U.S. Aid to Central America Hasn’t Slowed Migration. Can Kamala Harris?

SAN ANTONIO HUISTA, Guatemala — An American contractor went to a small town in the Guatemalan mountains with an ambitious goal: to ignite the local economy, and hopefully even persuade people not to migrate north to the United States.

Half an hour into his meeting with coffee growers, the contractor excitedly revealed the tool he had brought to change their lives: a pamphlet inviting the farmers to download an app to check coffee prices and “be a part of modern agriculture.”

Pedro Aguilar, a coffee farmer who hadn’t asked for the training and didn’t see how it would keep anyone from heading for the border, looked confused. Eyeing the U.S. government logo on the pamphlet, he began waving it around, asking if anyone had a phone number to call the Americans “and tell them what our needs really are.”

soared in 2019 and is on the upswing once more.

have risen, malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is unbridled and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the United States than anywhere else in the world.

That is the stark reality facing Ms. Harris as she assumes responsibility for expanding the same kind of aid programs that have struggled to stem migration in the past. It is a challenge that initially frustrated her top political aides, some of whom viewed the assignment from Mr. Biden as one that would inevitably set her up for failure in the first months of her tenure.

Her allies worried that she would be expected to solve the entire immigration crisis, irked that the early reports of her new duties appeared to hold her responsible for juggling the recent surge of children crossing the border without adults.

linked to drug traffickers and accused of embezzling American aid money, the leader of El Salvador has been denounced for trampling democratic norms and the government of Guatemala has been criticized for persecuting officials fighting corruption.

Even so, Ms. Harris and her advisers have warmed to the task, according to several people familiar with her thinking in the White House. They say it will give her a chance to dive squarely into foreign policy and prove that she can pass the commander-in-chief test, negotiating with world leaders on a global stage to confront one of America’s most intractable issues.

critics denounced as unlawful and inhumane. Moreover, members of the current administration contend that Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze a portion of the aid to the region in 2019 ended up blunting the impact of the work being done to improve conditions there.

But experts say the reasons that years of aid have not curbed migration run far deeper than that. In particular, they note that much of the money is handed over to American companies, which swallow a lot of it for salaries, expenses and profits, often before any services are delivered.

Record numbers of Central American children and families were crossing, fleeing gang violence and widespread hunger.

independent studies have found.

“All activities funded with U.S.A.I.D.’s foreign assistance benefit countries and people overseas, even if managed through agreements with U.S.-based organizations,” said Mileydi Guilarte, a deputy assistant administrator at U.S.A.I.D. working on Latin America funding.

But the government’s own assessments don’t always agree. After evaluating five years of aid spending in Central America, the Government Accountability Office rendered a blunt assessment in 2019: “Limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security.”

One U.S.A.I.D. evaluation of programs intended to help Guatemalan farmers found that from 2006 to 2011, incomes rose less in the places that benefited from U.S. aid than in similar areas where there was no intervention.

Mexico has pushed for a more radical approach, urging the United States to give cash directly to Central Americans affected by two brutal hurricanes last year. But there’s also a clear possibility — that some may simply use the money to pay a smuggler for the trip across the border.

The farmers of San Antonio Huista say they know quite well what will keep their children from migrating. Right now, the vast majority of people here make their money by selling green, unprocessed coffee beans to a few giant Guatemalan companies. This is a fine way to put food on the table — assuming the weather cooperates — but it doesn’t offer much more than subsistence living.

Farmers here have long dreamed of escaping that cycle by roasting their own coffee and selling brown beans in bags to American businesses and consumers, which brings in more money.

“Instead of sending my brother, my father, my son to the United States, why not send my coffee there, and get paid in dollars?” said Esteban Lara, the leader of a local coffee cooperative.

But when they begged a U.S. government program for funding to help develop such a business, Ms. Monzón said, they were told “the money is not designed to be invested in projects like that.”

These days, groups of her neighbors are leaving for the United States every month or two. So many workers have abandoned this town that farmers are scrambling to find laborers to harvest their coffee.

One of Ms. Monzón’s oldest employees, Javier López Pérez, left with his 14-year-old son in 2019, during the last big wave of Central American migration to the United States. Mr. López said he was scaling the border wall with his son when he fell and broke his ankle.

“My son screamed, ‘Papi, no!’ and I said to him, ‘Keep going, my son,’” Mr. López said. He said his son made it to the United States, while he returned to San Antonio Huista alone.

His family was then kicked out of their home, which Mr. López had given as collateral to the person who smuggled him to the border. The house they moved into was destroyed by the two hurricanes that hit Guatemala late last year.

Ms. Monzón put Mr. López in one of her relatives’ houses, then got the community to cobble together money to pay for enough cinder blocks to build the family a place to live.

While mixing cement to bind the blocks together, one of Mr. López’s sons, Vidal, 19, confessed that he had been talking to a smuggler about making the same journey that felled his father, who was realistic at the prospect.

“I told him, ‘Son, we suffered hunger and thirst along the way, and then look at what happened to me, look at what I lost,’” Mr. López said, touching his still-mangled ankle. “But I can’t tell him what to do with his life — he’s a man now.”

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The Cost of Being an ‘Interchangeable Asian’

On a recent Tuesday evening, Jully Lee and her boyfriend curled up on the couch and turned on the TV to watch the Ovation Awards, a ceremony honoring stage work in the Los Angeles area that was held virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ms. Lee, an actor, had been nominated for her role in the play “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,” which was in production before the pandemic.

Ms. Lee, 40, had submitted a prerecorded acceptance speech in case she won. During the ceremony, each nominee’s photo was shown as his or her name was announced. When Ms. Lee’s category arrived, her name was called, and a photo appeared on the screen. A photo of the wrong Asian: her colleague Monica Hong. The announcer also mispronounced Ms. Lee’s name.

“I was just stunned,” Ms. Lee said. She added that after a pause, she and her boyfriend started cracking up. “When things are awkward or uncomfortable or painful, it’s much safer to laugh than to express other emotions. It’s like a polite way of responding to things.”

The LA Stage Alliance, which hosted the ceremony, disbanded in the wake of outrage over the blunder.

The irony of a mix-up like this wasn’t lost on Ms. Lee. It was rare to even be performing with other Asian actors, rather than competing for the same part. “It’s so funny because when there’s so many Asians, then you can’t tell them apart, but in media there are so few Asians that you can’t tell us apart,” she said. “What is it?”

The invisibility of Asians in pop culture is part of what, scholars say, contributes to the “wrong Asian” experience: When people aren’t accustomed to seeing Asian faces onstage or onscreen, they may have more trouble telling them apart in real life. To put it another way: If all you really have to work with are John Cho, Steven Yeun, Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn, that’s not going to go a long way in training you to distinguish among men of Asian descent offscreen. In contrast, Hollywood has given everyone plenty of training on distinguishing white faces, Dr. Nadal said.

Out of Hollywood’s top 100 movies of 2018, only two lead roles went to Asian and Asian American actors (one male and one female), according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Donatella Galella, a professor of theater history and theory at the University of California, Riverside, said that popular culture has long reflected the Western world’s xenophobic views toward Asians, which resulted in placing them in diminished roles onstage and onscreen — the villain, the sidekick. That entrenched a kind of marginalization feedback loop.

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China’s Three-Child Policy Sparks Indignation and Concern

After China said it would allow couples to have three children, the state news media trumpeted the move as a major change that would help stimulate growth. But across much of the country, the announcement was met with indignation.

Women worried that the move would only exacerbate discrimination from employers reluctant to pay maternity leave. Young people fumed that they were already hard-pressed to find jobs and take care of themselves, let alone a child (or three). Working-class parents said the financial burden of more children would be unbearable.

“I definitely will not have another child,” said Hu Daifang, a former migrant worker in Sichuan Province. Mr. Hu, 35, said he was already struggling, especially after his mother fell ill and could no longer help care for his two children. “It feels like we are just surviving, not living.”

For many ordinary Chinese, the news about the policy change on Monday was only a reminder of a problem they’d long recognized: the drastic inadequacy of China’s social safety net and legal protections that would enable them to have more children.

Pregnancy discrimination is widespread in China, with women reporting being fired or demoted after telling their bosses they were expecting a child. Some women have even reported being forced to sign contracts promising not to get pregnant within a certain period at new jobs.

“As a woman, you’re inherently at a disadvantage in the workplace,” Ms. Li said.

Ms. Li said she was sympathetic to her boss’s concerns. She did believe that as a manager, her absence would be inconvenient for the company. She acknowledged that she herself, when interviewing candidates, would sometimes wonder whether a new hire would soon leave to give birth.

as some other countries do, and mandate paternity leave, so women would not be singled out for being parents.

had already barred employers from asking women about their marital or childbearing status in 2019, and the problem was weak enforcement. The government has often encouraged women to retreat to more traditional gender roles, in an effort to increase the birthrate.

“Our government is very good at empty talk,” said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist. “It’s meaningless to just look at a few things they said.”

Ms. Lu expected workplace discrimination against women to get worse. Employers might fear that women would want to have a third child — even if, she added, that was unlikely to be the case, given broader trends.

The lack of social support may discourage those who would otherwise want more children, but a more fundamental issue may be a lack of interest among younger, better educated women who have declared a preference for small families. Even if the government did offer more benefits, Ms. Li said, she would not want to have a third child.

“Two is pretty good,” she said. “There’s no point to having too many.”

Joy Dong contributed research.

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China Says It Will Allow Couples to Have 3 Children, Up From 2

China said on Monday that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to raise the country’s declining birthrates and avert a demographic crisis.

The announcement by the ruling Communist Party represents an acknowledgment that its limits on reproduction, the world’s toughest, have jeopardized the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, threatening the industrial strategy that China has used for decades to emerge from poverty to become an economic powerhouse.

But it is far from clear that relaxing the policy further will pay off. People in China have responded coolly to the party’s earlier move, in 2016, to allow couples to have two children. To them, such measures do little to assuage their anxiety over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.

In a nod to those concerns, the party also indicated on Monday that it would improve maternity leave and workplace protections, pledging to make it easier for couples to have more children. But those protections are all but absent for single mothers in China, who despite the push for more children still lack access to benefits.

when the number of babies born dropped to the lowest since the Mao era. The country’s total fertility rate — an estimate of the number of children born over a woman’s lifetime — now stands at 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, raising the possibility of a shrinking population over time.

The announcement on Monday still splits the difference between individual reproductive rights and government limits over women’s bodies. Prominent voices within China have called on the party to scrap its restrictions on births altogether. But Beijing, under Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for greater control in the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.

“Opening it up to three children is far from enough,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research center. “It should be fully liberalized, and giving birth should be strongly encouraged.”

“This should be regarded as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues,” Mr. Huang added. “There should never have been a birth restriction policy in the first place. So it’s not a question of whether this is too late.”

The party made the announcement after a meeting by the Politburo, a top decision-making body, though it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. In an acknowledgment that raising the birth limits might not be enough, the party also pledged to beef up support for families, though it did not provide details.

tacitly allowing couples to have three children.

But more couples now embrace the concept that one child is enough, a cultural shift that has dragged down birthrates. And some say they are not interested in children at all, even after the latest announcement.

“No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive,” said Li Shan, a 26-year-old product manager at an internet company in Beijing. “I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to suppress their population growth.

A full reversal of the rules could also be seen as a repudiation of a deeply unpopular policy that the party has long defended.

“If a government makes a U-turn today in the West, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has been in charge for 70 years or so, then it makes a statement on the policies that were implemented. And so that’s why I think any change that goes through will be quite gradual.”

For decades, China’s family-planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.

Gao Bin, a 27-year-old seller of lottery tickets in the eastern city of Qingdao, recalled how his mother had to flee to three different places just to escape family-planning officials because she wanted to keep him. He said that his mother still cries when she recounts those days.

“To be honest, when I saw the announcement of this policy, I was pretty angry,” Mr. Gao said. “I think the government lacks a humane attitude when it comes to fertility.”

Claire Fu and Elsie Chen contributed research.

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‘It’s Going to Be a Big Summer for Hard Seltzer’

The music should be pumping and the burgers and jerk chicken wings flying out of the kitchen this holiday weekend at the Rambler Kitchen and Tap in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago.

To wash it down, patrons might go with a mixed drink or one of the 20 craft beers the bar sells. But many will order a hard seltzer. The Rambler expects to sell close to 500 cans in flavors like peach, pineapple and grapefruit pomelo.

“We’ll sell a lot of buckets of White Claw and Truly seltzers,” said Sam Stone, a co-owner of the Rambler. “It’s going to be a big summer for hard seltzer.”

The Memorial Day weekend kicks off what many hope will be a more normal summer, when kids start counting down the number of days left in school, people head back to the beach and grills heat up for backyard parties that went poof last year because of the pandemic. And for the hard seltzer industry, it’s the start of a dizzying period when dozens of old and new competitors vie to be the boozy, bubbly drink of the season.

ad campaign with the British pop singer Dua Lipa. This spring, the hip-hop star Travis Scott released Cacti, a seltzer made with blue agave syrup, in a partnership with Anheuser-Busch. It quickly sold out in many locations.

“People were lining up outside of the stores to buy Cacti and share pictures of themselves with their carts full of Cacti,” said Marcel Marcondes, the chief marketing officer for Anheuser-Busch.

Also this spring, Topo Chico Hard Seltzer was released. A partnership between Coca-Cola and Molson Coors Beverage, it hit shelves in 16 markets across the country, chasing the cult following of Topo Chico’s seltzer water in the South.

“I feel like I can walk into a party saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I brought the Topo Chico,’” said Dane Cardiel, 32, who works in business development for a podcast company and lives in Esopus, N.Y., about 60 miles south of Albany.

How flavored bubbly water with alcohol became a national phenomenon is partly due to social media videos that went viral and clever marketing that sold hard seltzers as a “healthier” alcohol choice.

White Claw’s slim cans prominently state that the drinks contain only 100 calories, are gluten free and have only two grams each of carbohydrates and sugar. The brand is owned by the Canadian billionaire Anthony von Mandl, who created Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

“The health and wellness element is front and center in terms of the visual marketing,” said Vivien Azer, an analyst at the Cowen investment firm. “Every brand’s packaging features its relatively low carb and sugar data.”

On top of that, the alcohol content in most hard seltzers, about 5 percent, or the same as 12 ounces of a typical beer, is less than a glass of wine or a mixed drink. That makes it easier for people to sip at a party or while watching a game without getting intoxicated or winding up with the belly-full-of-beer feeling.

“It’s a nice drink for an afternoon on the patio,” said Shelley Majeres, the general manager of Blake Street Tavern in downtown Denver. “You can drink four or five of them in an afternoon and not have a big hangover or get really drunk.”

Blake Street, an 18,000-square-foot sports bar, started selling hard seltzers two years ago. Today, they make up about 20 percent of its can and bottle sales.

The industry has also neatly sidestepped the gender issue that plagued earlier, lighter alcoholic alternatives like Zima, which became popular with women but struggled to be adopted by men.

“I’ve got just as many men as women drinking it,” said Nick Zeto, the owner of Boston Beer Garden in Naples, Fla. “And it started with the millennials, but now I have people in their 40s, 50s and 60s ordering it.”

That kind of broad appeal is attractive to beer, wine and spirits companies.

“We view ourselves as the challenger brand,” said Michelle St. Jacques, the chief marketing officer of Molson Coors, which has been making beer since the late 1700s but hopes to end this year with 10 percent of the hard seltzer market.

Last spring, the company released Vizzy, a hard seltzer that contains vitamin C. Top Chico came this spring. “We feel like we’re making great progress in seltzer by not trying to bring me-too products, but rather products and brands that have a clear difference,” Ms. St. Jacques said.

While grocery and liquor stores have made plenty of space available to the hard seltzer brands that people drink at home, the competition to get into restaurants and bars is fierce. Most want to offer only two or three brands to their customers.

“Oh, my god, I get presented with new hard seltzer whenever they can get my attention,” said Mr. Stone, who sells six brands at the Rambler. The crowd favorite, he said, is the vodka-based High Noon Sun Sips peach, made by E.&J. Gallo Winery. “Everybody, from the big brands to small, new ones, are getting into the hard seltzer game.”

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Europe’s Dilemma: Take In ISIS Families, or Leave Them in Syria?

When Belgium said in March that it would repatriate some women who had joined the Islamic State, along with their children, Jessie Van Eetvelde welcomed the decision with relief — even though she knows it will likely mean time in prison.

She and her two children have been living for at least two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is to have her children, whose father fought for the Islamic State, attend school in Belgium. For that, she is ready to pay the price of having joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium will take her back.

“Maybe they realized that those who want to go back are sorry and want a second chance,” Ms. Van Eetvelde, 43, said recently in a WhatsApp voice message.

Many European countries have balked at allowing the return of people linked to ISIS, yet some, like Belgium and Finland, are now heeding the advice of security experts and rights groups who say that repatriations are the safest option.

lost its last territorial foothold in Syria, more than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children are living in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank.

Although the Europeans represent a small fraction of the 60,000 people being held in the camps, who are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, European governments are facing increasing pressure to bring the adults back to face trial amid an argument that the countries’ inaction violates their commitment to human rights.

Security experts, rights groups and lawyers of those who went to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face legitimate security concerns, along with political dynamics in countries fearful of terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government and intelligence officials say that leaving European citizens in Syria comes with greater risks, including that they could join terrorist groups that target Europe.

Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated many of their own citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reintegrate them into society.

The Kurdish leadership in the region that oversees the camps has not prosecuted the women, whose roles under ISIS’s rule often remain unclear. And because the administration is not internationally recognized, any prosecutions would still not get them out of their legal limbo.

Most European countries say that they have no legal obligation to help their citizens in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.

Save the Children.

Reprieve says that many women in the camps were trafficked, raped and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.

Yet in several European countries, repatriations remain out of the question, said a French intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss the topic. Part of the hesitancy, security analysts say, is that repatriated women could receive light or no prison sentences.

Britain has stripped British citizenship from nearly 20 women who joined ISIS, in some cases taking them to court to prevent their return. France has turned down numerous calls for repatriation, even as some of the women staged a monthlong hunger strike. The Netherlands and Sweden said that they might take in children, but without their mothers.

France reels from years of terrorist attacks, the government has opposed calls to repatriate people who left to wage jihad.

Although France has taken in 35 children from the camps on a case-by-case basis, 100 women with French citizenship and their 200 children remain mostly in the Roj camp, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.

France was due to repatriate at least 160 of them in early 2019, according to intelligence documents brought to light by the newspaper Libération that spring and seen by The Times this year. But the situation in the camps became too volatile, the French intelligence official said, and the plan was abandoned.

asked the International Criminal Court to consider whether the country’s policy makes President Emmanuel Macron complicit in war crimes.

A French woman who went on hunger strike in the Roj camp said that there was no running water and that many people there had respiratory problems. (The Times is not publishing her name, because she says she has received death threats from ISIS supporters who oppose their return to France.) “It’s very difficult to see doctors and dentists — there are no medicines,” she said, adding that the Frenchwomen wanted to return “to be tried, to be jailed.”

Jussi Tanner, a diplomat from Finland who is in charge of his country’s repatriations, said the women and children’s return was not a matter of “if, but of when and how.”

“Repatriating them as quickly as we can is better from a security point of view rather than pretending that the problem goes away when we look away,” he said. “You can leave them there, but they will return anyway.”

Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.

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Louvre Gets Its First Female Leader in 228 Years

The Louvre is to have a female president for the first time in the Paris museum’s 228-year history.

Laurence des Cars, who is currently president of two other Paris institutions, the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, will take over the job — one of the most important in the art world — on Sep. 1, France’s culture ministry said in a news release on Wednesday.

She will take over the museum — which has an annual budget of 240 million euros (about $291 million), more than 2,000 employees and a regional outpost in northern France — at a difficult time. The pandemic has put a break on international tourism. Before it hit last year, the Louvre was getting about 10 million annual visitors, making it the most visited museum in the world.

Her mission will include drawing more young people into the museum, the news release said, and an increased focus on international partnerships.

Des Cars, 54, is something of a Louvre insider, having studied art history at the École du Louvre, the museum’s school. She oversaw the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum in the United Arab Emirates that leases the Louvre’s brand and which opened in 2017.

Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which focused on previously overlooked Black figures in French art and was developed with the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, is considered a landmark of her tenure.

“A great museum must face history, including by looking back at the history of our own institutions,” she told Agence France-Presse in an interview in April.

Des Cars is among few women to have led major French museums. That dearth is “a consequence of official institutions not reaching out to women enough, or not giving them enough confidence,” des Cars said in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. But there is also “the issue of self-censorship — of women thinking, ‘I’m not up to that kind of job,’” she said.

“Women need to overcome their personal doubts, and to tell themselves: ‘I’m capable of this. It’s coming at the right time in my life and in my career. I’m ready for this,’” des Car added.

The Louvre belongs to the French state, so France’s president appoints the museum’s leader.

A few months ago, it was assumed that Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s president since 2013, was assured a third, three-year term. Under his tenure, the Louvre grew visitor numbers past 10 million for the first time. Its landmark Leonardo exhibition, which ended a few weeks before France went into a nationwide lockdown last year, drew rave reviews and a record million visitors.

partnerships with brands like Uniqlo, allowing a couple to spend a night in the museum as part of a marketing campaign for Airbnb and leasing the space to Beyoncé and Jay-Z to film the music video for their song “Apes**t.” (The Louvre also features prominently in the Netflix hit “Lupin,” one of the platform’s most-watched series.)

In March, after a dispute over a new color scheme in one of the Louvre’s galleries became a weekslong talking point in France’s news media, Henri Loyrette, a former president of the museum, threw his weight behind Martinez’s critics. He and another high-ranking former Louvre official gave testimony in a lawsuit brought by the Cy Twombly Foundation, which said the new paint job had disfigured a ceiling mural by the abstract American painter.

Martinez will continue at the museum, which reopened on May 19 after months of being closed, until Aug. 31. He will then become a heritage ambassador, responsible for coordinating France’s participation in international projects, the news release said.

Des Cars did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Iraqi Activism Fights for Survival Amid Murders and Threats

BAGHDAD — ‘Who killed me?’ the signs asked, alongside images of dead men and women, among the roughly 80 Iraqi activists murdered since late 2019. Young demonstrators held aloft the posters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, illustrating both the enduring spark and diminished strength of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

The demonstrators (publicly) and Iraqi officials (privately) say they know who killed many of the activists: Iran-backed militias that have essentially crushed a grass-roots anti-corruption movement that blames Iranian influence, and the militias, for many of Iraq’s ills. In a country where militias — nominally a part of the security apparatus — operate with impunity, the killers have gone unpunished.

The several thousand young men gathered in Baghdad’s central square Tuesday comprised the biggest protest in the Iraqi capital since the anniversary last October of demonstrations in 2019 that swept Baghdad and southern cities and brought down a government. The movement is driven by anger at the government’s failure to make promised reforms, including curbs on Iranian-backed militias.

But in the shadow of assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation of people who criticize the Iraqi government and Iranian interference, turnout on Tuesday was far smaller than organizers had hoped.

Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are clustered. A few of the protesters responded by throwing rocks as police chased demonstrators down alleys. Security forces said the demonstrators later set fire to security vehicles.

“We expected more people to come but some people are afraid — afraid for their jobs and afraid for themselves,” said one of the longtime activists, Dr. Mohammad Fadhil, a physician from Diyala province, speaking before the clashes erupted.

Another protester, Hani Mohammad, said he had been threatened by a group of fighters three days before.

“They came to my house,” said Mr. Mohammad, naming one of the biggest Iran-backed militias, which he did not want to name publicly for fear of retaliation. He said he had already fled.

A year after taking power, prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has largely failed to deliver reforms he promised in response to the 2019 protests, including reining in Iran-backed militias, which are also blamed for attacks on the U.S. embassy and military installations.

Activists who have been killed include protest leaders in the holy city of Karbala, a female doctor in Basra, and a prominent Baghdad security analyst, Hisham al Hashimi, who advised the prime minister. Many of them were shot dead in the streets in view of security cameras or the police, some in the middle of the day.

Though at least one commander has been relieved of duty, no one is known to have been prosecuted.

“What’s the main purpose of these killings? It’s to deter the formation of leadership among the protest movement,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “So you target key leaders that have the potential of rallying the masses, you eliminate them and then you create fear within the rest.”

She said there was little prospect that Iraqi political leaders would reform the system that elevated them to power, or push back against the pervasive influence of Iran, and that intimidation and lack of support had left the protest movement too weak to create change.

“You need leadership, you need organization, you need political machinery, you need funding for that,” said Ms. Slim, listing elements that the diverse movement lacks.

Ali al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said, “The security establishment is not serious in its efforts, beginning from the investigations within security institutions to bringing the case to the court.”

The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the U.N. Security Council this month that many of the protest leaders were being hunted down with ‘rampant impunity’ ahead of the early elections they had demanded.

In addition to those assassinated, more than 560 protesters, the vast majority of them unarmed, have been killed by security forces and gunmen during the protests themselves since 2019. Most were shot with live bullets or killed by tear gas canisters that became lethal projectiles after being fired directly into the crowd.

Ahead of Tuesday’s protest, one of the main Iran-backed militias, the Hezbollah Brigades, issued what many perceived as a veiled threat to the demonstrators, saying that it and other paramilitary forces “must protect these young men who are deceived,” so they cannot be used by enemies, including the United States. It accused the protesters of aiming to delay the elections planned for Oct. 10.

The assassinations have had a chilling effect on the political campaign. The grass-roots movement that began in 2019 aimed to end the corruption-ridden system of government in place since 2003, where government ministries have been carved up between powerful political blocs and militias.

Activists originally saw the upcoming elections as a chance for a fresh start with new faces, but now they appear likely to return the same factions to power.

“There are no parties with integrity that I can vote for,” said Hadeel, a 19-year-old university student protesting Tuesday in Baghdad’s Nasour square. She did not want to give her last name.

“After the election we will not be able to even protest because the government is going to be stronger than before and the militias will have even more power.”

Despite the danger, the protests Thursday could be a harbinger of a painful summer in Iraq.

The protests in 2019 spread from the southern coastal city of Basra, where citizens took to the streets to demand public services. Iraq last year recorded life-threatening record high temperatures of over 125 degrees, leaving many to swelter without electricity or even clean water.

This summer, a lack of winter rain, water mismanagement and water conflicts with neighboring Turkey and Iran are expected to result in even worse shortages for millions of Iraqis, misery that could fuel renewed mass protests.

Among the protesters Tuesday, there was little fear of the coronavirus ravaging Iraq, where only about 1 percent of the population has been vaccinated. No one in the demonstrations was seen wearing masks, and social distancing in the crowded squares was impossible.

“We know virus exists,” said one of the protesters, Hamza Khadham. “But the violence, injustice and oppression by the government against the people is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

Falih Hassan, Awadh al-Taiee and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

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The Small Business Administration’s Gaffes Are Now Her Job to Fix

Isabella Casillas Guzman, President Biden’s choice to run the Small Business Administration, inherited a portfolio of nearly $1 trillion in emergency aid and an agency plagued by controversy when she took over in March. She has been sprinting from crisis to crisis ever since.

Some new programs have been mired in delays and glitches, while the S.B.A.’s best-known pandemic relief effort, the Paycheck Protection Program, nearly ran out of money for its loans this month, confusing lenders and stranding millions of borrowers. Angry business owners have deluged the agency with criticism and complaints.

Now, it’s Ms. Guzman’s job to turn the ship around. “It’s the largest S.B.A. portfolio we’ve ever had, and clearly there’s going to need to be some changes in how we do business,” she said in a recent interview.

When the coronavirus crisis struck and the economy went into a free fall last year, Congress and the Trump administration pushed the Small Business Administration to the forefront, putting it in charge of huge sums of relief money and complicated new programs.

confusing, often-revised loan terms and several technical meltdowns — the program enjoyed some success. Millions of business owners credit it with helping them survive the pandemic and keep more workers employed.

Economists are skeptical about whether the program’s results justify its huge cost, but Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden both embraced the effort as a centerpiece of their economic rescue plans. As the pandemic stretched on and the economy plunged into a recession, the Paycheck Protection Program morphed into the largest business bailout in American history. More than eight million companies got forgivable loans, totaling $788 billion — nearly as much money as the government spent on its three rounds of direct payments to taxpayers.

Fraud is a major concern. Thousands of people took advantage of the rushed program’s minimal documentation requirements and sought illicit loans, according to prosecutors, to fund gambling sprees, Lamborghinis, luxury watches, an alpaca farm and a Medicare fraud scheme. The Justice Department has charged hundreds of people with stealing more than $440 million, and scores of federal investigations are active. (During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Guzman promised that she would “prioritize the reduction of fraud, waste and abuse.”)

There were other problems. Female and minority business owners were disproportionately left out of the relief effort. A last-minute attempt by Mr. Biden to make the program more generous for solo business owners came too late to help many of them. This month, a new emergency popped up: The program ran short of money and abruptly closed to most new applicants.

“There was no warning,” Toby Scammell, the chief executive of Womply, a company that helps borrowers get loans, said of the latest debacle. His company alone has more than 1.6 million applicants caught in limbo.

low-interest disaster loans of up to $500,000 and new grant funds, created by Congress, for two of the hardest-hit industries: the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant for live-event businesses and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (The hotel industry is pushing for its own version.)

Each required the agency to create policies and technology systems from scratch. The venue program has been especially rocky. On its scheduled start day, in early April, the application system completely failed, leaving desperate applicants hitting refresh and relying on social media posts for information and updates.

“I turned to my associate director and said, ‘I figured something like this would happen,’” said Chris Zacher, the executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit performing arts center in Denver. The Small Business Administration revived the system three weeks later and has received 12,200 applications, but it does not anticipate awarding grants until late May.

have turned into primal screams of pain. (“I SERIOUSLY CANNOT TAKE THIS WITH SBA ANY LONGER” is one of the milder replies.) She said she understood the urgency.

“It’s definitely unprecedented — across the board, across the nation — and we are seeing multiple disasters at the same time,” she said. “The agency is highly focused on just still responding to disaster and implementing this relief as quickly as possible.”

This is Ms. Guzman’s second tour at the Small Business Administration. When President Barack Obama picked Maria Contreras-Sweet in 2014 to take over the agency, Ms. Guzman went along as a senior adviser and deputy chief of staff. The women had met in the mid-1990s. Ms. Guzman, a California native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, was hired at 7Up/RC Bottling by Ms. Contreras-Sweet, an executive there.

“I was always impressed with her ability to handle jobs with steep learning curves — she has a quick grasp of complex concepts,” Ms. Contreras-Sweet said.

Ms. Guzman spent her first stint at the agency focused on traditional projects like its flagship lending program, which normally facilitates around $28 billion a year in loans. The time, the job is radically different.

community navigators” program, which will fund local organizations, including nonprofits and government groups, to work closely with businesses owned by people with disabilities or in underserved rural, minority and immigrant communities. It’s an expansion of a grass-roots effort by several nonprofits to get vulnerable businesses access to Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Ms. Guzman said she was bullish about that effort and other agency priorities, like expanding Black and other minority entrepreneurs’ access to capital — but first, like the clients it serves, the Small Business Administration has to weather the pandemic.

And to do that, it has to stop shooting itself in the foot.

The much-awaited second attempt at opening the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant fund was preceded by one final debacle: The agency announced — and then, less than a day before the date, abandoned — a plan to open the first-come-first-served fund on a Saturday. For those seeking aid that has not yet arrived, the incident felt like yet another kick in the teeth.

Ms. Guzman said she was aware of the need for her agency to overcome its limitations and rebuild its checkered reputation.

“This is a pivotal moment in time where we can leverage the interest in small business to really deliver a remarkable agency to them,” she said. “I value being the voice for the 30 million small and innovative start-ups around the country. What I always say to my staff is that I want these businesses to feel like the giants that they are in our economy.”

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