Category: USA

Climate Change Cost US Ski Industry Billions, Study Says

DENVER — U.S. ski areas lost $5 billion from 2000 to 2019 as a result of human-caused climate change and could lose around $1 billion annually in the 2050s depending on how much emissions are reduced, a new study found.

People “may not care about the loss of the species halfway around the world, or a flood that’s happening in some other part of the world. But sport is often something people care about,” said Daniel Scott, a scientist at the University of Waterloo and study co-author. “And they can see some of these changes happening.”

Warm weather has upended winter recreation across North America and Europe this year, canceling a 402-kilometer dog sled race in Maine, opening golf courses in Minnesota, and requiring snow saved from the previous year to run a ski race in Austria. A warm, dry El Niño weather pattern coupled with global warming is to blame, scientists say, and has put the threat to winter on center stage.

“It’s a now problem, not a future-looking problem,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice-president of sustainability at Aspen One, a ski and hospitality company that helped fund the study, published in Current Issues in Tourism.

It models what average ski seasons would have looked like from 2000 to 2019 in the four major U.S. markets — the Northeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain and Pacific West — without climate change. Its baseline comparison is ski seasons from 1960 to 1979 — a period when most ski areas were operating and before significant trends of human-caused warming began. It found the average modeled season between 2000 and 2019 was shorter by 5.5 to 7.1 days, even with snowmaking to make up for less natural snow.

Under an optimistic emissions reduction scenario, the future of the U.S. ski industry would see seasons shortened by 14 to 33 days in the 2050s, even with snowmaking. A high-emissions scenario would nearly double the days lost.

Countries meeting for annual climate talks agreed in December that the world needs to be “transitioning away” from the fossil fuels that are heating the planet to dangerous levels, but set no concrete targets for doing so. Earth last year had its hottest year on record, and monthly records have continued this year.

“The future of the ski industry, if that’s something you care about, is really in our hands and it will play out over the next 10 to 15 years in terms of the policies and actions that we take to reduce emissions,” Scott said.

The researchers calculated economic losses based on increased operating costs for snowmaking along with lost skier revenue. Scott called the estimates “probably somewhat conservative,” noting that they don’t include such things as the loss of money that skiers spend on goods and services in winter sport communities.

The researchers said they undertook the study in part to fill a void in good data about how much climate change was costing the ski industry. They also suggested such data would be needed if the industry pursued lawsuits against fossil fuel producers, citing as a precedent ongoing litigation by several Colorado communities that are suing oil companies ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy for the cost of adapting to the impacts of climate change.

The researchers wrote that snowmaking is “no longer able to completely offset ongoing climate changes” and said “the era of peak ski seasons has likely passed in most U.S. markets.”

David Robinson, a Rutgers University researcher and the New Jersey state climatologist, made the same point as he called the study interesting and solid.

“It’s not going to stop snowing,” said Robinson, who wasn’t involved in the work. But “things such as snowmaking are only going to be able to go so far where it’s being done now” as the planet continues to warm.

Julienne Stroeve, a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, who also wasn’t involved in the work, said the study doesn’t address how skiers and snowboarders might respond to declining quality of the snow that does fall. She wondered whether skier behavior will change if poor snow conditions become more frequent.

That change in skier behavior is known as substitutability, Scott said. If skiing isn’t an option or doesn’t provide good snow conditions, will people travel to another ski area? Turn to mountain biking? Scott said he would like to find out.

“That’s another one of those things we’d love to know more about, because then you could improve the modeling,” he said.

Climate Change, Cost and Competition for Water Drive Tribal Settlement

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A Native American tribe with one of the largest outstanding claims to water in the Colorado River basin is closing in on a settlement with more than a dozen parties, putting it on a path to piping water to tens of thousands of tribal members in Arizona who still live without it.

Negotiating terms outlined late Wednesday include water rights not only for the Navajo Nation but the neighboring Hopi and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes in the northeastern corner of the state. The water would come from a mix of sources: the Colorado River that serves seven western states, the Little Colorado River, and aquifers and washes on tribal lands.

The agreement is decades in the making and would allow the tribes to avoid further litigation and court proceedings, which have been costly. Navajo officials said they expect to finalize the terms in the coming days.

From there, it must be approved by the tribe’s governing bodies, the state of Arizona, the other parties and by Congress.

“We have the right Congress, we have the right president, and it’s very hopeful,” Navajo President Buu Nygren told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Because next year might be a whole different ballgame. It’s going to be very uncertain.”

The proposal comes as Native American tribes, states in the Colorado River basin and Mexico are working on a long-term plan to share a diminishing water source that has served 40 million people. Tribes, including the Navajo Nation, were left out of a landmark 1922 treaty that divided the water in the basin among seven states.

The Navajo Nation has long argued that states treat the tribe as an afterthought. Any settlement reached would be separate from that long-term plan and stand on its own.

About one-third of the homes on the Navajo Nation do not have running water. Infrastructure projects outlined by the Navajo Nation include a $1.7 billion pipeline to deliver water from Lake Powell to tribal communities. The caveat being that there is no guarantee that Congress will provide the funding.

Both the Navajo and Hopi tribes are seeking the ability to lease water and to store it in existing or new reservoirs and impoundments.

“Some of our families that still live within those communities still have to haul water to cook their food, to make lemonade in the summer for their kids, to make ice, all little simple things to make your daily life easy and convenient,” Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said.

On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation cited climate change, cost, competition for water and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons to move toward a settlement. Arizona, in turn, would benefit by having certainty over the amount of water that is available to non-tribal users. The state has had to cut its use of Colorado River water in recent years because of drought and demand.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said Wednesday that while progress is being made on a settlement with the Navajo Nation, the agreement isn’t complete.

Sarah Langley, a spokeswoman for Flagstaff, the largest city that is a party to the settlement, said it is hopeful the negotiations are productive.

Arizona — situated in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin with California, Nevada and Mexico — is unique in that it also has an allocation in the Upper Basin. Under the settlement terms, Navajo and Hopi would get about 47,000 acre-feet in the Upper Basin — nearly the entire amount that was set aside for use at the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant on the Navajo reservation that shut down in late 2019.

The proposal also includes about 9,500 acre-feet per year of lower-priority water from the Lower Basin for both tribes. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.  

While the specific terms for the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe remain under discussion, Congress could be asked to establish a small reservation for the tribe whose ancestral land lies in Utah and Arizona. The tribe’s president, Robbin Preston Jr., didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions from the AP.

The Hopi Tribe’s general counsel, Fred Lomayesva, declined to comment.  

The Navajo Nation, whose 27,000 square-mile (70,000 square-kilometer) reservation also stretches into New Mexico and Utah, already has settled its claims to the Colorado River basin there.

The Navajo and Hopi tribes came close to reaching a pact with Arizona to settle water rights in 2012. Both tribes rejected federal legislation that accompanied it, and the tentative deal fell through. It also wasn’t broadly supported by Navajos and Hopis who saw negotiations as secretive, leading to a loose effort to recall then-Navajo President Ben Shelly and then-Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa.  

Recently, the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission has been holding public hearings across the reservation to ensure tribal members are aware of what is involved in a settlement and why the tribe pursued it, tribal officials said.

“We have a united front to our chapters, our schools and even our small businesses, families,” Curley said. “It’s inclusive of everyone. Everybody should be able to know what the terms are.” 

The federal government in recent years has poured money into tribal water rights settlements. The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled the government does not have a treaty duty to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Navajo Nation, complicating the tribe’s fight for water. 

Weather Delays SpaceX Launch Taking US, Russians to ISS

Blizzard Closes Roads, Ski Resorts in Sierra Nevadas

TRUCKEE, California — A powerful blizzard that a meteorologist termed “as bad as it gets” howled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, closing a long stretch of Interstate 80 in Northern California, forcing ski resorts to shut down, and leaving thousands of homes without power.

More than 3 meters of snow was expected at higher elevations, National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill said Saturday, creating a “life-threatening concern” for residents near Lake Tahoe and blocking travel on the key east-west freeway.

“It’s a blizzard,” said Dubravka Tomasin, a resident of Truckee, California, for more than a decade. “It’s pretty harrowing.”

Kyle Frankland, a veteran snow-plow driver, said several parts of his rig broke as he cleared wet snow underneath piles of powder.

“I’ve been in Truckee 44 years. This is a pretty good storm,” Frankland said. “It’s not record-breaking by any means, but it’s a good storm.”

Churchill said snow totals by late Sunday would range from 1.5 to 3.6 meters, with the highest accumulations at elevations above 1,500 meters. Lower elevations were inundated with heavy rain.

He called the storm an “extreme blizzard for the Sierra Nevada, in particular, as well as other portions of Nevada and even extending into Utah and portions of western Colorado.” But he said he didn’t expect records to be broken.

“It’s certainly just about as bad as it gets in terms of the snow totals and the winds,” Churchill said. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

A second, weaker storm was forecast to bring an additional .3 to .6 meters of snow in the region between Monday and Wednesday next week, according to the National Weather Service office in Sacramento.

Near Lake Tahoe, Thomas Petkanas, a bartender at Alibi Ale Works in Incline Village, Nevada, said about 1 meter of snow had fallen by midday Saturday. He said patrons shook off snow as they arrived at the brewpub and restaurant.

“It’s snowing pretty hard out there, really windy, and power is out to about half the town,” Petkanas said by telephone. “We’re one of the few spots open today.”

Adele Attix said her husband spent the morning clearing their driveway while she worried about whether she would be able to open her consignment clothing store in Truckee. She said Saturdays are usually the busiest day of the week.

“I’d say more than anything, just knowing if we’re going to open or not has probably caused the most amount of stress,” Attix said. “I figured I’d come down here and check out the shop.”

Earlier, the weather service warned that blowing snow was creating “extremely dangerous to impossible” driving conditions, with wind gusts in the high mountains at more than 160 kph.

Avalanche danger was “high to extreme” in backcountry areas through Sunday evening throughout the central Sierra and greater Lake Tahoe area, the weather service said.

California authorities on Friday shut down 160 kilometers of I-80, the main route between Reno and Sacramento, because of “spin outs, high winds, and low visibility.” There was no estimate when the freeway would reopen from the California-Nevada border west of Reno to near Emigrant Gap, California.

Travel was treacherous east of the Sierra, where CalTrans also cited “multiple spin outs and collisions” and “whiteout conditions,” as it closed 145 kilometers of U.S. 395 from near Bishop in the Owens Valley to Bridgeport, north of Mono Lake.

Pacific Gas & Electric reported about 7,468 California homes and businesses without power at 5:56 p.m. NV Energy reported power outages for about 1,500 customers in parts of northern Nevada, including Incline Village and Reno.

In southern Nevada the weather service issued a warning Saturday for high winds gusting to 145 kph. NV Energy reported almost 29,000 customers without power in and around Las Vegas on Saturday, but by that evening the number had been reduced to about 16,000.

A tornado Friday afternoon in Madera County, California, damaged an elementary school, said Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

Some ski resorts shut down Friday and were digging out Saturday with an eye toward reopening Sunday.

Palisades Tahoe, the largest resort on the north end of Tahoe and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, closed all chairlifts Saturday because of snow, wind and low visibility.

Other areas closed Saturday included Sugar Bowl, Boreal and Sierra. Heavenly Mountain Resort planned to open late with limited operations.

The storm began barreling into the region Thursday. A blizzard warning through Sunday morning covers a 480-kilometer stretch of the mountains.

Some ski lovers raced up to the mountains ahead of the storm.

Daniel Lavely, an avid skier who works at a Reno-area home/construction supply store, was not one of them. He said Friday that he wouldn’t have considered making the hour-drive to ski on his season pass at a Tahoe resort because of the gale-force winds.

But most of his customers Friday seemed to think the storm wouldn’t be as bad as predicted, he said.

“I had one person ask me for a shovel,” Lavely said. “Nobody asked me about a snowblower, which we sold out the last storm about two weeks ago.”

Meteorologists predicted as much as 3 meters of snow was possible in the mountains around Lake Tahoe by the weekend, with 0.9 to 1.8 meters in the communities on the lake’s shores and more than 30 centimeters possible in the valleys on the Sierra’s eastern front, including Reno.

Yosemite National Park closed Friday. Officials said it would remain closed through at least noon Sunday.

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US Airdrops of Humanitarian Aid Into Gaza Explained

WASHINGTON — The United States on Saturday began airdrops of emergency humanitarian assistance into Gaza. President Joe Biden, who announced the operation Friday, said the U.S. was looking into additional ways to help Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled territory as the Israel-Hamas war goes on. Here is a look at what to know:

When did the airdrops start?

Three C-130 cargo planes from Air Forces Central dropped 66 bundles containing about 35,000 meals into Gaza at 8:30 a.m. EST Saturday. The bundles were dropped in southwest Gaza, on the beach along the territory’s Mediterranean coast, one U.S. official said.

The airdrop was coordinated with the Royal Jordanian Air Force, which has been airdropping food and took part in Saturday’s mission.

More airdrops are expected to follow.

Why now?

Biden’s decision comes after at least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 others were injured Thursday trying to access aid in northern Gaza under disputed circumstances, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. Witnesses said Israeli troops opened fire as huge crowds raced to pull goods off an aid convoy, while Israel has said that it fired only when its troops felt threatened and that most of the civilian casualties were from trampling.

The U.S. has been pushing Israel to speed the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza and to open a third crossing into the territory, but the violence Thursday showed the challenges no matter the circumstances.

“The loss of life is heartbreaking,” Biden said as he announced his decision to order airdrops. “People are so desperate.”

How will the U.S. ensure aid gets to where it’s needed?

Asked how the U.S. would keep the supplies from falling into Hamas’ hands, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. would learn over the course of the aerial operation.

“There’s few military operations that are more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops,” he said. Kirby said Pentagon planners will identify drop locations aiming to balance getting the aid closest to where it’s needed without putting those on the ground in harm’s way from the drops themselves.

“The biggest risk is making sure nobody gets hurt on the ground,” Kirby said. He said the U.S. is also working through how the airdropped aid will be collected and distributed once it’s on the ground.

Will it make a difference?

The U.S. believes the airdrops will help address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, but they are no replacement for trucks, which can transport far more aid more effectively — although Thursday’s events also showed the risks with ground transport.

Kirby said the airdrops have an advantage over trucks in that planes can move aid to a particular location very quickly. But in terms of volume, the airdrops will be “a supplement to, not a replacement for, moving things in by ground.”

What else can be done?

The U.S. and allies have tried to broker a new temporary cease-fire between Hamas and Israel that would see the release of more hostages held by the militant group in Gaza, the freeing of some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and an up-to-six-week pause in the fighting.

If a cease-fire were secured, the U.S. hopes it would allow large quantities of aid to flow into Gaza over a sustained period. Biden said Friday the U.S. was working with allies on establishing a “maritime corridor” to provide assistance to Palestinians from the sea.

US Lawmakers Demand Probe Into Pakistan Election-Rigging Allegations

Washington — Thirty-one members of the U.S. Congress recently signed a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging them to not recognize a new government in Pakistan until an investigation into allegations of election interference has been conducted. Voters in Pakistan went to polls on February 8.

On election day, mobile services were blocked by Pakistani authorities and there were cases of violence. Many political leaders and activists were arrested in the weeks before the elections. There was an unusual delay in issuing the election results. All these things led to accusations that the vote was rigged.

VOA Urdu Service reporter Iram Abbasi interviewed U.S. Representative Greg Casar, a Texas Democrat, who wrote the letter to Biden.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: What are the three demands put forward to the White House and State Department in your letter?

U.S. Representative Greg Casar: I’ve led a group of over 30 members of Congress asking the United States and the White House to, one, withhold recognition of the folks that say they won the Pakistani election until an independent investigation is completed, showing that the election was not rigged.

Second, we are urging the release of any of those wrongfully detained for engaging in political free speech or just political activity, because people should be able to be journalists, to be able to be candidates, to be able to be political activists without fear of detention or violence against them.

And lastly, we want to make it very clear that the United States security assistance to the military in Pakistan and, frankly, to the military anywhere in the world, is contingent on following strong human rights standards.


VOA: What motivated you to lead a group of 31 lawmakers to write this letter to the president and Secretary Blinken?

Casar: If we believe in democracy [in] the United States, then we should believe in democracy everywhere, especially when it comes to our allies.

I, myself, have long studied how the United States suppressed democracy in Latin America. Far too often in Latin America, the United States supposedly was leading on democracy but instead let oligarchs, let large corporations, and let military interests override the will of the people.

And so, the United States supported coups, supported military governments and suppressed democracy in Latin America. And that ultimately hurt, not just Latin Americans, but also hurt people in the United States. It did not work. It did not work economically. It did not work for our safety. The same should apply with [the] United States and Pakistan. We should not simply let geopolitics or corporations or our military alliance override our core value of democracy.

VOA: You’ve just said that the U.S. has supported coups around the world. Some would argue that with this letter, you might be asking the U.S. to meddle in the internal politics of Pakistan.

Casar: We are not meddling in those internal politics. In fact, the question is whether or not there was a free and fair election. So, our interest is not whether one group or another group wins an election. The people of Pakistan should be able to decide their own election. … We have very clear laws that aid is contingent on human rights being respected, free speech being respected. We do not want the United States taxpayer dollars to go to militaries that then use that money to incarcerate journalists or suppress free speech or suppress political parties.

VOA: I’ve spoken to the State Department about this previously because these efforts have been made in the past as well. And their stance is that they want the people of Pakistan to decide who their leader should be. What would you say to that?

Casar: I agree that they should have that … we should not meddle in domestic politics and that whoever the people of Pakistan want to be elected by majority vote, that’s who should be elected. So, the question is, did that happen? And there is extensive video evidence, extensive testimony. And in fact, the State Department knows that there are very credible allegations that are on video, of things happening before the election and allegations after the election that are very concerning to the United States, but are also very concerning, even more concerning, to the people of Pakistan. So, I am not saying that we should withhold recognition of a government for no reason. We should only make sure that the will of the people of Pakistan is heard.

VOA: What do you think you would be able to achieve with this letter if the State Department has received such requests in the past? As you said, there are examples of how journalists are being put in jail and how there are several voices in Pakistan who are saying that elections are allegedly rigged. The government denies that. But what do you think you’ll be able to achieve out of it?

Casar: I think if there is an independent and credible investigation into these allegations and it is determined that the elections either were significantly rigged or were not, but the United States and a coalition of nations stands behind whatever the investigation finds — that will be very powerful and very important on the world stage and hopefully will help us get to a more stable and secure and democratic Pakistan, which is good for the entire world, because, as you know, this is a country of over 200 million people. This isn’t a small thing for the world.

VOA: In your letter, there is this notion that there was pre-poll rigging, along with the allegations of election rigging. Your letter seems to include that sentiment toward former Prime Minister Imran Khan, as though he was put in jail for the wrong reasons, or he had not been given a fair trial?

Casar: I believe that everyone deserves a fair trial, and it is so important for him [to receive a fair trial]. … The people of Pakistan want to be able to recognize this and know that their elections are fair and that their leadership was chosen fairly. And so, I think a fair trial for him is important. It’s important for everyone, but it is important, of course, for those political leaders. Again, I have no interest in whether he or anyone else leads Pakistan. That is not our interest in the United States. Pakistan should be able to determine its own domestic politics. 

US Court Ruling Could Allow Mine on Land Sacred to Apaches

PHOENIX — An Apache group that has fought to protect land it considers sacred from a copper mining project in central Arizona suffered a significant blow Friday when a divided federal court panel voted 6-5 to uphold a lower court’s denial of a preliminary injunction to halt the transfer of land for the project.

The Apache Stronghold organization has hoped to halt the mining project by preventing the U.S. government from transferring the land called Oak Flat to Resolution Copper.

Wendsler Nosie, who has led Apache Stronghold’s fight, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the decision by the rare 11-member “en banc” panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us — our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families, and our land,” Nosie said. “Today’s ruling targets the spiritual lifeblood of my people, but it will not stop our struggle to save Oak Flat.”

Apache Stronghold represents the interests of certain members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The Western Apaches consider Oak Flat, which is dotted with ancient oak groves and traditional plants, essential to their religion.

Oak Flat also sits atop the world’s third-largest deposit of copper ore, and there is significant support in nearby Superior and other traditional mining towns in the area for a new copper mine and the income and jobs it could generate.

An environmental impact survey for the project was pulled back while the U.S. Department of Agriculture consulted for months with Native American tribes and others about their concerns.

Apache Stronghold had sued the government to stop the land transfer, saying it would violate its members’ rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and an 1852 treaty between the United States and the Apaches.

The majority opinion of the appeals panel said that “Apache Stronghold was unlikely to succeed on the merits on any of its three claims before the court, and consequently was not entitled” to a preliminary injunction.

The dissenting five judges said the majority had “tragically” erred and will allow the government to “obliterate Oak Flat.”

Apache Stronghold, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, has 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Blasting a Native American sacred site into oblivion is one of the most egregious violations of religious freedom imaginable,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court has a strong track record of protecting religious freedom for people of other faiths, and we fully expect the Court to uphold that same freedom for Native Americans who simply want to continue core religious practices at a sacred site that has belonged to them since before the United States existed.”

Vicky Peacey, Resolution Copper president and general manager, welcomed the ruling, saying there was significant local support for the project, which has the potential to supply up to one quarter of U.S. copper demand.

Peacey said it could bring as much as $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy and create thousands of local jobs in a traditional mining region.

“As we deliver these benefits to Arizona and the nation, our dialogue with local communities and Tribes will continue to shape the project as we seek to understand and address the concerns that have been raised, building on more than a decade of government consultation and review,” Peacey said.

U.S. Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, called the court’s decision “wrong.”

“Tribal communities deserve the same religious freedom protections for their sacred sites that are respected for every other American,” Grijalva said. “The court acknowledges that foreign-owned Resolution Copper will completely and irreversibly desecrate Oak Flat, but they’re giving them the green light anyways.”

“It’s a slap in the face to tribal sovereignty and the many tribes, including the San Carlos Apache, who have been fighting to protect a site they have visited and prayed at since time immemorial,” he added.

VOA Immigration Weekly Recap, Feb. 18-March 2

Iris Apfel, Fashion Icon Known for Her Eye-Catching Style, Dies at 102

NEW YORK — Iris Apfel, a textile expert, interior designer and fashion celebrity known for her eccentric style, has died. She was 102.

Her death was confirmed by her commercial agent, Lori Sale, who called Apfel “extraordinary.” No cause of death was given. It was also announced on her verified Instagram page on Friday, which a day earlier had celebrated that Leap Day represented her 102nd-and-a-half birthday.

Born Aug. 29, 1921, Apfel was famous for her irreverent, eye-catching outfits, mixing haute couture and oversized costume jewelry. A classic Apfel look would, for instance, pair a feather boa with strands of chunky beads, bangles and a jacket decorated with Native American beadwork.

With her big, round, black-rimmed glasses, bright red lipstick and short white hair, she stood out at every fashion show she attended.

Her style was the subject of museum exhibits and a documentary film, Iris, directed by Albert Maysles.

“I’m not pretty, and I’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter,” she once said. “I have something much better. I have style.”

Apfel enjoyed late-in-life fame on social media, amassing nearly 3 million followers on Instagram, where her profile declares: “More is more & Less is a Bore.” On TikTok, she drew 215,000 followers as she waxed wise on things fashion and style and promoted recent collaborations.

“Being stylish and being fashionable are two entirely different things,” she said in one TikTok video. “You can easily buy your way into being fashionable. Style, I think is in your DNA. It implies originality and courage.”

She never retired, telling Today: “I think retiring at any age is a fate worse than death. Just because a number comes up doesn’t mean you have to stop.”

“Working alongside her was the honor of a lifetime. I will miss her daily calls, always greeted with the familiar question: “What have you got for me today?” Sale said in a statement. “Testament to her insatiable desire to work. She was a visionary in every sense of the word. She saw the world through a unique lens – one adorned with giant, distinctive spectacles that sat atop her nose.”

Apfel was an expert on textiles and antique fabrics. She and her husband, Carl, owned a textile manufacturing company, Old World Weavers, and specialized in restoration work, including projects at the White House under six different U.S. presidents. Apfel’s celebrity clients included Estee Lauder and Greta Garbo.

Apfel’s own fame blew up in 2005 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City hosted a show about her called Rara Avis, Latin for “rare bird.” The museum described her style as “both witty and exuberantly idiosyncratic.”

“Her originality is typically revealed in her mixing of high and low fashions — Dior haute couture with flea market finds, 19th-century ecclesiastical vestments with Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers,” it said. The museum said her “layered combinations” defied “aesthetic conventions” and “even at their most extreme and baroque” represented a “boldly graphic modernity.”

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, was one of several museums around the country that hosted a traveling version of the show. Apfel later decided to donate hundreds of pieces to the Peabody — including couture gowns — to help them build what she termed “a fabulous fashion collection.” The Museum of Fashion & Lifestyle near Apfel’s winter home in Palm Beach, Florida, also plans a gallery dedicated to displaying items from Apfel’s collection.

Apfel was born in New York City to Samuel and Sadye Barrel. Her mother owned a boutique.

Apfel’s fame in her later years included appearances in ads for brands like M.A.C. cosmetics and Kate Spade. She also designed a line of accessories and jewelry for Home Shopping Network, collaborated with H&M on a sold-out-in-minutes collection of brightly-colored apparel, jewelry and shoes, put out a makeup line with Ciaté London, an eyeglass collection with Zenni and partnered with Ruggable on floor coverings.

In a 2017 interview with AP at age 95, she said her favorite contemporary designers included Ralph Rucci, Isabel Toledo and Naeem Khan, but added: “I have so much, I don’t go looking.” Asked for her fashion advice, she said: “Everybody should find her own way. I’m a great one for individuality. I don’t like trends. If you get to learn who you are and what you look like and what you can handle, you’ll know what to do.”

She called herself the “accidental icon,” which became the title of a book she published in 2018 filled with her mementos and style musings. Odes to Apfel are abundant, from a Barbie in her likeness to T-shirts, glasses, artwork and dolls.

Apfel’s husband died in 2015. They had no children.

Alaska’s Iditarod Dogs Get Neon Visibility Harnesses After Crashes

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Iditarod, the annual sled dog race celebrating Alaska’s official state sport, is set to get under way Saturday with a new focus on safety after five dogs died and eight were injured in collisions with snowmobiles while training on shared, multiuse trails.

For the first time, mushers who line up for the ceremonial start in Anchorage will have the chance to snag light-up, neon harnesses or necklaces for their dogs before they begin the days-long race that takes the dog-and-human sled teams about 1,600 kilometers over Alaska’s unforgiving terrain.

The 38 mushers will trace a course across two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and along the ice-covered Bering Sea. In about 10 days, they will come off the ice and onto Main Street in the old Gold Rush town of Nome for the last push to the finish line.

Mushers always have contended with Alaska’s deep winter darkness and whiteout conditions. But the recent dog deaths even while training have put a focus on making the four-legged athletes easier to see at all times. Mushers typically wear a bright headlamp for visibility, but that doesn’t protect lead dogs running about 18 meters in front of the sled.

“I can’t make snowmachiners act responsibly, it’s just not going to happen,” said Dutch Johnson, manager of the August Foundation kennel, which finds homes for retired racing sled dogs. “But I can help make dogs more visible.”

Two dogs were killed and seven injured in November on a team belonging to five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey on a remote Alaska highway used as a training trail in the winter. It has recently become more popular with snowmobilers, bikers and other users, making it more dangerous for dogs.

Seavey said in a social media post that the snowmobile was heading in the opposite direction at about 105 kph when it slammed into the lead dogs on the team. The snowmobile driver was later cited for negligent driving.

In December, musher Mike Parker was running dogs for veteran Iditarod competitor Jim Lanier on the Denali Highway when a snowmobile driven by a professional rider struck the dog team. Three dogs died and another was injured. The driver, Erik Johnson, was testing snowmobiles for his employer, Minnesota-based manufacturer Polaris, and both were cited for reckless driving.

Julie St. Louis, the co-founder and director for the August Foundation, is close to the Lanier family and knew the dogs involved. When brainstorming with Johnson, they decided to use the nonprofit foundation to help outfit the dogs with harnesses and necklaces.

“It was one way we could step up and do something that was still within our mission, because we’re all about keeping the dogs safe,” she said.

The August Foundation has since secured an $8,500 grant from the Polaris Foundation and raised another $2,500 to buy 400 light-up harnesses, which were handed out to mushers at sled dog races in Fairbanks and Bethel earlier this winter.

The harnesses burn with bright neon-like colors that help illuminate the dogs in the darkness of the Alaska winter and pierce the clouds of snow sometimes kicked up by snowmachines, what Alaskans call snowmobiles.

They are now accepting donations to outfit as many dog teams as possible. Providing each team with four harnesses or lighted necklaces and one illuminated vest for the musher costs $120. A separate effort, called Light Up the Lead Dogs, is raising money to buy lighted collars for dogs.

In each of the accidents, Johnson said the snowmobile that hit the dogs was riding behind another snowmobile, which obscured visibility by kicking up snow.

“What I’ve witnessed with these harnesses is they make a halo effect in that dust,” Johnson said. “So they do give you some warning of where the lead dogs are.”

Jeri Rodriquez, the vice president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club, said the multiuser trails are getting busier and all users need to do all they can to be seen.

Johnson will hand out the lighted harnesses Saturday at the Iditarod’s ceremonial start in Alaska’s biggest city. The fan-friendly event includes a musher taking an auction winner in their sled over about 18 kilometers of trail. The race’s real start comes Sunday in Willow, about 121 kilometers north of Anchorage.

The dog deaths are the latest pressure point for the Iditarod, which began in 1973 and has taken hits in recent years from the pandemic, climate change, the loss of sponsors and the retirement of several big-name mushing champions with few to take their place.

The ranks of mushers participating this year dwindled even more last month as accusations of violence against women by two top mushers embroiled the Iditarod. Both were initially disqualified officially for violating the race’s conduct rules. One was reinstated later but wound up scratching because he had leased his dogs to other mushers and could not reassemble his team in time.

Three former champions remain in the race: 2019 champion Pete Kaiser, defending winner Ryan Redington and Seavey, who is looking for a record-breaking sixth championship.

Without More Funds, US Unable to Hit Ammunition Production Goals

Pentagon — The United States will not hit its 155-millimeter artillery shell production goals unless Congress passes the supplemental funding bill that’s currently stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives, officials tell VOA.

Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian forces began burning through U.S. stockpiles of 155 mm rounds used in howitzer systems, which the U.S. had provided to Kyiv to help defend its territory and citizens.

To quickly replenish U.S. stockpiles and keep up with demand for shells in Ukraine, the Pentagon set out to expand American production capacity from about 14,000 units per month before Russia’s invasion to 100,000 rounds per month in 2025.

“Without additional supplemental funding, we cannot achieve our goal,” a U.S. Defense Department official told VOA.

Plans to increase production

The U.S. is currently producing approximately 28,000 155 mm rounds per month, with a ramp-up plan to produce 70,000-80,000 rounds per month by the end of 2024, Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Jurgensen told VOA.

But 155 mm shell production will peak there unless additional funds are provided. A defense official told VOA that would not only prevent aid from flowing to Ukraine but would also impact the United States’ ability to replenish its own stockpiles.

An artillery duel

The U.S. and its allies have sent more than 2 million rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition to Ukraine to help Kyiv repel Russian forces.

Analysts and former officials say howitzer systems have been among the most effective weapons provided to Ukraine. The war has largely become an artillery duel between Ukraine and Russia, with both sides burning through as many as tens of thousands of rounds each week.

The U.S. Army has said it needs Congress to approve about $3 billion more in funds specifically for expanding 155 mm artillery round production to quickly replace stocks depleted by shipments to Ukraine as well as Israel.

The U.S. began sending artillery rounds to Israel following Hamas’ deadly attack on October 7. Israel has vowed to remove Hamas from the Gaza Strip in response to the attack and launched an operation into Gaza that has killed tens of thousands.

Analysts: Doha Agreement ‘Flawed’ as US, Taliban Accuse One Another of Violating Terms

washington — Four years after the signing of the Doha agreement, the U.S. and Taliban accuse each other of violating its terms, while analysts say that the agreement was “flawed” and has had “disastrous” outcomes for Afghans.

“The Taliban have not fulfilled their commitments in the Doha agreement,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday in a news briefing in response to a question from VOA’s Afghan Service.

“The Taliban have also not fulfilled their Doha commitment to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Afghans leading to a negotiated settlement, an inclusive political system,” she said.

After seizing power in 2021, the Taliban established an all-male Taliban caretaker cabinet and rejected calls to form an inclusive government.

Jean-Pierre added that the U.S. would hold the Taliban to their commitment and work “tirelessly every day to ensure that this set of commitments is fulfilled.”

The Taliban, however, accused the U.S. of “violating” the agreement.

“If you have read the agreement, it is written that the U.S. would normalize its relations with the future government in Afghanistan, remove the sanctions and restrictions, and cooperate, which [the U.S. does] not,” spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Thursday in an interview with state-run TV in Afghanistan.

Mujahid, however, said that the two main objectives — the U.S. withdrawal and not allowing anyone to use Afghan soil against the U.S. and its allies — have been implemented.

The U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, paved the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The agreement obliged the Taliban to cut their ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and participate in intra-Afghan peace talks to decide on “the future political map of Afghanistan.”

Retired U.S. General David Petraeus, who served as the commander of U.S. forces in South Asia and then as director of the CIA, told VOA that the Taliban obviously had not complied with the deal.

“If they had, the leader of al-Qaida wouldn’t have been a couple of blocks from the presidential palace, in a building controlled by the Taliban in Kabul, the capital … despite the promise in the agreement not to allow them back on Afghan soil,” he added.

He said that the outcome of the implementation of the agreement was “very tragic, heartbreaking and disastrous,” as since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has been facing multiple crises.

The United Nations says that Afghanistan continues to experience one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

‘Disastrous for Afghan women’

The Taliban imposed repressive measures on women, including barring them from attending high schools and universities, traveling long distances without a male companion, working with public and nongovernmental organizations, and going to gyms and parks.

Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan diplomat and member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, told VOA that the Doha agreement was “disastrous for Afghan women, as nothing related to human rights, women’s rights and women’s achievements from 2001 to 2021 were referred to in the agreement.”

She added that the agreement paved the way for the return of repressive rules against women introduced when the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s.

Before the ouster of the Taliban by the U.S. in 2001, women were not allowed to leave their houses without a male chaperone, work outside their homes, or attend school.

The international community has repeatedly called on the Taliban to respect women’s rights and form an inclusive government as conditions for their recognition.

No country has yet officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, although China has accepted the credentials of the Taliban’s ambassador in Beijing.

‘Flawed in almost every way’

Annie Pforzheimer, a former U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan, told VOA that there should have been “some kind of international guarantee” to prevent the Taliban’s return.

“But instead, what happened was a withdrawal that happened before the right circumstances were in place,” she said.

The agreement was “flawed in almost every way, in terms of implementation,” Pforzheimer said, adding that “the only people who complied with it were the international forces, and in fact the United States withdrew its forces and obliged NATO to do the same.”

She added that she was concerned about the future of Afghanistan, especially for Afghan girls and women who are “denied an education and a future.”

“Right now, there’s not much hope, but I think that Afghans working together will understand that they are in greater numbers than the Taliban,” Pforzheimer said.

Noshaba Ashna of the VOA Afghan Service contributed to this report, which originated in the VOA Afghan Service.

Lawyer Urges Judge to Disqualify Willis Over Relationship With Prosecutor in Trump’s Election Case

ATLANTA — Not removing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump and others over her romantic relationship with a top prosecutor would undermine public confidence in the legal system, a lawyer for one of Trump’s co-defendants told a judge Friday.

After several days of extraordinary testimony, the judge began hearing arguments over whether Willis’ relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade created a conflict of interest that should force both of them off one of four criminal cases against the former president.

John Merchant, an attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, told Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee that “if the court allows this kind of behavior to go on … the entire public confidence in the system will be shot.” If McAfee denies the bid to disqualify Willis, “there’s a good chance” an appeals court would overturn that ruling and order a new trial, Merchant argued.

Lawyers for Trump and other defendants say Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited when he paid for vacations for the two of them.

Willis and Wade have acknowledged the relationship, which they said ended last summer, but they have argued it does not create any sort of conflict and has no bearing on the case. The pair said they didn’t begin dating until the spring of 2022, after Wade was hired, and that they split travel expenses.

Since the relationship was revealed in early January, the subject dominating the court’s time and the public’s attention has not been the crimes prosecutors allege Trump and his allies committed while trying to overturn the election, but rather the intimate details of Willis and Wade’s relationship.The hearings have at times wandered into surreal territory: Atlanta’s mayor watching from the gallery as a former Georgia governor testified, Willis’ father talking about keeping stashes of cash around the house and details of romantic getaways.

Willis’ removal would throw the most sprawling of the four criminal cases against Trump into question as the former president seeks a return to the White House. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean the charges against him and 14 others would be dropped.

McAfee heard details of Willis and Wade’s personal lives and conflicting accounts of when they started dating, but it remains unclear whether he will find the relationship caused a conflict of interest that merits removing the prosecutors from the case.

At a hearing preceding testimony, McAfee noted that under the law, “disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one.” He said he wanted testimony to explore “whether a relationship existed, whether that relationship was romantic or nonromantic in nature, when it formed and whether it continues.”

Those questions were relevant only “in combination with the question of the existence and extent of any personal benefit conveyed as a result of the relationship,” McAfee said.

Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis, who has followed the case closely, said a lot will depend on which standard McAfee uses: an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict.

“The standard I think that’s applicable is an actual conflict of interest where the evidence produced shows that Fani Willis profited off the investigation and the charging decisions that she brought against the 2020 election interference defendants,” he said.

Because Willis and Wade said the relationship ended before they sought an indictment in the election interference case, it’s hard to argue the due process rights of Trump and his co-defendants were violated, Kreis said. But if McAfee applies an “appearance of conflict” standard, that could mean trouble for Willis and Wade “because the shadow has been cast over the whole thing,” he said.

If Willis and her office are disqualified, a nonpartisan council supporting prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would be tasked with finding a new attorney to take over. That person could either proceed with some or all of the charges against Trump and others, or drop the case altogether.

Even if a new lawyer moved forward on the path charted by Willis, the inevitable delay would seem likely to lessen the probability of the case getting to trial before November’s presidential election, when Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee.

A Fulton County grand jury indicted Trump and 18 others in August on charges related to efforts to keep the Republican incumbent in power even though he lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors, while Trump and 14 others have pleaded not guilty.

California’s Sierra Nevada Likely to Get 3 Meters of Snow From Blizzard

RENO, NEVADA — At least nine Lake Tahoe ski resorts closed and visitors to Yosemite National Park were told to leave urgently Friday as California’s most powerful storm of the season bore down on the Sierra Nevada, where residents were urged to take shelter as they prepared for up to 3 meters (10 feet) of snow in some areas.

The storm began barreling into the region on Thursday, with the biggest effects expected to close major highways and trigger power outages Friday afternoon into Saturday. A blizzard warning through Sunday morning covers a 482-kilometer (300-mile) stretch from north of Lake Tahoe to south of Yosemite National Park.

“Your safe travel window is over in the Sierra,” the National Weather Service in Reno posted Thursday morning on social media. “Best to hunker down where you are.”

Meteorologists predicted as much as 3 meters (10 feet) of snow was possible in the mountains around Lake Tahoe by the weekend, with 0.9 to 1.8 meters (3 to 6 feet) in the communities on the lake’s shores and more than 30 centimeters (a foot) possible in the valleys on the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada, including Reno.

Winds were expected to gust in excess of 185 kph (115 mph) over Sierra ridgetops and 113 kph (70 mph) at lower elevations.

“This will be a legitimate blizzard,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said during an online briefing Thursday. “Really true blizzard conditions with multiple feet of snow and very strong winds, the potential for power outages and the fact that roads probably aren’t going to be cleared as quickly or as effectively as they normally would be even during a significant winter storm.”

Backcountry avalanche warnings were in place around Lake Tahoe and areas around Yosemite National Park stretching down to Mammoth Lakes.

At Yosemite National Park, visitors were told to leave the park as soon as possible — no later than noon Friday. The park is closed at least through noon Sunday, with the possibility the closure could be extended, park officials said on social media.

At least nine Lake Tahoe ski resorts announced on their websites or social media that they were remaining closed Friday because of the conditions.

Extreme weather continues to affect the ski industry, as U.S. ski areas could lose around $1 billion annually in coming years because of a changing climate, a new study found.

The California Highway Patrol imposed travel restrictions on a long stretch of Interstate 80 between Reno and Sacramento, requiring drivers to put chains on their tires.

On the bright side, California water officials said the storm should provide a much needed shot in the arm to the Sierra snowpack, which is vital to the state’s water supplies and sits well below normal so far this season. The snowpack stood at 80% of average to date but only 70% of the typical April 1 peak, California Department of Water resources officials said Thursday.

“The results today show just how critical this upcoming month is going to be in terms of our water supply outlook for the upcoming year,” hydrometeorologist Angelique Fabbiani-Leon said during a briefing at Phillips Station, a snowpack-measuring location south of Lake Tahoe.

Rooted in Nature, Washington Festival Explores Ideas About Forests, Conservation

Exploring the relationship between humanity and nature, the Reach to Forest international festival brings artists together to plant ideas among viewers about the environment and conservation. From the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, VOA’s Cristina Caicedo Smit has the story. Camera: Phillip Datcher

Fox News: Civil Contempt Order for Journalist ‘Deeply Chilling’

Biden, Trump Visit US Southern Border

US President Joe Biden and his main challenger, Donald Trump, went to opposite ends of the 1,931-kilometer border separating Texas from Mexico on Thursday. Both went to draw attention to the surge of migrants seeking to enter the US, but their messages were radically different and show how Democrats and Republicans view this key election issue. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington.

AI Chatbots Provide False Information About November Elections

US Journalist Held in Civil Contempt for Refusing to Divulge Source

WASHINGTON — A federal judge held veteran investigative reporter Catherine Herridge in civil contempt on Thursday for refusing to divulge her source for a series of Fox News stories about a Chinese American scientist who was investigated by the FBI but never charged.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in Washington imposed a fine of $800 per day until Herridge complies, but the fine will not go into effect immediately to give her time to appeal.

Cooper wrote that he “recognizes the paramount importance of a free press in our society” and the critical role of confidential sources in investigative journalism. But the judge said the court “also has its own role to play in upholding the law and safeguarding judicial authority.”

“Herridge and many of her colleagues in the journalism community may disagree with that decision and prefer that a different balance be struck, but she is not permitted to flout a federal court’s order with impunity,” wrote Cooper, who was nominated to the bench by former President Barack Obama.

A lawyer for Herridge, Patrick Philbin, declined to comment. Representatives for CBS and Fox News did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The source is being sought by Yanpin Chen, who has sued the government over the leak of details about the federal probe into statements she made on immigration forms related to work on a Chinese astronaut program.

Herridge, who was recently laid off by CBS News, published an investigative series for Fox News in 2017 that examined Chen’s ties to the Chinese military and raised questions about whether the scientist was using a professional school she founded in Virginia to help the Chinese government get information about American servicemembers.

The stories relied on what her lawyers contend were items leaked from the probe, including snippets of an FBI document summarizing an interview conducted during the investigation, personal photographs, and information taken from her immigration and naturalization forms and from an internal FBI PowerPoint presentation.

Chen sued the FBI and Justice Department in 2018, saying her personal information was selectively leaked to “smear her reputation and damage her livelihood.”

The judge had ordered Herridge in August to answer questions about her source or sources in a deposition with Chen’s lawyers. The judge ruled that Chen’s need to know for the sake of her lawsuit overcomes Herridge’s right to shield her source, despite the “vital importance of a free press and the critical role” that confidential sources play in journalists’ work.

Herridge was interviewed under oath in September by a lawyer for Chen, but declined dozens of times to answer questions about her sources, saying at one point, “My understanding is that the courts have ruled that in order to seek further judicial review in this case, I must now decline the order, and respectfully I am invoking my First Amendment rights in declining to answer the question.”

Philbin, who served as deputy White House counsel during the Trump administration, has said that forcing Herridge to turn over her sources “would destroy her credibility and cripple her ability to play a role in bringing important information to light for the public.”

Philbin also told the judge that disclosing the identity of Herridge’s sources raises national security concerns, writing in court papers that there is a “serious risk” that Chen “was involved in making information about U.S. military members available” to the Chinese.

Legal fights over whether journalists should have to divulge sources are rare, though they’ve arisen several times in the last couple decades in Privacy Act cases like the one filed by Chen. Some lawsuits have ended with a hefty Justice Department settlement in place of a journalist being forced to reveal a source, an outcome that remains possible in Herridge’s case.

In 2008, for instance, the Justice Department agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit by Army scientist Steven Hatfill, who was falsely identified as a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks. That settlement resulted in a contempt order being vacated against a journalist who was being asked to name her sources. 

Career US Diplomat Admits Spying for Cuba for Decades

MIAMI — A former career U.S. diplomat told a federal judge Thursday he will plead guilty to charges of working for decades as a secret agent for communist Cuba, an unexpectedly swift resolution to a case prosecutors called one of the most brazen betrayals in the history of the U.S. foreign service.

Manuel Rocha’s stunning fall from grace could culminate in a lengthy prison term after the 73-year-old said he would admit to federal counts of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government.

Prosecutors and Rocha’s attorney indicated the plea deal includes an agreed-upon sentence, but they did not disclose details at a hearing Thursday. He is due back in court April 12, when he is scheduled to formalize his guilty plea and be sentenced.

“I am in agreement,” said Rocha, shackled at the hands and ankles, when asked by U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom if he wished to change his plea to guilty. Prosecutors, in exchange, agreed to drop 13 counts including wire fraud and making false statements.

The brief hearing shed no new light on the question that has proved elusive since Rocha’s arrest in December: What exactly did he do to help Cuba while working at the State Department for two decades? That included stints as ambassador to Bolivia and top posts in Argentina, Mexico, the White House and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

“Ambassador Rocha,” as he preferred to be called, was well known among Miami’s elite for his aristocratic, almost regal, bearing befitting his Ivy League background. His post-government career included time as a special adviser to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command and more recently as a tough-talking Donald Trump supporter and Cuba hardliner, a persona friends and prosecutors say Rocha adopted to hide his true allegiances.

Peter Lapp, who oversaw FBI counterintelligence against Cuba between 1998 and 2005, said the fast resolution of the case benefits not only the elderly Rocha but also the government, which stands to learn a lot about Cuba’s penetration of U.S. foreign policy circles.

Typically in counterintelligence cases, the defendant is charged with espionage. But Rocha was accused of the lesser crimes of acting as a foreign agent, which carry maximum terms of between five and 10 years in prison, making it easier for prosecutors and Rocha to reach an agreement.

“It’s a win-win for both sides,” said Lapp, who led the investigation into Ana Montes, the highest-level U.S. official ever convicted of spying for Cuba. “He gets a significant payoff and the chance to see his family again, and the U.S. will be able to conduct a full damage assessment that it wouldn’t be able to do without his cooperation.” 

But the abrupt deal drew criticism in the Cuban exile community, with some legal observers worrying it amounted to a slap on the wrist.

“Any sentence that allows him to see the light of day again would not be justice,” said Carlos Trujillo, a Miami attorney who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States during the Trump administration. “He’s a spy for a foreign adversary who put American lives at risk.”

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. 

For Some Chinese Migrants, Few Options in Xi’s China

 Lajas Blancas, Panama / Washington — With only a backpack, a portable tent and a small shoulder bag, Cong, a 47-year-old Chinese migrant, was one of more than a dozen migrants to step out of a narrow wooden boat on the stony shore of the Chucunaque River in Lajas Blancas, Panama.

The stop was one of dozens he had made over the past month, and it was where he met with VOA’s Mandarin Service on his journey toward the United States — a journey that began in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. Cong declined to provide his full name, citing security concerns.

As he walked across the shore under the hot sun, wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, black sports shorts and white Croc-like slippers, he limped slightly from a swollen ankle caused by a slip while crossing a river earlier in his journey.

Immigrants from China are the fastest-growing group of people making the long journey to the U.S. border. Navigating Panama’s treacherous Darien Gap, and risking death and disease, is a key part of that journey.

Like many others, Cong says he got a lot of information from online sources about how to make the trek, including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. After half a year of planning, he decided, “I must go.”

“When I came out, I decided it’s going to be worth it, even if I die on the way,” he said.

When VOA asked the former crepe store owner why he traveled thousands of miles to a country he had never visited before, he replied, “Freedom.”

“I want freedom,” he said.

Cong said there is no freedom in China, which made him depressed. He said his Douyin account had been banned several times for using sensitive keywords and criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Cong said his definition of freedom is that he doesn’t have to do what he doesn’t want to do, and that he can criticize the president.

China’s sluggish economy was another big reason why he decided to leave the country. Its stock market is at a five-year low, and the country has seen a decline in exports and imports. Last June, Cong had to close his crepe store for lack of customers.

“No one has money. There is no easy business,” he said. “Without foreign trade, it’s all domestic money changing hands. How can that create wealth?”

Cong is not alone in making the decision to make the trek to the U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that more than 37,000 Chinese migrants were detained at the U.S-Mexico border in 2023, nearly 10 times more than the previous year.

In the San Diego sector alone — stretching 100 kilometers inland from the Pacific Ocean — U.S. Border Patrol officials told a local television station this week they have made more than 140,000 arrests since October 1. They included about 20,000 people from China, a 500% increase over the same period a year earlier.

After crossing the border, the migrants surrender to the Border Patrol and declare their intention to seek asylum in the United States. They are processed and are often released within 72 hours. According to the Department of Justice, 55% of Chinese migrants were granted asylum last year.

Giuseppe Loprete, head of mission in Panama for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body that provides information for migrants crossing the Darien Gap, told Al Jazeera in an interview that the Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable due to the language barrier and a perception that they are wealthy.

Cong said he paid $700 to a tour guide he found on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for instructions to get to Acandí, Colombia. From there, he walked for three days in the rain forest. He paid another $25 for the boat ride on the Chucunaque River. But that is only a fraction of the expenses he has incurred on his journey of more than a month from Sichuan through Thailand, Turkey, Ecuador, Colombia and now Panama.

The number of individuals leaving China has surged since Xi took office in 2013. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 700,000 Chinese sought asylum overseas between 2013 and 2021. That included more than 100,000 each year between 2019 and 2021, the last year for which UNHCR statistics are available.

The dramatic rise in Chinese migrants coming to the U.S. has raised national security concerns in America, with some questioning whether there are Chinese spies among them.

Republican Representative Mark Green, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, sounded an alarm about the wave of Chinese migrants entering the United States last June, claiming the majority are military-age men with known ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army.

Green and fellow Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Troy E. Nehls introduced the No Asylum for CCP Spies Act last year, which if passed, would prevent CCP members from seeking asylum in the U.S.

Border patrol agents encountered 5,717 single Chinese adults in January, more than twice as many as in any other January on record, CBP data shows. In December, that figure hit a record high of 7,581, while the total since January 2023 now stands at 64,979.

VOA Mandarin observed more Chinese men than women traveling alone.

With several thousand kilometers to go on his journey, Cong says few things are certain. He says he hopes to begin life in the U.S. by washing dishes in a restaurant after arriving at his final destination.

“Better to do all you can rather than floating along helplessly,” he said.

Calla Yu contributed to this report.

With Back-to-Back Actions, Biden Spotlights China Data Security Threat

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration launched a series of actions against China in recent days, sustaining pressure against the United States’ key strategic rival even as it focuses on more urgent fronts, including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

In the span of one week, the administration announced an executive order to protect Americans’ personal data from foreign adversaries, including China; launched an investigation into potential security threats posed by connected vehicles that use Chinese technology; and placed sanctions on Chinese entities for supporting Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The actions taken by President Joe Biden stand in contrast to the months of warming ties following a November summit in California between him and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping — a meeting aimed to improve a bilateral relationship that had reached its lowest point in decades due to rivalry and mistrust.

Since the summit, diplomatic engagement has increased from both sides, including the resumption of military-to-military talks that were frozen after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan.

Restarting staff-level talks in early January was key to ensuring that the two sides avoided a major cross-strait incident during Taiwan’s election later in the month.

In January, Washington and Beijing also launched a working group designed to crack down on the flow of Chinese precursors used in the production of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs sold in the U.S., another sign of cooperation between the superpowers.

Ties improved to the point that Beijing marked the 45th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in January with a lavish banquet, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised that Chinese giant pandas, much loved by American zoo visitors, will return to U.S. by the end of the year.

So why the flurry of actions against China now?

National security issue

The White House sidestepped questions on the back-to-back timing of the measures.

Biden is “concerned about countries like China,” White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

“China is right now looking to flood the market here in the United States and around the world with vehicles equipped with advanced technology from countries of concern,” she said. “That’s a national security issue that we take very seriously.”

An administration official told reporters during a briefing that the U.S. Commerce Department probe launched Thursday to ensure that Chinese cars driving on American roads do not undermine U.S. national security, is “complementary and distinct” from the executive order to protect Americans’ personal data from China and other foreign adversaries. The latter order blocks bulk transfers of data such as geolocation, biometric, health and financial information to “countries of concern.”

By putting the two announcements next to each other, the administration is trying to communicate that they’re taking data security seriously, said Emily Benson, director of the Project on Trade and Technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The anticipated outcome there was to signal that the connected vehicle rules are actually a national security instrument,” Benson told VOA.

The U.S. plans to engage partners and allies following the investigation into the threat posed by Chinese vehicles. There’s a “growing sense of the security risks” and “really strong interest in the measures that we might take and the results of the investigation,” an administration official told VOA during a briefing Wednesday.

Biden himself warned of the dangers.

“Connected vehicles from China could collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People’s Republic of China,” the president said in a statement.

National security concerns aside, the administration is also anticipating an overcapacity of more affordable Chinese vehicles entering the American marketplace, especially as Chinese auto producers such as BYD set up manufacturing facilities in Mexico that would afford them more favorable tariff rates under USMCA, the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“That has created a lot of fear in Washington about the longevity of the U.S. automobile sector,” Benson said.

She added that the executive actions taken this week are “easier and more appropriate” than the effort to ban TikTok. The social media app is used by more than 100 million Americans despite allegations that its China-based parent company, ByteDance, could collect sensitive user data.

While the federal government and dozens of individual states have barred TikTok from government devices, Congress has yet to enact legislation to ban Americans from using the application on their personal devices.

The app is highly popular, especially among young people, prompting Biden’s campaign to join the platform despite the administration’s previously firm stance on its potential national security concerns.

Balanced approach

As Biden gears up for his reelection campaign, his administration is keen to project the image that they are taking the threat of China seriously, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

“Balancing has always been the theme of his policy,” Sun told VOA. “When there is positive engagement, there’s also the punitive gestures.”

Without such gestures, the administration would be vulnerable to criticism that it is ignoring the fact that Beijing remains a source of significant national security challenges for the United States, she said.

“The administration has to demonstrate that it is extremely clear-eyed about the limitation of engagement but also the desirability of the engagement,” she said. “Engagement does not mean there’s no problem.”

Washington also announced sanctions against Chinese firms last week as part of a measure marking the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The trade penalties targeted entities in Russia and in countries viewed by the administration as supporting Moscow’s war effort.

The actions against China followed a meeting between Wang and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier in February.

In the meeting, Wang warned Blinken that turning de-risking “into ‘de-China,’ building ‘small courtyards and high walls,’ and engaging in ‘decoupling from China’ will eventually backfire on the United States.”

Odysseus Lunar Lander Makes History, Then Tips Over

A lunar landing more than 50 years in the making is a partial success. Plus, the U.S. says Russia may launch a nuclear weapon into orbit. The Kremlin calls it spin. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

US House Approves Another Extension to Avoid Shutdown

WASHINGTON — The House passed another short-term spending measure Thursday that would keep one set of federal agencies operating through March 8 and another set through March 22, avoiding a shutdown for parts of the federal government that would otherwise kick in Saturday. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later in the day.

The short-term extension is the fourth in recent months, and many lawmakers expect it to be the last for the current fiscal year, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, who said that negotiators had completed six of the annual spending bills that fund federal agencies and had “almost final agreement on the others.”

“We’ll get the job done,” Johnson said as he exited a closed-door meeting with Republican colleagues.

The vote to approve the measure was 320-99. It easily cleared the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

At the end of the process, now expected to extend into late March, Congress is set to approve more than $1.6 trillion in spending for the fiscal year that began October 1 — roughly in line with the previous fiscal year. That’s the amount that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated with the White House last year before eight disgruntled Republican lawmakers joined with Democrats a few months later and voted to oust him from the position.

Some of the House’s most conservative members wanted deeper cuts than that agreement allowed through its spending caps. They also sought an array of policy changes that Democrats opposed. They were hoping the prospect of a shutdown could leverage more concessions.

“Last I checked, the Republicans actually have a majority in the House of Representatives, but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at our checkbook because we are all too willing to continue the policy choices of Joe Biden and the spending levels of Nancy Pelosi,” said lawmaker Matt Gaetz, a Republican representative from Florida.


But Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican from Tennessee, countered before the vote that shutdowns are damaging and encouraged lawmakers to vote for the short-term extension.

“I want the American people to know Mr. Speaker that this negotiation has been difficult, but to close the government down at a time like this would hurt people who should not be hurt,” Fleischmann said.

The split within the GOP conference and their tiny House majority has bogged down the efforts to get the spending bills passed on a timely basis. With the Senate also struggling to complete work on all 12 appropriations bills, lawmakers have resorted to a series of short-term measures to keep the government funded.

Republican leadership said that the broader funding legislation being teed up for votes in the next few weeks would lead to spending cuts for many nondefense agencies. By dividing the spending bill up into chunks, they are hoping to avoid an omnibus bill — a massive, all-encompassing bill that lawmakers generally had little time to digest or understand before voting on it. Republicans vowed there would be no omnibus this time.

“When you take away Defense and Veterans Affairs, the rest of the agencies are going to be seeing spending cuts in many cases,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican. “There are also some policy changes that we pushed through the House that will be in the final product. Of course, some of those are still being negotiated.”

Once the House votes on this week’s temporary spending measure, the Senate is expected to take it up before sending it to President Biden’s desk before Friday’s midnight deadline.

The temporary extension funds the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Interior and others through March 8. It funds the Pentagon, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the State Department through March 22.

The renewed focus on this year’s spending bills doesn’t include the separate, $95.3 billion aid package that the Senate approved for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan earlier this month, with much of that money being spent in the U.S. to replenish America’s military arsenal.

Biden summoned congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday, during which he and others urged Johnson to also move forward with the aid package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the U.S. can’t afford to wait months to provide more military assistance to Ukraine, which is running short of the arms and ammunition necessary to repel Russia’s military invasion.

“We’ve got a lot of priorities before us, but we have to get the government funded and secure our border and then we’ll address everything else,” Johnson told reporters upon exiting his meeting with GOP colleagues.

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