involvement in the Facebook activities relating to the election — if not to Trump’s campaign itself. But that there were these interactions between the Russian Facebook page and the Trump campaign at least momentarily would seemingly be the kind of thing that would draw the interest of the special counsel. …

This means a lot of legal fees for Scavino, but, of course, it could mean a lot worse. It could mean that Scavino had an involvement with Russians whose interest it was to swing the election over to Donald Trump, obviously an interest that the Trump campaign shared. And if that collusion exists, it could well be that Dan Scavino is in the thick of it. If that’s the case, then he has more than just legal fees to be worried about.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Martina Stewart adapted it for the Web.

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Cuba, Long Led By Castros, Hails A New President Outside The Family

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Cuba, Long Led By Castros, Hails A New President Outside The Family

The man who now leads Cuba: Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57. The Communist Party operative, seen here in Santa Clara last month, was elected president of the island nation Thursday.

Alejandro Ernesto/AFP/Getty Images

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Alejandro Ernesto/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 1:08 p.m. ET

Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez has been elected president of Cuba, officially ending the Castro family’s decades of domination of the country’s highest office. The Communist Party formally announced the presidency’s transition from Raul Castro on Thursday, in what might better be described as a coronation than an election.

In fact, if there was any surprise at all, it might be that Diaz-Canel, the 57-year-old party stalwart long expected to succeed Castro, did not win every vote cast after the party nominated him its sole candidate Wednesday. Just 603 of 604 Cuban lawmakers voted for him in a secret ballot that night.

After the result was announced Thursday, Diaz-Canel and Castro mounted the dais in front of the National Assembly and embraced in a gesture both real and deeply symbolic.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel told lawmakers in a televised address, as translated by The Associated Press.

A woman watches outgoing Cuban President Raul Castro (right) hoist the arm of his successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, during a televised ceremony formally marking the latter’s election.

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Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

He outlined a vision of gradual policy evolution — and at the same time, he was careful to add that his predecessor, who has led Cuba since his late brother Fidel stepped down in 2008, would remain very much a force in the government. Raul Castro might be passing the presidential torch, as it were, but the 86-year-old leader remains head of the military and the ruling Communist Party.

Castro pledged to lead the party until 2021, at which point Diaz-Canel is expected to replace him in that position, as well.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said, according to the AP. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Still, beneath the promises of continuity rests an important — if symbolic — changing of the guard. At nearly three decades Castro’s junior, Diaz-Canel hails from a generation that wasn’t even alive when Fidel Castro led the revolution ousting military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

And though he has publicly espoused party orthodoxy, Diaz-Canel has not been a cookie-cutter bureaucrat, exactly. NPR’s Carrie Kahn notes that as a young man, the longtime provincial leader who became first vice president “did sport long hair, loved rock music and even backed a local LGBT-friendly cultural center.”

It remains unclear what his tenure in the presidency will spell for Cuba’s fraught relations with its capitalist neighbor across the Straits of Florida.

Under the Obama administration, it had appeared the U.S. and Cuba, long frozen in stalemate, had been headed for a thaw. The two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, and Cuba even hosted Obama on a state visit not long afterward.

But those newly established ties have frayed since President Trump took office, bringing a much more skeptical view on Cuba into the White House.

It is unlikely to be lost on the average Cuban, and certainly not on Cuban leadership, that this transition of power is occurring almost 57 years to the day since the Bay of Pigs invasion. That disastrous attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s then-nascent regime, which was led by Cuban exiles and supported by the CIA, ended within days and in humiliation for the would-be topplers.

For now, though, history weighs less in the balance than in the present for Cubans, many of whom, Carrie reports, are a little reticent to talk politics.

“What everybody is willing to talk about, though, is the poor economy here. On average, you know, a Cuban state salary is about $30 a month. You just can’t live off that here,” she tells All Things Considered.

“So people are hurting,” she adds, “and they really want to see the economy grow.”

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Federal Judge Holds Kansas Elections Official In Contempt Of Court

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Federal Judge Holds Kansas Elections Official In Contempt Of Court

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach speaks in Topeka, Kan., before a trial challenging his state’s proof-of-citizenship voter registration law.

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John Hanna/AP

A federal judge has found Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in contempt of court for disobeying a court order in a case testing that state’s controversial proof-of citizenship voting law.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson says Kobach violated her preliminary injunction to allow some potentially ineligible voters to remain eligible to cast a ballot, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The judge found that the Kansas secretary of state, who has crusaded against voter fraud, failed to update his office’s website informing some new voter applicants that they were still eligible to vote. She also found that Kobach’s office did not send postcards to such voters, who had not shown proof-of-citizenship documents when they registered, as the judge required.

Kobach is a Republican who once led President Trump’s now-disbanded commission on voter fraud.

The Kansas law, which went into effect in 2013, required people to show a citizenship document — a passport or birth certificate — in order to register to vote. In a lawsuit challenging the law, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the law violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and prevented more than 35,000 Kansans from voting.

In May 2016, Judge Robinson ordered Kobach to stop enforcing the controversial proof-of-citizenship requirement. The secretary of state appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. That panel called the Kansas law “a mass denial of a fundamental constitutional right.”

In March, Robinson heard a trial over the ACLU lawsuit in which Kobach himself represented the state. The judge has yet to issue a ruling in the case.

With her contempt order, she instructed Kobach to pay attorney’s fees to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Defendant has a history of non-compliance with the preliminary injunction order,” wrote the judge in her 25-page contempt order.

“The judge found that Kris Kobach disobeyed the court’s orders by failing to provide registered voters with consistent information, that he willfully failed to ensure that county elections officials were properly trained,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “Secretary Kobach likes to talk about the rule of law. Talk is cheap, and his actions speak louder than his words.”

A spokesman, Moriah Day, said in an e-mail to NPR that Kobach will appeal.

Kobach is currently running for governor of Kansas.

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France's Macron Likely To Meet Resistance From Merkel On European Reform Proposals

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France's Macron Likely To Meet Resistance From Merkel On European Reform Proposals

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels last month.

Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

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French President Emmanuel Macron has ambitious plans for European Union reform and has been counting on cooperation from Germany, France’s closest European ally, to see those plans come to fruition. But when he meets in Berlin Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss his proposals, he may face resistance.

While Germany is decidedly pro-EU, Merkel is under domestic pressure to push back against economic reforms that could vex taxpayers. And some of Macron’s proposals would do exactly that.

When he gave an impassioned speech in the European Parliament about the future of the continent on Tuesday, Macron appeared to have stepped into Merkel’s shoes as the de facto leader of Europe. He warned against the “erosion of democracy” and argued the EU must change its ways if it is to fend off the current rise in nationalism. He went on to equate the continent’s political divisions with civil war and urged fellow Europeans to act, not to turn into a “generation of sleepwalkers.”

But even as Macron was speaking at the EU parliament in Strasbourg, France, lawmakers from Merkel’s conservative bloc in Berlin were busy discussing how to restrict some of his proposed reforms.

The sticking point is economic integration, and in particular, Macron’s bid to turn the eurozone’s current rescue fund into a full-blown European Monetary Fund, modeled on the International Monetary Fund.

Originally floated by Germany’s former finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, and intended as a means to tackle another sovereign debt crisis within the monetary union, Germany and France do not see eye to eye how it would work.

Germany favors a fund available for struggling eurozone member states, but only under strict conditions. Macron would like a more flexible model that shares more risk, but gives more firepower to EU institutions to help in calmer times as well as in crises.

“The Germans want to add a sovereign default procedure that can actually let governments fail on their debt,” says Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Schwarzer says the reason Germany wants this is that Merkel’s conservatives worry that a eurozone-wide monetary fund might mean German taxpayers would foot the bill for member states like Greece or Italy, which they view as less fiscally cautious.

“The French vision is quite different,” Schwarzer says. “They believe the eurozone should work more like a nation-state with a monetary policy and a budget. If one region has job shortages, then unemployment insurance kicks in until the region has recovered.”

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Macron, Merkel attempted to play down the fierce resistance she is facing from within her own party.

“Germany will be bringing its own ideas to the table,” she said. “We’ll find a compromise with France before the [next EU leaders’] summit in June.”

Merkel personally supports the notion of a European Monetary Fund. But to placate the skeptics within her alliance, the chancellor also says member states must retain the right to veto eurozone bailout packages.

Her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, are unimpressed with the conservative bloc’s show of dissent. Carsten Schneider, the deputy leader of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, warns time is running out. Following a long campaign leading up September elections, it took months for Merkel to be able to form a government in March.

“Europe has been waiting for Germany for more than a year,” Schneider told German public broadcaster ARD. “First the election, then the lengthy coalition negotiations. It’s time we play our part.”

But fellow Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new finance minister, is more cautious. Budgetary caution is part of his job description. Referring to Macron’s suggestions as “courageous,” Scholz warned last weekend that not all of them would be feasible.

Like his predecessor Schäuble, whose name became synonymous with hard-line austerity during the eurozone crisis that started in late 2009, Scholz has vowed to continue Germany’s schwarze Null or “black zero” policy of a balanced budget. That’s a cultural trait in a nation of savers, as well as a debt-brake policy written into Germany’s constitution.

So despite Merkel’s warm rhetoric and Scholz’s cautious praise, it’s unlikely that Macron will be able to convince the German government that pooling economic risks is prudent. Whether the finance minister or Merkel’s party scuttles Macron’s plans, commentators believe the French leader may find his warning about failing to act falls on deaf ears in Berlin.

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Puerto Rico Loses Power — Again

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Puerto Rico Loses Power — Again

An aerial view of Road 2, six months after Hurricane Maria, in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 18.

Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

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Puerto Rico has experienced an island-wide blackout, seven months after Hurricane Maria hit the island and devastated much of its infrastructure.

Every single power customer on the U.S. territory is without power, NPR’s Adrian Florido reports from San Juan. More than 3 million people are affected. It’s the first total blackout since Hurricane Maria.

PREPA, Puerto Rico’s electrical utility, says a fault was detected on a transmission line between two power plants and that service will be restored gradually. It could take 24 to 36 hours for power to be restored for some customers, the utility says. Hospitals, the island’s main airport, water pumping systems and banking centers will receive priority as PREPA works to restore service.

“In San Juan, officials said a Major League Baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians would go on as scheduled Wednesday evening,” Adrian reports. “They said the Hiram Bithorn Stadium had been equipped with generators capable of powering every part of the venue for up to 48 hours.”

This is the first complete blackout since the hurricane, but over that seven-month span, the island had never restored full service. Before this blackout began, The Associated Press says, 40,000 people in Puerto Rico still had not regained “normal electricity service.”

And even areas that have had power restored continue to experience periodic outages.

In February, an explosion at a power substation plunged San Juan back into darkness. Earlier this month, a tree fell on a transmission line and cut power to more than half the island’s population, as Adrian has reported:

“The accident occurred in the region of Cayey, where crews were working to restore power to people still waiting nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria. Increasingly, that work requires clearing away heavily forested mountainsides to gain access to the large utility poles that carry transmission lines from one mountain peak to the next.

“It was during that kind of work that a tree falling toward the ground made contact with the power line instead. …

“In some places that have had their power back for months, like the capital, San Juan, the outage was a humbling reminder that the restoration is not yet complete in more remote parts of the island, and that one mistake still has the ability to ripple back to the island’s most populated centers. In places that only recently got their power back, the outage was a frustrating, if not totally surprising, setback.”

Why is it so hard for power to be restored in Puerto Rico? As Tim Webber reported for NPR last fall, the island is struggling with an “outdated, aboveground power grid” that has lagged behind infrastructure improvements in the rest of America.

“Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has prevented much-needed improvements to power plants that are more than a half-century old,” Tim wrote. PREPA is in debt, and Puerto Ricans pay higher electricity rates than most people on the U.S. mainland despite having frequently interrupted service.

After the storm, damage to communications and transportation infrastructure, and a comparative lack of utility workers, have hampered power-restoration efforts.

Last month, Adrian reported that people in the mountains of Puerto Rico are frustrated and angry with the uncertainty they’ve lived with for months — not knowing when the power will come back.

Lt. Col. John Cunningham, second-in-command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ power restoration effort at the time, told Adrian the work has become less predictable.

“All the low-hanging fruit has been, you know, frankly, accomplished at this point,” he said. “We’re down to the very, very challenging terrain, and the lines are very, very long spans. It’s requiring helicopters and then a lot of manual work.”

Linemen told Adrian that the work was far more complicated than similar work in the U.S., because of the terrain — and because six months’ worth of vines have been growing over the fallen lines.

Adrian says that Puerto Rico’s government is hoping to finish up power restoration “before the next hurricane season begins” — about a month and a half from now.

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Chasing A New Way To Prevent HIV: Passive Immunization

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Chasing A New Way To Prevent HIV: Passive Immunization

A child is tested for HIV in Johannesburg, South Africa. A single injection of antibodies that target HIV is being developed and analyzed.

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After decades of intense effort, an effective vaccine against HIV is not on the horizon — and, some say, may never be possible. So some AIDS researchers are going passive.

As in passive immunization.

Active immunization is what an effective vaccine does. It stimulates the recipient to make antibodies that protect against a disease. Passive immunization involves the direct injection of antibodies extracted from survivors of a particular infection.

It’s an old method of preventing infection when a vaccine isn’t available — once used, for instance, to protect at-risk people from hepatitis before vaccines were developed. Instead of the lifelong protection from a really good vaccine, passive immunization is a temporary bulwark against infection.

A new report in Nature Medicine gives reason to believe it can work against HIV — at least, so far, in monkeys.

A single injection of two anti-HIV antibodies protected five of six macaque monkeys from infection for six to nine months as they got weekly inoculations of a potent human-simian hybrid of the virus called SHIV.

“We think this approach might be an important way to prevent transmission in humans, particularly in regions of the world where HIV is endemic,” says Malcolm Martin, chief of the viral pathogenesis and viral section of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and a senior author of the paper. “This is not a vaccine but a way to prevention.”

Emilio Emini, director of the Gates Foundation’s HIV program, a funder of the new research, agrees the approach is worth pushing. “The potential is there for the development of a neutralizing antibody cocktail that could be injected to provide many months of protection against HIV infection,” Emini says. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of NPR and this blog.)

Over the last few years, scientists have identified something like 100 of these anti-HIV antibodies, giving them plenty of opportunities to mix and match for maximum effectiveness.

The hope is that an injection of these antibodies every six to 12 months could protect large numbers of people from HIV in parts of the world where most infections are occurring. Currently 1.8 million people are newly infected with HIV every year. And other means of prevention, such as a daily pill containing anti-HIV drugs, have proved too cumbersome. “Taking a pill every day can be just about impossible to do in a population of young people, even under the best of circumstances,” Emini says.

And protecting that young population is key. “In southern Africa, in particular, over the past 10 or 15 years there’s been an explosion of young people,” Emini says. “In many of these countries the average age is in the 20s. Having the means to protect these young people is something that will be absolutely critical to controlling the epidemic.”

The Nature Medicine paper is just the latest report from a burgeoning new branch of HIV research that’s gathering momentum.

“This is not just about doing cool science — and this is cool science,” says Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a global HIV prevention advocacy group. “People are excited about this antibody research as a whole new prevention approach. The long-term goal is still a vaccine. But in HIV prevention we will take what we can get.”

But if you’ve been following AIDS, you might be wondering how antibodies from HIV-infected people could possibly protect against infection. After all, the hallmark of HIV infection is that immune defenses don’t work.

The answer is that researchers are using antibodies derived from a tiny fraction of HIV-infected people — about 1 percent — called “elite controllers” or (the term Martin prefers) “elite neutralizers.” As his term indicates, these “elite” patients make antibodies that can neutralize, or kill, HIV. The patients typically have low levels of the virus and can live longer without virus-suppressing drugs before they get symptoms of immune system collapse, or AIDS.

Ultimately, most elite neutralizers do progress to AIDS if they don’t take antiviral drugs. The reason, Martin says, is that during the initial stages of their HIV infection, their immune system “takes a major hit from which it never recovers.” That allows HIV to establish hideaways, or reservoirs, in the body. By the time their immune systems start generating antibodies to neutralize HIV, Martin says, “it’s too late” to keep the infection under control forever. The horse is out of the barn.

In the new work and previous experiments, Martin and colleagues have identified the particular antibodies from these rare patients that can prevent HIV infection in the test tube. They then harvest these antibodies from patients and test them in monkeys to see if they prevent HIV infection from getting established in the first place. They’ve also learned to tweak the antibodies, introducing mutations that extend their lifetime in the bloodstream. And they’ve found that passive immunization works best when they combine two types of antibodies in one injection.

Two other findings improve the prospects that passive immunization may work in the real world:

  • It can be given by subcutaneous injections — a simple jab just under the skin, like a flu shot — a much simpler and cheaper maneuver than the intravenous infusions used in earlier studies.
  • Small doses — three times lower than earlier IV doses — were enough to give many months of protection. That will bring the cost down too.

These elements “make this report very important,” Emini says. “Everything is moving in the right direction.”

Martin says another promising factor is the likelihood that the injected antibodies will stick around longer in humans’ bloodstream than they do in monkeys’ – thus offering more durable protection.

That’s because a monkey’s immune system recognizes the human-derived antibodies as foreign and so generate antibodies against the antibodies, clearing them from the blood. In studies when humans have been injected with these antibodies, Martin says, “so far, there has been no report of humans ever developing anti-antibodies. So it’s very likely, though we don’t have proof of this, that these antibodies will last longer when we give them to humans.”

The antibody cocktail researchers envision would contain neutralizing antibodies directed at multiple parts of the HIV outer coat. That would work against various strains of HIV circulating around the world and reduce the risk the virus would develop resistance.

Still, genetically engineered antibodies “are actually quite expensive to produce,” Emini acknowledges. “So we need to develop ways to produce them at cost levels that are realistic for countries where most of the infection still occurs.” The Gates Foundation’s target price is no more than $150 per person per year — an amount comparable to the cost of HIV drug treatments now reaching 21 million people a year.

Momentum behind the passive immunization against HIV is growing. Eight human studies are underway using the approach.

Two of them are enrolling a total of 5,000 people at risk of HIV infection — men who have sex with men in the United States, Latin America and South Africa, and women in seven African countries.

Those trials are using one of the first of the 100 anti-HIV antibodies to be discovered, called VRC01. But it has to be delivered every two months in 45-minute intravenous infusions. So even if that’s shown to be effective in preventing HIV infections, it’s not going to be practical as a real-world prevention strategy.

The two-antibody combination in the new report might be. It’s being injected into humans in a small study that began last August. It’s designed to see if any adverse effects arise, but it can also yield useful data on how long the antibody persists in humans and whether humans mount an immune defense against them.

Even though the monkey studies and human trials are preliminary, there’s a sense of urgency behind the passive-immunization approach. Despite surprising success in getting anti-HIV treatment to infected people in most-affected nations, nobody thinks the world can treat its way out of the HIV pandemic.

“The concern is that if we don’t control the pandemic, 15 or 20 years from now we’ll have more people with HIV in southern Africa than we had 15 years ago,” Emini says. “So the urgency remains very strong, and getting stronger.”

Richard Knox is a New Hampshire-based health and science reporter, former NPR science correspondent and currently senior correspondent for WBUR in Boston. He’s been reporting on HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. Contact him @DickKnox

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