US to Set Up Plan Allowing Prescription Drugs From Canada

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The Trump administration said Wednesday it will set up a system to allow Americans to legally import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, weakening a longstanding ban that had stood as a top priority for the politically powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made the announcement Wednesday morning. Previous administrations had sided with the industry on importation, echoing its concerns that it could expose patients to risks from counterfeit or substandard medications.

Azar, a former drug industry executive, said U.S. patients will be able to import medications safely and effectively, with oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. The administration’s proposal would allow states, wholesalers and pharmacists to get FDA approval to import certain medications that are also available here.

It’s unclear how soon consumers will see results.

Most patients take affordable generic drugs to manage conditions such as high blood pressure or elevated blood sugars. But polls show concern about the prices of breakthrough medications for intractable illnesses like cancer or hepatitis C infection, whose costs can run to $100,000 or more. And long-available drugs like insulin have also seen price increases that have forced some people with diabetes to ration their own doses.

“For too long American patients have been paying exorbitantly high prices for prescription drugs that are made available to other countries at lower prices,” Azar said in a statement that credited President Donald Trump for pushing the idea.

The administration’s move comes as the industry is facing a crescendo of consumer complaints over prices, as well as legislation from both parties in Congress to rein in costs.

Trump is supporting a Senate bill to cap medication costs for Medicare recipients and require drugmakers to pay rebates to the program if price hikes exceed inflation. Democrats in the House are pressing for a vote on a bill allowing Medicare to directly negotiate prices on behalf of millions of seniors enrolled in its prescription drug plan. Separately, the Trump administration is pursuing a regulation that would tie what Medicare pays for drugs administered in doctors’ offices to lower international prices.

The importation idea won praise from a key lawmaker, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the panel that oversees Medicare. Grassley said on Twitter importation would lower prescription drug costs, and all drugs from abroad must be verified as safe by the FDA. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have a bill to facilitate importation.

Eyeing his reelection campaign, Trump has made lowering prescription drug prices one of his top goals. As a candidate, he called for allowing Americans to import prescription drugs, and recently he’s backed a Florida law allowing state residents to gain access to medications from Canada

Drug prices are lower in other economically advanced countries because governments take a leading role in setting prices. But in the U.S., Medicare is not permitted to negotiate with drug companies.

Some experts have been skeptical of allowing imports from Canada, partly from concerns about whether Canadian suppliers have the capacity to meet the demands of the much larger U.S. market.

But consumer groups have strongly backed the idea, arguing that it will pressure U.S. drugmakers to reduce their prices. They also point out that the pharmaceutical industry is a global business and many of the ingredients in medications sold in the U.S. are manufactured abroad.

AARP had pushed hard for the Florida plan, saying it’s possible to safely import lower-priced, equally effective drugs and it would promote worldwide price competition.

The drug industry lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has successfully blocked past efforts in Washington to allow importation. It argues that patients would be at risk of receiving counterfeit or adulterated medications.

Border Crossings: Ron Bultongez

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Singer-songwriter Ron Bultongez is living the American Dream from growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo to being named the “Hometown Hero” of Plano, TX to becoming a Top 24 Finalist on American Idol 2018, where he left Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan in awe of his voice. Ron’s dreams have taken him far. His journey, depth, and spirit are evident in his smooth yet raspy vocals and his bluesy, soulful songwriting.

Puerto Rico Governor Chooses Possible Successor

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Puerto Rico’s governor says he’s chosen former Congress representative Pedro Pierluisi as the U.S. territory’s secretary of state. That post would put Pierluisi in line to be governor when Rossello steps down this week – but he’s unlikely to be approved by legislators.

Ricardo Rossello made the announcement Wednesday via Twitter and said he would hold a special session on Thursday so legislators can vote on his nomination.

 
Rossello has said he’ll resign on Friday following massive protests in which Puerto Ricans demanded he step down.
 
Top legislators have already said they will reject Pierluisi’s nomination because he works for a law firm that represents the federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and say that’s a conflict of interest.
 
Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009-2017.

 

Turkish Security Council Mulls Syrian Operation, Despite Washington’s Warnings

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Turkey’s National Security Council met Tuesday to decide whether to launch a military offensive into Syria against the YPG Kurdish militia. 

With Washington backing the YPG and warning against any unilateral action, the two NATO allies could be on a collision course.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chaired the meeting, which brought together his military and intelligence chiefs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chairs a meeting of the National Security Council in Ankara, Turkey, July 30, 2019.

Erdogan is warning that his patience has run out.

“We are determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates [in Syria], no matter how the negotiations with the U.S. to establish a safe zone along the Syrian borders concludes,” he said Friday in a televised speech.

Ankara accuses the YPG of being affiliated with the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which is waging a decades-long insurgency. With the YPG based along Turkey’s Syrian border east of the Euphrates River, the militia is considered by Turkey to be a security threat.

Reportedly over 80,000 Turkish soldiers backed by tanks and armor are massed on the Syrian border. Ankara wants to create a 40-kilometer-deep buffer zone into Syria. 

FILE – A Turkish flag flutters on a military vehicle on the border of Manbij city, Syria Nov. 1, 2018.

With the YPG a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamic State, Washington is warning Ankara against any unilateral action. Months of diplomatic talks between the NATO allies to seek a compromise remain deadlocked.

In a telephone call Monday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that Turkey was obliged to act if efforts to find common ground failed independently. Akar also raised the stakes, calling for Washington to end its military support of the YPG.

However, analysts warn any unilateral action by Turkey carries significant risks. U.S. special forces are deployed with the YPG, and American jets are enforcing a de-facto no-fly zone.

FILE – Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar speaks to a group of reporters in Ankara, Turkey, May 21, 2019.

“It [the military operation] would bring both the two NATO allies against each other, which both sides have sought to avoid from the beginning,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served both in Washington and in the region.

Washington is intensifying its efforts to avoid a confrontation. Last week, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie held meetings in Syria with Kurdish and Arab groups.

“Americans can play a decisive role in resolving problems between us and Turkey,” said Mustafa Bali, SDF commander, in an interview with Kurdish VOA.

The SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces of which the YPG makes up the main component.

‘Deep mistrust’

Last week, U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey met with senior Turkish officials in Ankara. However, U.S. proposals for a more limited buffer zone of 5 to 10 kilometers in depth was rejected by Ankara.

“We have no patience left,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference Wednesday after Jeffrey’s visit.

FILE – Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 1, 2019.

Analysts claim that Ankara suspects Washington is engaging in delaying tactics rather than seeking a solution. Turkish media are reporting during the months of talks that Washington is continuing to arm the YPG. YPG commanders claim to have large numbers of sophisticated anti-tank missiles.

“There is a deep mistrust and lack of confidence between the two militaries,” said former Turkish General Haldun Solmazturk.

Moscow, which is courting Ankara, appears to be seeking to deepen the rift between the NATO allies.

“The continued supply of arms and military equipment to the region by the United States is also of great concern,” Russian General Staff Spokesman Sergey Rudskoy told a news conference Monday in Moscow. “The United States is pumping up with weapons, both Kurdish and Arab groups, which then use them against each other. All this only aggravates the situation in the war-torn region.”

U.S. leverage

Washington retains substantial leverage over Ankara. U.S. President Donald Trump is facing pressure from Congress to enforce potentially crippling economic and financial sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. The purchase violates the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which prohibits major purchases of Russian military hardware.

FILE – First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.

“I think the United States has found strong leverage in the form of the S-400 crisis to bring Turkey to accept U.S. policy in Syria,” said Solmazturk, who now heads the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Ankara-based think tank. “I am afraid the Turkish government is at its weakest position domestically and internationally.”

Analysts suggest Washington appears to have little appetite to confront Ankara. Despite warnings of severe sanctions, Trump has only suspended Turkey’s procurement of its latest F-35 fighter jet.

Trump’s apparent reluctance to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey could embolden Ankara, analysts say.

“Ankara may be of the mind this is the time to act against Washington’s wishes, as they did not act strongly on the S-400,” said analyst Selcen. “Land operations into Syria may be launched, limited to the Arab majority areas, with Ankara thinking, ‘Let’s try our hand and see if the U.S. dares to attack us from the air.'”

Boston Gang Database Made Up Mostly of Young Black, Latino Men

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Boston police are tracking nearly 5,000 people — almost all of them young black and Latino men — through a secretive gang database, newly released data from the department shows.

A summary provided by the department shows that 66% of those in its database are black, 24% are Latino and 2% are white. Black people comprise about 25% of all Boston residents, Latinos about 20% and white people more than 50%.

The racial disparity is “stark and troublesome,” said Adriana Lafaille, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which, along with other civil rights groups, sued the department in state court in November to shed light into who is listed on the database and how the information is used.

Central American youths are being wrongly listed as active gang members “based on nothing more than the clothing they are seen in and the classmates they are seen with,” and that’s led some to be deported, the organizations say in their lawsuit, citing the cases of three Central American youths facing deportation based largely on their status on the gang database.

”This has consequences,” Lafaille said. “People are being deported back to the countries that they fled, in many cases, to escape gangs.”

Boston police haven’t provided comment after multiple requests, but Commissioner William Gross has previously defended the database as a tool in combating MS-13 and other gangs.

One 24-year-old native of El Salvador nearly deported last year over his alleged gang involvement said he was a victim of harassment and bullying by Bloods members as a youth and was never an MS-13 member, as police claim.

The man spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from gang members.

He said he never knew he’d made the list while in high school until he was picked up years later in a 2017 immigration sweep.

The gang database listed him as a “verified” member of MS-13 because he was seen associating with known MS-13 members, had feuded with members of the rival Bloods street gang, and was even charged with assault and battery following a fight at school, according to records provided by his lawyer, Alex Mooradian.

Mooradian said he noted in immigration court that the man, who was granted special immigrant juvenile status in 2014, reported at least one altercation with Bloods members to police and cooperated with the investigation. Witnesses also testified about the man’s good character and work ethic as a longtime dishwasher at a restaurant.

”Bottom line, this was a person by all metrics who was doing everything right,” said Mooradian. “He had legal status. He went to school. He worked full time. He called police when he was in trouble. And it still landed him in jail.”

Boston is merely the latest city to run into opposition with a gang database. An advocacy group filed a lawsuit this month in Providence, Rhode Island, arguing the city’s database violates constitutional rights. Portland, Oregon, discontinued its database in 2017 after it was revealed more than 80% of people listed on it were minorities.

In Chicago, police this year proposed changes after an audit found their database’s roughly 134,000 entries were riddled with outdated and unverified information. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also cut off U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement access ahead of planned immigration raids this month.

California’s Department of Justice has been issuing annual reports on the state’s database since a 2017 law began requiring it. And in New York City, records requests and lawsuits have prompted the department to disclose more information about its database.

In Boston, where Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed strengthening the city’s sanctuary policy, the ACLU suggests specifically banning police from contributing to any database to which ICE has access, or at least requiring police to provide annual reports on the database. Walsh’s office deferred questions about the gang database to police.

Like others, Boston’s gang database follows a points-based system. A person who accrues at least six points is classified as a “gang associate.” Ten or more points means they’re considered a full-fledged gang member.

The points range from having a known gang tattoo (eight points) to wearing gang paraphernalia (four points) or interacting with a known gang member or associate (two points per interaction).

The summary provided by Boston police provides a snapshot of the database as of January.

Of the 4,728 people listed at the time, a little more than half were considered “active” gang associates, meaning they had contact with or participated in some form of gang activity in the past five years. The rest were classified as “inactive,” the summary states.

Men account for more than 90% of the suspected gang members, and people between ages 25 and 40 comprise nearly 75% of the listing.

The department last week provided the summary along with the department’s policy for placing people on the database after the AP filed a records request in June.

The ACLU was also provided the same documents in response to its lawsuit as well as a trove of other related policy memos and heavily redacted reports for each of the 4,728 people listed on the database as of January, according to documents provided by the ACLU and first reported Friday by WBUR.

The ACLU has asked the city for less-redacted reports, Lafaille said. It’s also still waiting for information about how often ICE accesses the database and how police gather gang intelligence in schools.

”After all this time, we still don’t have an understanding about who can access this information and how it’s shared,” she said. “That’s something the public has a right to know.”

California Governor Signs Bill on Presidential Tax Returns

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California’s Democratic governor signed a law Tuesday requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to appear on the state’s primary ballot, a move aimed squarely at Republican President Donald Trump.

But even if the law withstands a likely legal challenge, Trump could avoid the requirements by choosing not to compete in California’s primary. With no credible GOP challenger at this point, he likely won’t need California’s delegates to win the Republican nomination.

”As one of the largest economies in the world and home to one in nine Americans eligible to vote, California has a special responsibility to require this information of presidential and gubernatorial candidates,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in his veto message to the state Legislature. “These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence.”

New York has passed a law giving congressional committees access to Trump’s state tax returns. But efforts to pry loose his tax returns have floundered in other states. California’s first attempt to do so failed in 2017 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed the law, raising questions about its constitutionality and where it would lead next.

”Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” he wrote in his veto message. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”

While the law is aimed at Trump, it would apply to all presidential contenders and candidates for governor.

The major Democratic 2020 contenders have already released tax returns for roughly the past decade. Trump has bucked decades of precedent by refusing to release his. Tax returns show income, charitable giving and business dealings, all of which Democratic state lawmakers say voters are entitled to know about.

Candidates will be required to submit tax returns for the most recent five years to California’s Secretary of State at least 98 days before the primary. They will then be posed online for the public to view, with certain personal information redacted.

California is holding next year’s primary on March 3, known as Super Tuesday because the high number of state’s with nominating contests that day.

Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg said it would be “inconsistent” with past practice for Trump to forego the primary ballot and “ignore the most popular and vote-rich state in the nation.”

McGuire said his bill only applies to the primary election because the state Legislature does not control general election ballot access per the state Constitution.

Puerto Ricans Anxious for New Leader Amid Political Crisis

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The unprecedented resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after days of massive island-wide protests has thrown the U.S. territory into a full-blown political crisis.

Less than four days before Gov. Ricardo Rossello steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.

Rossello’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rossello has said nothing about his plans, time is running out and some on the island are even talking about the need for more federal control over a territory whose finances are already overseen from Washington.

FILE – Demonstrators march on Las Americas highway demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 22, 2019.

Rossello resigned following nearly two weeks of daily protests in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, mounted horses and jet skis, organized a twerkathon and came up with other creative ways to demand his ouster. On Monday, protesters were to gather once again, but this time to demand that Vazquez not assume the governorship. Under normal circumstances, Rossello’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marin resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.

Next in line

Vazquez, a 59-year-old prosecutor who worked as a district attorney and was later director of the Office for Women’s Rights, does not have widespread support among Puerto Ricans. Many have criticized her for not being aggressive enough in investigating cases involving members of the party that she and Rossello belong to, and of not prioritizing gender violence as justice secretary. She also has been accused of not pursuing the alleged mismanagement of supplies for victims of Hurricane Maria.

Facing a new wave of protests, Vazquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rossello.

FILE – Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez answers reporters’ questions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jan. 16, 2018.

“I have no interest in the governor’s office,” she wrote. “I hope the governor nominates a secretary of state before Aug. 2.”

If a secretary of state is not nominated before Rossello resigns, Vazquez would automatically become the new governor. She would then have the power to nominate a secretary of state, or she could also reject being governor, in which case the constitution states the treasury secretary would be next in line. However, Treasury Secretary Francisco Pares is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernandez, who replaced the former education secretary, Julia Keleher, who resigned in April and was arrested on July 10 on federal corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

But Hernandez has not been clear on whether he would accept becoming governor.

“At this time, this public servant is focused solely and exclusively on the work of the Department of Education,” he told Radio Isla 1320 AM on Monday. A spokesman for Hernandez did not return a message seeking comment.

‘Uncertainties are dangerous’

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are growing anxious about what the lack of leadership could mean for the island’s political and economic future.

“It’s very important that the government have a certain degree of stability,” said Luis Rodriguez, a 36-year-old accountant, adding that all political parties should be paying attention to what’s happening. “We’re tired of the various political parties that always climb to power and have let us down a bit and have taken the island to the point where it finds itself right now.”

Hector Luis Acevedo, a university professor and former secretary of state, said both the governor’s party and the main opposition party that he supports, the Popular Democratic Party, have weakened in recent years. He added that new leadership needs to be found soon.

“These uncertainties are dangerous in a democracy because they tend to strengthen the extremes,” he said. “This vacuum is greatly harming the island.”

Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rossello and more than a dozen other officials had resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women and the victims of Hurricane Maria, among others, in 889 pages leaked on July 13. But now, many are concerned that the government is not moving quickly enough to restore order and leadership to an island mired in a 13-year recession as it struggles to recover from the Category 4 storm and tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

FILE – A demonstrator bangs on a pot that has a cartoon drawing of Governor Ricardo Rossello and text the reads in Spanish “Quit Ricky” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 19, 2019.

Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo, a member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vazquez has said she is not interested in the position.

“I hope that whoever is nominated is someone who respects people, who can give the people of Puerto Rico hope and has the capacity to rule,” he said. “We cannot rush into this. There must be sanity and restraint in this process.”

‘Rethink the constitution’

Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. Last week, she urged U.S. President Donald Trump to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee hurricane reconstruction and ensure the proper use of federal funds in the U.S. territory, a suggestion rejected by many on an island already under the direction of a federal control board overseeing its finances and debt restructuring process.

As legislators wait for Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, they have started debating whether to amend the constitution to allow for a vice president or lieutenant governor, among other things.

The constitution currently does not allow the government to hold early elections, noted Yanira Reyes Gil, a university professor and constitutional attorney.

“We have to rethink the constitution,” she said, adding that there are holes in the current one, including that people are not allowed to participate in choosing a new governor if the previous one resigns.

Reyes also said people are worried that the House and Senate might rush to approve a new secretary of state without sufficient vetting.

“Given the short amount of time, people have doubts that the person will undergo a strict evaluation,” she said. “We’re in a situation where the people have lost faith in the government agencies, they have lost faith in their leaders.”

Syrian Kurds Concerned with Turkey Military Buildup near Border    

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For weeks, Turkey has been amassing its troops near its border with Syria for what appears to be an imminent attack against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists.

In this border town in northern Syria, locals say such an attack could throw the already-volatile region into further instability.

While the situation may seem calm at the moment, residents in Amude say they have been living in constant fear since the Turkish military has recently increased its threats to carry out an offensive against this Kurdish enclave that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party members, in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2019.

“Terror corridor”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country is determined to destroy “to pieces” what he called a “terror corridor” in northern Syria.

Turkey views the SDF and its political wing, the PYD, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a U.S. and EU-designated terrorist organization.

Kurdish fighters affiliated with the SDF, however, have played an effective role in the ongoing U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

FILE – In this April1 14, 2018, file photo, then-Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie speaks during a media availability at the Pentagon in Washington.

U.S. mediation

In a bid to avoid a confrontation between its NATO ally Turkey and its SDF partners, the U.S. has assumed a mediation role.

Last week, CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie visited Syria for talks with Kurdish military officials, while at the same time U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey was in Ankara for discussions with Turkish officials to help defuse Kurdish-Turkish tensions.

The “Americans can play a decisive role in resolving problems between us and Turkey,” said Mustafa Bali, an SDF commander and the group’s spokesperson who was at the meeting with McKenzie. “We have always said that we as Kurds are not a threat to anybody. We are open to dialogue. We are open to discuss a solution for this problem.”

“At the same time, we don’t accept threats. When our people come under danger, we have the right to fight and defend ourselves,” he told VOA.

Some Syrian Kurdish groups who oppose the SDF rule say that Turkey’s sensitivities must be taken into account.

“As a neighboring country, Turkey would never allow the PKK to be on its border. Turkey considers the PYD here as part of PKK. So these threats would continue until a permanent settlement is reached,” said Abdulillah Uje, an official with the Kurdish National Council.

“Nothing new”

For local residents, the Turkish threats have been part of their daily routines since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011.

“Turkish threats are nothing new,” said Sherin Ibrahim, a local radio journalist. “We’ve been living with those threats for years.”

“I think what Turkey really wants is to control parts of our region so that Kurds and Syrian Democratic Forces will have no access to the border. It’s all a political maneuver for more gains in the broader Syrian context,” she told VOA.

Others say that Turkey has no right to invade a neighboring country under false pretenses.

“Those excuses that Turkey keeps using about securing its borders aren’t valid. For almost nine years since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, not a single bullet or a bomb has been fired into Turkey from the Syrian side,” said Dilshad Abdo, a Kurdish political activist.

Arid Ethiopia Plants 350 Million Trees in One Day

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Ethiopians planted more than 350 million trees in one day, officials say, in what they believe is a world record.

Ethiopia’s minister of innovation and technology, Getahun Mekuria, tweeted estimates of the number of trees being planted throughout the day Monday. By early evening, he said 353,633,660 tree seedlings were planted in 12 hours.

353,633,660 Tree Seedlings Planted in 12 Hours. This is in #Ethiopians

Regional Shares of Trees Planted today.#PMOEthiopia#GreenLegacyEthiopiapic.twitter.com/2BkTDtYedC

— Dr.-Ing. Getahun Mekuria (@DrGetahun) July 29, 2019

The massive effort is part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative, which aims to plant more than 4 billion trees between May and October, or 40 trees per person. 

The campaign aims to reverse the effects of deforestation and climate change in the drought-prone country. According to the United Nations, Ethiopia’s forest coverage was just 4% in the 2000s, down from 35% a century earlier.

Besides ordinary Ethiopians, various international organizations and the business community also joined the exercise, which aims to surpass India’s record planting of 66 million trees in 12 hours in 2017.

Poverty in Philippines, High for Asia, Falls as Economy Strengthens

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Poverty in the Philippines, a chronic development issue that makes the country an outlier in Asia, is declining because of economic strength followed by job creation.

The archipelago’s official poverty rate dropped to 21% in the first half of last year from 27.6% in the first half of 2015, President Rodrigo Duterte said in his July 22 State of the Nation Address.

Economic growth of 6% plus since 2012 has helped to create jobs, especially in Philippine cities such as the capital Manila, economists who follow the country say.

“Twenty-seven percent is actually pretty high by kind of Asian standards, so I think that progress is attributable to the rapid economic growth that’s happened in the Philippines since 2012,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit.

Asian outlier

Poverty around Asia had declined from 47.3% in 1990 to 16.1% in 2013, according to World Bank data. Factory jobs, often driven by domestic export manufacturing industries, have fueled much of the boom, especially in China.

Poverty lingered in the Philippines largely for lack of rural jobs, economists believe. Rudimentary farming and fishing anchor the way of life on many of the country’s 7,100 islands. Foreign manufacturers often bypass the Philippines because of its remote location, compared to continental Asia, and relative lack of infrastructure that factory operators need to ship goods.

But the country hit a fast-growth stride in 2012 with a pickup in manufacturing and services. After growing just 3.7% in 2011, the GDP that now stands at $331 billion has expanded at between 6.1% and 7.1% per year.

More jobs

Urban jobs are getting easier to find as multinationals locate call centers in the Philippines, taking advantage of cheap labor and English-language proficiency.

A $169 billion, 5-year program to renew public infrastructure is creating construction jobs while giving factory investors new reason to consider siting in the country. Most new jobs now are in construction, with some in manufacturing, said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group in Singapore.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his 4th State of the Nation Address at the 18th Congress at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, metropolitan Manila, Philippines July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Underemployment, he added, has “improved quite a bit,” de Guzman said.

“Jobs are being created (and in) the jobs that do exist, I think there’s more work to do, so to speak,” de Guzman said. “I guess less underemployment if you will, and again this is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.”

Philippine unemployment edged down just 0.1 percentage point to 5.2% in January 2019 compared to a year earlier, but underemployment fell from 18% to 15.6% over that period, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Tax reform

Duterte is also advancing tax reforms that he expects to lower poverty to 14% of the 105 million population by 2022. 

Tax revenue collected under these reforms will allow the government to spend more on health, education and other social services aimed at making people more prosperous, the Department of Finance said in a statement last year.

The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), which Duterte signed into law in 2017, spells out changes in the tax code.

“Actually, one of the key elements there is the first tax laws that was passed, we call it the TRAIN one,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director or the advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila.

Rural income

Longer-term poverty relief will come down to creation of rural jobs such as “specialized” or “advanced” agriculture, Biswas said. The 21% poverty rate is “still high,” he said. Government agencies and private firms over the past few years have already introduced hybrid seeds and new technology to make farming more self-sufficient, domestic news outlet BusinessWorld reported last year.

Natural disasters such as seasonal typhoons and a 50-year conflict between Muslims and the military in the south further hobble poverty relief, some analysts believe. Local government corruption also stops aid from reaching some of the poor, they suggest.

“Both growth and, in turn, poverty reduction seem to be hindered by several factors, including unequal wealth distribution both in terms of social groups and geographic distribution…corruption as well as natural disasters and ongoing conflicts, with the latter triggering a series of negative collateral effects,” said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies.