Bob Graham, ex-US senator and Florida governor, dies at 87

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former U.S. Sen. and two-term Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who gained national prominence as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and as an early critic of the Iraq war, has died. He was 87.

Graham’s family announced the death Tuesday in a statement posted on X by his daughter Gwen Graham.

“We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” the family said.

Graham, who served three terms in the Senate, made an unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq invasion.

But his bid was delayed by heart surgery in January 2003, and he was never able to gain enough traction with voters to catch up, bowing out that October. He didn’t seek reelection in 2004 and was replaced by Republican Mel Martinez.

Graham was a man of many quirks. He perfected the “workdays” political gimmick of spending a day doing various jobs from horse stall mucker to FBI agent and kept a meticulous diary, noting almost everyone he spoke with, everything he ate, the TV shows he watched and even his golf scores.

Graham said the notebooks were a working tool for him and he was reluctant to describe his emotions or personal feelings in them.

“I review them for calls to be made, memos to be dictated, meetings I want to follow up on and things people promise to do,” he said.

Graham was among the earliest opponents of the Iraq war, saying it diverted America’s focus on the battle against terrorism centered in Afghanistan. He was also critical of President George W. Bush for failing to have an occupation plan in Iraq after the U.S. military threw out Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Graham said Bush took the United States into the war by exaggerating claims of the danger presented by the Iraqi weapons of destruction that were never found. He said Bush distorted intelligence data and argued it was more serious than the sexual misconduct issues that led the House to impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. It led him to launch his short, abortive presidential bid.

“The quagmire in Iraq is a distraction that the Bush administration, and the Bush administration alone, has created,” Graham said in 2003.

During his 18 years in Washington, Graham worked well with colleagues from both parties, particularly Florida Republican Connie Mack during their dozen years together in the Senate.

Florida voters hardly considered Graham the wealthy Harvard-educated attorney that he was.

Graham’s political career spanned five decades, beginning with his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966.

He won a state Senate seat in 1970 and then was elected governor in 1978. He was re-elected in 1982. Four years later, he won the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate when he ousted incumbent Republican Paula Hawkins.

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US Navy flies aircraft through Taiwan Strait a day after US-China defense talks

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The U.S. 7th Fleet said a Navy P-8A Poseidon flew through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, a day after U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs held their first talks since Nov. 2022 in an effort to reduce regional tensions.

The patrol and reconaissance plane “transited the Taiwan Strait in international airspace,” the 7th Fleet said in a news release.

“By operating within the Taiwan Strait in accordance with international law, the United States upholds the navigational rights and freedoms of all nations,” the release said.

Although the critical 160 kilometer- (100 mile-) wide strait that divides China from the self-governing island democracy is international waters, China considers the passage of foreign military aircraft and ships through it a challenge to its sovereignty. China claims the island of Taiwan, threatening to defend by force if necessary despite U.S. military support for the island.

China had no immediate response to the report, but has in past issued stern protests and activated defenses in response to the passage of ships and military planes through the strait, particularly those from the U.S.

China also regularly sends navy ships and warplanes into the strait and other areas around the island.

“The aircraft’s transit of the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows,” the 7th Fleet statement said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart Adm. Dong Jun on Tuesday in the latest U.S. effort to improve communications with the Chinese military and reduce the chances of a clash in the region.

It was the first time Austin has talked to Dong and the first time he has spoken at length with any Chinese counterpart since November 2022. The call, which lasted a bit more than an hour, came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China this month for talks.

Military-to-military contact stalled in August 2022, when Beijing suspended all such communication after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China responded by firing missiles over Taiwan and staging a surge in military maneuvers, including what appeared to be a rehearsal of a naval and aerial blockade of the island.

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Israel weighs counterattack options on Iran as US urges restraint

Israel is considering how to respond to Iran’s weekend missile and drone strikes, as the United States and its allies urge the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to escalate and risk igniting a wider regional conflict. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Malawi’s president moves in to stop tobacco smuggling

Blantyre, Malawi — Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera has ordered police to tighten border security to control tobacco smugglers who sell the crop to neighboring countries for better prices. However, analysts and some farmers say tobacco smuggling would only stop if buyers offer competitive prices to farmers.

Tobacco is the main cash crop and major foreign exchange earner in Malawi.   

Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture show that the crop, also known in Malawi as “green gold,” contributes about 60% to the country’s foreign exchange basket. It also contributes about 13% to the country’s gross domestic product.   

Recent reports, however, show that almost 10% of the crop is smuggled to neighboring countries like Zambia and Mozambique for better prices. 

One farmer, who bypasses Malawi’s auction floors and asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told VOA that they get double the profits from cross-border trading compared to selling in Malawi.   

“Currently, tobacco prices at the auction floors in Zambia are averaged $5/kg for the highest quality leaf while the cheapest is $2/kg,” he said. “While here in Malawi, the average price for the highest-quality leaf is $3.05 while the cheapest is $2.40/kg.” 

Another problem is that, among other costs of selling tobacco at Malawi auction floors, a lot of levies are charged on tobacco bales, he said.

These include seed and auction taxes as well as a fee by tobacco associations, he said. While in Zambia, he added, the only costs incurred have to do with transportation and auction levies. 

Speaking during the opening of this year’s tobacco marketing season Monday, President Lazarus Chakwera said tobacco smugglers bring down Malawi’s efforts to earn much-needed foreign currency. 

“To those of you who are doing this, I will not spare you,” he said. “The inspector general of police who is already here, please tighten security in all areas where people are doing this illegal business. Such people should be arrested.” 

Chakwera said his government recently negotiated with tobacco buyers to offer better prices to farmers this year to curb tobacco smuggling.   

Some farmers who sold their crops at the start of selling season Monday said they were happy with the prices offered by the buyers. Others said such has been the trend in the past and the prices drop when the marketing season picks up.        

Adam Chikapa, an economist based in Blantyre, said arresting tobacco smugglers cannot end the illegal malpractice which has been there for decades. Previous attempts, he said, have changed nothing. “So the solution in this case, should be just creating conducive environment in terms of the sales that the farmers are making by giving them good prices” 

Chikapa said it’s time Malawi reduce relying on tobacco for foreign exchange, citing falling demand following anti-smoking campaigns championed by the World Health Organization and the proven link between tobacco use and cancer. 

“We need now to embark on the production of other crops that are highly demanded outside there,” he said. “We have got industrial hemp, even legumes.”

Parliament recently passed legislation to permit cultivation of marijuana or cannabis as an alternative to tobacco farming.     

The lawmakers said cannibis — if grown full scale — is expected to earn Malawi as much as $700 million per year, more than double the foreign exchange it gets from the sale of tobacco. 

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International donors pledge more than $2.13B for Sudan

One year after Sudan’s war started, international donors pledged over $2.13 billion dollars in funding for the country at a conference in Paris. Meanwhile, the U.N. says the looming famine in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is unprecedented, and human rights activists are calling for justice for the “coordinated” ethnic killings that continue in Darfur. Henry Wilkins reports.

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Whitey Herzog, Hall of Fame baseball manager in US, dies at 92

NEW YORK — Whitey Herzog, the gruff and ingenious Hall of Fame manager who guided the St. Louis Cardinals to three pennants and a World Series title in the 1980s, and perfected an intricate, nail-biting strategy known as “Whiteyball,” has died. He was 92. 

Cardinals spokesman Brian Bartow said Tuesday that the team, based in the U.S. state of Missouri, was informed of Herzog’s death by his family. Herzog, who had been at Busch Stadium on April 4 for the Cardinals’ home opener, died on Monday, according to Bartow. 

“Whitey Herzog devoted his lifetime to the game he loved, excelling as a leader on and off the field,” Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors, said in a statement. “Whitey always brought the best out of every player he managed with a forthright style that won him respect throughout the game.” 

A crew-cut, pot-bellied tobacco chewer who had no patience for the “buddy-buddy” school of management, Herzog joined the Cardinals in 1980 and helped end the team’s decade-plus pennant drought by adapting it to the artificial surface and distant fences of Busch Memorial Stadium. A typical Cardinals victory under Herzog was a low-scoring, 1-run game, sealed in the final innings by a “bullpen by committee,” relievers who might be replaced after a single pitch, or temporarily shifted to the outfield, then brought back to the mound. 

The Cardinals had power hitters in George Hendrick and Jack Clark, but they mostly relied on the speed and resourcefulness of switch-hitters Vince Coleman and Willie McGee, the acrobatic fielding of shortstop and future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, and the effective pitching of starters such as John Tudor and Danny Cox and relievers Todd Worrell, Ken Dayley and Jeff Lahti. For the ’82 champions, Herzog didn’t bother rotating relievers, but simply brought in future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter to finish the job. 

Under Herzog, the Cards won pennants in 1982, 1985 and 1987, and the World Series in 1982, when they edged the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games. Herzog managed the Kansas City Royals to division titles in 1976-78, but they lost each time in the league championship to the New York Yankees. 

Overall, Herzog was a manager for 18 seasons, compiling a record of 1,281 wins and 1,125 losses. He was named Manager of the Year in 1985 and voted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 2010, his plaque noting his “stern, yet good-natured style,” and his emphasis on speed, pitching and defense. Just before he formally entered the Hall, the Cardinals retired his uniform number, 24. 

Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog was born in New Athens, Illinois, a blue-collar community that would shape him long after he left. He excelled in baseball and basketball and was open to skipping the occasional class to take in a Cardinals game. Signed up by the Yankees, he was a center fielder who discovered that he had competition from a prospect born just weeks before him, Mickey Mantle. 

Herzog never played for the Yankees, but he did get to know manager Casey Stengel, another master shuffler of players who became a key influence.  

Like so many successful managers, Herzog was a mediocre player, batting just .257 over eight seasons and playing several positions. His best year was with Baltimore in 1961, when he hit .291. He also played for the Washington Senators, Kansas City Athletics and Detroit Tigers, with whom he ended his playing career, in 1963. 

“Baseball has been good to me since I quit trying to play it,” he liked to say. 

Herzog is survived by his wife of 71 years, Mary Lou Herzog; their three children, Debra, David and Jim, and their spouses; nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. 

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South Korea cautiously optimistic about US-Japan military upgrades

WASHINGTON — South Korea is cautiously optimistic about alliance upgrades that the U.S. and Japan have planned to bolster security in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the ministry “noted” that the U.S. and Japan, at their summit in Washington last week, spoke of “the defensive nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance” and emphasized “peace and stability” in the region.

The spokesperson continued via email to VOA’s Korean Service on Friday that “South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are making efforts to institutionalize expanded trilateral cooperation through agreements made at Camp David last year” and “to strengthen rules-based international order.”

The three countries held a trilateral summit at Camp David in August after Seoul and Tokyo mended ties frayed by disputes rooted in Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

At their bilateral summit held in Washington on April 10, Washington and Tokyo announced wide-ranging plans to revamp their military ties. 

The plans include preparations for Japan to develop and produce with the U.S. military hardware, including hypersonic missile interceptors.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel toured a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-35 fighter jet factory near Nagoya on Tuesday. He underlined the importance of Japan’s role in manufacturing weapons as U.S. supplies run thin amid crises in Europe and the Middle East.

The plans announced at the summit also call for Japan’s possible involvement in the AUKUS Pillar II security pact, enabling it to develop quantum computing, hypersonic, undersea and other advanced technologies. 

AUKUS is a defense and security group of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. AUKUS Pillar 2 refers to a suite of cooperative activities conducted by the three nations to develop and field “advanced capabilities.” 

Japan will hold trilateral exercises with the U.S. and the U.K. starting in 2025 as the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions become “ever-more linked,” according to the joint statement. 

The plans call for Japan to expand its security role and arms buildup in tandem with efforts to implement a national security strategy issued in 2022. That called for an increase in Japan’s defense budget and a shift from a defense-only policy to one that includes counterstrike capabilities amid threats from North Korea and China. 

In December, Japan eased its arms export control regime that had allowed it to sell components but not completed weapons. 

Cho Han-Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said “Japan’s arms reinforcement can be viewed as a double-edged sword.”  

In an interview Monday with VOA’s Korean Service, he said the arms buildup significantly helps to deter threats from the Chinese military and North Korean nuclear weapons, but that it concerns South Korea.

Due to unresolved historical disputes from Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945, “trust” between the militaries of the two countries “is not restored fully,” even as they cooperate together now, he said.

South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. conducted a two-day joint naval exercise in the East China Sea from April 11 to 12. The exercise included anti-submarine warfare drills to counter North Korea’s underwater threats and interdiction drills aimed at blocking the North’s weapons shipments. 

South Korea, under President Yoon Suk Yeol, has been pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Tokyo, and has aligned itself closely with Washington in countering Beijing’s economic and military coercion.  

Under the previous administration of Moon Jae-in, Seoul relied for its security on the U.S. while bolstering economic relations with China. Ties with Tokyo remained tense. 

Much of the anti-Japanese sentiment still runs high in South Korea, despite Yoon’s outreach to Tokyo, especially among progressives who increased their majority in an April 10 parliamentary election. 

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry lodged a protest on Tuesday against Japan’s claim over a disputed island that sits midway between the two countries, called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan. 

Won Gon Park, an adjunct professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said South Korea now has to “make a choice” whether to work more closely with Japan to counter threats from North Korea and China.

He said in an interview with VOA’s Korean Service that this might be necessary, as the U.S. builds a regional security structure to bolster defenses against China. 

At their summit, the U.S. and Japan also announced a planned revision of the command structure of U.S. forces in Japan. This will complement Japan’s plan to establish a joint operations command to improve coordination of its air, ground, maritime forces by 2025. 

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said Washington “is increasingly anxious to have global partners” step up their arms manufacturing because the U.S. is not producing enough military hardware to counter all the threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

Speaking with VOA by telephone on Friday, Bennett said what was announced at the summit was that “Japan would be a global partner,” enabling the U.S. to share highly sensitive “information, technology and other capabilities in exchange for taking responsibility with security and stability in the regions that go outside Northeast Asia.”

He added, “The U.S. recognizes South Korea can’t afford to send multiple divisions to other areas around the world because of the North Korean threats” but is “anxious” to have South Korea play a deeper global role, especially in the Indo-Pacific. 

Kim Hyungjin contributed to the report.

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Moscow sharpens warnings to Israel, in apparent pivot to Iran

Moscow has avoided condemning Iran’s attack against Israel while calling on Israeli leaders to exercise restraint. Analysts say the Kremlin’s statements suggest it has chosen Iran as a preferred partner and abandoned the delicate diplomatic balance that it cultivated for decades in the region. Steve Baragona narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina.

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US Republicans plan separate Ukraine, Israel aid bills

washington — U.S. Democrats said on Tuesday they would wait to respond to a proposal from the Republican-led House of Representatives to consider national security assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan separately, rather than as one bill.

More than two months after the Senate approved a $95 billion package of security assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and other U.S. partners in the Indo-Pacific, House Speaker Mike Johnson said on Monday that the House would consider the aid this week but would do so as separate pieces of legislation.

The proposal fueled uncertainty about the long-awaited aid package, particularly for Ukraine, given fierce opposition from some far-right Republicans, who have threatened to oust Johnson if he allows a House vote on assistance for Kyiv.

Democrats in the House and Senate — and the White House — said they would look at Johnson’s proposals, even as they stressed that the best and quickest strategy would be for the House to pass the legislation approved by the Senate in February.

Johnson’s plan was endorsed on Tuesday by the leaders of the House Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, and the chairperson of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

“We don’t have time to spare when it comes to our national security. We need to pass this aid package this week,” representatives Tom Cole, Mike Rogers, Michael McCaul, Mike Turner and Ken Calvert said in a joint statement.

Turner and Representative Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, said separately in a statement after a classified briefing that Ukraine’s situation on the ground was critical and aid must be passed now.

Consideration of separate bills could add weeks to the timeline for the aid to become law, as it must pass the House and then go back for a vote in the Senate, before it can be sent to the White House for Democratic President Joe Biden’s signature.

“I am reserving judgment on what will come out of the House until we see more about the substance of the proposal and the process by which the proposal will proceed,” Senator Chuck Schumer said as the Senate opened.

“Hopefully, we will get details of the speaker’s proposal later today. Again, time is of the essence,” Schumer said.

Representative Pete Aguilar, a member of the House Democratic leadership, told a press conference he would wait for the substance of the bill before drawing any conclusions.

“We don’t want to sink any plan that delivers aid to our allies,” he said.

The text of the bills was not released — it was expected as soon as late Tuesday — but there would be separate measures providing assistance to Ukraine as it fights a Russian invasion, Israel after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and a weekend air assault by Iran, and partners in the Indo-Pacific as they face an increasingly aggressive China.

It also was not clear which country’s assistance the House would consider first. Republicans have tried repeatedly to push through aid for Israel without anything for Ukraine, an approach Democrats have rejected.

The White House has also opposed standalone aid for Israel.

When asked whether the White House would support the four separate bills, White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said the administration was awaiting more information.

“It does appear at first blush that the speaker’s proposal will, in fact, help us get aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel and needed resources to the Indo-Pacific for a wide range of contingencies there. We just want to get more detail,” he told reporters.

Johnson told Fox News on Tuesday that the fourth bill would include additional sanctions on Russia and Iran as well as the “REPO Act,” a provision regarding the seizure of Russian assets to help Ukraine.

Ukraine backers have been pushing Johnson to allow a vote on supplemental funding since last year. But Johnson had given a variety of reasons to delay, including the need to focus taxpayer dollars on domestic issues.

Many hard-right Republicans, especially those closely allied with former President Donald Trump, who is challenging Biden in the November presidential election, fiercely oppose sending billions more dollars to Ukraine.

At least two far-right Republicans have threatened to seek Johnson’s removal as speaker if he allows a vote on assistance for Ukraine. Johnson said he would not resign.

It was not clear whether he would be removed in case of a hard-right rebellion, as some Democrats have said they would vote to save Johnson’s job to prevent chaos in the House. Last year, conservatives ousted then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and it took three weeks before Johnson was elected.

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Geneva conference raises nearly $630 million for Ethiopia’s humanitarian needs

Geneva — A high-level pledging conference in Geneva co-sponsored by Ethiopia, Britain and the United Nations received $628.9 million in pledges to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance for millions of Ethiopians suffering from the ill effects of conflict and climate change. It was seeking $1 billion.

“We understand this is just the beginning, and we hope for continued and increased support throughout the year,” said Joyce Msuya, U.N. assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Of the 21 countries, the U.S. was the biggest donor with $154 million, followed by the United Kingdom with $124.58 million and the European Union with $139 million.

Last month’s U.N.-backed multibillion-dollar humanitarian response plan is less than 5% funded, far from enough to address the dire needs of 15.5 million people suffering from conflict and back-to-back climate shocks.

Ambassador Shiferaw Teklemariam, commissioner of the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management Commission, told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday that he hoped the pledging event would turn things around and donor nations would provide critical lifesaving support to Ethiopia. Failure to do so, he said, would have serious consequences.

“We are coming out of the COVID pandemic. And, at the same time several disasters including epidemics, locusts, displacements, as we have already raised, is an issue which we have to address and that is why we are saying we really have to act before it is too late,” he said.

The United Nations warns the emergency has been building up through cycles of droughts, floods and conflict and is likely to peak during the July-September lean season.

The U.N. projects nearly 11 million people are likely to be food insecure, causing malnutrition levels to rise during the lean season, the period between harvests when food stocks are at their lowest.

Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s deputy foreign secretary and minister for Development and Africa who recently visited Ethiopia, said he saw increasingly worrying signs of famine-like conditions emerging in conflict areas in the north.

“What we found when we went up into Tigray and looked at the areas, where the marginalization and the difficulties were taking place. We found an increasing number of people, particularly children suffering from malnutrition, with the pipeline growing,” he said.

“Because of climate change and particularly because of the displacement of people, we saw that the coping mechanisms of people were being seriously eroded and people were selling whatever they had,” he added.

El Nino has exacerbated a drought in the northern highlands. U.N. agencies report malnutrition rates in conflict-ridden parts of Afar, Amhara, and Tigray are worsening, forcing millions of people to cope with less water, drier pastures and smaller harvests.

Ramiz Alakbarov, U.N. assistant secretary-general, resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia, noted that the compounded effect of back-to-back climate shocks and conflicts “is quite devastating.”

“On top of it, we have 4.5 million people who have left their homes,” he said, noting that Ethiopia “is among the top 10 countries with the highest level of internal displacement caused by all those elements.”

At the same time, he said “conflicts have destroyed and damaged thousands of schools, health facilities, water systems and other community infrastructure in a number of regions and that adds to the difficulty.”

Alakbarov said the U.N. was working with the Ethiopian government and international partners to strengthen national systems and civil society. He said humanitarian aid is focused on helping the most vulnerable people, which is a major challenge.

“The challenges are working on improving the access, which is not fluid. Sometimes we are prevented in reaching people and people cannot reach us because of insecurity. … In many parts of Ethiopia that situation needs to improve,” he said.

Conference organizers say Ethiopia will need at least $1 billion to cover critical aid needs for the next three months.

Last year, USAID and the U.N.’s World Food Program temporarily suspended food aid to Ethiopia amid allegations that the food was being diverted. The Ethiopian government denied this.

The agencies have since resumed food distributions following stringent reforms to prevent anything similar from occurring.

“In December, after a six-month pause prompted by the discovery of widespread aid diversion, USAID resumed food assistance in Ethiopia,” Isobel Coleman, USAID deputy administrator told the conference.

“We worked closely with the Ethiopian government and our partners, including the U.N., to reform the food aid system and protect against corruption,” she said.

“Since December, we have reached more than 4 million people with food assistance across the country, prioritizing drought- and conflict-affected regions with the most acute need,” said Coleman, noting that the U.S. is providing Ethiopia with an additional $154 million contribution, bringing its total aid to $243 million this year.

Alakbarov described the reform system as “one of the most detailed and most verified processes I have ever observed in my life.”

“That includes 30 verification points including issuance of digital IDs, creation of community complaint mechanisms and all sorts of digital tracking of every bag of items,” he said.

“The problem is that we do not have enough to distribute,” he said.

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House Republicans send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate, forcing trial

Washington — House impeachment managers walked two articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas across the Capitol to the Senate on Tuesday, forcing senators to convene a trial on the allegations that he has “willfully and systematically” refused to enforce immigration laws.

While the Senate is obligated to hold a trial under the rules of impeachment once the charges are walked across the Capitol, the proceedings may not last long. Democrats are expected to try to dismiss or table the charges later this week before the full arguments get underway.

Republicans have argued there should be a full trial. As Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, signed the articles Monday in preparation for sending them across the Capitol, he said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, should convene a trial to “hold those who engineered this crisis to full account.” 

Schumer “is the only impediment to delivering accountability for the American people,” Johnson said. “Pursuant to the Constitution, the House demands a trial.”

Majority Democrats have said the Republicans’ case against Mayorkas doesn’t rise to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” laid out as a bar for impeachment in the Constitution, and Schumer likely has enough votes to end the trial immediately if he decides to do so. The proceedings will not begin until Wednesday.

Schumer has said he wants to “address this issue as expeditiously as possible.”

“Impeachment should never be used to settle a policy disagreement,” Schumer said. “That would set a horrible precedent for the Congress.”

Senators will be sworn in Wednesday as jurors, turning the chamber into the court of impeachment. The Senate will then issue a summons to Mayorkas to inform him of the charges and ask for a written answer. He will not have to appear in the Senate at any point.

What happens after that is unclear. Impeachment rules generally allow the Senate to decide how to proceed.

The House narrowly voted in February to impeach Mayorkas for his handling of the border. House Republicans charged in two articles of impeachment that Mayorkas has not only refused to enforce existing law but also breached the public trust by lying to Congress and saying the border was secure. It was the first time in nearly 150 years a Cabinet secretary was impeached.

Since then, Johnson has delayed sending the articles to the Senate for weeks while both chambers finished work on government funding legislation and took a two-week recess. Johnson had said he would send them to the Senate last week, but punted again after Senate Republicans said they wanted more time to prepare.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, has said the Senate needs to hold a full trial where it can examine the evidence against Mayorkas and come to a final conclusion.

“This is an absolute debacle at the southern border,” Thune said. “It is a national security crisis. There needs to be accountability.”

House impeachment managers — members who act as prosecutors and are appointed by the speaker — previewed some of their arguments at a hearing with Mayorkas on Tuesday morning on President Joe Biden’s budget request for the department.

House Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican who is one of the managers, told the secretary that he has a duty under the law to control and guard U.S. borders, and “during your three years as secretary, you have failed to fulfill this oath. You have refused to comply with the laws passed by Congress and you have breached the public trust.”

Mayorkas defended the department’s efforts but said the nation’s immigration system is “fundamentally broken, and only Congress can fix it.”

Other impeachment managers are Michael McCaul of Texas, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ben Cline of Virginia, Andrew Garbarino of New York, Michael Guest of Mississippi, Harriet Hageman of Wyoming, Clay Higgins of Louisiana, Laurel Lee of Florida, August Pfluger of Texas and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

After the jurors are sworn in, Senate Republicans are likely to try to raise a series of objections if Schumer calls a vote to dismiss or table, an effort to both protest and delay the move. But ultimately they cannot block a dismissal if majority Democrats have the votes.

Some Republicans have said they would like time to debate whether Mayorkas should be impeached, even though debate time is usually not included in impeachment proceedings. Negotiations were underway between the two parties over whether Schumer may allow that time and give senators in both parties a chance to discuss the impeachment before it is dismissed. 

While most Republicans oppose quick dismissal, some have hinted they could vote with Democrats

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican representing Utah, said last week he wasn’t sure what he would do if there were a move to dismiss the trial. “I think it’s virtually certain that there will not be the conviction of someone when the constitutional test has not been met,” he said.

At the same time, Romney said he wants to at least express his view that “Mayorkas has done a terrible job, but he’s following the direction of the president and has not met the constitutional test of a high crime or misdemeanor.”

In any case, Republicans would not be able to win the support of the two-thirds of the Senate that is needed to convict and remove Mayorkas from office. Democrats control the Senate, 51-49, and they appear to be united against the impeachment effort. Not a single House Democrat supported it, either.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is facing a tough reelection bid in Ohio, called the impeachment trial a “distraction,” arguing that Republicans should instead support a bipartisan border compromise they scuttled earlier this year.

“Instead of doing this impeachment — the first one in 100 years — why are we not doing a bipartisan border deal?” he said.

If Democrats are not able to dismiss or table the articles, they could follow the precedent of several impeachment trials for federal judges over the last century and hold a vote to create a trial committee that would investigate the charges. While there is sufficient precedent for this approach, Democrats may prefer to end the process completely, especially in a presidential election year when immigration and border security are top issues.

If the Senate were to proceed to an impeachment trial, it would be the third in five years. Democrats impeached former President Donald Trump twice, once over his dealings with Ukraine and a second time in the days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The Senate acquitted Trump both times.

At a trial, senators would be forced to sit in their seats for the duration, maybe weeks, while the House impeachment managers and lawyers representing Mayorkas make their cases. The Senate is allowed to call witnesses, as well, if it so decides, and can ask questions of both sides after the opening arguments are finished.

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Facing Republican revolt, House Speaker Johnson pushes ahead on US aid for Ukraine, Israel

Washington — Defiant and determined, House Speaker Mike Johnson pushed back Tuesday against mounting Republican anger over his proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

“I am not resigning,” Johnson said after a testy morning meeting of fellow House Republicans at the Capitol

Johnson referred to himself as a “wartime speaker” of the House and indicated in his strongest self-defense yet he would press forward with a U.S. national security aid package, a situation that would force him to rely on Democrats to help pass it, over objections from his weakened majority.

“We are simply here trying to do our jobs,” Johnson said, calling the motion to oust him “absurd … not helpful.”

Tuesday brought a definitive shift in tone from both the House Republicans and the speaker himself at a pivotal moment as the embattled leader tries, against the wishes of his majority, to marshal the votes needed to send the stalled national security aid for Israel, Ukraine and other overseas allies to passage.

Johnson appeared emboldened by his meeting late last week with Donald Trump when the Republican former president threw him a political lifeline with a nod of support after their private talk at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. At his own press conference Tuesday, Johnson spoke of the importance of ensuring Trump, who is now at his criminal trial in New York, is re-elected to the White House.

Johnson also spoke over the weekend with President Joe Biden as well as other congressional leaders about the emerging U.S. aid package, which the speaker plans to move in separate votes for each section — with bills for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region. He spoke about it with Biden again late Monday.

It’s a complicated approach that breaks apart the Senate’s $95 billion aid package for separate votes, and then stitches it back together for the president’s signature.

The approach will require the speaker to cobble together bipartisan majorities with different factions of House Republicans and Democrats on each measure. Additionally, Johnson is preparing a fourth measure that would include various Republican-preferred national security priorities, such as a plan to seize some Russian assets in U.S. banks to help fund Ukraine and another to turn the economic aid for Ukraine into loans.

The plan is not an automatic deal-braker for Democrats in the House and Senate, with leaders refraining from comment until they see the actual text of the measure, due out later Tuesday.

House Republicans, however, were livid that Johnson will be leaving their top priority — efforts to impose more security at the U.S.-Mexico border — on the sidelines. Some predicted Johnson will not be able to push ahead with voting on the package this week, as planned..

Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican representing Arizona, called the morning meeting an “argument fest.”

She said Johnson was “most definitely” losing support for the plan, but he seemed undeterred in trying to move forward despite “what the majority of the Conference” of Republicans wanted.

When the speaker said the House Republicans’ priority border security bill H.R. 2 would not be considered germane to the package, Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican representing Texas and a chief sponsor, said it’s for the House to determine which provisions and amendments are relevant.

“Things are very unresolved,” Roy said.

Roy said said Republicans want “to be united. They just have to be able to figure out how to do it.”

The speaker faces a threat of ouster from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representing Georgia and the top Trump ally who has filed a motion to vacate the speaker from office in a snap vote — much the way Republicans ousted their former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last fall.

While Greene has not said if or when she will force the issue, and has not found much support for her plan after last year’s turmoil over McCarthy’s exit, she drew at least one key supporter Tuesday.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky, rose in the meeting and suggested Johnson should step aside, pointing to the example of John Boehner, an even earlier House speaker who announced an early resignation in 2015 rather than risk a vote to oust him, according to Republicans in the room.

Johnson did not respond, according to Republicans in the room, but told the lawmakers they have a “binary” choice” before them.

The speaker explained they either try to pass the package as he is proposing or risk facing a discharge petition from Democrats that would force a vote on their preferred package — the Senate approved measure. But that would leave behind the extra Republican priorities.

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Nigeria’s Tinubu says country will no longer pay ransom to armed gangs

Abuja, Nigeria — Nigeria will no longer pay ransom to armed gangs that have plagued the country with kidnapping and extortion, President Bola Tinubu said in an opinion piece published Monday.

He made the statement as activists commemorated the 10th anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. Acknowledging that “legitimate concerns” over kidnappings persist, Tinubu said Nigeria must address the root causes of poverty, inequality, and a lack of opportunity if it hopes to eradicate the threat posed by criminal gangs.

In the Newsweek magazine piece, titled “Ten Years Since Chibok – Nigeria Will No Longer Pay the Price,” Tinubu said ransom payments to gangs only encouraged gangs to commit more crimes and said, “the extortion racket must be squeezed out of existence.” 

The president said instead of ransom, perpetrators of the violence will receive the security services’ counter actions. 

He cited the recent rescue of 137 school students kidnapped in Kaduna state. Their abductors had demanded $600,000 in ransom, but the president said no ransom was paid. 

Ndu Nwokolo, managing partner at Nextier, a public advisory firm with focus on security and economic issues, agreed that ransom payment emboldens perpetrators, but said Nigeria is not ready to take such a stance. 

“The Nigerian state is obviously very weak to do those things it says it wants to do. If you’re someone, you have your [relative] kidnapped and you know that the state security agents can’t do anything,” Nwokolo said. “How come you were able to retrieve those numbers of kids without shooting a gun, and we know that those guys demanded ransom? The entire thing shows that there’s no honesty, there’s no transparency.” 

Tinubu said the government’s response to the Chibok abduction in 2014 was slow. 

But, the president said, Nigeria must recognize the changing nature of the threat. He said criminal gangs behind more recent kidnappings are primarily after cash rewards, unlike Boko Haram, which sought to impose Islamist rule. 

In 2022 Tinubu’s predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, tried to criminalize ransom payments to kidnappers, but the decision was met with resistance from activists and the families of victims.  

Security analyst Senator Iroegbu said lack of accountability from authorities is the main concern. 

“There will not be ransoms in the first place if measures are on ground to prevent it,” Iroegbu said. “Why is it easy for kidnappers to kidnap Nigerians and keep them for long? Ten years after Chibok girls, why are the cases still rising? It’s not trying to blame victims who are desperate to do everything they can to rescue their loved ones. For citizens, that may be their last resort.” 

Tinubu said Nigeria must ultimately address the triggers for insecurity, including poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. 

In the article, Tinubu also talked about his economic reforms. The Nigerian president said they were necessary to save public finances and encourage foreign investment.  

Tinubu scrapped fuel subsidies for the public and floated the naira just days after assuming office last year. The decisions sent prices soaring and were widely criticized, but have not been reversed.  

Tinubu said previous governments had failed to boost the economy, and 63 percent of Nigerians are multi-dimensionally poor. 

Iroegbu said blaming predecessors will not solve Tinubu’s problems. 

“This mentality of trying to blame past administrations, thinking you’re better while you’re not actually doing something different, needs to stop until there’s a result that Nigerians can see and testify,” Iroegbu said. 

The Nigerian president ended his article by saying, “there will be no more ransoms paid to kidnappers nor towards policies which have trapped our people economically.”

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Under Biden, US reimagines Asian alliances as ‘lattice’ fence

Seoul, South Korea — For decades, U.S. policy in Asia has relied on what was informally known as the “hub and spokes” system of bilateral alliances. But lately, U.S. officials have used another analogy to describe their vision for the region: a lattice fence.

It may sound like only a metaphorical tweak, but officials in the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden say it could have big implications, as they try to create a durable plan to respond to China’s growing power.

Under the old framework, the United States, the global military superpower, acted as the hub and its Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, served as spokes.

Spokes are not linked to each other. But that dynamic is changing, as several major U.S. allies and partners coalesce around what they have come to call a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

What U.S. officials envision is not a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO. Analysts have long said such a security framework is impossible in Asia, given competing interests and deep historical animosities, even among U.S. allies.

Instead, the goal is to help create an expanding number of mutually reinforcing links between like-minded countries, which together form a barrier – or in other words, a lattice.

Trilateral summit

The lattice strategy was on display last week, when Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for their countries’ first ever trilateral summit.

The meeting had important symbolic value. A joint statement expressed “serious concerns” about China’s behavior in the East and South China Seas, where China is trying to push its territorial claims over those of Japan and the Philippines.

The United States and Japan also pledged further assistance for the Philippines’ military modernization efforts and vowed to continue expanding joint military drills in the region, which have involved a growing number of partners in recent years.

At a separate meeting between Biden and Kishida, the United States and Japan announced dozens of bilateral deals related to defense cooperation, including plans to allow U.S. and Japanese forces to work more closely during a potential conflict.

According to a U.S. administration official who spoke to reporters during a background briefing, the meetings are evidence that Biden’s Asia plan is working.

“(Biden’s) theory of case was that if the United States reinvested in its alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific … those allies and partners would step up alongside in ways that made us much better equipped to accomplish our objectives,” the U.S. official said.

Nowhere is this theory better proven, the official added, than in the U.S. alliance with Japan, where Kishida “has stepped up and stepped out into the world more than anyone really could have imagined.”

Japan a key player

As Japan loosens its self-imposed pacifist restraints, the country has become a major player in regional security. Japan has dramatically increased defense spending, moved to acquire missiles that can hit other countries, and enacted legal changes allowing it to more easily export weapons.

Japan is now heavily involved in many U.S.-led forums, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal coalition that also includes Australia and India, and the Group of Seven advanced economies, which has increasingly focused on China.

Last week, Britain, the United States, and Australia announced they are considering cooperation with Japan through their AUKUS security pact. NATO, the European military alliance, has also expanded cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

“Today’s Japan is no longer the timid and inward-looking nation that counted on its embrace of pacifism and on American muscle to insulate it from external threats,” said Daniel Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society and a former top Asia official at the State Department. 

One of the most crucial regional developments is the improvement of Japan-South Korea relations, which have long been strained because of issues related to Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea. Under South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, the two countries now regularly participate in military drills with the United States. Last year, the three countries unveiled a new system for sharing North Korean missile warning data in real-time.

But will it work?

Few observers deny that big changes are occurring, as countries respond to a more powerful China. But the strategic shift toward the United States is far from unanimous.

“Most governments in the region are hedging, recognizing the reality that China is a permanent and central feature of (the) Asian political economy,” said Van Jackson, who teaches at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington.

According to a survey released this month by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Southeast Asian perceptions of the United States have worsened over the past year.

The State of Southeast Asia survey asks the same questions every year to a group of experts and government officials.

More than half, 51%, of Southeast Asian respondents said they would side with China over the United States if they were forced to choose. It is the first time that the survey has shown a preference for China. 

One of the key complaints, according to the poll, is skepticism about U.S. economic engagement. Following then-President Donald Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, many in Asia have questioned whether the United States is as committed as it once was to free trade.  

Biden officials dispute that notion, touting the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or IPEF, as a counterweight to China’s economic clout. But IPEF differs from traditional free trade deals in that it does not provide greater market access or reduce tariffs — areas no longer seen as safe in a U.S. domestic political context. Regardless, Trump has vowed to kill IPEF if he defeats Biden in November’s presidential election.

In the opinion of Philip Turner, a former New Zealand diplomat, IPEF appears to have largely failed.

“Many Asian countries and regional players like Australia and New Zealand have pointed out that the U.S. failure to commit economically to the region undercuts its claims to regional leadership,” said Turner, who most recently served as New Zealand’s ambassador to South Korea.

While there are increasing regional worries about China’s rise and behavior, few if any Asian countries support efforts to contain China’s growth, Turner added.

“They would prefer the U.S. climb down from its high horse of economic coercion against China and find ways of getting on with each other short of conflict,” he said. 

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From Titanic travelers to textile tycoons, Arab Americans have long been part of the American story

Dearborn, Michigan — All About America explores American culture, politics, trends, history, ideals and places of interest.

The term slacks, meaning pants worn during relaxation activities, was coined by an Arab American. Joseph Haggar, a Lebanese immigrant, founded the iconic Haggar men’s clothing brand in 1926.

“He settled in Texas, and he started this pant company that was extremely successful in the 20th century,” says Diana Abouali, director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. “He also revolutionized the way that pants and clothing were mass produced.”

An exhibit at the museum is dedicated to Haggar, whose pants were worn by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Stories like Haggar’s are integral to the museum’s mission to demonstrate how Arab Americans have been part of the American fabric since the late 19th century.

“We communicate the American narrative in the voices of Arab Americans. They express their experiences in their own words,” Abouali says. “This provides people with a more authentic and real representation of what it means to be Arab American.”

The museum attempts to share the full range of the Arab American experience, including the journey to America, home and work life, and service in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The diverse offerings include an exhibit about the hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who owned homesteads in North Dakota between 1890 and World War I. Thousands of descendants of those pioneers still live in North Dakota. Another exhibit includes lists of Arab American passengers on the doomed Titanic, which sank in 1912.

The museum also challenges religious misconceptions.

“Half of the Arab American community is Christian,” Abouali says. “And in fact, the earlier immigrants, who came in the late 19th century, early 20th century, were predominantly Christian.”

A wall of fame highlights prominent Arab Americans like journalist Helen Thomas, actress Kathy Najimy, politicians like former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and Candace Lightner, who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980.

Arab immigrant stories aren’t well-known among mainstream America. And what little Americans do know about Arabs is often informed by negative stereotypes.

“The obvious one would be the angry Arab, the terrorist Arab, the being afraid of the Arab that comes from abroad. I think that’s the very obvious one, but it’s a bit overplayed,” says Jasmine Hawamdeh, director of arts and culture at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights advocacy group. “And I think one of the more harmful stereotypes that currently exists in American media is the oppressed Arab woman.”

The museum tries to correct false narratives about Arab Americans.

“We’re not always responding to misconceptions and narrative, although that’s a major part of our work and a major sort of impetus for creating a museum like this,” Abouali says, “but also we’re sort of presenting ourselves, as we are, unapologetically.”

Arab Americans are a diverse community that come from 22 Arab countries stretching from northern Africa to western Asia. But once they settle in the U.S., the museum director says, they become as American as they are Arab.

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Zimbabwe’s new gold-backed currency sliding on black market

Harare, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s recently introduced gold-backed currency is sliding on the local black market but officials insist the currency is getting stronger and has a bright future. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare.

Even songs are played on the radio encouraging citizens to embrace the currency, called Zimbabwe Gold — or ZiG — introduced on April 5 trading at 13.56 to the U.S. dollar.

Official statistics say ZiG is now trading at 13.41. But on the black market it is around 20.

Chamunorwa Musengi, a street vendor in Harare, is not optimistic about the new currency which for the moment is trading electronically, with notes and coins coming into circulation on April 30:  

“Let’s wait and see,” he said. “Maybe it will boost our economy for some time. But I do not see anything changing with the new currency, because things are really tight at the moment. We been through this before. When they introduced bond notes, things stabilized for a short time and then it started sliding on the market. They are saying ZiG is around 13 — it will end up around 40,000 against the dollar.”

Bond notes refer to the currency which was launched in 2019 after a decade of Zimbabwe using the U.S. dollar and other currencies.  The bond note had lost about 80% of its value and was trading at around 40,000 to the dollar before its official demise.

Samson Kabwe, a minibus conductor, says he cannot wait for the physical notes and coins of ZiG to be released.

“We are for ZiG, especially for change,” he said. “We had no small notes for change. If ZiG notes and coins come, the government would have done a great thing. We want it like now.”

The government says for now, commodities like fuel will still be bought and sold using U.S. dollars. 

Gift Mugano, an economics professor, predicts the new currency will go the way of the abandoned one.

“[In] 2016, we introduced bond notes which was backed by Afreximbank (African Export–Import Bank) facility of $400 million,” he said. “The Afreximbank is an international bank with reputation. But that was not be sufficient to guarantee the success of the bond notes. So it failed. Right? Why are we failing to guarantee stability? There is no sustained production in the economy because you defend the economy with production. Secondly, confidence issues. People do not trust this system because we have lost money several times.”

But John Mushayavanhu, the new governor or the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, predicts the currency will succeed because it is backed by reserves of gold and other minerals worth $175 million and $100 million cash.   

“We are doing what we are doing to ensure that our local currency does not die,” he said. “We were already in a situation where almost 85% of transactions are being conducted in U.S. dollars because [the] local currency was not living up to the function of store of value. We are going to restore that store of value so that we can start reviving our currency. So, we are starting at $80 million worth, and as we get more reserves, we will gradually be moving towards greater use of the local currency. It is my wish that if we get to the year (end) at 70-30, next year 60-40, the year after 50-50; by the time we get to 50-50 people will be indifferent as to which currency they are using. And that way we regain use of our local currency.”

While Mushayavanhu has that confidence, social media is awash with people and traders — including government departments — refusing to accept the outgoing Zimbabwe currency.

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Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus ahead of major political events   

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s growing security presence in the Pacific will be scrutinized this week as the Solomon Islands holds its national election on Wednesday. While the Pacific island nation has been plagued by a slew of domestic issues such as youth unemployment and weakening health and education systems, some analysts say the election is a “de-facto referendum” on its relationship with China.

“The results will determine whether the Solomon Islands continues growing its relationship with China or changes course in favor of a different approach,” Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA in a written response.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who seeks an unprecedented second consecutive term, has focused on deepening the country’s ties with China since he returned to power in 2019.

After switching Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Sogavare signed a series of security-related agreements with China, including a security pact in 2022 and a police cooperation agreement in 2023.

The developments prompted the U.S., Australia and other Pacific island nations to express concerns about the security implications of these deals. So far, the Solomon Islands hasn’t revealed details of the controversial security pact with China.

However, a leaked draft agreement shows that China could potentially deploy security and naval assets to the country.

The lack of transparency around the security deal with China has prompted several opposition candidates in the Solomon Islands to vow to abolish or review the security pact.

While opposition leaders have sounded the alarm about China’s growing security presence in the Solomon Islands, Sogavare has strongly defended his administration’s efforts to deepen bilateral ties with China.

Centering his campaign around his signature “Look North strategy,” which aims to consolidate Solomon Islands’ economic and diplomatic ties with Asian countries, Sogavare has repeatedly emphasized how Chinese support with infrastructure developments and the Pacific Games has helped place the Pacific island nation “in a more favorable footing domestically and internationally.”

In response to opposition politicians’ concerns about China’s growing influence over the Solomon Islands, China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Beijing supports the people of Solomon Islands “in choosing a development path that suits their national conditions.”

Some experts say China’s entry into the Solomon Islands’ security sector in recent years has created friction with traditional security partners like Australia. “There has been an increase in friction as a result of China’s entry into the security space in the Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands program at Lowy Institute in Australia.

While the Solomon Islands is trying to retain relationships with partners like Australia amid its efforts to deepen ties with China, Sora said the Sogavare administration’s attempt will be difficult to execute because of continuing “strategic friction” between Beijing and Canberra, especially in the security space. [The Solomon Islands] “will need to resolve the increasing frictions,” he told VOA by phone.

Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus

In addition to the Solomon Islands, China’s growing security presence in other parts of the Pacific region is also coming under scrutiny ahead of other major political events. Earlier this month, Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said he would be open to accepting Chinese security support when the country hosts the Pacific Islands Forum in August.

“There’s no reason to be concerned. China is offering to assist with the hosting of the foreign leaders’ meeting,” he told reporters in the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa.

The Chinese Embassy in Tonga told AFP in a statement that Beijing “has no interest in geopolitical competition or seeking the so-called ‘sphere of influence.’”

Some analysts say Tonga’s decision to welcome China as a potential security provider reflects Pacific island nations’ efforts to diversify their security partners since 2021.

“China has had success in presenting itself as a security stakeholder in the region and this is certainly of concern to Canberra, Wellington and Washington, who view China’s security interests in the Pacific as disruptive and indicative of China’s broader interests,” Anna Powles, an associate professor in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told VOA in a written response.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told ABC Australia in March that the country has removed Chinese police embedded in its police force despite the earlier decision to uphold Fiji’s policing cooperation agreement with China.

Some experts say Fiji is “walking a fine line” in its relationship with China and Western countries. “By not throwing away the police deal, Fiji is showing that they are not willing to go all in and align with the West,” Michael Walsh, an affiliated researcher at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, told VOA by phone.

In his view, Fiji’s careful calibration of its security relationship with China demonstrates that “they are going to keep having a relationship with China that extends into the security domain for the foreseeable future.”

While some experts agree that China has made progress in expanding its security presence in the Pacific, Novak from the Atlantic Council said Beijing’s security influence in the region “shouldn’t be overstated.”

“More often than not, Pacific islands countries have elected to maintain or even grow traditional security partnerships with countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States while carefully maintaining their own sovereignty,” he told VOA.

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