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2 hours 44 sec ago
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Belarusians Vote in Tightly Controlled Election; Opposition Calls for Boycott

2 hours 45 min ago
TALLINN, Estonia — Polls opened Sunday in Belarus' tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections that are set to cement the steely rule of the country's authoritarian leader, despite calls for a boycott from the opposition, which dismissed the balloting as a "senseless farce." President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, accuses the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and "destabilize" the nation of 9.5 million people. Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. Those parties all support Lukashenko's policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year. Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, urged voters to boycott the elections. "There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part," Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. "We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice." Sunday's balloting is the first election in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations. Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed. Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from his main ally, Russia, to survive the protests. He allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022. The election takes place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. The opposition says the early balloting that began Tuesday offers fertile ground for the vote to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days. Election officials said Sunday that over 40% of the country's voters cast ballots during the five days of early voting. Turnout stood at 43.64% by 9 a.m. on Sunday, an hour after polls formally opened, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission. The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting. "Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need — from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early," said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. "Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote." Speaking during Tuesday's meeting with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to try to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols across Belarus, declaring that "it's the most important element of ensuring law and order." After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body — the 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will include top officials, local legislators, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the authority to consider constitutional amendments and to appoint election officials and judges. Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but his calculus has apparently changed, and now few observers expect him to step down after his current term ends next year. For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were banned from taking pictures of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in a bid to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko's favor. Belarusian state TV aired footage of Interior Ministry drills in which police detained a purported offender who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside a polling station. Belarus for the first time also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, and its monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades. Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE. The OSCE said the decision not to allow the agency's monitors deprived the country of a "comprehensive assessment by an international body." "The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who voice dissent or stand up for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and frequently prosecution," it said in a statement. Observers noted that authorities have not even tried to pretend that the vote is democratic. The election offers the government an opportunity to run a "systems test after massive protests and a serious shock of the last presidential election and see whether it works," said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. "The parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices were barred from campaigning. It's important for authorities to erase any memory of the protests."

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3 hours 44 sec ago
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Why Aid Groups Are Warning of New Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern DR Congo

3 hours 29 min ago
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Aid organizations fear a new humanitarian crisis in the restive eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the armed rebel group M23 is in the midst of a new advance that threatens to cut off a major city and leave millions of people struggling for food and medical help. Eastern Congo has been beset by conflict for years, with M23 among more than 100 armed groups vying for a foothold in the mineral-rich area near the border with Rwanda. Some have been accused of carrying out mass killings. There's been an upsurge in fighting in recent weeks between M23 rebels and Congo army forces, and it comes as the United Nations plans to withdraw peacekeepers from the region by the end of the year. Tensions are also rising between Congo and Rwanda, with them blaming each other for supporting various armed groups. Congo accuses Rwanda of backing M23. This weekend, the U.S. State Department condemned what it called the "worsening violence." A group of aid agencies has estimated that 1 million people have already been displaced by fighting in the last three months. Who are M23? The March 23 Movement, or M23, is a rebel military group mainly made up of ethnic Tutsis that broke away from the Congolese army just over a decade ago. They staged a large offensive in 2012 and took over the provincial capital of Goma near the border with Rwanda, the same city they are threatening again. The conflict has regional complications, with neighboring Rwanda also accused by the U.S. and U.N. experts of giving military aid to M23. Rwanda denies that but effectively admitted on Monday that it has troops and missile systems in eastern Congo. Rwanda said that is to safeguard its own security because of what it claims is a buildup of Congo army forces near the border. Rwanda has rejected calls from the U.S. to withdraw. There are also ties to the Rwandan genocide of 30 years ago, with M23 and Rwanda saying separately that they are fighting a threat from a Congolese rebel group that is connected to the Congo army and partly made up of ethnic Hutus who were perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Congo-Rwanda tensions Relations between Congo and its eastern neighbor have been fraught for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees had fled to Congo, then Zaire, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Among them were soldiers and militiamen responsible for the slaughter of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Two years after the genocide, Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo to try and root out what remained of those genocide perpetrators, which led to the toppling of then Congo President Mobutu Sese Seko. Tensions between Congo and Rwanda escalated in 2021 with the resurgence of M23 attacks on Congolese soldiers after nearly a decade of relative inactivity due to a 2013 peace deal. The presence of so many armed groups is believed to be connected to illegal mining, with eastern Congo rich in gold and other minerals. What's happened in recent weeks? M23 launched new attacks late last year and has ramped them up in recent weeks. The group is now threatening to take the key town of Sake, about 27 kilometersmwest of Goma. That could cause food and aid supplies to be cut off from Goma, which had a population of around 600,000 a few years ago, but now holds more than 2 million people, according to aid agencies, as people flee violence in surrounding towns and villages. The advance of rebels on Sake "poses an imminent threat to the entire aid system" in eastern Congo, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. It said 135,000 people were displaced in just five days in early February. The violence has also sparked protests from the capital, Kinshasa, to Goma, with angry demonstrators saying the international community is not doing enough to push back against M23 and not taking a hard enough stance against Rwanda. What's at stake? The new fighting could lead to an escalation of regional tensions and involve more countries. As the U.N. winds down its 25-year peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, a multi-national force under the southern African regional bloc is set to step in. That force will include soldiers from regional power South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. They will help the Congo army forces, but it might put them in direct conflict with Rwanda. There's also the humanitarian cost. The International NGO Forum in Congo, a group of non-governmental organizations working in the region, said the escalation in fighting has involved artillery attacks on civilian settlements, causing a heavy toll and forcing many health and aid workers to withdraw. Eastern Congo already had one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with nearly 6 million people previously displaced because of conflict, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. There are concerns a new disaster could largely go unnoticed because of the attention on the war in Gaza and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Japan's 'Naked Men' Festival Succumbs to Aging of Population

3 hours 30 min ago
Ōshū, Japan — Steam rose as hundreds of naked men tussled over a bag of wooden talismans, performing a dramatic end to a thousand-year-old ritual in Japan that took place for the last time.  Their passionate chants of "Jasso, joyasa" (meaning "Evil, be gone") echoed through a cedar forest in northern Japan's Iwate region, where the secluded Kokuseki Temple has decided to end the popular annual rite.  Organizing the event, which draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year, has become a heavy burden for the aging local faithful, who find it hard to keep up with the rigors of the ritual.   The "Sominsai" festival, regarded as one of the strangest festivals in Japan, is the latest tradition impacted by the country's aging population crisis that has hit rural communities hard.   "It is very difficult to organize a festival of this scale," said Daigo Fujinami, a resident monk of the temple that opened in 729.   "You can see what happened today — so many people are here and it's all exciting. But behind the scenes, there are many rituals and so much work that have to be done," he said.   "I cannot be blind to the difficult reality."   Aging population  More than 1 in 10 people in Japan are 80 years old or older, and almost a third of its population is older than 65, according to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2023. The aging of Japan's population has forced the closure of countless schools, shops and services, particularly in small or rural communities.   Kokuseki Temple's Sominsai festival used to take place from the seventh day of Lunar New Year to the following morning.   But during the Covid pandemic, it was scaled down to prayer ceremonies and smaller rituals.  The final festival was a shortened version, ending around 11 p.m., but it drew the biggest crowd in recent memory, local residents said.   As the sun set, men in white loincloths came to the mountain temple, bathed in a creek and marched around temple's ground.  They clenched their fists against the chill of a winter breeze, all the while chanting "Jasso, joyasa."  Some held small cameras to record their experience, while dozens of television crews followed the men through the temple's stone steps and dirt pathways.  As the festival reached its climax, hundreds of men packed inside the wooden temple shouting, chanting and aggressively jostling over a bag of talismans.  Changing norms Toshiaki Kikuchi, a local resident who claimed the talismans and who helped organize the festival for years, said he hoped the ritual would return in the future.   "Even under a different format, I hope to maintain this tradition," he said. "There are many things that you can appreciate only if you take part."  Many participants and visitors voiced both sadness and understanding about the festival's ending.  "This is the last of this great festival that has lasted 1,000 years. I really wanted to participate in this festival," Yasuo Nishimura, 49, a caregiver from Osaka, told AFP.  Other temples across Japan continue to host similar festivals where men wear loincloths and bathe in freezing water or fight over talismans.  Some festivals are adjusting their rules in line with changing demographics and social norms so that they can continue to exist — such as letting women take part in previously male-only ceremonies.   Starting next year, Kokuseki Temple will replace the festival with prayer ceremonies and other ways to continue its spiritual practices.  "Japan is facing a falling birthrate, aging population, and lack of young people to continue various things," Nishimura said. "Perhaps it is difficult to continue the same way as in the past." 

Productivity Surge Helps Explain US Economy's Surprising Resilience 

3 hours 30 min ago
Washington — Trying to keep up with customer demand, Batesville Tool & Die began seeking 70 people to hire last year. It wasn't easy. Attracting factory workers to a community of 7,300 in the Indiana countryside was a tough sell, especially having to compete with big-name manufacturers nearby like Honda and Cummins Engine.  Job seekers were scarce.  "You could count on one hand how many people in the town were unemployed," said Jody Fledderman, the CEO. "It was just crazy.''  Batesville Tool & Die managed to fill just 40 of its vacancies.  Enter the robots. The company invested in machines that could mimic human workers and in vision systems, which helped its robots "see" what they were doing.  The Batesville experience has been replicated countlessly across the United States the past couple of years. Worker shortages have led many companies to invest in machines. They've also been training the workers they do have to use advanced technology so they can produce more with less.  The result has been an unexpected productivity boom, which helps explain a great economic mystery: How has the world's largest economy stayed so healthy, with brisk growth and low unemployment, despite brutally high interest rates that are intended to tame inflation but that typically cause a recession?  To economists, strong productivity growth provides an almost magical elixir. When companies roll out more efficient technology, their workers can become more productive: They increase their output per hour. A result is that companies can often boost profits and raise pay without having to jack up prices. Inflation can remain in check.  The Fed's aggressive streak of rate hikes — 11 of them starting in March 2022 — managed to bring inflation from a four-decade high of 9.1% to 3.1%. But, to the surprise to the economists who'd forecast a recession, the higher borrowing costs have caused little economic hardship.  Perhaps the likeliest explanation is the greater efficiencies that companies like Batesville Tool & Die have managed to achieve. Before productivity began its resurgent growth last year, a rule of thumb was that average hourly pay could rise no more than 3.5% annually for inflation to stay within the Fed's 2% target. That would mean that today's roughly 4% average annual pay growth would have to shrink. Higher productivity means there's now more leeway for wage growth to stay elevated without igniting inflation.  The productivity boom marks a shift from the pre-pandemic years, when annual productivity growth averaged a tepid 1.5%. Everything changed as the economy rocketed out of the 2020 pandemic recession with unexpected vigor, and businesses struggled to re-hire the many workers they had shed.  The resulting worker shortage sent wages surging. Inflation jumped, too, as factories and ports buckled under the strain of rising consumer orders.  Desperate, many companies turned to automation. The efficiency payoff began to arrive almost a year ago. Labor productivity rose at a 3.6% annual pace from last April through June, 4.9% from July through September and 3.2% from October through December.  At Reata Engineering & Machine Works, "efficiency was kind of forced on us,'' CEO Grady Cope said. With the job market roaring, the company, based in Englewood, Colorado, couldn't hire fast enough. Meantime, its customers were starting to balk at paying higher prices.  So Reata installed robots and other technology. Software allowed it to automate the delivery of price quotes to customers. That process used to require two weeks. Now, it can be done in 24 hours.  Many economists and business people say they're hopeful that the productivity boom can continue. Artificial intelligence, they note, is only beginning to penetrate factory floors, warehouses, stores and offices and could accelerate efficiency gains.  Automation raises fears that machines will replace human workers, killing jobs. Some workers supplanted by robots do often struggle to find new work and end up settling for lower pay.  Yet history suggests that in the long run, technological improvements actually create more jobs than they destroy. People are needed to build, upgrade, repair and operate sophisticated machines. Some displaced workers are trained to shift into such jobs. And that transition is likely to be eased this time by the retirement of the vast baby boom generation, which is causing labor shortages.  Some of today's productivity gains may be coming not just from advanced technology but also from more satisfied workers. The tight labor markets of the past three years allowed Americans to change jobs and find others that pay better and make them happier and more productive.  Justin Thompson, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, felt burned out by his job as a police officer, with its 16-hour workdays ."I was literally running myself into the ground,'' he said.  Thompson's wife saw a job posting for operations manager at a charter airline. Even without airline experience, his wife felt he could use skills he gains as a Marine Corps infantryman — handling logistics for missions — during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  She was right. Omni Air International hired him in 2019.  Thompson, 43, loves the new job, which allows him to work from home when he's not traveling. And his Marine experience — which included developing ways to improve efficiency — has proved invaluable.  Other workers have switched from low-skill jobs to those that allow them to be more productive.  At Reata Engineering, staffers were trained to use new sophisticated equipment.  "The whole point is not to lay people off,'' said Cope, the CEO of Reata Engineering. "The point is to make people do jobs that are more interesting'' — and pay better, too. 

Eva Peron Maintains Grip on Argentina Decades After Her 1952 Death

3 hours 31 min ago
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Early every morning, just as she reaches her workplace at a labor union in Buenos Aires, Ángeles Celerier heads to the chapel and prays to Saint Cajetan, Saint Teresa and Eva Perón. Perón — unlike the others — has not been canonized by the Vatican, but this doesn't matter to Celerier. "For me, she is the saint of the people," the 56-year-old Argentine said. Many union members think of Evita as their patron or gaze at her photos with nostalgia, feeling that she and her husband, three-time President Juan Domingo Perón, brought prosperity to their country through an equality and social justice-driven movement that was named after him in the 1940s: Peronism. That movement is currently the biggest opposition force in Argentina. And some political observers attribute the recent vote to elect President Javier Milei as a means to defeat Peronism and its previous hold on the presidency. "For us, she is the spiritual reservoir of the people," said Julio Piumato, human rights director at the largest union in Argentina. He signed a 2019 document requesting Evita's beatification. "No other figure has a deeper significance," Piumato said. "The humble sectors are synthesized in Evita." According to the union leader, between 1946 and 1952, when Evita died of cancer at age 33 and Perón concluded his first term, the couple dignified the working class and prioritized social justice. "Saints show us paths to reach Christ and intercede before God for us," reads the beatification request delivered to the archbishop. "In our homeland, one generation after another continues to be converted by the humanist and Christian message of the standard bearer of the humble." Aside from a 1996 movie starring Madonna or Andrew Lloyd Weber's 1978 musical, many foreigners know relatively little about this former first lady who died 71 years ago. But in Argentina, Evita is a constant presence. Her face is printed on 100-peso bills, decorates a mural on a key government building, and greets guests from an altar placed in a restaurant called Saint Evita. "I carry her image in my wallet, and I have it at home in a small picture frame with a candle," Celerier said. "I ask her for protection." How a first lady turned into a champion of the poor The secret behind the fascination that she awakens might be hidden in her name. Long before becoming first lady, she called herself María Eva, a girl who left the town of Los Toldos to try her luck as an actress in Buenos Aires. As a modest film star she was known as Eva Duarte and afterwards became Eva Perón, the president's wife. Then came Evita. "Evita is the one who is close to the people," said Santiago Regolo, a researcher at Museum Evita. "People began to call her that, and that construction is linked to the political and social work that distinguished her from the women who preceded her and take her as an example to this day." Evita was the one who paid visits to elders and single mothers. The one who handed out toys for children and bread for families. The one who promoted paid vacations for workers who had never been able to afford a break and gave a final push to achieve the women's right to vote in 1947. She has also inspired some feminists — who carry her photo along with their green scarves during protests — as well as a political organization that asks for social transformation using her image as a logo. "Having Evita on our flag represents being with those in the lower classes and trying to vindicate her name over time," said Iván Tchorek, from the Evita Movement, which has 155,000 members nationwide and was created after an economic crisis in 2001. She's relevant as ever, Tchorek said, because Peronism is. Thousands of workers like him recently led a general strike against the right-wing Milei, who defeated Peronist candidate Sergio Massa last November. Soon after, Milei issued a decree that would revoke or modify hundreds of existing laws in order to limit the power of unions and deregulate an economy that has traditionally featured heavy state intervention. Even as a union standard-bearer in polarized times, Evita and her memory have the ability to transcend politics. "Certain issues are linked to matters of a sentimental, sacralized nature," Regolo said. "She is seen as a companion, a sister, a mother for the humble." At her home in an impoverished neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, 71-year-old Rita Cantero says she almost met Evita. When her mother asked the first lady for help, she was pregnant with her. "My mother used to say that Evita was very supportive, that people really liked her for the service she provided." Aware of the challenges of being a single mother, Rafaela Escobar attended a public event held by Evita in a plaza near her home. After being able to approach her and confide in her distress, Evita hugged her and said: "Don't worry, I will help." Three weeks later, Escobar received a cradle and clothes for her unborn child. Cantero says her mother never met Evita again, but she sent her letters and the first lady replied with envelopes carrying money. "For us she is like a saint," Cantero said. "Many judged her because she was a woman, but she was an honest, hard-working girl. She fought for our nation and was the force of Perón." Evita's mixed legacy and the fight over her embalmed body Perón died two decades after Evita, in 1974, but his name continues to spark both admiration and hatred, yearning and blame. His critics — among them legislator Fernando Iglesias, who has published several books contending Peronism ruined the country — claim that Perón was an authoritarian leader and his movement's social assistance disguised corruption and patronage while generating too much dependence on the government. Critics address Eva too. Her foundation pressed donors for resources, some say. She was careerist and a hypocrite, others assert. On the one hand, she claimed to defend the poor and on the other, she dressed in Dior. "Would she be the saint of the lazy?" a user tweeted when the union requested her beatification. "Patron of criminals," someone else wrote. Erasing her from history was once a command. After a coup overthrew Perón in 1955, it was forbidden to say her name, display her image or keep her gifts. The military removed her embalmed body from a union's headquarters, where it was initially kept, and sent it to Europe. The body came back after 14 years, and when the military took over again in the 1970s, it was given to her family under one condition: She would be buried 8 meters underground, sealed in a marble crypt so that no one would ever see her again. "Evita is the best thing that could have happened to this country," said Carolina Castro, 22, holding back tears next to Evita's grave in Recoleta Cemetery, where Argentines and foreigners alike honor her with flowers, letters and rosaries. According to Castro's mother, 56-year-old Andrea Vellesi, Evita is a sensitive topic because their family is going through a difficult time. "I have never been in such anguish," Vellesi said about economic measures that Milei recently decreed and that she claims hurt her business. Víctor Biscia, 36, says that he doesn't keep photos of Evita at home, but he does have images of the late President Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández, another Peronist couple that prompts devotion and resentment among Argentines. "They were key to achieving rights that are being curtailed by the current government," said Biscia, who thinks of Fernández as a sort of 21st century Evita. "She reflects a lot of what we are as Argentines," says Gimena Villagra, 27, standing next to Evita's tomb. "I don't think there's anyone for whom she doesn't mean something."

VOA Newscasts

4 hours 44 sec ago
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

VOA Newscasts

5 hours 44 sec ago
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Former President Trump Beats Former UN Ambassador Haley in Her State

5 hours 33 min ago
Former US President Donald Trump won the Republican Presidential Primary in the Southern state of South Carolina on Saturday, defeating former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in her home state. But Haley vowed to continue her campaign through Super Tuesday in early March, when a block of US states will have their say in who runs against President Joe Biden in November. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more. Camera: Henry Hernandez and Ostap Yarysh

Can Macao Become Asia’s Las Vegas?

5 hours 48 min ago
Macao — Macao, the former Portuguese colony that has become the world’s biggest gambling city in recent years, is embarking on an experiment to remake itself, but it’s unclear if it will succeed. Visitors to the city see a difference compared to 10 or 20 years ago. There are new and bigger casino resorts — from The Londoner to MGM Cotai — and they no longer offer just slot machines and gambling tables. They feature non-gaming entertainment — from water slides to concerts. There’s even a zipline. The city that has relied on gaming revenue for decades has been betting on non-gaming attractions to lure non-gamblers, in hopes of diversifying its economy. But behind the water splashes and zipline rides, Macao is struggling to live up to its nickname: Las Vegas of the East. Although its gaming revenue has exceeded that of Las Vegas by three-fold before the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike its U.S. counterpart in Nevada — whose casino earnings are 70% non-gaming and 30% gaming — Macao’s mix is just 5% non-gaming and 95% gaming, according to IGamiX, a Macao-based consultancy. That’s far from China’s wishes when the city returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 and soon after, ended the casino monopoly, opening the sector to foreign competition in hopes of turning Macao into a leisure and entertainment capital. "I don't think anyone realized when they let the genie out of the bag, that the market would be predominantly mainland China," said Ben Lee, a gaming analyst at IGamiX. "In the past 20 years, instead of transforming into a world center for tourism, all Macao has become is a world center for Chinese gambling. It was never meant to be that. The intention was to make Macao into Vegas." Beijing has urged Macao to end its dependence on gaming. It has tried to reduce the number of Chinese gamblers flocking to the only place in China that allows gambling, by restricting the number of visits Chinese residents from some provinces can make to Macao to only six per year. Beijing has also tried to stem the flow of an estimated $150 billion a year in Chinese capital, especially corruption money, to Macao, and banned promoting overseas gambling on the mainland. Those measures and President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption have significantly reduced Macao’s gross gaming revenue from the record high of $45 million in 2013 to $22 million last year. But Macao is still heavily dependent on gaming, which accounted for more than 50% of its GDP before COVID-19 and 60% of government revenues in 2023, according to official figures. So last year, Macao’s government began requiring casino operators to diversify their customer base and invest heavily in non-gaming projects, as a condition for renewing their concession licenses. That’s on top of a 40% casino tax. The six concessionaires — Wynn, Sands, SJM, MGM, Melco, and Galaxy — have pledged to invest a combined $13.6 billion to explore overseas customer markets and develop non-gaming projects, including conventions and exhibitions, entertainment, and performances. However, a year later, it’s unclear whether this new approach will work. Observers said many casino operators remain reluctant to shift their focus from gaming, an easier money-maker, to less profitable non-gaming ventures. "We have been living with casinos for decades. It’s not that easy to say I want to diversify the company. You have to cultivate a mentality for this kind of diversification. It will take time," said community leader Miguel Senna Fernandes. "I don’t see this yet." Analysts pointed to "half-hearted" attempts by some casinos to meet the government’s mandate: simply opening retail shops or holding concerts by oldies singers transplanted from Vegas. Casino operators have not accepted VOA’s requests for interviews. In a statement to VOA, the Macao Government Tourism Office said, Macao has seen an increase in the number of non-gaming visitors "and the government's efforts to diversify the tourism attractions have received positive feedback." It said exit surveys found visitors’ top three reasons for being there were shopping, sightseeing and gastronomy. But the most recent statistics show gaming still accounted for nearly 80% of tourism revenue in 2022. Experts say it may be difficult to replicate Vegas. "Since early years, Vegas has had an alternative economy. You have a leisure industry which makes Las Vegas so diversified; it’s not just gambling. My friends go to Las Vegas, they don’t go to gamble. They say it’s totally different from Macao, which is casino, casino, casino," Fernandes said. He and others see the government’s requirements on casinos to promote non-gaming as a positive move. "Now there’s a chance to change the rules of the game," said Fernandes, head of the Macanese Association, which hopes Macao’s unique mixed-race culture can also be promoted. Some casinos are starting to catch on to what draws visitors. Galaxy organized a 23,000-ticket concert by the Korean girl group Blackpink last year that sold out within seconds. "That jolted the entertainment scene. That’s massive," Lee said. "They could’ve had two weeks of Blackpink instead of two nights." But what keeps more overseas tourists from visiting may be few direct flights to Macao, competition from casinos opening elsewhere in Asia, tourism services geared toward Chinese speakers, and a transportation system that struggles to cope with massive numbers of tourists, many of whom must wait in long lines for an insufficient number of taxis or crowded buses, especially during public holidays. Amid these growing pains are concerns the government’s "meddling" in casino operations, by cracking down on cross-border recruitment of Chinese high rollers and specifying how many gambling tables and slot machines casinos can have, could hurt earnings. "The Communist Party of China … has never been comfortable with legal gambling. So, they have decided they will use carrots and sticks to reshape the world’s largest casino market," gaming expert I. Nelson Rose wrote in a blog. "Perhaps the greatest danger to the free market casinos of Macau is the government’s meddling in their day-to-day operation," he added. For now, casino operators are complying by trying to attract visitors from other countries, building more recreational facilities, including a new water park and theme park, and organizing more performances. Each concessionaire has also been assigned an old district to redevelop, from piers and shipyards to a fortress neighborhood and a former firecracker factory. "It’s kind of like a big experiment that hasn’t happened in this way anywhere else," said Tim Simpson, author of Betting on Macau: Casino Capitalism and China's Consumer Revolution. "There’s an interesting social and economic experiment to see if they can be tasked with revitalizing areas, attracting different tourists to the city, and providing sporting or music events. It would be interesting to see the outcome of this big experiment that is happening here." It may mean lower profitability and more work for casinos, but there seems to be no choice and no turning back. "At the end of the day, it is good for Macao. It’s what we should’ve done in the first 20 years," Lee said. If Macao succeeds, it may live up to its moniker — the Las Vegas of Asia.

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Republican Trying to Block Party From Paying Trump's Legal Bills

February 24, 2024 - 21:35
COLUMBIA, S.C. — At least one member of the Republican National Committee is working to slow Donald Trump's attempted takeover of the organization by pushing to keep the committee neutral until Trump is officially the presidential nominee and avoid picking up his legal bills. Two draft resolutions are being circulated by Henry Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi, for consideration at the RNC's upcoming March meeting in Houston. Barbour said support for the resolutions among RNC members is growing but he does not yet have the needed co-sponsors, and any resolutions would ultimately be nonbinding. The effort comes after Trump last week publicly called to replace the RNC's current leaders and install one of his senior campaign advisers and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump in top roles. Lara Trump suggested earlier in the week that GOP voters would support the committee paying her father-in-law's legal bills as he faces a raft of criminal and civil indictments. Trump senior campaign adviser Chris LaCivita, whom the former president wants to install as the party's chief operating officer, told reporters Friday night that the RNC would not pay Trump's legal bills. In a statement on Saturday, LaCavita said "the primary is over and it is the RNC's sole responsibility to defeat Joe Biden and win back the White House." "Efforts to delay that assist Joe Biden in the destruction of our nation," he said. "Republicans cannot stand on the sidelines and allow this to happen." One of Barbour's proposed resolutions says that the RNC and its leadership will stay neutral throughout the presidential primary and not take on additional staff from any of the active campaigns until a candidate has the needed delegates to be the nominee. The second resolution says the organization will not pay the legal bills of any candidate for federal or state office but will instead focus its spending on efforts directly related to the 2024 election. "The RNC has one job. That's winning elections," Barbour said. "I believe RNC funds should be spent solely on winning elections, on political expenses, not legal bills." The RNC was paying some of Trump's legal bills for New York cases that started while he was president, The Washington Post reported. But current RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel said in November 2022 that the RNC would stop p aying once Trump became a candidate again and started running for the 2024 presidential election. Trump is spending millions on lawyers in civil cases and four criminal cases, but he also has legal debts that top half a billion dollars. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is Trump's last major challenger in the GOP primary, said a family member or campaign manager should not be leading the RNC. "I would hope that the people in the RNC know that they have a responsibility, a responsibility to put in people in the RNC who are going to look out in the best interest of all of the Republican Party, not just one person," Haley said. The resolutions were first reported by The Dispatch on Saturday. 

Iraq Captures 2 Wanted IS Group Terrorists

February 24, 2024 - 20:46
ERBIL, Iraq — Iraq's authorities have captured two members of the Islamic State group in an operation outside the country and brought them home, where they confessed to committing crimes during the rule of the extremist organization, the intelligence department said Saturday. A statement by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service didn't say where the two men were captured and released a video showing them blindfolded and handcuffed while aboard a small plane. The two men later appeared in a video in yellow uniforms speaking about their role within the extremist group. The announcement came after Iraq and the United States began formal talks last month aimed at winding down the mission of a U.S.-led military coalition formed to fight IS. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has contended that the Iraqi security forces are capable of dealing with the remaining IS cells in the country and the coalition’s presence is no longer needed. The roughly 2,500 U.S. troops are scattered around the country, largely in military installations in Baghdad and in the north. The Islamic State group declared a self-styled caliphate in a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq that it seized in 2014. It was declared defeated in Iraq in 2017 following a three-year battle that left tens of thousands of people dead and cities in ruins. The group was defeated in Syria losing its last sliver of land in 2019, but its sleeper cells remain in both countries. The first man was identified as Issam Abed Ali Sueidan, or Abu Zeid, who was a main propagandist for the group in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, once an IS stronghold. In the video, Sueidan speaks about how he beheaded an Iraqi soldier in Fallujah in addition to doing propaganda videos for the group. The second detainee was identified as Bashir Abed Ali Sueidan, or Abu Ahmad, who was in charge of telecommunications in Fallujah. He said he was once held in the U.S.-run prison of Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. The man said he was in charge of encrypting the telecommunications of IS officials. The man said that following a government offensive, he fled to the Iraqi town of Qaim near the Syrian border, where he stayed until 2017. He then fled Iraq without saying where he went. It wasn't immediately clear if the two detainees were related. Despite sustained counterterrorism operations, IS commands between 5,000 and 7,000 members across Iraq and Syria, "most of whom are fighters," though it has reduced its attacks deliberately "to facilitate recruiting and reorganization," U.N. experts said in a report released in August. In northeast Syria, approximately 11,000 suspected IS fighters are being held in facilities of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have played a prominent role in the fight against IS, the panel said. The fighters include more than 3,500 Iraqis and approximately 2,000 from almost 70 nationalities, it said.

Two Men Detained for Bringing Syrian Refugees to Cyprus by Boats

February 24, 2024 - 20:37
NICOSIA, Cyprus — A court in Cyprus on Saturday ordered two men to remain in police custody for six days on suspicion of people smuggling. The men were identified as the drivers of two boats that brought 146 Syrian refugees and one Lebanese migrant to the east Mediterranean island nation.  Police said the suspects are Lebanese nationals aged 19 and 21.  According to police, the refugees said during questioning that they departed from the Lebanese city of Tripoli on Thursday, February 22 and each paid $2,500 for a place aboard the boats.  One boat carried 30 people, including 6 women and 11 minors. Aboard the second boat were 117 people, including 8 women and 17 minors. Police spotted both vessels Saturday afternoon off Cape Greco on the island's southeastern tip.  All the migrants were escorted ashore and later taken to a migrant reception center just outside the capital Nicosia.  The president of Cyprus said earlier this month that the European Union won't serve its own best interests if it doesn't consider designating some parts of Syria as safe zones so refugees and migrants can return there. Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides said Cyprus is working with like-minded EU member nations to start a discussion about that goal to help alleviate the pressure that Mediterranean countries receiving the most refugees and migrants are under.  Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou told the state broadcaster Saturday that Cypriot authorities have reached out to Europol to help patrol the Lebanese coastline to prevent migrant departures.  Although 37% fewer migrants reached Cyprus last year compared to the year before, official figures show migrant arrivals by boat from Syria and Lebanon increased 355% — 4,259 in 2023 compared to 937 in 2022. 

New York City Owl Flaco Dies After Crashing Into Building

February 24, 2024 - 20:14
NEW YORK — Tributes poured in Saturday for Flaco, the beloved Eurasian eagle-owl that became a feel-good New York story after escaping its Central Park Zoo enclosure and flying free around Manhattan. Flaco was found dead on a New York City sidewalk Friday night after apparently flying into a building. It was a heartbreaking end for the birders who documented the owl's daily movements and the legions of admirers who eagerly followed along. "Everybody feels the same, they're devastated," said Nicole Blair, a New York City artist who devoted much of her feed on the X platform to photos and memes featuring the celebrity owl with checkerboard black and brown feathers and round sunset-hued eyes. Staff from the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center, declared Flaco dead shortly after the collision. A necropsy was expected Saturday. Flaco was freed from his cage at the zoo a little over a year ago by a vandal who breached a waist-high fence and cut a hole through a steel mesh cage. The owl had arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier. Flaco sightings soon became sport. The owl spent his days perched on tree branches, fence posts and fire escapes and nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city's abundant rats. Like a true celebrity, the owl appeared on murals and merchandise. A likeness occupied a spot on Blair's New York City-themed Christmas tree, right next to "Pizza Rat," the infamous rodent seen in a YouTube clip dragging a slice down a subway stairwell. "I got to see him on my birthday," Blair said of her encounter with Flaco in Central Park in the fall. "It was kind of an unbelievable situation, and I'm like, this is the best birthday present ever." But she and others worried when Flaco ventured beyond the park into more urban sections of Manhattan, fearing the owl would ingest a poisoned rat or encounter other dangers. "The vandal who damaged Flaco's exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death," the zoo said in a statement Friday. "We are still hopeful that the NYPD which is investigating the vandalism will ultimately make an arrest." Flaco fans shared suggestions Saturday for a permanent bronze statue overlooking New York City. One requested that the owl's remains be buried in Central Park. "Flaco the owl was, in many ways, a typical New Yorker — fiercely independent, constantly exploring, finding ways to survive ever-changing challenges," read a post on the X platform, reflecting a common sentiment. "He will be missed." David Barrett, who runs the Manhattan Bird Alert account, suggested a temporary memorial at the bird's favorite oak tree in the park. There, he wrote in a post, fellow birders could "lay flowers, leave a note, or just be with others who loved Flaco." 

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