Tag Archives: U.S.

Much uncertainty ahead in US-Cuba relationship

Fidel Castro’s passing removes what was long the single greatest psychological barrier to a warmer U.S.-Cuba relationship. But it also adds to the uncertainty ahead with the transition from an Obama to a Trump administration.

“A brutal dictator” of a “totalitarian island,” declared President-elect Donald Trump, underscoring the historical trauma still separating the countries.

A more restrained President Barack Obama, carefully promoting and working to preserve his own attempt to rebuild those ties, said history would assess Castro’s impact and that the Cuban people could reflect “with powerful emotions” about how their longtime leader influenced their country.

In death as in life, Castro has divided opinion: a revolutionary who stood up to American aggression or a ruthless dictator whose movement trampled human rights and democratic aspirations.

President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, is 85.

Their Communist Party shows no signs of opening up greater political space despite agreeing with the United States to re-establish embassies and facilitate greater trade and investment.

As Obama leaves office in January, his decision to engage rather than pressure Havana in the hopes of forging new bonds could quickly unravel.

Trump has hardly championed the effort and Republican leaders in Congress fiercely opposed Obama’s calls to end the 55-year-old U.S. trade embargo of the island.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation,” Obama said.

He offered neither condemnation nor praise for Castro, who outlasted invasion and assassination plots, and presided over the Cuban missile crisis, which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” Obama said, adding that U.S.-Cuban relations shouldn’t be defined “by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends.”

Trump didn’t pass off his evaluation to the historians.

“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades,” Trump said in a statement. “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”

Trump expressed hope that Castro’s death would mark a “move away from the horrors” toward a future where Cubans live in freedom.

But he said nothing about Obama’s project to reset ties, and even hailed the election support he received from veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that was backed by the CIA.

Such a statement probably will irritate Havana, coming after a two-year period of intense diplomatic discussions with Washington that have done more to improve relations between the countries than anything in the past 51/2 decades.

Trump “is going to be looking for some movement in the right direction in order to have any sort of deal with Cuba,” his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told “Fox News Sunday.” And without that, Priebus said Trump “absolutely” would reverse Obama’s opening with Havana.

Castro’s reign began when his improbable insurrection ousted the U.S.-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Only 32 at the time, Castro was the youngest leader in Latin America and inspired revolutionaries as far afield as Africa and Asia.

But Castro’s socialist Cuba was anything but an idyll and the United States quickly became his fiercest opponent.

Members of Batista’s government went before summary courts, with at least 582 executed by firing squad in the first two years of Castro’s rule. Independent newspapers were closed. Gays were herded into camps for “re-education.” Tens of thousands were held as political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled. After the Soviet Union vanished, Cuba’s economy collapsed.

In Miami and other American cities, a powerful emigre community emerged that was bitterly opposed to any improvement in U.S. relations with Castro’s government. For many years, their threat alone was enough to sink any attempts to bridge divides.

The dynamic began changing a decade ago, as Castro stepped back from public life. His health ailing, he handed over power to brother Raul in 2008 and a period of limited economic reforms was ushered in.

After Cuba’s government released American prisoner Alan Gross and agreed to a spy swap with Washington in 2014, Obama and Raul Castro felt they finally had enough trust to embark on a journey of rapprochement.

While some U.S. investment has opened up and travel rules for Americans are now greatly eased, the normalization has been limited because Obama could never get Republican lawmakers to end the vast restrictions tied up in the trade embargo. Triumphant alongside Trump in November, some GOP leaders have vowed to reverse Obama’s effort.

“Now that Fidel Castro is dead, the cruelty and oppression of his regime should die with him,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement Saturday. “Sadly, much work remains to secure the freedom of the Cuban people.”

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is pushing legislation to scrap the embargo, said in an interview that Castro’s shadow “loomed over all the government’s decisions” even though he had left power. She hoped Trump and Republican leaders would respond to Castro’s death by at least not rolling back Obama’s openings to Cuba and perhaps advancing them.

During his campaign, Trump criticized Obama for striking a “very weak agreement” and threatened to reverse Obama’s executive orders “unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” He never laid out those demands, and at other times hinted about being amenable to more U.S. investment in Cuba.

As with much of his foreign policy, Trump never outlined clearly a set of policy objectives with Cuba. The ambiguity leaves much of the recent warming on uncertain ground. It’s unclear if Castro’s death, however powerful for castigators and champions, will dramatically sway Trump one way or the other.

UNICEF calls for end to dire situation in Aleppo

UNICEF’s representative in Syria called Saturday for an end to the violence that has beset northern Aleppo, causing dire humanitarian and psychological impacts on both sides of the divided city.

U.N. agencies are on “standby” to deliver needed assistance, Hanaa Singer of the U.N.’s children agency told The Associated Press.

With the key powers deeply divided, the U.N. Security Council on Saturday once again failed to agree on the course of action in war-ravaged Aleppo, and Syria in general. Russia vetoed a resolution drafted by France demanding an immediate halt to the bombing of Aleppo. A resolution put forward by Russia that called for a separation of moderate and extremist forces in Syria but making no mention of a bombing halt in Aleppo failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes required for passage.

Also on Saturday, Syrian state media and a Syria monitoring group said pro-government troops advanced in a northern district of eastern Aleppo, wrestling control from rebel fighters in their latest push into the besieged area.

Singer said conditions in besieged Aleppo are “terribly dire,” with hospitals hit, doctors overwhelmed, and over 100 children killed in bombings since Sept. 19. Conditions for thousands of displaced in the government-held part of the city are also deteriorating, with some of them being displaced for up to six times in the last three years, she said.

Singer returned earlier this week from a week-long trip to the government-held part of Aleppo where she was visiting thousands of displaced Syrians. Most are crammed in makeshift shelters, mosques, parks and churches after recently fleeing clashes on the frontline between rebels and pro-government forces. In one case, a mother so desperate from the continuous displacement, stabbed her baby girl thinking she will save her the misery of living on handouts and without a home, Singer said.

Describing the dramatic situation for thousands of families living in shelters in government-controlled Aleppo, Singer said: “These (are) the horrors in western Aleppo. God knows what is happening, (in the case of) mental health or the psychological situation on the eastern (rebel-held) side.”

Western Aleppo, controlled by the government, is separated from eastern rebel-held Aleppo by a few meters, sometimes by a single plastic sheet or pockmarked building. An estimated 275,000 people are living in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, with no international aid reaching the area since the first week of July. Besides the scarce assistance, it is also difficult to assess the needs with the ever-evolving violent situation, and lack of access for international aid groups, she said.

“I think we all agree, and especially if you have been so close in the area there and seeing the dire situation in the west, hearing about the horrible situation in the east, all we need now is (for) the violence to stop,” Singer said. “The violence has to stop and once the violence stops, the U.N., we absolutely stand ready. We are ready. We are actually on standby.”

Singer says U.N. plans are in place for government-held Aleppo to accommodate residents that may evacuate the besieged part of the city if a cease-fire takes effect.

According to medical charity Doctors Without borders, hospitals in the eastern side of Syria’s Aleppo have been attacked 23 times since July, damaging all eight facilities that have not yet been shuttered or destroyed. Since the U.S-Russian cease-fire broke down on Sept. 19, the situation in besieged Aleppo has immensely deteriorated under a relentless bombardment campaign. Water stations and civil defense centers have also been hit, while over 320 people have been killed in eastern Aleppo in nearly three weeks of violence.

“In eastern Aleppo, the situation is terribly dire. Lots of schools and of hospitals have been hit we understand that there are only 30 doctors there. We have information that at least over 100 children have been killed. We hear that because of the lack of services and lack of health facilities that some children, that doctors can’t cope with all the cases, and some children in dire situation are left to die,” Singer said.

On Saturday, amid intensive air raids, pro-government forces seized the al-Awijeh district in northeastern rebel-controlled Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory also reported clashes on the southern edge of the rebel-held area. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Syrian State TV reported that government and allied troops took control of al-Awijeh, moving toward the Jandoul roundabout and getting closer to crowded residential areas in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled eastern districts.

Feingold outraised Johnson by $1M during third quarter

Democrat Russ Feingold raised about $1 million more than Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson during the three-month fundraising period ending in September. That was the first full quarter that Feingold was an announced candidate in the expected rematch between the two candidates in November 2016.

Both Johnson and Feingold’s campaigns released spending summaries due to be filed with the Federal Elections Commission on Oct. 15.

Feingold raised $2.4 million between July and September, while Johnson brought in $1.4 million.

Feingold’s edge in fundraising this past quarter means both candidates now report having roughly the same amount of cash on hand. Johnson said he ended September with $3.5 million, while Feingold had $3.4 million.

Johnson defeated Feingold in 2010 in a mid-term wave election that brought tea party dominance to many state governments and to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Johnson’s spokesman says none of the money raised this past quarter came from the Senator’s own personal wealth. Johnson spent about $8.2 million of his own money to defeat Feingold in 2010.

Johnson is widely considered the most vulnerable U.S. senator facing re-election next year.

Indian and Chinese immigrants to U.S. are outpacing those from Mexico

Siddharth Jaganath wanted to return to India after earning his master’s degree at Texas’ Southern Methodist University. Instead, he built a new life in the U.S. over a decade, becoming a manager at a communications technology company and starting a family in the Dallas suburb of Plano.

“You start growing your roots and eventually end up staying here,” the 37-year-old said.

His path is an increasingly common one: Immigrants from China and India, many with student or work visas, have overtaken Mexicans as the largest groups coming into the U.S., according to U.S Census Bureau research released in May.

While Republican presidential contenders spar for the mantle of the candidate who will treat immigrants the worst, they’re speaking of immigrants from Mexico. They’re seemingly unaware of the shift that’s been building for more than a decade — a shift that experts say is bringing more highly skilled immigrants here.

Mexicans still dominate the overall composition of immigrants in the U.S., accounting for more than a quarter of the foreign-born people. But of the 1.2 million newly arrived immigrants here legally and illegally counted in the 2013 census, China led with 147,000, followed by India with 129,000 and Mexico with 125,000. It’s a sharp contrast to the 2000 census, which counted 402,000 from Mexico and no more than 84,000 each from India and China. Experts say part of the reason for the decrease in Mexican immigrants is a dramatic plunge in illegal immigration.

“We’re not likely to see Asians overtake Latin Americans anytime soon (in overall immigration population). But we are sort of at the leading edge of this transition where Asians will represent a larger and larger share of the U.S. foreign-born population,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program for the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

The national trend is evident even in Texas, where the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the border state each year has dropped by more than half since 2005, according to the Office of the State Demographer. In that time, the number of people from India coming to Texas has more than doubled and the number from China has increased more than fivefold, though both still comfortably trail Mexican immigrants.

Asian immigrants have flocked to Texas’ large urban and suburban areas, including the Dallas suburb of Collin County, the home to many major businesses. Laxmi Tummala, a real estate agent in the area and a U.S.-born child of Indian immigrants, has witnessed a buildup in Indian restaurants, grocery stores, clothing outlets and worship centers.

“All of that is extremely accessible now,” Tummala said.

Donald Trump has proposed kicking out the estimated 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally before allowing the “good ones” and “talented” ones back in. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both have said that the legal immigration process should focus more on letting in workers the country needs rather than reuniting families.

Increasing the flow of highly skilled immigrants would likely have a big impact on those coming from India and China. The majority of them who are 25 and older who arrived within three years of the 2013 census had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Mexican immigrants only had 15 percent, up from 6 percent in 2000.

China and India’s growing economies have given immigrants access to travel and the ability to pay for an education abroad. Hua Bai came to the University of Texas at Dallas from China last year to work on a master’s degree in marketing and information technology management. The 25-year-old said that given the right opportunity, she’d like to stay in the U.S.

“If I get sponsorship I’d consider living here and working here,” she said. “It all depends on the job opportunities.”

Without revisions in immigration policy, experts say the change to the overall immigrant population will be slow. One reason is that the number of Mexicans who become legal permanent residents is about twice the number of Indian and Chinese people who do, according to Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

But a rising number of Chinese and Indians will become permanent residents, given the current rate of about half of people here on temporary work visas obtaining that status, Fix said.

Jaganath was among that group, inspired to come to the U.S. because the country is a leader in his career field.

“That was a following-the-dream type of thing for me,” he said.

Hope amid hatred this July Fourth

Our national holiday this year is marked by hatred and hope.

The murders in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church were a frightening reminder of how much hatred exists in our country. A week before the massacre, The New York Times reported that a study of 384 law enforcement agencies found that 74 percent believed the greatest terrorist threat facing us comes from domestic extremists, not the Islamic State group or al-Qaida.

Militias, neo-Nazis and “sovereign citizen” groups (who reject federal, state and local authority) make up the bulk of this domestic threat. These groups harbor racist elements; the most overtly racist are neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, which have a big presence online.

It was at the website of one of these white supremacist groups that the Charleston killer filled his head with racist blather about African-Americans “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” These racist tropes date back to the days of slavery. Yet they remain potent recruiting slogans for vengeance-minded fanatics who need someone to blame for their sorry, bitter lives.

The outpouring of grief around the country combined with renewed debate about flying the Confederate flag repudiated any message the killer was trying to get across. 

Hatred, access to guns and mental health issues may all have been factors, but what is it with this young, white, male demographic? From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, from John Hinckley to Dylan Klebold to Adam Lanza to Dylann Roof, these violent killers have predictable profiles. Are there studies being done on them? How can we identify these loose cannons before they go off?

Roof was able to buy the Glock he used to kill the nine Charlestonians with birthday money. The very day pundits were discussing that lethal purchase, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill repealing Wisconsin’s two-day waiting period for handgun purchases, calling it an unnecessary “time tax.” How twisted by ideology do you have to be to dismiss a two-day waiting period for handguns as a “time tax”?

President Barack Obama delivered his stirring eulogy in Charleston a day after federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act were sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court and on the day the high court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. No wonder Obama spoke with such passion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy grounded his marriage ruling in the rights to individual liberty, due process and equal protection of the laws. The four liberal justices voted with Kennedy, reminding us again why we take pride in liberalism. Thus did a determined minority of gay men and lesbians — subject to criminal sanction, medical torture and rejection by families as few as 50 years ago — obtain redress and state recognition of their relationships. 

I spent June 26 tuning in to TV and websites to take it all in. I watched excerpts of the Charleston eulogy, crying in sorrow, and then switched to coverage of the marriage ruling, crying with happiness. 

At the end of that historic day, the beautiful image of the White House swathed in bright rainbow colors was transmitted worldwide. It was an unexpected, celebratory symbol of hope that closed a period of national tragedy. 

May the rainbow continue to be our beacon as we fight hatred with love and learn to respect the diversity and contributions of all our people.

Ron Johnson faces a tough battle in rematch with Feingold

Almost from the day Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defeated his Democratic predecessor Russ Feingold five years ago, both sides have anticipated a rematch.

Feingold, who passed up an open U.S. Senate seat and two chances to run against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, announced plans this spring to try to avenge his five-point loss to Johnson.

For months, while Feingold pondered his decision, Republicans attacked him, anticipating he would get in the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee in February blasted Feingold’s support for the federal stimulus plan approved six years earlier, saying it was worth noting as he was “plotting his return to power.”

The attacks from Republicans picked up in March, when Feingold stepped down from his position with the U.S. Department of State as an envoy to Africa and began traveling around Wisconsin to talk with voters.

Republicans have tried to paint Feingold as a Washington insider with tenuous ties to his home state, pointing to his recently completed teaching job at Stanford University.

“The voters of Wisconsin terminated Russ Feingold in 2010, but he’s back,” Johnson told reporters on May 15.

Feingold’s campaign manager Tom Russell in a statement said voters were looking for an “independent-minded” candidate like Feingold.

“Right now they have a senator that puts partisan ideology and the needs of billionaires and special interests ahead of Wisconsin,” Russell said.

The seat is a key target for Democrats looking to regain control of the Senate who see Feingold as their best chance to retake it. Republicans currently hold a 54–44 majority, with two independents who caucus with Democrats.

Democrats see hope for Feingold, because he’ll appear on the ballot in a presidential year when Democratic voters in Wisconsin historically far outnumber Republicans. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984 — when Feingold was a 31-year-old freshman state senator.

Johnson’s win over Feingold was part of the tea party wave in 2010 that also put Republicans in control of both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature. Walker also won election as governor for the first time.

In 2014, when President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin for a second time, voters also elected liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin for an open Senate seat, picking her over former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican who had won four previous statewide elections.

Baldwin’s win — a huge victory for Democrats — was all the more telling given that it came just five months after Walker won a recall election. Feingold, whom many Democrats wanted to come out of retirement to take on Walker, passed on that race. Feingold also chose not to take on Walker last year when he ran, and won, re-election.

Another problem for Johnson is that recent polls show that even after six years in office, he remains a blank slate to many voters. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to a Marquette University Law School poll done in April had no opinion of Johnson. Only 26 percent had no opinion of Feingold, who was a state senator for 10 years before first being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992.

That same poll showed that Johnson’s favorable rating sat at 32 percent, compared with 47 percent for Feingold. And in a head-to-head matchup, the poll showed Feingold beating Johnson 54 percent to 38 percent.

Johnson called the poll “completely meaningless” given that it was done 18 months before the election.

Johnson said he expected the race to be close, but he was optimistic the state’s Republican Party would help him win using grassroots campaigning.

Despite the positive numbers, Feingold has the weight of history working against him. Only two senators since 1956 have successfully won their old seat back after losing a re-election attempt.

Buy American Blooms: | ‘Slow Flowers’ movement pushes local grown, U.S. cut flowers

Come February, the owners of Farmstead Flowers begin nurturing seedlings and preparing three acres for their cash crop reaped from April through October — cut flowers.

Megan Hird and her husband founded their rural southeast Nebraska business in 2012 and are among the growing number of “farmer florists” intent on providing consumers the option to buy local — much as the slow food movement has sought to increase the use of locally grown, sustainable food.

About 80 percent of the cut flowers used in florists’ bouquets are imported, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. But flower industry experts anticipate that heading into Valentine’s Day, more people will eschew bouquets of imports for American blooms.

There’s been a recent — if small — rebound in the number of cut-flower growers in the U.S., from 5,085 in 2007 to 5,903 in 2012. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers recently reported an all-time high of 700 members, the majority of which are based in the U.S.

The shift is two-fold, according to Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based outdoor living expert who operates Slow Flowers, an online directory of florists, wedding and event planners and growers who use stateside flowers.

“I think a lot of it is just this rejection of the more structural bouquets — the flowers that are the Dirty Dozen, the same-old, same-old,” Prinzing said. “The romance of a meadow or a cottage-garden flower or an heirloom flower is really penetrating the consciousness of floral designers.”

There’s also a rising consciousness about the carbon footprint caused by the distance from which flowers are shipped, “just the same as it is with food,” she said. Critics of the flowers grown in South America and other places say those countries often don’t employ fair labor practices and that the flowers are often coated with chemicals to preserve them for a long journey.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Floral Importers of Florida — based in Miami, where more than 90 percent of imported flowers enter the country — said they’re using outdated information. While Colombia’s and Ecuador’s industries used questionable labor practices and pesticides years ago, they are now heavily regulated and have minimum wage requirements and bans on certain chemicals, Christine Boldt said.

South America is the most hospitable environment for flowers to grow year-round, Boldt said, which also makes them cheaper. But American-based growers counter that you get what you pay for.

“The florists I supply simply like how much fresher my flowers are … They’re not having to pick through my supply to pull out wilted or dead petals and leaves,” Hird said.

She offers local florists and grocery stores — even truckers who pass by Farmstead Flowers’ roadside stand — bouquets of locally grown snapdragons, foxglove, peonies, sunflowers and nearly 40 other varieties. But as with many who grow outside of California and Florida, Hird can only offer flowers during a six-month window. For Valentine’s Day, she’s selling gift certificates that can be redeemed for a 25-stem bouquet when her flowers are in bloom.

Next week is also the first Valentine’s Day for which consumers can be assured their flowers sprouted on American soil.

Kasey Cronquist is the administrator for the Certified American Grown program that launched in July with 36 members, most in California. All of them went through a supply-chain audit to guarantee the flowers’ origin before being approved to use the American Grown logo on their products.

Cronquist predicted that American-grown flowers will take a bigger share of the cut-flower industry in 2015.

“We have examples of where florists are starting to segregate their coolers, so that when they get the calls from their communities saying, ‘I’d like to buy locally-grown bouquets,’ people can go in and grab from the right side of the cooler so they’re not mixing the imported product with the desire of the customer,” he said.

That hasn’t been Rhonda Bullington’s experience.

The owner of Loess Hills Floral Studio in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said rustic wedding themes with cottage and meadow flowers were big trends in 2012 and 2013, but this year, “brides are wanting big, over-the-top pieces.”

She uses a local Nebraska grower for some arrangements and tries to buy U.S. flowers when she can, “but they tend to be a little more expensive.” As long as her customers demand lower prices over local sourcing, that’s what she’ll provide to stay in business.

And Bullington sees a big difference in the slow food movement and the push for local flowers: “You don’t need flowers; you want flowers.”

Apple CEO donating to $8.5 million LGBT equality campaign in the South

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is donating money to help fund a gay rights initiative in his native Alabama and two other Southern states, organizers said.

The amount of Cook’s contribution to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign wasn’t disclosed, but the advocacy organization called it “substantial.” Organizers said it would help fund a three-year, $8.5 million campaign launched in April in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Called Project One America, the goal of the public relations effort is to build acceptance for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the states. The campaign includes advertising on TV and elsewhere, direct-mail fliers and staff members hired in each state.

“We hope Tim Cook’s substantial personal investment inspires others to support this vital and historic project,” Jason Rahlan, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, said in an email.

Human Rights Campaign announced the contribution in a blog post by President Chad Griffin, and Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet confirmed the donation.

“It’s a personal donation from Tim,” she said.

Cook, who grew up in south Alabama near the Gulf Coast and attended Auburn University, made headlines by coming out as gay. His announcement came just days after Cook encouraged Alabama to be more accepting of gay rights during a speech in Montgomery.

Speaking at the state Capitol during his induction into a state hall of fame, Cook said Alabama was too slow to change during the civil rights movement and was still dragging its feet on LGBT rights.

“Under the law, citizens of Alabama can still be fired based on their sexual orientation,” Cook said in October. “We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and we can create a different future.”

In a written statement, the Human Rights Campaign president said Cook expressed support for the three-state campaign when he first learned about it.

“Thanks to his generous personal financial investment in the program, together we will move the needle forward at the local and state level, tearing down misperceptions and providing concrete protections for those who need it most,” Griffin wrote in a blog post.

Fuel exports soar under Obama

Solar panels glisten from every thatched hut on the crowded island of Gardi Sugdup, one of the largest in a remote chain off the Panamanian coast. But the tiny emblems of green energy offer no hope against climate change.

They have helped the island’s Guna people reduce what was already a minuscule carbon footprint. The Guna cook with clean-burning gas. They use a small amount of diesel fuel to power fishing boats and a generator that lights bare bulbs dangling above dirt floors after sunset. They own one of the most pristine stretches of tropical rainforest in Panama, cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide naturally.

But larger forces threaten to uproot them, stemming from the failure by the rest of the world to rein in carbon emissions.

Pollution linked to global warming keeps rising even though the world’s two largest carbon polluters have pledged to combat climate change, with the U.S. committing to deeper cuts and China saying its emissions will stop growing by 2030.

It’s a dangerous trajectory the U.S. is stoking with record exports of dirty fuels, even as it reduces the pollution responsible for global warming at home.

The carbon embedded in those exports helps the U.S. meet its political goals by taking it off its pollution balance sheet. But it doesn’t necessarily help the planet.

That’s because the U.S. is sending more dirty fuel than ever to other parts of the world, where efforts to address the resulting pollution are just getting underway, if advancing at all. While the exported fuel has gotten cleaner, in the case of diesel, about 20 percent of the exports are too dirty to burn here.

For the Guna, as carbon rises, so will the seas that imperil them. Several communities have plans to relocate to the mainland, fleeing severe floods and storms that have drowned some islands and divided others in half.

“We conserve. Others consume,” said Guillermo Archibold, an agronomist and former delegate to the Guna tribal congress.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has reduced more carbon pollution from energy than any other nation, about 475 million tons between 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

Less than one-fifth of that amount came from burning less gasoline and diesel, primarily in vehicles. But an Associated Press analysis of the data shows that U.S. exports of gasoline and diesel more than made up for the savings at home in pollution abroad, releasing roughly more than 1 billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere elsewhere during the same period.

“It’s a false image,” said Onel Masardule of the Indigenous People’s Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative, a Peru-based environmental group that recently studied the Guna and climate change. “In reality, the U.S. is still contaminating.”

Among the recipients is Panama, where imports of diesel and gasoline from the U.S. have nearly quadrupled since 2008.

Panama is the largest recipient of diesel fuel that is dirtier and more carbon-laden than would be allowed in engines in the U.S., but the fuel ends up in cars and trucks that don’t have the same efficiency standards and are not regularly inspected and maintained, an AP investigation has found. Panama’s requirement that drivers test emissions, including for carbon dioxide, are almost completely ignored.

This fossil fuel trade has soared under Obama as he has overseen a domestic boom in oil and natural gas production and ordered the biggest increases in fuel economy in history.

In 2010, the U.S. still imported more products refined from oil than it exported. A year later, it was a bigger exporter than importer, the first time that happened since 1949. In 2012, these products were the single largest U.S. export, worth $117 billion, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures.

The boom has helped the U.S. reduce oil imports and create jobs in oil fields and ports. Without it, the Obama administration would be much further from a goal to double U.S. exports. The trade deficit would be wider.

But for global warming, it means that, at the very least, the U.S. is making a smaller dent than it claims on global warming.

In the case of gasoline and diesel, the U.S. is exporting far more abroad than it has reduced in domestic consumption in recent years through steps such as efficiency standards and blending gasoline with ethanol.

“This is their hidden success story that they would like to keep hidden,” said Kevin Book, a Washington, D.C.-based energy analyst. Since 2012, he has been a member of the National Petroleum Council, an advisory group selected by the U.S. energy secretary.

“It has done a lot to improve our balance of trade standing, but it is not the most climate friendly way to do it. There is no way to avoid that there is a bigger emissions impact when you have more to combust,” Book said.

There is no clear accounting of what America’s growth as a fossil-fuel powerhouse is doing to the global warming picture. The administration has chosen not to get to the bottom of that.

U.S. projects that increase energy exports could be considered in such an analysis, such as huge terminals planned for the West Coast to send more coal abroad for power plants. Trade agreements could factor in the implications of energy trade on global warming. But not one trade pact negotiated by the Obama White House mentions global warming.

“They have the responsibility of analyzing America’s exports on fossil fuel demand and consumption and climate,” said Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International, an advocacy group dedicated to moving away from fossil fuels. “There has to be a holistic analysis of what those exports are and what role they are going to play in keeping the world within the climate limits.”

The White House said it is working to strengthen environmental provisions in trade agreements and lower tariffs on technologies that ultimately will reduce emissions abroad.

The chief U.S. climate negotiator, Todd Stern, said in a recent speech that the “core imperative has to be to break the link between growth and fossil fuels.”

That link prevails in part because the U.S. supplies a growing demand for fuel. But the administration contends that America’s energy exports have not increased global demand or global emissions. The U.S. is the largest oil consumer in the world and imports twice as much crude oil as it exports in oil-derived products.

PANAMA’S SHELL GAME

Panama has long been an important player in the global energy trade because of the Panama Canal. It is positioning itself to be an even bigger conduit for U.S. energy exports when a $5.2 billion, third set of locks is completed next year. This will enable tankers full of U.S. liquefied natural gas and potentially crude oil to transit.

Panama also is expanding its network of trade zones, which allow for duty-free imports and export of gasoline and diesel.

The country plays its own shell game with pollution.

It says it contributes no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere because its sizable forests absorb more than what is released from vehicle tailpipes and deforestation, the biggest sources of climate-altering pollution in the country.

Its accounting includes forests owned independently by the Guna people on the plus side of the ledger, but it excludes pollution released from three dozen or more oceangoing vessels that pass through the Panama Canal each day, paying about $250,000 per trip. Ship pollution, which accounts for about 3 percent of global carbon emissions, is not on any country’s balance sheet. It is controlled by the International Maritime Organization, which has taken steps to make modern ships more efficient.

ISLANDS AT RISK

Perhaps no one stands to lose more in Panama than the Guna, who have fiercely protected their primitive way of life on this low-lying archipelago on the Caribbean coast.

In 2012, Guna leaders passed a resolution supporting plans to move the tribe to the mainland. The plans are controversial within the tribe and any move is several years away. “It’s our responsibility to prevent a catastrophe,” the resolution said. “Climate change will sooner or later affect the islands.”

Population growth already has.

The school on the island of Gardi Sugdup sacrificed its playground in an expansion to hold more kids. Houses, or pens for chickens and pigs, are built right to the edge of the island, often on fill made from trash and coral used to make more land.

Except for the Coca-Cola bottles and empty snack bags that litter the dirt paths, the modern world seems far away.

Women wear traditional dress, proudly displaying the colorful embroidery known as a mola across their chests, their forearms and shins covered with tightly packed strands of beads. Police carry elaborately carved wooden canes and walk bare foot. Bathrooms without plumbing empty into the open sea.

But the effects of carbon dioxide have no boundaries, the Guna are finding out

A 2008 storm split apart one island and sank two others, which were uninhabited, according to Jorge Andreve, a Guna who is the regional director for Panama’s environmental agency. Flooding on another island soaked the wood, so people couldn’t cook with it.

“Everything’s changed,” said Jose Davis, who spoke on behalf of eight leaders, representing 26 communities, meeting here on a recent Sunday. “We are not complying to the universal world and how we should live with nature.” Davis said he would confer with the gods on how better to live in harmony with nature.

Science has documented what the Guna speak about spiritually. A paper by researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in 2003 found that the sea surrounding the archipelago was rising 2 millimeters per year. Using satellite photos, they calculated how much land had already gone underwater from 1966 to 2001. It was about the size of 12 football fields.

The paper also said that the tribe’s practice of harvesting coral to fill in islands and make space for more people exacerbated the problem.

AMERICA’S ENERGY PATH

In recent years, hydraulic fracturing technology has underpinned an American energy revolution, allowing companies to extract oil and natural gas from shale formations where it was once inaccessible. That in turn has led to cheaper natural gas prices, a feedstock for refiners, and has depressed domestic oil prices because of a 1970s ban on exporting crude oil.

At the same time, policies to address climate change have slackened demand, along with gasoline prices that, until recently, were high. Fuel economy standards put in place by the Obama administration are leveling off gasoline consumption for the first time. A requirement to add corn-based ethanol to gasoline also has cut into oil’s share of the gasoline market.

Since October 2007, U.S. automobiles have used 15.1 billion fewer gallons of gasoline and diesel, according to Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan. But to meet rising demand in Latin America and elsewhere, the U.S. exported nearly seven times that amount, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

The White House said the exports do not add more carbon to the atmosphere because they replace fuel that would come from someplace else. Sivak agreed that “we are doing the world a net good” by reducing U.S. consumption.

Other experts dispute that. They note that when a source of energy is plentiful and reasonably priced, as is the case with U.S. oil, it tends to increase demand, making other potentially cleaner energy sources less competitive.

It’s a cycle the U.S. is doing little to break in the world market. Obama has called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. but has gotten little support in Congress.

PANAMA’S POLLUTION

The energy-efficiency push that has helped restrain demand in the U.S. is all but absent in Panama, where gasoline sells for about $4 a gallon. The country has the lowest fuel taxes in Central America. It has no refineries, so it imports all fuel but charges no tariffs on it.

The government discounts the price because the fuel is dirtier than what foreign refiners charge for cleaner blends of U.S. gasoline. It requires a blend with 5 percent sugarcane ethanol and has tree-planting programs to counter deforestation.

Panama’s national environmental authority cannot say whether rising imports of U.S. gasoline have increased emissions. Fewer than a dozen people at the agency work on global warming matters.

“To manage all the things that involve climate change, that takes more people than just the few of us,” said Daysi Vargas, a climate change analyst with the agency.

Among the things they are not enforcing are tailpipe tests aimed at making sure cars are running efficiently and releasing the least amount of pollution. The AP visited one testing facility in Panama City and it appeared abandoned. The workers and owners said no one comes for the $16 test.

Panama last year was the largest recipient of some of the dirtiest diesel fuel – grades no longer allowed in U.S. engines.

In the past five years, the country’s gasoline and diesel imports from the U.S. have more than tripled, based on the AP’s analysis of Energy Department data. Embedded in those imports were roughly 48 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, off the U.S. climate books and put on Panama’s, or about 10 percent of the country’s estimated emissions from all energy. The government is still working to figure out just how much carbon pollution Panamanians contribute to global warming. Panama says it is not obligated to reduce emissions because it is a developing nation.

MONEY GROWS ON THESE TREES

Deforestation is by far the biggest source of carbon pollution in Panama, and the government is working to ensure that it plants trees or protects forests so its carbon balance sheet remains positive.

It also is preparing for the potential sale of carbon credits from its preserved forests, to help other countries or companies reduce their own carbon footprints – an idea that the nation’s indigenous people initially rejected. A truce was reached last December, jumpstarting the $5.8 million U.N. program in Panama after it was suspended because of objections by indigenous groups.

The Guna are still skeptical.

“They are willing to give us money, but they are still going to contaminate,” said Hernaclio Herrera, a biologist with the National Association for the Conservation of Nature. “It’s a license to pollute.”

The Canal Authority has profited from selling credits from some of the trees it owns. A private broker failed to make a deal with the Guna to pay them to preserve their forests in order to sell the credits to a German insurance company that wanted to neutralize some of its carbon pollution.

The Guna refused the offer, even though the money could have helped pay for their escape from climate change.

Forests, according to the Guna, are sacred sanctuaries that should not come with a price.

“When we speak about trees, we talk about our brothers and sisters,” said Jorge Andreve, director for Panama’s environmental agency in the Guna Yala region and a Guna himself. “You can’t put a T-shirt with a dollar sign on a tree, when you don’t own that tree.”

U.S. Marine suspected of killing transgender Filipino

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said this week that a murder investigation focused on a U.S. Marine should have no bearing on the two countries’ relations, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington seeks no “special privilege” for the suspect but only protection of his rights.

Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who took part in joint exercises earlier this month, is suspected in the killing of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender Filipino. Philippine police and witnesses said the two met at a disco bar in the city of Olongapo on Oct. 11, then went to a motel room where Laude’s body was later found in the bathroom. She had apparently been drowned in the toilet, according to police Chief Inspector Gil Domingo.

Pemberton is being held on the USS Peleliu at the Subic Bay Freeport, about 50 miles northwest of Manila, and U.S. authorities have ordered the ship to stay there until the investigation is completed.

The Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. forces to conduct military drills in the Philippines, says that the Philippines can prosecute American service members, but that the U.S. has custody over them “from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.” The Philippine Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2009 that convicted U.S. personnel must serve any sentence in Philippine detention.

The killing has drawn protests, typically small, by opponents of the U.S. presence in the Philippines, as well as by LGBT civil rights groups that have described the killing as a hate crime. The nations signed an accord in April that allows greater U.S. military access to Philippine military camps, part of Washington’s pivot back to Asia, where it wants to counter China’s rising might.

Aquino defended the Visiting Forces Agreement and said Pemberton’s case would not affect it.

“Why would we abrogate the VFA? I mean, name me any place that doesn’t have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don’t think so,” Aquino said. He said the important task was to gather all the details that would pin down the killer “so we will get justice.”

Kerry, on a brief stop in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the inauguration of President Joko Widodo, said Pemberton’s rights must be protected under the law and existing accords.

“It is very important for our agreements to be upheld, it is very important for the rule of law to be upheld, for his rights to be protected but for the process to unfold appropriately,” Kerry said in the Indonesian capital, where he met his Philippine counterpart, Alberto del Rosario. “We will indeed uphold our agreements with our friends in the Philippines. They deserve nothing less.”

Accompanied by local police, Laude’s family filed a murder complaint against Pemberton with Olongapo prosecutors.

Late last week, Philippine authorities served a subpoena at the U.S. Embassy for Pemberton and four other Marines, who were sought as witnesses, to appear this week before prosecutors in Olongapo in a preliminary investigation. The prosecutors will decide if there is enough evidence for charges to be filed in court.

American investigators have worked with local police, but have not made public any details surrounding the case.

The U.S. Embassy said Sunday that prosecutors had met with the four witnesses. The embassy said it was up to the suspect whether to appear, depending on the advice of his Philippine lawyers.