Argentina’s Fernandez: ‘Dig Up My Home But You Won’t Find Illicit Funds’

Argentina’s ex-President Cristina Fernandez said on Tuesday that she never received corrupt payments and challenged investigators to scour her home region of Patagonia if they believed she had hidden cash, a day after she was indicted on graft charges.

Using her immunity as a senator to refuse to answer any questions, Fernandez handed a written statement to the federal judge investigating a sprawling bribery scandal that has ensnared dozens of former officials and construction company executives. The statement was published on her party’s website.

“They can dig up all of Patagonia, but they will never find anything because I never received any illicit money,” the statement said, citing official allegations that cash was kept in underground vaults at Fernandez’s private residence or hidden in containers in the southern Argentina countryside.

Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio said in the indictment that officials had found empty vaults under the house, but no money.

Fernandez, president from 2007 through 2015, is accused of heading a network in which officials in her administration accepted bribes from construction companies in exchange for public works contracts.

Known as the “notebooks” scandal, the allegations arose in August after a local newspaper published diaries kept by a former government chauffeur, who said his notes documented hundreds of millions of dollars delivered to the offices of Fernandez and her late husband and presidential predecessor Nestor Kirchner.

“There is no evidence that links me to this alleged network,” Fernandez’s statement said.

Fernandez was previously indicted on corruption charges in 2016 after her former public works secretary was caught trying to hide bags of cash in a convent.

Fernandez’s current position as a senator grants her immunity from arrest, but not from investigation.

The probe has implications for next year’s presidential election. President Mauricio Macri is expected to run for a second term in October 2019, and his arch political rival Fernandez is among his possible challengers from the country’s Peronist movement. But the scandal is expected to limit her chances.

Some 85 percent of Argentines expect corruption to “decrease substantially within the next five years,” a recent survey by the International Federation of Accountants said.

“The optics do not look good for Fernandez’s re-election prospects,” said Jose Arnoletto, President of the Argentine Federation of Professional Economic Scientists.

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Venezuela Doubles Down on Chinese Money to Reverse Crisis

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday that new investments from China will help his country dramatically boost its oil production, doubling down on financing from the Asian nation to turn around its crashing economy.

 

Already a major economic partner, China has agreed to invest $5 billion more in Venezuela, Maduro said following a recent trip to Beijing, adding that the money would help it nearly double its oil production.

 

“We are taking the first steps into a new economic era,” he said. “We are on track to have a new economy, and the agreements with China will strengthen it.”

 

A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is gripped by a historic crisis deeper than the Great Depression in the United States. Venezuelans struggle to afford scarce food and medicine, many going abroad in search of a better life.

 

Venezuela’s inflation this year could top 1 million percent, economists predict.

 

After two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement, Venezuela’s oil production of 1.2 million barrels a day is a third of what it was two decades ago before the late President Hugo Chavez launched the socialist revolution.

 

Maduro says under the deal, Venezuela will increase production and the export of oil to China by 1 million barrels a day.

 

However, China is taking a strong role in its new agreements. Over the last decade China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.

 

The head of the National Petroleum Corporation of China will soon travel to Venezuela to finalize plans on increasing oil exports.

 

Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, said the influx of money appears to be investments China will control.

 

“The Chinese are reluctant to throw good money after bad,” Dallen said. “They do want to get paid back. The only way they can get paid back is to get Venezuela’s production back up.”

 

Venezuela also agreed to sell 9.9 percent of shares of the joint venture Sinovensa, giving a Chinese oil company a 49 percent stake. The sale will expand exploitation of gas in Venezuela, the president said.

 

Maduro also recently launched sweeping economic reforms aimed at rescuing the economy that include a creating new currency, boosting the minimum wage more than 3,000 percent and raising taxes.

 

Economist Asdrubal Oliveros of Caracas-based firm Econalitica said he doubts that Venezuela can reach the aggressive goal to boost oil exports to China by one million barrels a day given problems faced by the state corporation PDVSA.

 

“Increased production I see as quite limited,” Oliveros said. “The Chinese companies alone have neither the muscle nor the size to prop up production.”

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European Nations Plan to Use More Hydrogen for Energy Needs

Dozens of European countries are backing a plan to increase the use of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels to cut the continent’s carbon emissions.

 

Energy officials from 25 countries pledged Tuesday to increase research into hydrogen technology and accelerate its everyday use to power factories, drive cars and heat homes.

 

The proposal, which was included in a non-binding agreement signed in Linz, Austria, includes the idea of using existing gas grids to distribute hydrogen produced with renewable energy.

 

The idea of a “hydrogen economy,” where fuels that release greenhouse gases are replaced with hydrogen, has been around for decades. Yet uptake on the concept has been slow so far, compared with some other technologies.

 

Advocates of hydrogen say it can solve the problem caused by fluctuating supplies of wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energies. By converting electricity generated from those sources into hydrogen, the energy can be stored in large tanks and released again when needed.

 

Electric vehicles can also use hydrogen to generate power on board, allowing manufacturers to overcome the range restrictions of existing batteries. Hydrogen vehicles can be refueled in a fraction of the time it takes to recharge a battery-powered vehicle.

 

On Monday the world’s first commuter train service using a prototype hydrogen-powered train began in northern Germany.

 

The European Union’s top climate and energy official said hydrogen could help the bloc meet its obligations to cut carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris accord. Miguel Arias Canete told reporters it could also contribute to the continent’s energy security by reducing imports of natural gas, much of which currently comes from Russia and countries outside of Europe.

 

Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said encouraging the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and transporting energy makes sense, but added the overall goal for should be reducing fossil fuels rather than pushing a particular energy alternative.

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Audi Launches Electric SUV in Tesla’s Backyard

German luxury car brand Audi this week staged the global launch of a new electric sport utility vehicle on the home turf of rival Tesla, and highlighted a deal with Amazon.com Inc. to make recharging its forthcoming e-tron models easier.

The Audi e-tron midsize SUV will be offered in the United States next year at a starting price of $75,795 before a $7,500 tax credit. It is one of a volley of electric vehicles coming from Volkswagen AG brands, as well as other European premium brands including Daimler-owned Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo Cars and Jaguar Land Rover.

All aim to expand the market for premium electric vehicles and also to grab a share of that market from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, which has had the niche largely to itself.

“I want Audi to be the No. 1 electric vehicle seller in America over the long term,” Audi of America President Scott Keogh told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

Audi dealers, particularly those from California, where Tesla has made significant inroads, cheered the e-tron at Monday night’s crowded event.

Analysts on Tuesday expressed concern that the vehicle’s driving range may not measure up to that of the Tesla Model X. Audi officials said they do not have official range estimates for the e-tron SUV under U.S. testing procedures. They said the vehicle should achieve a range under less rigorous European testing standards of roughly 250 miles or 400 kilometers.

Keogh told attendees at Monday’s event that an e-tron had made a 175-mile journey over the mountains east of San Francisco with range to spare. He also emphasized that the e-tron is designed to recharge more rapidly than rival electric vehicles.

UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said in a note on Tuesday that the e-tron “fails to set new benchmarks in the premium EV segment, even though we consider it better than the Mercedes EQC.” The EQC is a rival electric SUV the Daimler AG brand plans to launch in 2020.

The e-tron’s 95 kWh battery has less capacity than the 100 kWh battery used in the Tesla Model X 100D model, but more than the base Model X 75D.

The Model X 100D is rated at 295 miles (475 km) of range by the U.S. government.

​Recharging

Audi and Volkswagen are using the U.S. launch of the e-tron SUV in mid-2019 to take aim at one obstacle to expanding electric vehicle sales: the lack of convenient ways to recharge their batteries.

Audi will partner with online retailer Amazon to sell and install home electric vehicle charging systems to buyers of the e-tron, the companies said on Monday. Amazon will deliver the hardware and hire electricians to install them through its Amazon Home Services operation.

Amazon’s partnership with Audi marks the first time the online retailer has struck such a deal with an automaker, and signals a new front in Amazon’s drive to expand its reach into consumers’ homes beyond the presence of its Alexa smart speakers in living rooms and kitchens.

“We see charging installation as a very important business,” Pat Bigatel, director of Amazon Home Services, told Reuters at Audi’s launch event in San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Center.

Audi executives said home charging stations would cost about $1,000, depending on the home’s electrical system.

Tesla offers wall connectors for home charging at a $500 list price, and will arrange for installation, according to the company.

At the same time, Electrify America, a company funded by Volkswagen as part of its settlement of U.S. diesel emission cheating litigation, plans to launch next year the next round of installations of public charging stations, Electrify America executives told Reuters.

Tesla has developed its own network of Supercharger charging stations with more than 11,000 chargers in North America.

Electrify America plans to have 2,000 chargers installed by mid-June next year. Those will be open to any vehicle, and customers can swipe a credit card to recharge.

“We want to work with all” automotive brands, said Giovanni Palazzo, Electrify America’s chief executive.

​Lifting the curtain

Audi has been heralding the launch of the e-tron SUV for some time, but until Monday it had not shared many details of the vehicle.

The e-tron is electric, and has two electric motors — one in the front and one in the rear — driving all four wheels. The Hungarian factory building motors for the e-tron will start with a production pace equivalent to 200 vehicles a day, Audi officials said.

In Europe, the vehicle will use cameras instead of conventional mirrors to give drivers a view to the rear. That feature is still not approved by U.S. regulators.

However, in many other respects the e-tron is a conventional, mainstream luxury SUV. It offers seating for five, and its length and wheelbase position it in the center of the market for midsize, five-passenger luxury SUVs such as the BMW X5. The e-tron is 5 inches (13 cm) shorter than the Tesla Model X, and it has conventional doors. The Model X uses vertically opening “falcon wing” doors.

The e-tron will have an advanced cruise-control system that can keep the car within a lane and maintain a set distance behind another vehicle, but the system will be designed so that drivers must keep hands on the wheel.

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Ukrainians Relive Bloodshed of Kyiv’s Maidan in Virtual Reality

A volunteer medic and the man whose life he saved. A lawmaker whose Facebook post calling for protests in Kyiv’s Maidan square helped bring down a president.

These are some of the characters featured in a virtual reality reconstruction of the bloodiest day in the 2013-14 street demonstrations in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich’s rule.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the protests, a group of 14 journalists, designers and information technology engineers developed a program that lets a user to walk through the area around Maidan square.

Videos of people who were there on Feb. 20 — the bloodiest day of violence — pop up to relate their experiences and explain the significance of particular spots. A transparent blue wall marks where Yanukovich’s forces lined up to repel the protesters.

For Alexey Furman, co-founder of New Cave Media, who covered the protests as a photojournalist, the experience of re-creating the event was cathartic.

“It was a very traumatic morning [for me], as it was for hundreds of other people,” he said. “I saw people getting killed.”

“I think the project actually helped fight the PTSD that I had because I’d been on Maidan dozens of times in 2013 and 2014,” he said in an interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Painful memories

He used to avoid Instytutska Street, which runs on a hill down to Maidan and was the scene of much of the bloodshed, because of the painful memories.

“But now to be honest, I come to Instytutska and go like, ‘Oh, we still don’t have that 3-D-model. We have to work on it.’ ”

The team said it took around 200,000 images to build the virtual reality model, a project funded in part with a $20,000 grant from Google Labs.

More than 100 people were killed during the protests, and they came to be known locally as the ‘Heavenly Hundred.” A small strip of Instytutska was subsequently renamed after them.

From exile in Russia, Yanukovich has denied Ukrainians’ widespread belief that he ordered his special forces to open fire.

At the end of the experience, the user meets two people whom fate threw together on Feb. 20 — a wounded protester and a medical volunteer who held his hand over the wound “for a good 20 minutes maybe even more,” New Cave Media co-founder Sergiy Polezhaka said in an interview.

“Hiding in a tiny place under the tree … waiting for danger to calm down a little bit, to save this protester’s life — this is the iconic image from that morning for me,” Polezhaka said.

The user will also meet the journalist-turned-lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem, whose Facebook post in November 2013, calling for demonstrations against Yanukovich’s decision to pull out of a deal with the European Union, triggered the Maidan revolt.

The protests in turn lit the fuse Russia’s seizing and annexing of Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of Russian-backed separatist fighting in the Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 despite a notional cease-fire.

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Will Flying Cars Take Off? Japan’s Government Hopes So

Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air.

This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map ready by the year’s end.

“This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind,” said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project.

Nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and, of course, safety concerns. But dozens of similar projects are popping up around the world. The prototypes so far are less like traditional cars and more like drones big enough to hold people.

A flying car is defined as an aircraft that’s electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically.

They are often called EVtol, which stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft.

The flying car concepts promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say.

“You may think of ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Gundam,’ or ’Doraemon,’” Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. “Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it’s time for it to become real.”

Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology.

Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car.

The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it’s unclear it will meet that goal: At a demonstration last year, the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it’s now flying more stably, though it’s being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won’t fly away.

There are plenty of skeptics.

Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be “1,000 times heavier” isn’t practical.

“If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter,” he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. “Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop.”

Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber’s efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the U.S. company’s work on EVtol machines.

Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations.

Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber’s “Elevate” structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023.

Uber’s vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate EVtol aircraft if the service takes off.

Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the U.S. and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars.

Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls, along with major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it’s safe.

Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city’s two international airports, among others.

“This is not a rich person’s toy. This is a mass market solution,” said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate.

Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers.

Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for “Blade Runner” style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation.

Japan’s auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said.

Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below.

Flying also has the allure of a bird’s eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism.

Atsushi Taguchi, a “drone grapher,” as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won’t become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras.

A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood.

The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered.

The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller.

“I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety,” said Taguchi. “And anything that flies will by definition crash.”

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Africa’s Youth Population, Poverty Spurs Gates Foundation’s Giving

Africa has the globe’s fastest-growing youth population as well as 10 of the poorest countries, a volatile combination that warrants making it “the world’s most important priority for the foreseeable future.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation lays out that argument in its second annual report on progress toward sustainable development goals set by the United Nations for 2030. This Goalkeepers Data Report, released Tuesday, urges targeting Africa with the same kind of investment intensity that lifted once-poor China and India into the ranks of middle-income nations.

Sixty percent of Africans are younger than 24, numbers that Melinda Gates emphasized in a phone interview earlier this month with VOA’s English to Africa Service.

“If the world makes the right investments in health and nutrition and education,” she said, it could unleash the potential of “an amazing generation that has unbelievable ingenuity.”    

The report notes that while the youth population is booming in Africa, it’s shrinking elsewhere in the world. For example, the median age is 19 in Africa – and 35 in North America. Populations are expected to soar by 2050 in the 10 poorest countries: Benin, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Zambia. 

Melinda Gates described the foundation as a “catalytic wedge,” whose investments can fuel beneficial projects and programs.

“We start getting things going” with many partners on the ground “working in culturally, contextually sensitive ways,” she said. “We take some risks, but ultimately it’s the governments who scale them up, and that work is done in deep partnership with many people around the globe.”

The Gates Foundation is the biggest of U.S. funders aiding Africa, such as the Ford, Rockefeller, Conrad N. Hilton, Carnegie and Open Society foundations, the website Inside Philanthropy reported in 2016. 

Earlier this year, it observed that charitable giving by Africans is growing, too.    

To date, the Gates Foundation has invested more than $15 billion “in projects relevant to Africa,” the report says, while promising to spend more. It has targeted three areas for investment: health, education and agriculture.

Health: The foundation subsidizes a range of health programs, from childhood vaccination and good nutrition, but it gives special attention to family planning and HIV interventions.

Among countries that have risen economically, “every one of them allowed voluntary access to contraceptives to women,” Gates told VOA. “We know if men and women can space the births of their children … there are more opportunities then for those children and their families. Girls can stay in school” and, when educated, are better able to provide for their families.

“Those people create amazing opportunities and new jobs in the economy,” Gates added.

The U.S. government is the biggest donor in global family planning and reproductive health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a nonprofit focused on health issues. U.S. spending on that front was at $608 million in fiscal year 2018, though the Trump administration has proposed reductions for 2019. Funding levels can reflect domestic and international political debates, especially over abortion, KFF’s website notes. It adds that, since 1973, the government has banned “direct use of U.S. funding overseas for abortion as a method of family planning. …”

The report praised Rwanda for building “an effective health system” that has brought about “the steepest drop in child mortality ever recorded.” In 2005, the country recorded 103 deaths per 1,000 lives births; a decade later, the death rate dropped to 50.

As for HIV infections, the report acknowledged progress in Zimbabwe, where a fourth of all adults were infected in 1997, the peak year of the epidemic.

“Since 2010, new infections are down by 49 percent, and AIDS-related deaths are down by 45 percent,” it noted. But it warned that the youth boom could bring a reversal without continued support for treatment and prevention methods.

Education: While school enrollment and literacy rates have improved, as the United Nations reports, that’s not enough.

“We need to get the quality of education to come up, much like Vietnam has done,” Melinda Gates told VOA.

Students in that country, labeled as low income until 2010, ranked among the best in the world in science in the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent assessment of 15-year-olds.

Agriculture: “… We need to make sure that we help countries move from subsistence farming to making real investments” supporting larger-scale operations so people can feed themselves, Gates said. 

Ghana provides a good example, she and the report noted.

With its current agricultural productivity and innovations such as new hybrid varieties of maize, the country’s “poverty rate is projected to fall from 20 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in 2030.”

But, the report observed, “There is ample room for Ghana’s agrifood system to keep developing.” For example, “cocoa, the country’s main export crop, is sold raw and processed outside the country. Meanwhile, almost half of all processed foods consumed in Ghana are imported.” Buying food processed in Ghana would keep more money in the country and generate jobs, it said.   

Since 2000, more than a billion people have risen from extreme poverty, a level that the World Bank sets at $1.90 a day. Melinda Gates attributed that rise to “investments the world made systematically in human capital: in health, in education, in agriculture. …

“A lot of the gains that we’ve seen can drop back, particularly with a growing population,” she said. “So our message to the world is keep your foot on the gas. Keep the accelerator going.”

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