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Nicaragua Downplays Potential Impact of US Bill on Lending

President Daniel Ortega downplayed the possible impact of a U.S. bill that would condition international lending to Nicaragua on a range of democracy and rights issues, saying it’s more of a political than an economic threat to his country.


“The world is not going to disappear, the economy is not going to disintegrate” if the so-called Nica Act passes, Ortega said late Thursday after meeting with representatives of the International Monetary Fund during a visit to the Central American nation.


The bill before the House and Senate calls for the U.S. to oppose most loans to Nicaragua’s government through organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, with the exception of funds for humanitarian purposes or to promote democracy.


That would be the official U.S. position unless the secretary of state certifies that Nicaragua is taking steps to hold fair and competitive elections, safeguard political rights, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption, among other conditions.

Similar legislation last year failed to advance in Congress.

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US Older-worker Rate Highest Since 1962

More Americans age 65 and over are still punching the clock. In fact, the last time the percentage was this high was when John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Last month, 19 percent of Americans age 65 and over were still working, according to government data released Friday. That’s the highest rate since 1962, and the trend has been upward since the figure bottomed out at 10 percent in 1985.

As America grows older and as life expectancy gets longer, some workers keep heading to the office because they like it and still feel engaged. But many others are continuing to work for a simpler, darker reason: They can’t afford not to.

More than a quarter of workers age 55 or older say they have less than $10,000 in savings and investments, according to the latest retirement confidence survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Perhaps because of small nest eggs, nearly a third of workers in that age group say they expect to work until at least 70, if they retire at all.

Older workers still heading for jobs may also be the lucky ones. Many older Americans would like to work but say they can’t find a job, whether because they lack the skills or because employers are looking for someone younger. The unemployment rate for workers age 65 and over was 3.7 percent last month. That’s a tick higher than its median over the last 30 years, though it’s down from earlier this year.

The numbers may rise higher, critics say.

Congress this past week voted to overturn a federal rule designed to help states give more workers access to retirement savings plans.

Several states have been pushing to create their own plans to get more workers into plans like a 401(k) that automatically deduct savings from each paycheck. Low-income workers tend to have much less access to savings plans through their jobs.

Republicans and players in the investment industry, though, argue that the state-run plans could end up being much more expensive than imagined and would water down safeguards in place to protect investors.

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Venezuela Full of Strife With Empty Refrigerators

In Venezuela, plagued with chronic food shortages and a devastated economy, Carmen Elena Perez describes her refrigerator as merely “an ornament in my kitchen, because filling it costs me too much money.”

Dulce Maria Garcia Leon, in the western state of Trujillo, says she has corn masa and “a little bit of cottage cheese” and eggs, though her fridge often holds “only cold.”

Vane Vargas jokes that her refrigerator, with its top-mount freezer, “is like the North Pole: ice above, water below.”

Bitter humor remains among the few things in plentiful supply in this once-wealthy South American country, where many of its 31 million people struggle to find enough to eat.

So VOA’s Spanish Service invited Facebook and Twitter users there to dish about the contents of their refrigerators and cupboards. The informal, unscientific survey drew more than 60 responses – 54 on Facebook, nine on Twitter – offering a glimpse into daily lives.

Now, few people mark their days with three full meals. Instead, many count the hours spent standing in line for bread, oil and other basics.

“We eat what we can get,” says Elvis Mercado of El Tigre, a city about 340 kilometers southeast of the capital. Usually it’s a meal of arepas, the Venezuelan pan-fried staple made from corn flour, “because the salary is not enough to buy food for a fortnight.”

A raise, but little respite

Seeking to counter widespread protests, socialist President Nicolas Maduro this week ordered a 60 percent raise in the minimum wage, including food subsidies and pension increases. That translates to roughly 200,000 bolivares a month – or $278 at the official currency exchange rate on May 5.

But, given a scarcity of dollars as well as consumer goods, that amount has the buying power of just $39 on the black market – the one in which everyone does business. The International Monetary Fund predicts Venezuela’s inflation rate – already one of the world’s highest – could reach 720 percent this year.

With increases in both wages and prices, “we are practically in the same” spot, Jhonaiker Daniel Rodriguez says.

“Thank you very much, but what is needed is to keep prices stable,” Nancy Haydee Roa says.

Rsan Leuqim writes that a carton of eggs is 11,000 bolivares ($2.15) – roughly 5 percent of a minimum-wage worker’s monthly total.

If you can find eggs. Many survey respondents complained of shortages of consumer goods, most of which are imported.

“We go to a store and there is nothing! If there is, it is very expensive,” Dexcy Ramirez says via Facebook. Near her home in Barinas, in west-central Venezuela, “a kilo of [powdered] milk costs 20,000bv” or $3.91.

Adreina Chauran Pineda frets about imports: “A soda is worth three days’ salary, a little vegetable soup is worth 1,500bv (29 cents). … A kilo of meat is worth 10,000” – or $1.96.

Changing diets

Rising costs have altered Paula Pena’s diet. “I buy grains,” she writes on Facebook, saying it’s what she and her family now primarily rely on for nutrition. She purchases meat, including chicken, “when we can. We cannot buy fruits or vegetables.”

Yamile Corona of Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city, writes of being “blessed with the mango tree.”

Scarcity generally is more pervasive outside of Caracas.

Shortages of food and medicine last year sparked dozens of riots and spasms of looting in parts of the country. Desperation has driven some people to forage for wild roots, occasionally with dire consequences. A young man in the eastern city of Maturin died on his 16th birthday last July after eating bitter yuca, a toxic plant, The New York Times reported in chronicling the case.

Luzdary Mussa Uribe writes that she once was well fed but has involuntarily lost weight: “What we are is yellow and thin.”

Government-subsidized food delivery

Last year, the government created a program called Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs) to manage distribution and combat hoarding. Community leaders deliver bags or boxes of foodstuffs to the homes of people who’ve registered.

“Only rice, milk, grains and flour are in the bags that the government sells,” [email protected] tells VOA via Twitter. “I have never received one. … And the corn meal that is really our daily bread, you just do not get it.”

Liliana Vasqez, who lives in Rio Chico in Miranda state, says she recently paid 10,500bv ($2.06) for a CLAP box containing a liter of oil, six cans of tuna, four bags of rice, small jars of mayonnaise and catsup, some pasta and a kilo of flour. Vasquez – whose son relayed her information to VOA – says it was the second time that a CLAP delivery was made in her neighborhood since the program began.

Nelly Mendez, a survey respondent from an unknown location in Venezuela, says she’s gotten deliveries “every 3 months of a case of CLAP” and the contents last just for two days.

The CLAP program has been criticized for inconsistency and for allegedly favoring supporters of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). 

“Sadly, both scarcity and hunger” mark the “disastrous reality” for Venezuelans, Raul Ernesto Gonzalez Salazar tells VOA.

For now, humor makes the situation almost palatable.

“The refrigerators are on vacation,” Nery Acevdo echoes, adding that soon hungry Venezuelans “will eat whatever we see.”

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Analyst: Trump Tax Plan Benefits Skew Toward the Wealthy

Small-business owners are applauding President Donald Trump’s plan to overhaul the tax system, saying lower taxes for everyone means more buying power for consumers and more money for businesses to hire workers. But can the White House plan simplify the nation’s cumbersome tax code fairly? And how would lower- and middle-income Americans fare? Mil Arcega spoke to tax analysts to find out.

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Japan, China, S. Korea Pledge to Resist Protectionism

Finance leaders of Japan, China and South Korea agreed to resist all forms of protectionism in a trilateral meeting on Friday, taking a stronger stand than G20 major economies against the protectionist policies advocated by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“We agree that trade is one of the most important engines of economic growth and development, which contribute to productivity improvements and job creations,” the finance ministers and central bank governors of the three nations said in a communique issued after their meeting.

“We will resist all forms of protectionism,” the communique said, keeping a line that was removed – under pressure from Washington – from a G20 communique in March when the group’s finance leaders met in Germany.

China has positioned itself as a supporter of free trade in the wake of Trump’s calls to put America’s interest first and pull out of multilateral trade agreements.

The trilateral meetings’ communique said Asian economies were expected to maintain relatively robust growth thanks to a long-awaited cyclical recovery in manufacturing and trade.

But it warned that downside risks remained and called for policymakers to use “all necessary policy tools” to achieve strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.

“We will continue a high degree of communication and coordination among China, Japan and Korea to cope with possible financial instability in the context of increased uncertainty of the global economy and geopolitical tensions,” the communique said.

It also said the three countries agreed to enhance cooperation under the G20 framework and work towards a successful summit of the group in Hamburg in July.

The trilateral meeting was held on the sidelines of the Asian Development Bank’s annual meeting in Yokohama, eastern Japan.

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Facebook Nears Ad-only Business Model as Game Revenue Falls

Facebook’s growth into a digital advertising power is showing a flip side: The social network is more dependent than ever on the cyclical ad market, even as its rival Google finds new revenue streams in hardware and software.

Facebook reported on Wednesday that 98 percent of its quarterly revenue came from advertising, up from 97 percent a year earlier and 84 percent in 2012. Revenue from non-advertising sources fell to $175 million in the quarter, from $181 million a year earlier.

Facebook has warned for some time about declining non-ad revenue. That part of its business consists almost entirely of video game players on desktop computers buying virtual currency, and it has fallen as gaming has moved to smartphones.

Facebook takes 30 percent of purchases, with the balance going to companies such as Zynga, maker of the game Farmville.

The company’s dependence on advertising is a long-term concern but it has time to find other revenue while building its core ad business, said Clement Thibault, a senior analyst at Investing.com.

“We have to remember it’s still a fairly young business. It’s not like they’re an old-fashioned business that needs to move soon,” he said.

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment.

Facebook’s share price hit an all-time high of $153.60 on Tuesday before dipping to close at $150.85 on Thursday.

The lack of diversification stands in contrast to Google, a unit of Alphabet. Its non-advertising revenue, from sources such as cloud services and Pixel smartphones, posted a 49.4 percent jump to $3.1 billion in the most recent quarter and now represents 13 percent of Google’s total revenue, up from 10 percent a year earlier.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said during a conference call in February that the company was diversifying revenue by expanding its base of advertisers across geographic regions and industries.

Facebook’s non-advertising products, such as its Oculus virtual reality headset and the Workplace office software, currently generate little revenue.

Some companies diversify through acquisitions, but most of Facebook’s purchases such as Instagram and WhatsApp have been in adjacent markets.

Chief Financial Officer David Wehner said in a conference call for investors on Wednesday that Facebook was not breaking out Instagram revenue as a separate line in financial reports because Instagram ads are sold through the same interface as Facebook ads.

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Tillerson Meets ASEAN Ministers to Seek Support on North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Thursday to seek their support in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

Tillerson’s first meeting with all members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations will also address another pressing regional issue – China’s assertive pursuit of territory in the South China Sea, where several ASEAN members have competing claims.

Tillerson told reporters at the start of the Washington meeting that he and his counterparts would discuss North Korea.

Last week in the U.N. Security Council, Tillerson called on all U.N. members to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, which has ignored demands to abandon its weapons programs and is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

He also called on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying it abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund the arms programs. Tillerson warned countries that if they did not do so, Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea.

All ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea and five have embassies there.

The Trump administration wants Southeast Asian countries to crack down on money laundering and smuggling involving North Korea and restrict legal business too, U.S. officials said.

The administration has been working to persuade China, North Korea’s neighbor and only major ally, to increase pressure on Pyongyang. U.S. officials say they are also asking China to use its influence with more China-friendly ASEAN members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to persuade them to do the same.

U.S. efforts have included a flurry of calls by President Donald Trump at the weekend to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Diplomats say U.S. pressure has caused some irritation in ASEAN, including Malaysia, which has maintained relations with Pyongyang in spite of the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother at Kuala Lumpur International airport on Feb. 13.

On the South China Sea, ASEAN has adopted a cautious approach recently toward China, with a weekend summit of its leaders avoiding references to Beijing’s building and arming of islands there.

Analysts say this reflects concerns among some in the region that former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has been abandoned in favor of Trump’s “America First” agenda, leading to more countries being pulled into Beijing’s orbit.


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EU Accepts Amazon’s e-book Commitments

The European Union’s competition watchdog says it accepts commitments made by online giant Amazon to change part of its e-book contracts to avoid fines for anti-competitive behavior.


Amazon has promised not to enforce any contract clause that might oblige other publishers to offer it similar terms and conditions as those offered to competitors.


The EU Commission said Thursday that it has made the commitments legally binding. Amazon could be fined 10 percent of annual turnover if it reneges over the next five years.


EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the “decision will open the way for publishers and competitors to develop innovative services for e-books, increasing choice and competition to the benefit of European consumers.”


The Commission says Europe’s e-books market is worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion).



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Eurozone Economy Growing at ‘Fastest Rate in 6 Years’

A closely watched survey indicates that economic growth across the 19-country eurozone struck a 6-year high in April.

Financial information company IHS Markit says Thursday that its purchasing managers’ composite output index — a broad gauge of economic activity — rose to 56.8 in April from 56.4 the previous month. The reading was at its highest level since April 2011.

Anything above 50 indicates expansion.

Chris Williamson, the firm’s chief business economist, said the survey portrays “an economy that is growing at an encouragingly robust pace and that risks are moving from the downside to a more balanced situation.” He said it’s consistent with quarterly growth of 0.7 percent.

On Wednesday, figures showed the eurozone grew by 0.5 percent in the first quarter.

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Urban League Report Notes Gains by Blacks, Hispanics in US

African-Americans and Hispanics, the largest racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, made positive strides economically and educationally during the past year but continue to lag behind whites, a civil rights group’s annual study contends.

“The theme of this year’s State of Black America report is ‘protecting our progress,’ ” National Urban League CEO Marc Morial said.

In its study, released Tuesday, the league found the standard of living for African-Americans was 72.3 percent of that of whites, on average. For Hispanics, the equality index was a bit higher, at 78.4 percent. The index measures quality of life for blacks and Hispanics in terms of economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement.  

Minority employment is at its highest level in almost a decade, but “any progress made towards racial equality is increasingly under threat.” Morial said. More minorities have health care at a time when efforts are underway to roll back expanding coverage, he added.

Improvements in education

The report indicated that African-Americans made gains in education, with a growing percentage of blacks staying in school and obtaining associate degrees.

According to the report, racial disparities plague minorities in terms of social justice equality. As examples, the report noted that more blacks are jailed after being arrested than is the case with whites, and that whites posted a greater decline than blacks in their likelihood of being victims of violent crime.

The study also found a troubling rise in hate crimes committed against members of religious and racial minorities. “A nation of a great mosaic that the United States of America represents cannot tolerate hateful incidents. It is corrosive, it is divisive and it is un-American,” Morial said.

The Trump administration has proposed major budget cuts to government programs that help low-income Americans, who are disproportionately black. The civil rights organization said it would press lawmakers and private groups to invest $4 trillion over the next 10 years in job training, enhanced education programs and infrastructure projects to revitalize minority communities.