Beirut, July 19 (AP/UNB) — Lebanese lawmakers ratified Friday a controversial austerity budget that aims to save an indebted economy following a raucous voting day that saw protesters attempting to breach the parliament security zone.
The austerity budget, which increased income and import taxes and suspended early retirement schemes for three years, fell short of expectations.
Critics said the budget didn't tackle structural problems of the economy or target corruption. Instead, protesters and opponents said it focused on cutting expenditures and raising taxes that transfers the cost to the average citizen.
"For sure our expectations are higher but this is a beginning for reform," said Prime Minister Saad Hariri after the vote ended late Friday. He said he expected more reform in the coming two years to fix the current economic slump.
"I understand the protests and why they raise their voices. But we are trying to do the impossible in a very difficult situation."
Lebanon has one of the world's highest public debts in the world, standing at 150% of GDP. Growth has plummeted and budget deficit reached 11% of GDP as economic activities slowed down and remittances of Lebanese living abroad shrank.
Hariri commended political rivals who worked together in the coalition government and parliament to take unpopular measures.
The budget was passed by a majority in the 128-member parliament. The National News Agency said 83 lawmakers voted for it and 18 against it. It is not clear if the other 27 lawmakers abstained or were absent from the session.
Protesters had rallied against the proposed budget for weeks as it was discussed in parliament and in the government. On Friday, protesters, mostly army veterans, broke through a security cordon outside parliament, raising the tension at the last minute as lawmakers were voting on each article of the bill.
The protesters pushed past barricades, walking over them and making their way closer to the heavily guarded parliament building. Some protesters scuffled with security forces but soldiers were deployed to separate between them. The protesters have gathered every day since Tuesday as lawmakers met for final discussion on the budget ahead of a vote.
Army veterans feared the proposed measures cut deep into their pensions and benefits. They say those who sacrificed their lives for the country should not be targeted with austerity measures.
"Thieves! Thieves!" the angry protesters shouting, addressing government officials. Many of them are also lawmakers, whom they accuse of corruption.
Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab appealed to army veterans to avoid clashes with security and army personnel deployed around parliament, calling them unbecoming. He urged calm, saying new taxes will affect all state employees, not only veterans.
Bou Saab said a compromise was reached to ensure that new taxes will only affect their basic income, not benefits, and will affect mostly senior officers not soldiers. He said taxes on medical services were also reduced by half in negotiations.
"I don't want them to be disappointed or feel this is only affecting the army," Bou Saab said. The protesters broke up their strike vowing to challenge the budget in court.
The budget was approved by the government in late May before being sent to parliament.
Washington, July 19 (AP/UNB) — Eugene Scalia has a decades-long record of challenging Labor Department and other federal regulations, as well as a famous last name. The combination proved irresistible to President Donald Trump.
Trump selected Scalia Thursday to be his new labor secretary. If formally nominated and confirmed, he'll join an administration that has moved aggressively to reverse regulations and work under a president who had repeatedly lauded Scalia's late father, Justice Antonin Scalia .
The president announced the news on Twitter less than a week after his previous secretary, Alexander Acosta, said he would resign amid renewed criticism of how, as a federal prosecutor, he handled a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. The financier was indicted this month on charges of sexually abusing underage girls and pleaded not guilty.
Friday was Acosta's last day on the job. His deputy, Patrick Pizzella, will serve as acting secretary until Scalia is confirmed.
"Gene has led a life of great success in the legal and labor field and is highly respected not only as a lawyer, but as a lawyer with great experience" working "with labor and everyone else," Trump wrote.
Scalia, 55, served for a year as the Labor Department's top lawyer, its solicitor, during the George W. Bush administration. But most of his career has been spent as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he has run up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. "Suing the Government? Call Scalia!" was the headline on a 2012 profile by Bloomberg.
His most prominent labor case helped undo an Obama-era rule to put stricter requirements on professionals who advise retirement savers on investments. He also criticized a Clinton-era rule to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries that was ultimately repealed early in the Bush administration. Scalia defended Boeing from a labor union lawsuit and fought on behalf of Wal-Mart against a Maryland law aimed at improving workers' health care.
Scalia represented the Chamber of Commerce opposing rules requiring mutual fund companies to put independent overseers on their boards of directors, and insurance companies challenging the SEC's authority to regulate certain annuities with values tied to stocks. Annuities are a sort of hybrid of insurance and investments.
In 2016, he successfully argued for removal of a designation given to insurance giant MetLife by federal regulators that would have brought stricter government oversight. The process of regulators selecting certain large financial companies as "systemically important financial institutions" deemed "too big to fail" was mandated under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that overhauled regulation of Wall Street and the banking industry in the wake of the financial crisis.
Scalia's record drew unqualified praise from the chamber. "He is whip smart and knows the Department's mission and operations well from prior service as solicitor," said Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president.
The American Securities Association, a trade association representing investment banks, financial advisers, and wealth managers called Scalia a "fantastic pick."
Labor and consumer advocates were pessimistic that Scalia would serve their clients' interest.
"It's difficult to see how the lawyer who aggressively represented clients against one of the most important retiree protections rules of the Department of Labor in many, many decades is somehow going to flip 180 degrees and become somebody who effectively protects worker and retiree interests," said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a financial industry and government watchdog.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, urged the Senate to reject Scalia. "The last thing working people need is another Secretary of Labor who sides with corporate CEOs instead of hard-working Americans and makes it harder to join together in unions," Henry said on Twitter.
If Trump was attracted to Scalia's record, he also has made no secret of his fondness for the Scalia family.
Eugene Scalia accompanied his mother to Trump's first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 2017, where they sat in a box for the president's guests. She received a standing ovation when Trump introduced her. Maureen Scalia also was on hand at the White House when Trump announced both of his Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly praised the justice, who died in February 2016, and said, "I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia." Last year, Trump posthumously awarded the justice a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Maureen Scalia was again at the White House to receive it. He remarked how Maureen Scalia had become a great friend to the Trump family and himself.
When Bush nominated Eugene Scalia as the Labor Department solicitor, unions howled in protest and Senate Democrats refused to hold a confirmation vote. Bush gave him a temporary, recess appointment to the job.
Even with strong Democratic opposition again, he has a clear path to confirmation in a Senate controlled by Republicans and stripped of the procedural requirement that nominees need 60 votes to proceed.
He would be reunited in Trump's Cabinet with two former bosses. Elaine Chao, now the transportation secretary, was head of the Labor Department when Scalia worked there. For a time he was special assistant to Attorney General William Barr, during Barr's first stint in charge of the Justice Department in the early 1990s.
Mexico City, July 17 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Five years after Chinese President Xi Jinping's landmark visit to Latin America in July 2014, cooperation between the two sides has brought them closer to realizing his vision of building a China-Latin American community with a shared future.
Over the years, bilateral development projects have been helping to turn the good will of achieving shared progress for mutual prosperity into reality, with concrete headway in a wide range of strategic areas, from creating renewable energy sources to fuel sustainable development to improving and expanding transportation networks to move goods and people, and promoting the use of new technologies to spur trade and job creation.
These joint cooperation projects span the continent, from the southern tip of South America to Latin America's northernmost country, Mexico.
A series of wind farms in the coastal southernmost Patagonia region is intended to provide Argentina with an alternative energy source.
The project located in the Chubut province is known as Loma Blanca and is slated for completion in December after one and a half years of uninterrupted work by Power Construction Corporation of China (Power China).
It is expected to supply about 256 megawatts of clean power to the Argentine grid. The project's field manager Gabriel Hernandez said Argentina is moving closer to its energy goals thanks to Loma Blanca and other China-supported projects.
"It seems now viable for Argentina to fulfill its renewable energy goals because today there are a large number of wind farms already in operation and many solar parks under construction," said the Argentine engineer, "I think that to the new energy, China is contributing a great part."
Farther north, on the central Argentine plateau, Chinese engineers have shared technical know-how with locals in building the Cauchari solar parks, which are funded and technologically supported by Shanghai Electric Power Construction Co. Ltd (SEPC).
The Cauchari project located in Jujuy province is expected to help Argentina cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 325,000 tons. Moreover, it creates more than 1,500 jobs.
In neighboring Brazil, Chinese workers are erecting power towers for transmitting electricity more than 2,500 km over an ultra-high-voltage (UHV) power line, from the Belo Monte central hydroelectric plant in northern Para state to Rio de Janeiro on the southeast coast.
A project of this magnitude is no easy task, yet China's State Grid, in conjunction with its affiliate Xingu Rio Transmissora de Energia, S.A. (XRTE), is getting the job done ahead of December as scheduled and with an eye to preserving the environment.
"That's unheard of in Brazil for such a large infrastructure project as this," Site manager Francisco Ruiz Neto said.
The project costs 2.55 billion U.S. dollars. The specially-designed power towers will affect the local Amazonian forests as little as possible.
"This effort significantly increases the cost of the project, but protecting the Earth's green lung, the Amazon jungle, is worth it," said Yang Guangliang, an XRTE assistant manager.
The power line project will supply homes and businesses in Brazil's major cities with clean energy and is spurring the regional economy by generating nearly 16,000 jobs.
Beyond large-scale infrastructure projects, Latin America-China cooperation has also brought tangible benefits to regional producers and consumers alike.
Mexico's trade promotion agency ProMexico has reached an agreement with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to help small- and medium-sized Mexican enterprises (SMEs) access the Asian market via the online sales platform.
"We are very optimistic about what can happen with China," said Paulo Carreno, ProMexico's general director, adding China "is and will continue to be a highly important strategic market," and "e-commerce will undoubtedly be an effective tool" for doing business there.
Online sales, improved logistics, and increased cargo and commercial flights have all helped boost Mexico's exports to China, which range from avocados, seafood, beef to dairy products and tequila.
In several big Latin American cities, China's Didi has become a well-known ride-hailing app after launching service in Chile's seaside resort of Vina del Mar in June and having since chalked up 60,000 passengers and 16,000 drivers.
Lucrecia Marquez, a registered Didi driver, rates her working experience with the Chinese company as "excellent," as "there was no wait period ... and people (passengers) have appreciated that."
"They manage an ideal economy, one where if you work, you can build up your finances," she added.
TOWARDS COMMON GOAL
Building a China-Latin America community with a shared future drives the development of bilateral relations, regional experts say.
In the past five years, frequent high-level visits between China and Latin American countries have helped boost mutual trust and cooperation. Meanwhile, cooperation projects have enabled more people-to-people exchanges at the grassroots level.
"It's relatively easy to obtain data about the growth in trade between our countries, the investment in infrastructure, the political visits or the agreements signed, which show the strengthening of ties," said Gonzalo Tordini, head of educational affairs at the Latin American Center on Chinese Political and Economic Studies.
"However, the biggest success of ties between China and Latin America and the most difficult to measure are the personal relationships created, ensuring ties remain sustainable and are of mutual benefit," Tordini said.
"Most noteworthy is that the relationship has developed in a comprehensive way. Different aspects, from economy to trade, culture, education, technology, finance, politics and many more, have worked together," he said.
Tordini also lauded the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), saying, "The joint development the initiative proposes is key to building a more just and equitable world."
Elias Jabbour, a professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University's Economic Science College, said, "The general development (of ties) between Latin America and China has been very positive and impressive."
Through "the strategic concept of a community with a shared future," and innovative initiatives such as the BRI and its own evolving system, Jabbour said, China has "shown Latin America that there isn't just one development model."
"China continues to show a willingness to build multi-directional cooperation with Latin America and other regions that will in some way lead to the construction of a new world order, a new type of world order based on cooperation and shared benefit," Ecuador's political observer Milton Reyes said.
New York, July 19 (AP/UNB) — Pam Grier's role as the owner of a hardware store in rural Nebraska in the ABC sitcom "Bless This Mess" isn't a complete departure for the film legend: She lives in rural Colorado and has spent much of her life on ranches to find serenity from Hollywood life.
"I commuted to work really for 50 years because I couldn't have that lifestyle that I wanted of horses and ruralness. It would always be the city, hotels, room service," said Grier in a recent interview.
"My grandfather was the first feminist in my life, from Wyoming, who taught all of us girls how to hunt, fish and shoot, so I could bring that to this show, every element and it just kind of fit," Grier said. "He had this glow this piece and this unbelievable calm about him during the day after working sun up, sundown doing some labor. And he just was so spiritual and enjoyed life and he would always say you know if you wake up breathing you're going to have a good day. And so that's been my mantra since I was a little girl."
She credits that mantra for helping her thrive in her 70th year in a life filled with plenty of highs and lows. Grier made her name as the queen of Blaxploitation films in the 1970s with roles in classics like "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown," but struggled in Hollywood after the genre fell out fashion. She also had tumultuous romances with the likes of Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze.
The second season of "Bless This Mess' launches in September.
Grier also was the victim of two sexual assaults — one when she was just 6 years old. She opened up about her personal struggles in her 2010 memoir, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts," and while promoting the book, learned a lot about the wide range of people who have been victims of sexual assault, including men: "I was surprised at the book signings how many men came up and just let me know that they feel better by me talking."
Grier said she's gratified that many more of her fellow actresses are talking about their experiences with abuse in Hollywood in the era of #MeToo and Time's Up. She marvels in the impact the movement has had in a relatively short period of time.
"I always say it's about time. It takes confidence. It takes other people around you to set an example that you won't inflame or flame out you - you'll be OK. And it is tough to talk about it," she said." A lot of people haven't healed yet."
Grier has also successfully battled cancer. While she's still a glamour queen and sex symbol, her experience with the disease has made her eschew at least one of society's beauty norms.
"I'm so proud of my hair growing back on my legs after cancer that I don't shave. I don't shave my legs. I enjoy looking at you know two and half inches of hair and my legs," she said. "I'm very grateful to have a healthy balance. ... Oh, and I don't feel any different than I did when I was 21!"
Washington, July 19 (AP/UNB) — First lady Melania Trump says her husband's administration is working with the State Department to try to bring rapper A$AP Rocky home.
The president also tells reporters that many members of the African American community have asked him to intervene.
The platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated artist has been behind bars in Sweden while police investigate a fight he was involved in in Stockholm earlier this month.
Kim Kardashian West, Diddy, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and Nicki Minaj are some of the celebrities who have shown public support for the Grammy-nominated Rocky.
Kardashian West thanked Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner on Twitter Thursday evening for their "efforts to Free ASAP Rocky & his two friends."
She says their "commitment to justice reform is so appreciated."