Many From Africa, Haiti Seek Asylum at US Southern Border

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While most migrants who arrive at America’s southern border are from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas’ Del Rio Sector reports apprehending people from more than 50 countries in the last year. VOA’s Ramon Taylor and Victoria Macchi spoke with asylum-seeking families who have journeyed across the Atlantic and through the Americas en route to the US-Mexico border, desperate for a new beginning.
 

Is Russia Using Patriotism as a Political Tool?

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In Russia, countrywide celebrations have been held to mark the 350th anniversary of the national flag. Yet, only 50 percent of respondents polled in a recent survey could correctly name the sequence of the colors on the flag. Russia recently saw a surge of patriotic celebrations orchestrated by local and federal authorities. Yulia Savchenko has more from Moscow on the state-promoted events.
 

Teenage Climate Star Greta Thunberg Takes Her Friday School Strike to UN

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Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg took her Friday school strikes to the gates of the United Nations, surrounded by hundreds of other young activists, calling on adults to take action on climate change. Thunberg will speak at a climate change summit of world leaders next month at the U.N. General Assembly. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from Washington.
 

VOA Our Voices 139: The Rhythm of the Day

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This week, on #VOAOurVoices: from afro beats and South Africa’s hypnotic gqom music, to the Ivorian sounds of Coupé-Decalé, African artists continue to reinvent the rhythms of Africa – and the world is taking note. This week, our hosts are joined by David Vandy, from VOA’s The African Beat. Together, they explore the global influence and reach of African music, and how that expansion benefits artists from the continent. In our #WomentoWatch segment, we highlight the women who are pushing the sounds of Africa to a new level, and feature a live performance from singer-songwriter ToluMiDe.

Setback in First Legal Challenge to UK Govt’s Brexit Plans

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The first legal challenge to prevent British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from suspending Parliament has been delayed in a Scottish court.

The Court of Session in Edinburgh refused Friday to take immediate legal action to prevent Johnson from suspending Parliament for several weeks during part of the period ahead of the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.

Judge Raymond Doherty, however, said a full hearing on the case will be heard Tuesday, raising the prospect that the government’s move could still be blocked. He said there is no need for an immediate injunction because a “substantive” hearing on the case will be heard next week.

The full hearing had originally been set for Sept. 6, but was moved up.

Law professor Nick McKerrell at Glasgow Caledonian University said the decision to speed up the hearing may be significant because it indicates the matter is being treated with urgency.

“This is not the end of the matter,” he said after the judge declined to take immediate action.

The case was brought by a cross-party group of legislators seeking to broaden the period for parliamentary debate in a bid to prevent a disorderly departure by Britain from the European Union.

Two other legal cases are in progress, one in Northern Ireland and another in London. Former Prime Minister John Major said Friday he is seeking to join the case in London to argue against suspension.

“If granted permission to intervene, I intend to seek to assist the court from the perspective of having served in Government as a minister and prime minister, and also in Parliament for many years as a Member of the House of Commons,” he said.

Major is an outspoken critic of Brexit who had vowed to intervene legally if Johnson sought to prevent parliamentary debate on the issue.

The legal skirmishes are designed to prevent Johnson from substantially shortening the amount of time Parliament will be given to enact legislation that might prevent a “no deal” Brexit, that many economists believe would damage Britain’s economy.

Johnson has repeatedly vowed to take Britain out of the EU bloc on Oct. 31 even if no arrangement has been reached. His predecessor, Theresa May, reached an agreement with EU leaders but Britain’s Parliament repeatedly rejected the terms.

In Helsinki, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended his government’s decision to suspend parliament and rejected suggestions that the move will prevent lawmakers from debating the country’s departure from the European Union as concern mounts that a costly and damaging Brexit without any agreement is now more likely.

On Wednesday, Johnson got Queen Elizabeth II’s approval to suspend parliament, a move widely criticized by his political opponents who see it as a maneuver to give them even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Johnson previously had refused to rule out such a move, but the timing of the decision took lawmakers _ many of whom are on vacation _ by surprise.
 
At talks with EU foreign ministers in Finland, Raab said that “the idea that this is some kind of constitutional outrage is nonsense. It’s actually lawful. It’s perfectly proper. There’s precedent for it.”

“We’ve been talking about nothing but Brexit. We’re going to get a chance to scrutinize all aspects of Brexit between now and the end of October,” he told reporters.

His counterparts expressed concern that a no-deal exit from the bloc appears more likely, but most declined to comment on the government’s move, saying it is a matter for Britain to resolve.

“It’s a debate that concerns the British government and parliament,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. Meanwhile, he said, Britain’s European partners are still waiting for new proposals to resolve the standoff over the divorce agreement, notably the so-called backstop clause which aims to avoid the return of border controls between Ireland in the EU and Britain’s Northern Ireland.

“If we receive some proposals from London we will examine them, as we always do,” said Reynders.

But some ministers were clearly concerned about political developments in London.

“Westminster is the mother of all parliaments, and now you have a situation where that parliament is in danger of being sidelined. It’s a way of proceeding in democracy that doesn’t quite conform to the rules,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. Johnson has insisted he was taking the step so he could outline his domestic agenda.

 “I’m worried,” Asselborn said. “A no-deal is a catastrophe. It could cost thousands and thousands of jobs and needlessly create misery. I hope that political reason will prevail.”

Britain has said it will step up its technical meetings with EU in an effort to secure a deal in the weeks that remain. The government said that Brexit negotiators will meet with their EU counterparts twice a week throughout September, with the possibility of additional technical meetings. Two meetings are set for next week.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he thought the EU would be ready to meet five times a week if it could get the job done, but he said that London must come up with realistic proposals and not simply kick the can down the road.

“It’s got to be credible. It can’t simply be this notion that look, we must have the backstop removed and we’ll solve this problem in the future negotiation without any credible way of doing that. That’s not going to fly, and I think it’s important that we’re all honest about that.”

British government minister Michael Gove was visiting Calais on Friday with France’s customs minister to study Brexit preparations at the busy French port.

Meanwhile, France’s junior minister for European affairs, Aurelie de Montchalin, said on BFM television that  “given how things are going, it’s probable’” that Britain will leave on Oct. 31 with no plans for how to handle trade, travel and cross-border business the next morning.

Prominent Hong Kong Activists Arrested in Crackdown on Protests

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Police in Hong Kong have arrested three prominent pro-democracy activists, ahead of a major protest that had been planned for Saturday. The march had already been called off by organizers after an appeals board denied permission.

Joshua Wong, founder of political party Demosisto, was arrested Friday on suspicions of organizing an unauthorized protest on June 21, according to police.

“He was suddenly pushed into a private car on the street,” Demosisto, which advocates for greater democracy in Hong Kong, said on its official Twitter account.

Pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow, left, and Joshua Wong speak to media outside a district court in Hong Kong, Aug. 30, 2019.

Agnes Chow, also of Demosisto, was arrested at her home.

Police said Wong and Chow, both 22, are being investigated on suspicion of “organizing unorganized assembly” and “knowingly participating in unauthorized assembly.”

Wong was a prominent figure of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement for full democracy during protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days. In June, he was released from jail after serving a five-week term for contempt of court.

On Thursday police also arrested Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, on suspicion of “participating in riots” and “attacking police” during a protest on July 13.

In an interview with VOA, Wong said protesters are “afraid of Beijing” and that China’s response to the current protests is much more intense than its approach to the Umbrella Movement.

Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, speaks during a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 14, 2018.

“During the Umbrella Movement, the police fired 80 to 90 [rounds of] tear gas in Hong Kong. Now, they fired 2,000 [rounds of] tear gas in Hong Kong. So, we experienced a stronger crackdown on human rights,” he said.

Police have arrested about 900 protesters since the demonstrations, generally peaceful, began in June to stop a now-suspended extradition bill that would allow for sending criminal suspects to Mainland China for trial. 

The protests have evolved into a movement for democratic reforms, but have recently turned violent, with protesters clashing with police.

Beijing has positioned paramilitary forces at Hong Kong’s border as part of its campaign to suppress the protests. Wong declared the move “is not a solution to silence the voices of the protesters.” 

Wong warned it is “time for people to be aware that perhaps another Tiananmen Massacre may happen in Hong Kong,” a reference to the deadly 1989 student-led demonstrations in Beijing. “So the world’s leaders should support the Hong Kong people with [their] solidarity.”

Wong also told VOA his invitation to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping still stands.

“President Xi should come to Hong Kong and meet with the protesters, not only meeting with me. If he comes to the crowd of the protesters, I think the protesters will chat with him and express the voices of the Hong Kong people.”

No ‘Gay Gene,’ but Study Finds Genetic Links to Sexual Behavior   

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A large scientific study into the biological basis of sexual behavior has confirmed there is no single “gay gene” but that a complex mix of genetics and environment affects whether a person has same-sex sexual partners. 

The research, which analyzed data on DNA and sexual experiences from almost half a million people, found there are thousands of genetic variants linked to same-sex sexual behavior, most with very small effects. 

Five of the genetic markers were “significantly” associated with same-sex behavior, the researchers said, but even these are far from being predictive of a person’s sexual preferences. 

“We scanned the entire human genome and found a handful — five, to be precise — of locations that are clearly associated with whether a person reports in engaging in same-sex sexual behavior,” said Andrea Ganna, a biologist at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland who co-led the research. 

He said these have “a very small effect” and, combined, explain “considerably less than 1% of the variance in the self-reported same-sex sexual behavior.” 

Other factors

This means that nongenetic factors — such as environment, upbringing, personality, nurture — are far more significant in influencing a person’s choice of sexual partner, just as with most other personality, behavioral and physical human traits, the researchers said. 

The study, which was the largest of its kind, analyzed survey responses and performed analyses known as genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on data from more than 470,000 people who had given DNA samples and lifestyle information to the UK Biobank and to the U.S. genetics testing company 23andMeInc. 

Asked why they had wanted to conduct such research, the team 
told reporters on a teleconference that previous studies on this topic had mostly been too small to offer robust conclusions. 

“Previous studies were small and underpowered,” Ganna said. “So we decided to form a large international consortium and collected data for [almost] 500,000 people, [which] is approximately 100 times bigger than previous studies on this topic.” 

FILE – Participants take part in a gay pride parade in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 17, 2018.

The results, published in the journal Science on Thursday, found no clear patterns among genetic variants that could be used to meaningfully predict or identify a person’s sexual behavior, the researchers said. 

‘A lot of diversity’

“We’ve clarified that there’s a lot of diversity out there,” said Benjamin Neale, a member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who worked with Ganna. “This moves our understanding [of same-sex sex] to a deeper and more nuanced place.” 

Sexual-rights campaigners welcomed the study, saying it “provides even more evidence that being gay or lesbian is a natural part of human life.” 

“This new research also reconfirms the long-established understanding that there is no conclusive degree to which nature or nurture influences how a gay or lesbian person behaves,” said Zeke Stokes of the U.S.-based LGBTQ rights group GLAAD. 

US: Venezuela’s Maduro Relinquishing Power Not About Punishment

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The U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliot Abrams told reporters at the State Department that America is “ready for change in Venezuela,” and that embattled President Nicolas Maduro leaving power is a critical part of the country being able to move forward toward free elections and a transition to democracy. 

But Abrams stressed “this isn’t about punishment, this isn’t about vengeance and we have tried to make that clear.”

Abrams said he has not yet seen any signs of a willingness by Maduro to negotiate a compromise where he voluntarily leaves power. 

FILE – U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams attends a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Venezuela at U.N. headquarters in New York, Feb. 28, 2019.

Maduro’s re-election in 2018 is considered to be illegitimate by many nations in the Western Hemisphere. The United States and more than 50 other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela. Abrams said the negotiations hosted by Norway between Maduro’s representatives and representatives of Guaido are on hiatus, with Guaido’s team seeking to ascertain if Maduro is negotiating in good faith, or simply trying to buy time. 

Maduro has confirmed that members of his government have also been holding talks with U.S. officials, saying there are contacts through various channels — with his direct permission.

Abrams pointed to the opening of the Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU), under the leadership of Charge d’Affaires James Story at the U.S. Embassy in Bogata, Colombia, saying the U.S. wants to be ready for — in his words — “the day this regime falls.”

U.S. sanctions

Abrams told reporters Thursday that U.S. sanctions on top-ranking members of Maduro’s government continue to have their desired effect, and that he believes they are finding it more difficult to sell their oil at market prices and to engage in financial transactions. 

“The U.S. is hopeful the European Union will impose more sanctions on the regime in the coming months,” he added.

Abrams said U.S. sanctions target Maduro’s government and not the Venezuelan people, and include exceptions for the flow of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. 

FILE – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido gestures as he speaks during the session of the Venezuela’s National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, July 2, 2019.

“But the Maduro regime is spending its money in other ways — not on food or medicine but on repaying debts to Russia and China, buying Russian arms, and other ways that do not benefit the Venezuelan people, including massive corruption,” he said.

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in January in an attempt to bring down Maduro.

But China National Petroleum Corporation, or CNPC, and Russia’s Rosneft, another major buyer of Venezuelan oil, are not subject to the U.S. sanctions.

“A company that has no connection to the United States, and does not transact business in dollars, would potentially be beyond the reach of those sanctions,” Abrams said.

China, Russia

China and Russia are Venezuela’s two main bilateral creditors and have major financial interests in Venezuela. But they have not aligned with the U.S. on policies toward the Maduro government.

For the first half of this year, China imported more than 8 million tons of crude oil from Venezuela, which is about 3.5% of its total imports, according to Chinese customs data.
The United States is cautious about reports that CNPC is suspending the purchase of crude from Venezuela in August. 

“I don’t know yet because we’re still in August and we’ll have to see what happens in August and September. We won’t have data I think for a while,” Abrams told VOA on Thursday. 

Washington does not see the reported move as an indication that China is moving more in line with the U.S. toward the embattled Maduro government. 

“It may be that CNPC withdraws, but that doesn’t mean that China withdraws from buying Venezuelan oil,” said Abrams in response to questions posed by VOA.

On Aug. 5, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order, threatening to block U.S. assets and properties of any person or company determined to have “materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for” the Maduro government. 

US National Security Adviser Visits Belarus

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser visited Belarus Thursday, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from its autocratic leader who has faced Western criticism over the nation’s democratic record.

John Bolton met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron hand for a quarter century, showing little tolerance for dissent and independent media.

Lukashenko warmly greeted Bolton, saying that Belarus is ready to “turn a new page” in relations with Washington. “We haven’t seen such high-ranking figures here for a long time, which makes your visit historic,” he said.

The Belarusian leader asked Bolton to deliver presents to Trump and his wife — a navy officer’s dagger for the president and a linen tablecloth with napkins for the first lady. He added that he was a “fan” of Trump ahead of the 2016 election and was glad that he won.

Lukashenko also gave gifts to Bolton — a box of chocolate and a book about Belarusian folk art.

The U.S. and the European Union have continuously criticized Belarus for its crackdown on the opposition and flawed elections and introduced sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. Some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Lukashenko, who was once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, has sought to improve his nation’s rights record.

Speaking after the talks that lasted for three hours instead of a planned hour-long meeting, Bolton said it offered “an excellent opportunity to discuss several very important matters — regional security and bilateral cooperation.”

“History does not stand still,” Bolton said. “A fair amount of time has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The geopolitical situation has changed. It is changing even as we are talking. Therefore, there is a regional agenda. There are also matters related to some faraway countries that also have an impact on the situation here.”

Russia is Belarus’ main sponsor and ally, but the two nations have a slew of trade disputes. Lukashenko has won concessions from Moscow in the past by raising the prospect of a shift toward the West, and a meeting with Bolton offered him a chance to use the same tactic.

Last fall, Russia introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, dealing a heavy blow to Belarus, which has been making hefty profits from the export of oil products made from cheap Russian crude. Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of Moscow’s efforts to persuade his country to abandon its independence.

Russia and Belarus signed a union treaty in 1997 that envisaged close ties, but stopped short of forming a single state. Some in Belarus fear that the Kremlin may now contemplate a full merger. Lukashenko has said that the two countries could more closely integrate their economies, but emphasized that Belarus would remain independent.

Asked about the possibility of Belarus’ merger with Russia, Bolton replied that Belarusians don’t want it.

“The question is what the people of Belarus want,” he told reporters. “I think they want independence.”

In Uganda, US Senators Call for Ebola Action, Praise Refugee Resettlement Efforts

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Democratic U.S. Senators Chris Coons and Chris Van Hollen last week endorsed taking action to head off a possible Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lauded an innovative Ugandan approach to resettling war refugees, and called for greater political openness in Uganda.

The senators spoke to VOA after traveling to Uganda earlier this month.  The Aug. 12-15 trip occurred as Ebola was spreading in the neighboring DRC. During the last pandemic, Coons said, “we made a critical investment in protecting Liberia, West Africa and frankly the world, and we could and should do that again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen, left, walks with CARE President and CEO Michelle Nunn, while touring refugee settlements in Uganda, Aug. 14, 2019.

The two also met with refugees fleeing South Sudanese and Congolese conflicts, and Coons praised Uganda’s response to the refugee influx. Refugees in Uganda live in settlements resembling villages and are granted small land plots and the immediate right to work. They are also more deliberately integrated into local communities, which includes access to local schools. This is in contrast to most parts of the world, where refugees are housed in camps.

“This is a compelling model that reduces tensions between the refugees and the host communities,” Coons said of settlements he toured in Bidi Bidi and Lobule in northern Uganda. Such arrangements “make it possible for refugee families to grow and develop until there’s a time when their host countries are safe enough for them to return. And it’s a model that’s being made possible by some significant support from the United States.”

A woman’s fingerprints are scanned before receiving a cash voucher at the Lobule refugee settlement in Uganda. August 14, 2019 (T. Krug/VOA)

In between rain showers, Coons and Van Hollen toured the Lobule refugee settlement, where refugees were receiving cash vouchers through the World Food Program to be used in local markets. In its use of vouchers, increasingly employed as an alternative to the delivery of bulk food, the WFP has been building on a pilot program implemented in 2014 of providing cash vouchers to refugees. 

According to an email from Stephan Deutscher, a program policy officer for cash-based transfers at the WFP, as of this month, WFP Uganda was providing “monthly unconditional unrestricted cash transfers to more than 360,000 refugees in eight settlements across the country,” including Lobule, with the hope of reaching up to 500,000 refugees by the end of the year.

“The cash transfer value is equivalent to the value of the food basket refugees would otherwise receive in kind,” Deutscher wrote, currently 31,000 Ugandan shillings (about $8.40) per month.

With that money, refugees were able to immediately gain access to — and invest in buying and reselling of — produce in local markets. One group of women standing around a stand that sold fish and vegetables, several yards from where the cash vouchers were distributed, said that while the money was not enough, it helped.

Coons said he was encouraged at how the food assistance had developed even since he visited Uganda in 2017 with former Republican Senator Bob Corker.

Coons praised the program, calling it “a more flexible, more cost-effective, more sustainable model for delivering food assistance.”

Uganda’s Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 27, 2018, at the United Nations headquarters.

In addition to meeting with refugees in the northern Ugandan settlements at Lobule and Bidi Bidi, one of the world’s largest refugee settlements, Coons and Van Hollen met with Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, raising the issue of criticism of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been widely criticized domestically and globally for overstaying his time in office and suppressing opposition.

Coons called the relationship with the Ugandan government, which works with Washington in the fight against al-Shabab, “complex.”

“There have been significant actions by the government, by President Museveni, who has been president for decades, to constrain civil society, to harass or threaten political opponents, to shut down news outlets, and to pass legislation that narrows the space for civil society in Uganda,” Coons said.

“While it certainly is not the most oppressive regime in Africa, it clearly needs to create more open political space in the country for dissenting voices and opposition views,” Van Hollen said. “I raised that issue with the prime minister, especially as it related to providing the growing youth population an opportunity to express themselves politically, and they have adopted this new law that says that people can engage in protests, but in order to do so, they have to get these government permits, and the government uses that device to suppress dissent.”

Earlier this month, the academic Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to jail for 18 months for “cyber harassing and offensive communication” for a poem she wrote and posted on Facebook last year, in which she wished that the president had burned up in his mother’s birth canal.

Pop star, minister of parliament and presidential hopeful Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was charged this month with “annoying” the president after Wine and other opposition leaders allegedly stoned the president’s convoy in August 2018.

“I thought it was important that we met with Bobi Wine,” Van Hollen said of a brief meeting toward the beginning of the trip, “and not because the United States should take a position or support any particular candidate. We should not do that, but we should support a process that creates more political space and room for dissent within the democratic process.”

In a separate encounter later that week, Van Hollen added that while debarking in Nairobi on a flight from Uganda, he and Coons ran into Wine, who was in Kenya to record music.

“He was worried that the Ugandan authorities would crack down on the music studio if he tried to record it in Uganda,” Van Hollen said.

“That’s just another example of fear of government suppression, and it’s not without reason.”