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VOA Our Voices 204: A Seat at the Table

As countries throughout Africa continue to promote gender parity in politics, this week on #VOAOurVoices we explore how prejudice, bias and patriarchal systems shape the inclusion of women in leadership. Former Tanzanian Ambassador to the U.S. Liberata Mulamula joins our co-hosts Auriane, Hayde and Ayen to share how women can overcome barriers and effectively lead. In the #WomentoWatch segment, we feature a women working to “enrich foreign policy with African accents.”

Palestinian Museum Designed to Highlight Palestinian Culture

Most Americans understand the Palestinian people in context of their decades long conflict with Israel. To provide more context, a museum in Washington D.C. is shining a light on its culture and heritage; one artifact at a time. More on this museum from VOA’s Imron Jadoon

‘Dark Money’ Ties Raise Questions for GOP Sen. Ernst of Iowa

An outside group founded by top political aides to Sen. Joni Ernst has worked closely with the Iowa Republican to raise money and boost her reelection prospects, a degree of overlap that potentially violates the law, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

Iowa Values, a political nonprofit that is supposed to be run independently, was co-founded in 2017 by Ernst’s longtime consultant, Jon Kohan. It shares a fundraiser, Claire Holloway Avella, with the Ernst campaign. And a condo owned by a former aide — who was recently hired to lead the group — was used as Iowa Values’ address at a time when he worked for her.

Political nonprofits are often referred to as “dark money” groups because they can raise unlimited sums and are not required to reveal their donors. But they must take steps to keep their activities separate from the candidates they support. Additionally, while such tax-exempt groups can do political work, they can’t make it their primary purpose.

The documents reviewed by the AP, including emails and a strategy memo, not only make clear that the group’s aim is securing an Ernst win in 2020, but they also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values.

Ernst is hardly the first politician to push campaign finance law boundaries. But the revelation could complicate her efforts to fend off a Democratic challenger in a closely watched race next year.

“The truth is, our campaign is completely separate and independent from any outside organization,” Ernst senior adviser Brook Ramlet said in a statement. “Our campaign always has and always will act in full compliance with and in the spirit of the law. For the AP to suggest otherwise, is the definition of fake news.”

Campaign finance law states that candidates and their “agents” can’t solicit, direct or spend contributions that exceed federal limits, even if the donations are made to an outside group. Those limits currently prevent donors from giving more than $2,800 to a candidate and $5,000 to a political action committee per election.

In July, Holloway Avella requested “an investment of $50,000” from a donor after Ernst made an introduction. She made clear in an email, which was obtained by the AP, how much a contribution of that size could help.

“As a follow up to our introduction by Senator Ernst, I am reaching out to you on behalf of Iowa Values,” she wrote.

“As you may have seen, an outside group on the left … recently launched a six-figure ad buy in media markets across the state attacking Senator Ernst on her vote to repeal Obamacare,” she continued. “The purpose of our group, Iowa Values, is to push back against these type of negative attacks.”

Separately, a strategy memo states the group will use door-knocking, as well as TV, radio and digital advertising, to build a “firewall” that could be the difference “between winning and losing in 2020 for Senator Ernst.” The group is targeting about 120,000 Iowans who “lean Republican on the issues” but abandon the party at times over “the tone of the GOP.”

Taken together, some legal experts say the documents offer proof that the effort violates the spirit of campaign finance and tax law, if not the letter of it.

“It seems like pretty strong evidence” that the $50,000 request was for an “illegal donation” while it’s “clear that the goal of Iowa Values is to reelect Joni Ernst, which may violate its tax-exempt status,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

He also said the documents pulled back the curtain on how dark money works.

“This is a striking example of how secret campaign money operates,” Fischer said. “The big donors that bankroll a dark money group like Iowa Values remain hidden from the public, but the politician that benefits knows where the money is coming from.”

Still, it’s far from certain that the Federal Election Commission, or the IRS, will find that they broke the law.

The FEC often gridlocks along partisan lines. And after a recent resignation, the panel doesn’t have enough members to legally meet for conducting business. Similarly, the IRS has shown little appetite for cracking down on dark money groups that push the limits.

“There’s a real disconnect between the principles behind the law and how they are enforced,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel to the FEC who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Noble said he would need more details before assessing whether Ernst’s campaign broke the law. But, he added: “The bottom line is that this is really questionable.”

Dan Petalas, a former FEC attorney, said that the “law is undecided” but that his personal view is the fundraising was permissible because Holloway Avella said she was requesting the $50,000 on behalf of Iowa Values, not the campaign.

In a statement, Iowa Values executive director Derek Flowers said the organization has “systems and controls in place to make certain that it complies with all laws” and is “careful to follow all requirements that limit how much of its activities can be focused on supporting candidates.”

What’s undeniable is the close connection between Ernst and the group.

Kohan, a former Ernst deputy chief of staff who is now a general consultant to her campaign, was paid $120,000 to serve as executive director of Iowa Values for two years, according to the group’s tax filings. He left the group earlier this year. Jamestown Associates, where he is a named partner, also collected an additional $101,000 from Ernst’s campaign in the years he served as executive director.

Holloway Avella raised about $520,000 for Iowa Values in 2017 and 2018, tax records show. The group lists her Arlington, Virginia, office as one of its business addresses and paid her about $60,000. Ernst paid her an additional $363,000 those years, record show.

The group listed a Waukee, Iowa, condo owned by Flowers as another business address in 2017, records show. Flowers was campaign manager during Ernst’s 2014 Senate primary. A company called Midland Strategies, which has been paid $145,000 by Ernst since 2013, also listed Flowers’ condo as a business address. Flowers succeeded Kohan as the group’s executive director this year.

After Ernst launched her reelection campaign, Holloway Avella was deeply involved with both operations.

Holloway Avella’s website lets prospective donors request to host a fundraiser for the senator. And invitations for several recent Ernst events list her as an organizer, including two held in September at Bistro Bis, a French eatery a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Around the same time, Holloway Avella was seeking donations for Iowa Values from prominent Ernst supporters, like dieting entrepreneur Jenny Craig and San Francisco philanthropist Diane “Dede” Wilsey. Craig previously gave $30,000 to Ernst; Wilsey donated $46,000.

A legal compliance letter Holloway Avella sent to donors underscored the delicate terrain.

Iowa Values’ mission “is to educate the public about common-sense solutions to various public policy issues of national importance,” it stated. “It was not formed by any federal candidates or agents of candidates or at the direction or request of any candidates or an agent of a candidate.”

Nationwide Strike Paralyzes France

Hundreds of thousands of people went on strike in cities across France, causing a shutdown of public transport and drastically reducing teaching and hospital staff Thursday. Public and private sector workers are protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms that include extending minimum retirement age and rewarding employees for each day worked. VOA’S Zlatica Hoke reports.

World Powers Meeting in Vienna to Save Iran Nuclear Deal Face New Setback

Five world powers trying to save their 2015 nuclear deal with Iran from U.S. efforts to overturn it are grappling with a new setback as they meet with Iranian officials in Vienna Friday.

A day before Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia were to hold talks with Iran in the Austrian capital, Moscow said it was suspending its work to reconfigure Iran’s underground Fordow nuclear facility for civilian medical research. The Trump administration had warned last month that it would revoke a waiver shielding Moscow from U.S. sanctions against the Fordow project starting Dec. 15.

TVEL, a unit of Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom, had been working on the Fordow project since 2017. The project had been one of several that Iran agreed to undertake with international companies to modify various Iranian nuclear sites in ways that would ensure their peaceful, civilian uses, rather than military ones.

Those projects were part of the 2015 deal in which Iran accepted restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for six world powers giving it relief from international sanctions.

The U.S. withdrew from that agreement last year, saying it did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or engaging in other perceived malign activities. Tehran has said its nuclear ambitions are solely peaceful.


FILE – The logo of Russian state nuclear monopoly Rosatom at the World Nuclear Exhibition 2014, the trade fair event for the global nuclear energy sector, in Le Bourget, near Paris, Oct. 14, 2014.

quoted Russian atomic energy expert Alexander Uvarov as saying Rosatom has many international projects and did not want to risk hurting them by exposing itself to U.S. sanctions.

Ryabkov said he would use the Vienna talks to raise the issue of the U.S. preparing to sanction international work at Fordow, a move he criticized as an attempt to break up the nuclear deal.

FILE – Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov

Some analysts predicted Iran and the five world powers in Vienna likely would agree that the U.S. is to blame for the suspension of the Fordow project and avoid blaming each other for the setback to the deal or using its dispute resolution mechanism to resolve the issue.

“The Europeans realize that triggering the dispute resolution process could end in a re-imposition of U.N. Security Council sanctions and that would kill the JCPOA,” analyst Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association told VOA Persian, using an acronym for the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “So I think they will be judicious in their decision-making process before going down that road.”

But Davenport said Britain, France and Germany could act if Iran follows through on a threat to more seriously breach its nuclear deal commitments in January and moves closer to having the capability to make an atomic bomb.

“The Europeans may no longer see security value in remaining in the deal and trigger that dispute resolution mechanism,” she said. “So the window to try to preserve the JCPOA and bring Iran back into compliance is unfortunately closing.”

“At the moment, I don’t think that is what the Iranians want,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also speaking to VOA Persian.

“The Iranians have an incremental strategy (for violating the nuclear deal) for a reason, which is to keep the JCPOA on life support, in case there is a change in Washington in 2020,” Taleblu said. “At that point, they could tempt a new U.S. president to come back into the deal and perhaps provide Tehran with some kind of payment for the damages incurred during sanctions.”

Iran did not immediately comment on what it plans to do with its nuclear program following the Russian exit from Fordow.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.

French Strike Over Pension Reform Enters Second Day   

A nationwide strike about planned pension reforms that has paralyzed most of France enters its second day Friday.

Concern that the proposed pension overhaul would force millions of people to work longer or have less lucrative benefits has prompted the strike, bringing much of the country to a halt.

Tens of thousands of workers in France walked off the job Thursday as unions staged a nationwide strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to reform the country’s pension system.

The strike shut down transportation, forced most schools to close, left hospitals understaffed and basic government services unmet.

Largely peaceful demonstrations were held in Paris and in more than two dozen cities throughout the country.

Protesters hide behind a wooden board and an umbrella during a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Nantes, Dec. 5, 2019, as part of a national general strike.

Violence erupted, however, near Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, where thousands of protesters had gathered. Some protesters set fire to a construction trailer and police responded by firing tear gas, witnesses said.

Police also used tear gas against protesters in the northwestern city of Nantes and in the southeastern city of Lyon.

Union leaders have promised to continue protesting unless Macron abandons the proposed pension overhaul, which officials admit would force employees to gradually work longer.

Officials have given few details about the plan, but Macron’s office said Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would unveil the framework next week after negotiations with unions.

The strike is a test of the political prowess of Macron, a former investment banker who won the presidency on the promise to transform France.

Uber Reports More Than 3,000 Sexual Assaults in US in 2018

Uber, as part of a long-anticipated safety report, revealed that more than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported during its U.S. rides in 2018.

That figure includes 235 rapes across the company’s 1.3 billion rides last year. The ride-hailing company noted that drivers and riders were both attacked and that some assaults occurred between riders.

The Thursday report, which the company hailed as the first of its kind, provides a rare look into the traffic deaths, homicides and reported sexual assaults that took place during billions of rides arranged in the U.S. using Uber’s service. It is part of the company’s effort to be more transparent after years of criticism over its safety record.

In 2017, the company counted 2,936 reported sexual assaults, including 229 rapes, during 1 billion U.S. trips. Uber bases its numbers on reports from riders and drivers, meaning the actual numbers could be much higher. Sexual assaults commonly go unreported.

“I suspect many people will be surprised at how rare these incidents are; others will understandably think they’re still too common,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted about the report. “Some people will appreciate how much we’ve done on safety; others will say we have more work to do. They will all be right.”

Uber, Lyft criticized

Uber’s share price dropped more than 1% in after-hours trading.

Uber and competitor Lyft have faced harsh criticism for not doing enough to protect the safety of their riders and drivers. Dozens of women are suing Lyft, claiming the company should have done more to protect them from driver assaults.

London refused to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city in November in light of a number of company safety issues, including concerns about impostor drivers. Uber said it will appeal the decision.

The companies have both formed partnerships with sexual assault prevention networks and other safety groups, and have touted their background check policies for drivers. But many say they haven’t gone far enough to protect passengers and drivers, who are contract workers for the companies.

“Keeping this information in the dark doesn’t make anyone safer,” Uber said in a statement announcing the report. It plans to release its safety report every two years going forward.

Lyft yet to release report

Lyft said last year it would also release a safety report. A company spokeswoman confirmed Thursday that it “remained committed” to releasing a report, but did not say when it would be released.

Mike Bomberger, a lawyer representing more than 100 victims of sexual assault in lawsuits against Uber and Lyft, applauded Uber for releasing the numbers.

“One of the problems with both of these companies is that they have hidden and have tried to conceal the number of sexual assaults that occur in their vehicles,” he said.

The report stated that Uber rides were involved in 97 reported crashes in 2017 and 2018, resulting in 107 deaths. The company said the figure represents about half of the national rate for fatal crashes.

The company also said Uber rides were involved in nine homicides during 2018, and 10 during 2017. Uber noted that the vast majority — 99.9% — of its rides had no reported safety issues.

China to Waive Tariffs for Some US Soybeans, Pork

China will waive import tariffs for some soybeans and pork shipments from the United States, China’s finance ministry said Friday, citing a decision by the country’s cabinet.

The tariff waivers were based on applications by individual firms for U.S. soybeans and pork imports, the ministry said in a statement. It did not specify the quantities involved.

China imposed tariffs of 25% on both U.S. soybeans and pork in July 2018 as a countermeasure to tariffs levied by Washington over allegations that China steals and forces the transfer of American intellectual property to Chinese firms.

The waiver comes amid negotiations between the United States and China to conclude a “phase one” or interim deal to de-escalate a 17-month trade war between the two countries.

Lifting tariffs on each other’s goods is a key part of those talks.

China has also been scouring the world for more meat to fill a big shortage of protein after an outbreak of African swine fever devastated its massive hog herd, cutting supplies of pork.

When Did You Last See an African Video Game Hero? 

What’s wrong with being a plucky hero running from demon monkeys or a glamorous model in dress up games? Players too often get sucked into worlds full of violence and unhealthy body images, according to Jay Shapiro, co-founder of Kenya-based Usiku Games.

The Canadian entrepreneur hopes to shake up the games market in Kenya — and Africa — by offering not only the “adrenaline rush” of competing to win, but also subtle messaging on relatable themes like conservation, climate change and culture.

“When was the last time you saw an African hero in a video game?” Shapiro asked ahead of the Dec. 14 official opening of Usiku Games offices and the Nairobi Game Development Center, a high-tech co-working space also created by Shapiro.

“We looked at how can we make games that are unlike what’s out there at the moment. That are made in Africa, for Africa, with African heroes in African environments … so that when somebody plays it, they see themselves reflected in the game.”

“Turkana,” a video game by Usiku Games, allows players to direct water from Kawalasee River to a farm.

10 games so far

Usiku Games has so far developed 10 brain-teasing and trivia games for Africa’s mobile phone users aimed at fostering a #GamingForGood culture, with scenarios where the player has to save lions from poachers or solve traffic congestion.

The game “Turkana” — named after Kenya’s arid northwestern county — allows players to direct water from the Kawalasee River to a farm while in “Jam Noma” they get to drive a local matatu minibus and navigate congestion to complete the journey.

The company, which has 16 staff, also employs youths from Nairobi’s Kibera, a sprawling informal settlement housing more than 200,000 people, to provide the voices and produce the rap music for the games in English, Swahili and local slang, Sheng.

“Jam Noma,” a video game from Usiku Games allows players to drive a local matatu minibus and navigate congestion.

Positive messages

Other games the company is developing including “Seedballs” a reforestation game where the player has to drop seeds at targets on the ground, and “BeYOUtiful,” which is a dress up game for girls with African characters.

“These dress up games for preteen girls are very popular, but everyone in them has a white woman in her 20s with ‘Barbiesque’ curves that are impossible to attain,” said Shapiro.

“If I’m a little Kenyan girl playing this game, the game is subliminally telling me that the standard for beauty is this blonde, white, skinny woman. We think that’s wrong.”

The games are currently free but Usiku Games plans to charge users about 10 shillings ($0.10) to play a game in future, with the winner earning coins, some of which can be converted to cash in a mobile savings account to pay school or medical fees.

“It’s great Usiku Games is focusing on socially responsible bite-sized games,” said Gautam Shah, founder of Internet of Elephants, which makes conservation games, adding that most popular games focus on subject matter that is far from Africa.

“I think their success will rely on how relatable these games are to local users.”

Poll: Support for Warren Drops to Lowest Since August in White House Race

Support for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren dropped nationally to its lowest level in four months, and nearly one in three potential Democratic primary voters say they do not know which candidate to pick with the first nominating contests less than two months away, according to a

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting, during his “No Malarkey!” campaign bus tour at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Dec. 4, 2019.

Support dropped by 2 percentage points for former Vice President Joe Biden to 19%. It fell by 3 points for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to 14%, and it declined by 1 point to 6% for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Bloomberg, a billionaire media mogul, entered the race as the fifth-most popular candidate with 4% support.

Support for Warren dropped by 2 points to 9% in the national poll, the worst showing for the U.S. senator from Massachusetts in the Reuters/Ipsos poll since August.

To be sure, Warren is still among the most popular candidates in Iowa, which will be holding its nominating contest on Feb. 3, and she is also among the top candidates in other early primary states. But nationally, Warren has slipped as her rivals for the nomination criticized her proposal for extending government-paid healthcare to all Americans as too costly.

Meantime, 31% of Democrats and independents said they “don’t know” which candidate to support. That is the highest level of indecision measured in Reuters/Ipsos poll dating back to mid-April.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 719 adults who identify as Democrats, independents and politically unaffiliated. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 4 percentage points.



Oil Companies Press Mexican President to Resume Suspended Auctions

Big oil companies operating in Mexico have launched a drive to convince leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to resume auctions of oil and gas contracts he has branded a failure in reviving the industry.

Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, among other firms in Mexico’s Association of Hydrocarbon Companies (Amexhi), say they have met output targets and investment pledges worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the initial phases of their contracts.

“We’ve been complying (with contractual obligations), and by any metric you look at, we’ve been successful,” Amexhi President Alberto de la Fuente told reporters this week.

Now they want the government to restart the auctions initiated under a 2013-2014 energy opening, including those to select partners for state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

FILE – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during his daily morning press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Nov. 21, 2019.

Lopez Obrador has strongly criticized the reform, which was enacted under his predecessor and opened the door to over 100 exploration and production contracts for oil companies.

Having canceled auctions scheduled for 2019, he points out the reform has failed to lift crude output to the previous government’s target of 3 million barrels per day (bpd).

Production is below 1.7 million bpd, the lowest in decades.

The government said it will not do more until seeing “tangible” results, without specifying what that means.

The president also suspended auctions for the heavily-indebted Pemex to seek private partnerships known as “farmouts.”

Amexhi argues output is a poor yardstick because only 29 contracts are in the production stage out of 111 awarded through 2018. The rest still need time to finish exploratory drilling and studies before beginning commercial production, it says.

FILE - Alberto de la Fuente, CEO of Shell in Mexico, gestures during Forbes Forum 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico, Sept. 18, 2017.
FILE – Alberto de la Fuente, CEO of Shell in Mexico, gestures during Forbes Forum 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico, Sept. 18, 2017.

“What we need is to sit down with the energy ministry, with the government and understand which metrics are important to them,” said de la Fuente, a former energy regulator who is now Shell’s country manager in Mexico.

Some voices within Lopez Obrador’s administration are trying to convince the president to resume auctions, two officials told Reuters. The task is hard, they said, because he believes the state should hold a prominent role in the sector.

Meanwhile, private and foreign oil firms have spent about $11 billion in investment, taxes and payments to Pemex, and plan to invest another $37 billion in the coming years, Amexhi says.

“We’re looking to raise awareness in the government about how imperative it is to resume tenders,” said a director of a foreign oil company in Mexico who requested anonymity.

“If not, it’s going to be impossible for production to pick up given the state Pemex is in and because the government is racing against the clock to meet its own goals,” he said.

Lopez Obrador has pledged to reverse more than a decade of falling crude output at Pemex. The firm’s exploration and production budget has been crimped by its debt, the largest of any oil company in the world.

Experts say it will be impossible for Pemex to reach its output goal of 1.8 million bpd by the end of 2019 after October closed with production at 1.66 million bpd.

In the private sector, Amexhi expects production to reach nearly 50,000 bpd this year and jump to 280,000 bpd by 2024. But it argues new auctions could produce even faster results.

Carlos Salazar, head of powerful Mexican business lobby CCE that helped resolve a dispute between the government and several energy infrastructure firms, said he supports Amexhi’s efforts.

“Let’s set the milestones so that everyone, the public opinion, knows the objectives,” he said.


Diplomat: Peru and US Close to Signing Deal to Counter Chinese Influence in Region

Peru and Washington are in the final stages of talks on a deal to promote American investments in the South American country as part of a U.S. initiative to counter Chinese influence in the region, a Peruvian diplomat told Reuters.

The United States launched its “Growth in the Americas” initiative in 2018 to bolster private-sector investments in energy and infrastructure in Latin America after China invited countries in the region to join its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

So far, the United States has signed memorandums of understanding within the Growth in the Americas framework with Argentina, Chile, Jamaica and Panama. Chile, Jamaica, Panama and Peru have also signed MOUs with China to join the BRI.

“The Trump administration is interested in balancing Chinese influence in the region a bit,” Cecilia Galarreta, the director of North American affairs in Peru’s foreign ministry, told Reuters on the sidelines of an event on Thursday.

Galarreta said the draft MOU with Washington to join the Growth in the Americas initiative was now being evaluated in the energy and mines ministry and the finance ministry.

China replaced the United States as Peru’s top trade partner years ago and Chinese companies are increasingly investing in infrastructure projects in the Andean country.

“We’ve had meetings with delegations from the United States that have strongly insisted on the importance of the greater presence of North American companies investing here, especially in infrastructure,” Deputy Foreign Minister Jaime Pomareda told Reuters on the sidelines of the same event.

The U.S. embassy in Lima did not immediately respond to requests for comment.