Month: June 2019

Trump Meets Kim at DMZ, Crosses Into North Korea

Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit North Korea, stepping across the border during a meeting at the demilitarized zone with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After shaking hands with Kim at the Panmunjom border village, Trump walked across the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas. Kim and Trump then crossed the border back into South Korea. 

“Good to see you again,” Kim told Trump. “I never expected to see you in this place.” 

“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” said Trump, who invited Kim to the United States for another meeting.

Trump on Saturday had said the meeting would only last two minutes. However, Trump’s private talks with Kim lasted about 50 minutes, turning into an impromptu summit.

When Trump emerged from the meeting, he announced he and Kim had agreed to form teams to restart working level talks. 

“They will meet over the next few weeks and they’re going to start a process and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “Speed is not the object…we want a really comprehensive, good deal.” 

Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2019

It is the third meeting between Kim and Trump, following meetings in Singapore last June and in Vietnam in February. Though the DMZ summit raises hopes of revived nuclear talks, it’s not clear how much progress was made.

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Sunday, June 30, 2019.

Nuclear progress?

Trump announced his negotiating team would continue to be led by Steve Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea. He said that North Korea “was also putting someone in charge who we know and who we like,” though he didn’t elaborate.

After the Singapore summit, Trump also announced his deputies would soon start working level negotiations. But those talks soon broke down over disagreements about how to pace sanctions relief with North Korea’s steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons. 

“It’s where we were about 15 months ago,” says Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “One step forward, two steps back. But this is one step forward.” 

“Given where we were last week, it’s not nothing,” he added. 

The disagreements between the U.S. and North Korea remain vast. Not only has North Korea not provided a list of its nuclear sites, Washington and Pyongyang have not even agreed on what the idea of denuclearization means. 

In recent weeks, North Korea expressed increasing levels of anger at the U.S. refusal to relax sanctions. Trump prefers a “big deal” under which North Korea commits to completely abandoning his nuclear weapons before relaxing any sanctions.

In their public comments Sunday, neither Trump nor Kim gave any indication of softening their stances.

“There was no sign that the two sides were prepared to address the underlying substantive problems, like differences over sanctions relief, that have made diplomacy so difficult,” says Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official and Korea specialist.  

“Unless the working-level negotiators have a mandate to try new, more constructive approaches to these problems, it’s hard to see what they can achieve,” he adds.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand on the North Korean side in the Demilitarized Zone, Sunday, June 30, 2019 at Panmunjom.

U.S. officials have given mixed signals about whether they are open to an incremental approach, whereby Pyongyang would give up its nuclear program in stages in exchange for reciprocal steps by Washington.

Building trust or theatrics?

Trump visited the DMZ with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Though the three leaders did not make any public statement together, they briefly appeared together before Trump and Kim met for private talks.

At an earlier military briefing with Moon at a DMZ lookout point, Trump said the demilitarized zone used to be “very, very dangerous…but after our first summit, all the danger went away.” 

Trump also defended his North Korea policy and blasted media that have questioned whether he should meet with Kim, given that talks with North Korea are stalled.  

“I say that for the press, they have no appreciation for what we’ve done,” Trump said.

While many warn the latest summit risked normalizing friendly relations with a brutal dictator, South Korea’s President Moon said the meeting was an important step toward building trust with North Korea.

“We have taken one big step forward,” Moon said. “The…Korean people have been given hope thanks to today.”

But Bonnie Glaser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that for Trump, stepping inside North Korea might not signify any change in policy.

Trump, she said, delights in doing things no president has done before.”

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Schumer: ATF Should Investigate Dominican Republic Deaths

The Senate’s top Democrat called on the U.S. government Sunday to step up its efforts to investigate the deaths of Americans who traveled to the Dominican Republic and is asking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to get involved.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agency should step in to lend investigative support to the FBI and local law enforcement officials after at least eight Americans died in the Dominican Republic this year. Family members of the tourists have called on authorities to investigate whether there’s any connection between the deaths and have raised the possibility the deaths may have been caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides.

The ATF – the agency primarily investigates firearms-related crimes but is also charged with regulating alcohol and tobacco – is uniquely positioned to provide technical and forensic expertise in the investigation, Schumer said. The agency also has offices in the Caribbean.

“Given that we still have a whole lot of questions and very few answers into just what, if anything, is cause for the recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, the feds should double their efforts on helping get to the bottom of things,” Schumer said in a statement to The Associated Press.

An ATF spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Francisco Javier Garcia, the tourism minister in the Dominican Republic, said earlier this month that the deaths are not part of any mysterious wave of fatalities but instead are a statistically normal phenomenon that has been lumped together by the U.S. media. He said autopsies show the tourists died of natural causes.

Five of the autopsies were complete as of last week, while three were undergoing further toxicological analysis with the help from the FBI because of the circumstances of the deaths.

 

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Israeli PM: Palestinians Are Determined to Continue Conflict

Israel’s prime minister says the Palestinians are “determined to continue the conflict at any price.”

Speaking at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was referring to the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of last week’s Mideast peace conference in Bahrain aimed at providing economic assistance.

Netanyahu says while Israel welcomed the U.S.’s $50 billion Palestinian development plan, the Palestinians themselves denounced it and even arrested a Palestinian businessman who participated in it.

Netanyahu says, “This is not how those who want to promote peace act.”

Palestinian forces have since released businessman Saleh Abu Mayala.

The Palestinian Authority accuses the Trump administration of being biased toward Israel and has boycotted it since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. They accuse the U.S. of trying to replace Palestinian statehood with money.

 

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Montagnards’ Deportation Sparks Fears about Safety

Cambodia’s recent deportation of four indigenous Montagnard asylum-seekers back to their home country has raised concerns about the safety of returnees and the plight of the indigenous group in Vietnam.

The Cambodian government deported the four in mid-June after one of them requested to return to Vietnam to be with his family and the others were deemed to be ineligible for asylum status.

But there is concern among rights activists that the Montagnards, a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, could face harsh treatment upon their return. Rights activists say the mistreatment stems from the indigenous group’s historic alliance with the United States military during the Vietnam War, its fight for land rights and protest against communist rule, and its religious beliefs.

Vietnam’s government “systematically harasses and abuses the rights of those they believed to be leaders in a community or religion,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Phil Robertson. As the areas they lived in were remote, it was difficult for independent organizations to monitor the situation, he said.

“There’s no doubt that all four will face very serious interrogation by Vietnam authorities when they return,” he said. “These Montagnards are not just at risk of persecution, they are just about certain to face persecution when they return. The only question will be how rough the Vietnam authorities get with them.”

Robertson said the harassment could take the form of restrictions of movement, potential physical abuse, interrogations, and surveillance. It is a concern shared by some refugees.

“l’m feeling very worried about facing pressure threat from the Vietnamese government,” a refugee in Cambodia, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, told VOA.  He had fled Vietnam after he was arrested for having protested religious discrimination and being persecuted on religious grounds. He said he was under constant surveillance in Vietnam before he fled the country. “When I want to go somewhere they follow me,” he said. “So l’m very afraid.”

Hundreds of Montagnards are estimated to have fled to Cambodia since 2015 for alleged religious and political persecution. Since then, some have been sent to other countries, such as the Philippines, while others were deported.

Grace Bui, executive director of Bangkok-based Montagnard Assistance Project, said that losing contact with returnees posed a real risk. “Many Montagnards were sent back from Cambodia and we haven’t heard from many of them,” she said in a message. “For example, one guy who was returned last year tried to contact the U.N. to let them know how the police abused him upon his return. The police took his phone away. Many got beaten up, some were being harassed every day and some went to prison,” she said.  

The Vietnamese government was unavailable for comment.

But Vietnam is not alone in contributing to human rights breaches, Robertson said. With the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR having found third countries that would accept the Montagnards, Cambodia would just have to issue exit permits, he said — something he said Cambodia refused to do due to pressure from Vietnam.

“UNHCR is working with the Cambodian authorities to seek solutions for them. Resettlement under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them as refugees with permanent residence status,” said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR senior regional public information officer.

The refugee interviewed by VOA said he is worried about being deported to Vietnam soon. Yet, he hasn’t given up hope that he and the others would be allowed to move to another country after years in limbo.

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Trump Appeals US Judge’s Border Wall Funding Ruling

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday appealed a U.S. judge’s ruling that blocked his administration from using $2.5 billion in funds intended for anti-drug activities to construct a wall along the southern border with Mexico. 

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers said in a court filing that they were formally appealing Friday’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“We’re immediately appealing it, and we think we’ll win the appeal,” Trump said during a press conference Saturday at a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 major economies in Japan. 

“There was no reason that that should’ve happened,” Trump said. 

Trump says construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico 
border is needed to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs, but he has so far been unable to get congressional approval for such a project. 

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico in Calexico, Calif., April 5, 2019.
Judge Blocks Plans to Build Part of Southern Border Wall
A federal judge blocked on Friday President Donald Trump from building sections of his long-sought border wall with money secured under his declaration of a national emergency.

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr., immediately halted the administration’s efforts to redirect military-designated funds for wall construction. His order applies to two high-priority projects to replace 51 miles (82 kilometers) of fence in two areas on the Mexican border.

Gilliam issued the ruling after hearing arguments last week in two cases.

In February, the Trump administration declared a national 
emergency to reprogram $6.7 billion in funds that Congress had allocated for other purposes to build the wall, which groups and states including California had challenged. 

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam in Oakland, Calif., said in a pair of court decisions that the Trump administration’s proposal to transfer Defense Department funds intended for anti-drug activities was unlawful. 

One of Gilliam’s rulings was in a lawsuit filed by California on behalf of 20 states, while the other was in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in coordination with the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition. 

“These rulings critically stop President Trump’s illegal 
money grab to divert $2.5 billion of unauthorized funding for 
his pet project,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra 
said in a statement late Friday. “All President Trump has 
succeeded in building is a constitutional crisis, threatening 
immediate harm to our state.” 

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9/11 First Responder Advocate Dies at 53

A leader in the fight for health benefits for emergency personnel who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. has died.

Former New York City Police detective Luis Alvarez died from colorectal cancer Saturday, his family announced in a post On Facebook.

The 53-year-old Alvarez appeared with American comedian and political activist Jon Stewart before a House Judiciary subcommittee on June 11 to appeal for an extension of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund.

A frail Alvarez told the panel, “This fund is not a ticket to paradise, it’s to provide our families with care.” He went on to say “You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t.”

Alvarez was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. His illness was traced to the three months he spent searching for survivors in the toxic rubble of the World Trade Center’s twin towers that were destroyed in the terrorist attacks.

He was admitted to a hospice on Long Island, New York within a few days of his testimony in Washington.

Legislation to replenish the $7.3 billion compensation fund that provides health benefits to police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders passed the full committee unanimously.

The federal government opened the fund in 2011 to compensate responders and their families for deaths and illnesses that were linked to exposure to toxins. Current projections indicate the fund will be depleted at the end of 2020.

Other responders who spent weeks at the site have also been diagnosed with A variety of cancers and other illnesses.

The World Trade Center Health Program, a separate program associated with a fund run by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said more than 12,000 related cases of cancer had also been diagnosed as of May.

 

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Hong Kong Protests Stir Questions in Macau

Since Portugal’s colony of Macau reverted to Chinese control in 1999, it has become known for operating the world’s most profitable gaming industry and a go-along, get-along attitude toward Beijing.

However, the continuing protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill may be triggering some small change of political attitudes in Macau, 65 kilometers (40.4 miles) away by ferry. Hong Kong businesses closed to support protests, so did some Macau shops, for example.

FILE – Macau lawmaker and member of the election committee, Jose Coutinho, speaks to the media, July 26, 2009.

Jose Pereira Coutinho, president of the pro-democracy New Hope party in Macau, and one of the most influential members of its legislative assembly, told VOA that despite the different legal systems in Macau and Hong Kong, the two Special Administrative Regions of China “are highly similar in the ways of life and their societies in general. We always reflect on what happens in Hong Kong. The recent protests there … are a lesson for the Macau government to not step into a wrong decision, so that the mistakes would not happen … in Macau.”

His is not the only voice hinting at change.

‘One citizen, one photo’ protest

Macau Concealers, a pro-democracy newspaper, organized a “one citizen, one photo” event that asked people to submit photos of themselves holding protest signs.

Jia Lu, a Macanese journalist, said in his commentary on the Hong Kong protest: “Liberty is never free bread to be taken for granted. Today, as long as you are a human, there is no reason to be silent.”

Some Macau activists traveled across the Pearl River estuary to join the Hong Kong protests.

FILE – Police officers use pepper spray during a rally against a proposed extradition law at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 10, 2019.

Macanese reporter Jiajun Chen posted on Facebook during the first week of protests that he was injured by the hot chili spray the Hong Kong police used to control protesters as he covered the crowds. Then, while receiving first aid at the scene, he received another stinging dose from the Hong Kong police. Chen said his press pass was visible during both sprays.

“We are just so used to complaining, often in private, but rarely take action,” Di Ng, 27, a Macanese independent filmmaker, told VOA in a phone interview.

“Macau is a very traditional society largely controlled by different she tuan,” he said. She tuan are foundations and associations organized according to industries, interests, family ties and social identities.

“The elderly get to organize the social order, and they are usually pro-[Beijing]. Even youngsters who want to speak out are discouraged by this social structure.”

“Only after coming to Taiwan did I realize that the definition of a modern society should include democracy, not just fancy mega-casinos and free cash from the government,” said Ng, who is now doing graduate work in film at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.

FILE – Protesters march along a road demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China, June 12, 2019.

Macau vs Hong Kong

Meng U Ieong, an assistant professor from the department of government and public administration in University of Macau, cautioned that the values of modern Western democracies are less popular in Macau than they are in Hong Kong, even though Macau was a Portuguese colony for 442 years, or 286 longer years than Hong Kong was under British rule.

“The social mobilization mechanism is very different between Hong Kong and Macau,” he told VOA in an email.

He pointed to the large-scale protest in Macau in 2014 that halted a controversial pension plan for retired officials as the kind of event used as evidence that Macanese will take to the streets only for pocketbook issues.

Abstract “social issues which do not relate to very specific and tangible interests,” such as the extradition bill upsetting Hong Kong, are unlikely to generate protests in Macau, according to Ieong. 

Since 2008, Macau’s government has given an annual cash handout to residents. For 2018, all local permanent residents received a cash handout of 10,000 patacas, or about $1,245. Nonpermanent residents received 6,000 patacas.

FILE – A croupier counts the chips at a baccarat gaming table inside a casino during the opening day of Sheraton Macao Hotel at the Sands Cotai Central in Macau.

This largesse is because of Macau’s gaming industry. Its revenues overtook those from the Las Vegas Strip in 2007, according to Reuters.

In 2018, the “Vegas of China” tallied $38 billion, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the haul was $6.6 billion in 2018, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

For both Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, and Macau, the changeover from European colony to Chinese territory came with the concept of “one country, two systems.” Communist Party reformer Deng Xiaoping designed the concept as a way to gather Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan into China, while preserving their political and economic systems. 

Taiwan remains independent. Hong Kong has met Beijing’s tightening controls with protests, including the most recent, and largest, ones over a proposed law that would allow extradition for trial in China. The law is backed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is closely aligned with Beijing and who has apologized for the current controversy.

In 2014, Beijing’s interference with the selection of candidates for the chief executive position spawned the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement. It focused on demands for universal suffrage, which is a long-term goal of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Success story

Macau, however, emerged as the “one country, two systems” success story. Unlike Hong Kong, with its global reputation as a business center bound by the rule of law, Macau largely depends on gaming and has shown little resistance to Beijing’s influence, according to a recent Foreign Policy article.

“There is stronger Chinese influence [in Macau]. Plus, we usually just see things in economic terms, unlike Hong Kongers who uphold the value of democracy that they inherited from the British,” said a 17-year-old Macanese student. A freshman at a Los Angeles area college, she asked to remain anonymous because she was in Hong Kong attending orientation for non-U.S. students when the protests erupted.

Eilo Yu, an associate professor in the department of government and public administration at University of Macau, expects the Hong Kong protests to influence Macau’s August vote for its chief executive.

“If Mr. Ho Iat Seng, whom I believe will be the only candidate, cannot manage well in responding [to the protest], this will hurt his legitimacy in ruling when he becomes the CE,” Yu said to VOA in an email. “The current situation may be good to his campaign [in] that he need not make a firm statement for a possible extradition between Mainland and Macao. However, if Carrie Lam is going to resign during the Macau election, Ho will be questioned and pressured on his possible resignation when his performance” disappoints Macao citizens.

“We were known for being silent,” said Ng, the filmmaker. “But with the Hong Kongers setting the example, things might be different in the future.”

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Female Candidates Challenge Electability Question in Debates

For months, the names of white men have sat at the top of early Democratic presidential primary polls. On the debate stage this week, the half-dozen women in the field offered up an alternative: themselves.

They did so with different tactics and styles but a shared goal: shaking up assumptions about who is electable in a race for a job that has only been held by men.

While it’s too early in the Democratic nominating process to know if they succeeded on that front, some of the women emerged as dominant forces on the debate stage, driving the policy discussions and insisting on being heard on issues despite the crowded field. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris led the way and were widely seen as among the top performers.

“Over the past two nights, women won each debate and showed that this race is not over,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the largest national organization devoted to electing women. “They were great debaters, compelling storytellers and effective at making their case and getting in the fight when they had a point to make.”

Of course, winning one debate is far different than winning the nomination or the general election. Hillary Clinton, for example, dominated most of her debate showdowns throughout the 2016 campaign, including her three faceoffs with Donald Trump, but still lost the election.

For some Democrats, Clinton’s loss was a searing experience that has prompted questions about whether the country is ready to elect a female president — or whether the party should even risk testing that proposition in next year’s high-stakes election.

In her two White House campaigns, Clinton was always the only woman on the debate stage. This time around, the female candidates had company — a history-making three women on stage each night. On Wednesday, Warren was joined by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. On Thursday, Harris debated alongside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and the author Marianne Williamson. The debate’s moderators also included two women, NBC News’ Rachel Maddow and Savannah Guthrie.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said she is among those who have heard voters raise doubts about whether Democrats should nominate a woman in 2020 following Clinton’s loss. Following the debates, she said she was hopeful that narrative might change.

“This question of electability maybe gets shaken up a little bit as a result of these past two nights,” Walsh said.

There were notable moments for many of the women on stage. Gillibrand focused her message on women’s rights and family issues, doubling down on her strategy of running as an unabashed feminist. Klobuchar’s standout moment came when a male rival portrayed himself as the field’s most ardent defender of abortion rights.

“I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” Klobuchar said as the audience erupted in applause.

Yet it was Warren and Harris who rose to the top of the pack.

Warren stood at center stage on Wednesday, reflecting her standing as the night’s highest polling candidate. Her liberal policy positions also took center stage, driving much of the discussion throughout the night. Warren consciously avoided squabbling with her rivals, seeking to project the strength of a leading candidate.

Harris burst through on night two with a striking exchange with former Vice President Joe Biden, who has led early polling throughout the year. She challenged Biden vigorously, and in personal terms, over his past positions on school busing and his comments citing his work with segregationist senators as an example of a bygone air of civility.

The exchange was not the result of a moderator’s question. It was a moment Harris seized on herself, breaking in after author Williamson described how the average American was “woefully undereducated” about the history of race in the United States.

“As the only black person on this stage, I’d like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said. The crowd fell silent as she then recounted being bused to a desegregated school as a child.

“By weaving her personal experience into the broader attack, she could go after Biden without coming off as petty or inappropriate,” said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run For Something who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “She claimed her space and made incredible use of it.”

The strong overall female presence in these debates may have a resonance well beyond what was visible onstage, said Erin Cassese, a specialist in women and politics at the University of Delaware.

Research shows, Cassese said, that “when women run, there’s a role model effect, other women pay attention, they’re more engaged in the campaign, and they may develop political ambitions.”

She added: “It’s less obvious because it’s not what we’re seeing onstage, but it’s about how people are connecting to the optics of it.”

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Village Benefits as India Links Welfare, Digital Economy

Biru Devi is relaxed about getting paid for her labor as she toils on the picturesque hill slopes in Tanda village with a group of other women. She is working on a construction project under India’s flagship $10 billion rural jobs program that guarantees poor rural households 100 days of work every year.
 
“Earlier my money was never paid in time, maybe the bills did not get passed. But now my wages go into my bank account and are not delayed,” said Devi.
 

Women in Tanda village on the Himalayan slopes in Himachal Pradesh are among the millions of poor women who get 100 days of work a year as part of India’s rural employment welfare scheme for poor rural households. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

The payments got streamlined after the 60-year-old Devi opened a bank account using her biometric identity card. The unique 12-digit identification number made it possible to operate the account even though she did not know how to read and write. All the 3000 village residents did so as part of a project led by a public sector bank and village authorities to transform Tanda into a digital village.  
 
The switchover from cash to online payments is helping address one of the biggest problems that had plagued the rural welfare scheme – middlemen who used to siphon off money from the anti-poverty program that provides work to 70 million people.  

Using the world’s biggest biometric identity project under which citizens have been given an identity number, India is starting to transform the way it gets welfare to the poor. Although glitches remain and some controversy dogs the biometric program called “Aadhaar” which means foundation, it is helping root out graft from welfare schemes on which India spends billions of dollars.  
 
It took time to persuade women like Biru Devi that their money in the bank would be safe – the majority of workers of the rural jobs program are women and many like Devi are illiterate.
 
“They are happy that they have to just show their Aadhaar card, and they have to just put their finger or thumb, and they get their money or deposit their money or get the money transferred, so it is changing,” said Ekta Mahajan, branch manager at State Bank of India in Palampur, which led the digitization drive in the village. But now they know the benefits. “There will be no corruption, there will be no commission, they will benefit directly and faster.”
 

FILE – An impoverished woman places her finger on a biometric card reader before buying her quota of subsidized rice from a fair price shop under the Public Distribution System in Rayagada, India.

 
Besides wages for the rural welfare program, subsidized food rations that India gives nearly 800 million people have also been linked to the biometric cards. The more than $20 billion food welfare program that guarantees cheap rice and wheat to the poor is the world’s largest public food distribution system, but it was beset with graft for decades. A large part of the food was siphoned off by corrupt officials and sold to traders at market rates and thousands of fake names were often put on the rolls of beneficiaries.  
 
That is changing. At the local ration shop in Tanda, eligible residents now show their electronic cards or use their thumb and finger impressions to get the rations. It ensures the food goes to the intended beneficiaries.
 
The shop’s owner says it has reduced his work of making entries in registers. But an erratic wifi network can still pose a hurdle in bringing technology to rural areas.“Sometimes people have to wait for half an hour because we cannot connect to the system,” Rajiv Kumar admitted ruefully.  

Although some activists have long opposed linking the biometric identity cards to welfare schemes, India’s Supreme Court cleared the way for it last year, saying it empowers the poor. “Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalized,” the court ruling stated.

Customers use their phones to make digital payments at the local shop. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

These activists say that the biometric cards have failed to cut fraud and denied welfare benefits to many poor people who have found it difficult to link their Aadhaar cards to the programs. The problem is the most acute in underdeveloped states where governance is poor.
 
“In many cases it leads to other ways of corruption,” said Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. She said the major problem lies in what she calls “quantity fraud” or short changing people on the rations they are entitled to. “They may still give you half the rations you are entitled to, or tell people that the authentication failed even if it has not and use their quota.”
 
India’s top court has said that such challenges meant the plan had to be improved, not axed.

Besides cutting graft from welfare schemes, digitization has brought other benefits in Tanda village as it gets plugged into the banking economy for the first time. Women who attend a workshop learn how they can avail themselves of education loans or cheap farm loans meant for rural areas.

“They have savings, they are taking loans to teach their children,” according to the village head, Jasbir Singh. “Access to loans has boosted our agriculture and traditional dairy farming and improved incomes. So even those who cannot get jobs earn a decent livelihood.”
 
Leapfrogging into the digital era has transformed this Himalayan village in more ways than one.
 
With their smart phones, villagers now shop for vegetables and groceries at the local store the modern way. “Our children also tell us, mom the old times are over. Become a model for the new world. We also feel happy that we too are part of a new age,” said a laughing 60-year-old Rekha Devi.
 
And women, whose only way to save money was to put it under mattresses or tuck it at the back of cupboards, have a new sense of security. “If there for an emergency, I can take out money,” said Biru Devi proudly.

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Mexico Bolsters Borders as US Talks with Northern Triangle Continue

VOA associate producer Jesusemen Oni contributed to this report from Washington.  
 
As U.S. lawmakers agreed this week to provide billions of dollars in funding to federal law enforcement agencies at the Southwestern border, Mexico ramped up its own border efforts, deploying thousands of newly commissioned National Guard troops to its southern and northern frontiers. 

The country’s immigration agency also announced it would hire new agents for the third time this year, though on a decidedly smaller scale than the troop deployment. The original posting was for 66 officers, but authorities said they might approve funds for more. 
 
Meanwhile, Kevin McAleenan, acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Friday that he would be meeting again with Northern Triangle officials in the coming week, as Washington attempts to lock down an asylum deal with Guatemala to divert asylum seekers away from Mexico and the U.S. 
 

FILE – Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, May 23, 2019.

Expectations on migration 
 
Despite a dizzying number of moving parts to the multicountry brokering, McAleenan told reporters he expected to see results of the attempts to mitigate unauthorized migration across the southwestern U.S. border by next month. An increasing number of families and unaccompanied children entered in the first half of the year.
 
“In terms of when we’re going to know if these efforts in Mexico are making an impact … basically by the end of July if these efforts are sustained and having significant impact,” McAleenan told reporters at a news conference that had been set for Thursday but was postponed after the U.S. House agreed to allocate additional funds to DHS operations at the border. 
 
In Mexico, Defense Secretary Luis Sandoval ordered 15,000 members of the country’s newly formed National Guard and other military units to the northern border.  
 
Thousands were previously dispatched to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize. 
 
But their role with respect to limiting border access into and out of Mexico remains unclear, said researcher Daniella Burgi-Palomino, a senior associate at the Latin America Working Group, an activist organization that promotes just U.S. policies toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

“All of that lack of clarity around their role is extremely concerning. It seems to be that Mexico already agreed to certain things with the U.S. and … is going out of its way, really wanting to show that they really want to show results within these 45 days,” she said, referring to Mexico’s response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat of tariffs. Under the deal, Mexico must reduce the number of unauthorized border-crossers into the U.S. from its territory to avoid the punitive financial measures Trump ordered. 
 

Migrants wait for donated food at the Puerta Mexico international bridge, Matamoros, Mexico, June 27, 2019. Hundreds of migrants have been waiting for their numbers to be called to have a chance to request asylum in the U.S.

Immigration agent initiative 
 
In announcing its hiring initiative, the Mexican immigration agency said the new agents were necessary to ensure that foreigners “are treated with dignity, and with unrestricted respect for their human rights.” The agency is under new leadership this month after its previous commissioner resigned in the middle of Mexico’s response to Trump’s tariff threat.  
 
Burgi-Palomino said that in theory, only Mexico’s National Institute of Migration could handle immigration-related cases and detentions. Mexico also is documenting an increased number of migrants to and through its territory.

But just how that squares with the mandate given Mexico’s National Guard at the borders in blocking migrants — largely from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — from entering Mexico from the south and entering the U.S. at the north has not been resolved.  
 
“They’re a new force, which I think leads into the question of how much training have they received,” said Rachel Schmidtke, program associate for migration at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I think if there’s not proper training, and sensitization to how to deal with populations that have less access to power, bad things can happen. And I think that’s … what could happen at the Mexico border.” 

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