Morales Leads in Bolivia Vote, But Seems Headed for Runoff

President Evo Morales led in early returns from the first round of Sunday’s presidential election, but he appeared to have failed to get enough votes to avoid a runoff in the tightest political race of his life.

The Andean country’s top electoral authority said Sunday night that a preliminary count of 84% of the votes showed Morales on top with 45.3%, followed by 38.2% for his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa. If the results hold, the two men will face off in December and Morales could be vulnerable to a united opposition in the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.

Mesa told supporters shortly after the first results were announced that his coalition had scored “an unquestionable triumph,” and he urged others parties to join him for a “definitive triumph” in the second round.

Morales claimed a victory for himself, saying that “the people have again imposed their will.”

“We are not alone. That is why we have won again,” he told supporters at the presidential palace.

To avoid a runoff and win outright, Morales would have needed to get 50% of the votes plus one or have 40% and finish 10 percentage points ahead of the nearest challenger.

Morales came to prominence leading social protests in the landlocked country of 11 million people and rose to power as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006. The 59-year-old leftist is South America’s longest-serving leader.

Mesa is a 66-year-old historian who as vice president rose to Bolivia’s top office when his predecessor resigned the presidency in 2003 amid widespread protests. Mesa then stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers union.

Voting, which was mandatory, was mostly calm, though police said they arrested more than 100 people for violating the country’s rigid election-day rules against drinking, large gatherings or casual driving. In a surprise result, Chi Hyun Chung, a physician and evangelical pastor of South Korean ancestry, was in third with 8.8% of the vote.

Bolivians also elected all 166 congressional seats. Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party lost seats although it retained a majority in Congress.

Morales voted early in the coca-growing region of El Chapare, where residents threw flower petals at him and he said he remained confident of his chances.

In his years in office, he allied himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders and used revenues from the Andean country’s natural gas and minerals to redistribute wealth among the masses and lift millions out of poverty in the region’s poorest country. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average.

Morales, the son of Aymara Indian shepherds, has also been credited for battling racial inequalities.

Many Bolivians, such as vendor Celestino Aguirre still identify with “Evo,” as he’s widely known, saying people shouldn’t criticize him so much. “It’s not against Evo, it’s against me, against the poor people, against the humble.”

But Morales also has faced growing dissatisfaction even among his indigenous supporters. Some are frustrated by corruption scandals linked to his administration – though not Morales himself – and many by his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country’s top court, which is seen by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales’ political rights as a citizen.

“I’m thinking of a real change because I think that Evo Morales has done what he had to do and should leave by the front door,” said Nicolas Choque, a car washer.

Mauricio Parra, who administers a building in downtown La Paz, said he voted for Morales in 2006 as a reaction against previous center-right governments, but this time, he voted for Mesa.

Morales “did very well those four years. … (But) in his second term there were problems of corruption, drug trafficking, nepotism and other strange things,” Parra said, saying that led him to vote against repealing term limits in the 2016 referendum. “He hasn’t respected that. That is the principle reason that I’m not going to vote for Evo Morales.”

“A runoff will be a heart-stopping finish,” Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja said ahead of the results. “It would break with the myth that it’s hard to beat Evo Morales.”

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US Defense Chief in Afghanistan for Firsthand Look at War

Mark Esper sought a firsthand assessment Sunday of the U.S. military’s future role in America’s longest war as he made his initial visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief. Stalled peace talks with the Taliban and unrelenting attacks by the insurgent group and Islamic State militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops.

Esper told reporters traveling with him that he believes the U.S. can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. But he said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

The U.S. has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the American-led coalition. U.S. forces are training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations against extremists. President Donald Trump had ordered a troop withdrawal in conjunction with the peace talks that would have left about 8,600 American forces in the country.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban, but a surge in Taliban violence and the death of an American soldier last month prompted Trump to cancel a secret Camp David meeting where the peace deal would have been finalized. He declared the tentative agreement dead.

FILE – U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2019.

‘The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” said Esper. He visited Afghanistan in his previous job as U.S. Army secretary.

He would not say how long he believes it may be before a new peace accord could be achieved.

A month after the peace agreement collapsed, Khalilzad met with Taliban in early October in Islamabad, Pakistan, but it was not clear what progress, if any, was being made.

Esper’s arrival in Kabul came as Afghan government leaders delayed the planned announcement of preliminary results of last month’s presidential election. Esper met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was visiting Afghanistan with a congressional delegation at the same time.

Her office said in a statement Sunday night the bipartisan delegation met with top Afghan leaders, civil society representatives and U.S. military chiefs and troops serving there. Pelosi says the delegation emphasized the importance of combating corruption and ensuring women are at the table in reconciliation talks.

Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win. The Sept. 28 vote was marred by widespread misconduct and accusations of fraud.

Officials said the announcement of preliminary results has been delayed due to problems with the transparency of the process, delays in transferring ballot papers and delays in transferring data from a biometric system into the main server.

Esper planned to meet with his top commanders in Afghanistan as the U.S. works to determine the way ahead in the 18-year war.

Trump, since his 2016 presidential campaign, has spoken of a need to withdraw U.S. troops from the “endless war” in Afghanistan. He has complained that the U.S. has been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and says that’s not the American military’s job.

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Report: Synagogue Massacre led to String of Attack Plots

At least 12 white supremacists have been arrested on allegations of plotting, threatening or carrying out anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. since the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue nearly one year ago, a Jewish civil rights group reported Sunday.

The Anti-Defamation League also counted at least 50 incidents in which white supremacists are accused of targeting Jewish institutions’ property since a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. Those incidents include 12 cases of vandalism involving white supremacist symbols and 35 cases in which white supremacist propaganda was distributed.

The ADL said its nationwide count of anti-Semitic incidents remains near record levels. It has counted 780 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2019, compared to 785 incidents during the same period in 2018.

The ADL’s tally of 12 arrests for white supremacist plots, threats and attacks against Jewish institutions includes the April 2019 capture of John T. Earnest, who is charged with killing one person and wounding three others in a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California. The group said many of the cases it counted, including the Poway shooting, were inspired by previous white supremist attacks. In online posts, Earnest said he was inspired by the deadly attacks in Pittsburgh and on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman killed 51 people in March.

The ADL also counted three additional 2019 cases in which individuals were arrested for targeting Jews but weren’t deemed to be white supremacists. Two were motivated by Islamist extremist ideology, the organization said.

The ADL said its Center on Extremism provided “critical intelligence” to law enforcement in at least three of the 12 cases it counted.

Last December, authorities in Monroe, Washington, arrested a white supremacist after the ADL notified law enforcement about suspicions he threatened on Facebook to kill Jews in a synagogue. The ADL said it also helped authorities in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, identify a white supremacist accused of using aliases to post threatening messages, including a digital image of himself pointing an AR-15 rifle at a group of praying Jewish men.

In August, an FBI-led anti-terrorism task force arrested a Las Vegas man accused of plotting to firebomb a synagogue or other targets, including a bar catering to LGTBQ customers and the ADL’s Las Vegas office. The ADL said it warned law enforcement officials about the man’s online threats.

“We cannot and will not rest easy knowing the threat posed by white supremacists and other extremists against the Jewish community is clear and present,” the group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement.

The ADL said it counted at least 30 additional incidents in which people with an “unknown ideology” targeted Jewish institutions with acts of arson, vandalism or propaganda distribution that the group deemed to be anti-Semitic or “generally hateful,” but not explicitly white supremacist.

“These incidents include the shooting of an elderly man outside a synagogue in Miami, fires set at multiple Jewish institutions in New York and Massachusetts, Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogue windows in Chicago, damaged menorahs in Georgia and New Jersey, as well as a wide range of anti-Semitic graffiti,” an ADL report said.

 

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Indonesia’s Popular President Sworn in for 2nd Term

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who rose from poverty and pledged to champion democracy, fight entrenched corruption and modernize the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, was sworn in Sunday for his second and final five-year term with a pledge to take bolder actions.

Army troops and police, along with armored vehicles, firetrucks and ambulances, were deployed across Jakarta, the vast capital, and major roads were closed in a departure from the more relaxed atmosphere of the popular Widodo’s 2014 inauguration. An Oct. 10 knife attack by an Islamic militant couple that wounded the country’s security minister set off a security crackdown.

Known for his down-to-earth style, Widodo, 58, opted for an austere ceremony at the heavily guarded Parliament without the festive parade that transported him after his inauguration five years ago on a horse-drawn carriage in downtown Jakarta, where he was then cheered on by thousands of waving supporters.

On his way to the ceremony Sunday, Widodo got out of his convoy with some of his security escorts and shook the hands of supporters, who yelled his name, waved Indonesia’s red-and-white flag and called him “bapak,” or father.

After taking his oath before the Quran, the Muslim holy book, in front of hundreds of lawmakers and foreign dignitaries in the heavily guarded Parliament, Widodo laid out ambitious targets to help Indonesia join the ranks of the world’s developed nations by the time it marks a century of independence in 2045.

He said in his inauguration speech that he expects poverty – which afflicts close to 10 percent of Indonesia’s nearly 270 million people – to be just about wiped out and the country’s annual GDP to reach $7 trillion by then.

“For those who are not serious, I’ll be merciless. I would definitely fire people,” Widodo warned.

Western and Asian leaders and special envoys, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, flew in for the inauguration. President Donald Trump sent Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao for the ceremony in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and a member of the G-20 bloc of nations.

Indonesia is a bastion of democracy in Southeast Asia, a diverse and economically bustling region of authoritarian regimes, police states and nascent democracies.

After decades of dictatorship under President Suharto, the country was convulsed by political, ethnic and religious unrest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, it has consolidated its democratic transition. While most of the country remains poor and inequality is rising, it is home to a rapidly expanding middle class.

Popularly known as Jokowi, Widodo is the son of a furniture maker who grew up with his family in a rented bamboo shack on the banks of a flood-prone river in Solo city on Java island. He is the first president from outside the country’s super rich, and often corrupt, political, business and military elite.

Widodo presents himself as a man of the people, often emphasizing his humble roots. His popular appeal, including his pioneering use of social media, helped him win elections over the past 14 years for mayor of Solo, governor of Jakarta and twice for president. In a reflection of his popularity, he has nearly 26 million followers on Instagram and more than 12 million on Twitter.

He has been likened to Barack Obama, but since taking office he has been perceived as unwilling to press for accountability that threatens powerful institutions such as the military. Instead, he has emphasized nationalism while also fending off attacks that he is not devout enough as a Muslim.

Widodo was sworn in with his new vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, one of the most important religious figures in Indonesia. He chose Amin as his running mate to shore up his support among pious Muslims. Amin was chairman of Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country’s council of Islamic leaders, and supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization.

But Amin, 76, has been criticized for being a vocal supporter and drafter of fatwas against religious minorities and the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch says the fatwas, or edicts, have legitimized increasingly hateful rhetoric by government officials against LGBT people, and in some cases fueled deadly violence by Islamic militants against religious minorities.

Widodo has been widely praised for his efforts to improve Indonesia’s inadequate infrastructure and reduce poverty. He inaugurated the nation’s first subway system, which was financed by Japan, in chronically congested Jakarta in March after years of delay under past leaders.

Pressing on is the biggest challenge, however, in his final years in office given the global economic slowdown, major trade conflicts, falling exports and other hurdles that impede funding.

In an interview with The Associated Press in July, Widodo said he would push ahead with sweeping and potentially unpopular economic reforms, including more business-friendly labor laws, because he’ll no longer be constrained by politics in his final term.

“Things that were impossible before, I will make a lot of decisions on that in the next five years,” he said then.

 

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Pelosi in Jordan for ‘Vital Discussions’ Amid Syria Crisis

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group of American lawmakers on a surprise visit to Jordan to discuss “the deepening crisis” in Syria amid a shaky U.S.-brokered cease-fire.
 
The visit came after bipartisan criticism in Washington has slammed President Donald Trump for his decision to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from northern Syria — clearing the way for Turkey’s wide-ranging offensive against the Kurdish groups, who had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
 
Turkey agreed on Thursday to suspend its offensive for five days, demanding the Kurdish forces withdraw from a designated strip of the border about 30 kilometers deep (19 miles).  
 
Pelosi, along with the nine-member Congressional delegation, met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the capital of Amman late Saturday for talks focusing on security and “regional stability,” according to a statement from her office.
 
Jordan is a key U.S. ally in the region and has been greatly affected by the eight-year-long civil war in neighboring Syria. Jordanian officials say the kingdom hosts some 1 million Syrians who have fled the fighting.
 
 “With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to ISIS, Iran and Russia,” said the statement, using the Islamic State group’s acronym.
 
Jordan’s state news agency Petra said Abdullah stressed the importance of safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity and guarantees for the “safe and voluntary” return of refugees.
 
 “The meeting also covered regional and international efforts to counter terrorism within a comprehensive approach,” the agency said.
 
The Congressional delegation included Democrats Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who is leading the impeachment probe into President Trump; Eliot Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. There was one GOP member of the group, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
 
The U.S. Embassy in Amman said the delegation left Jordan early Sunday but gave no further details on where it was heading.
 
Many Democrat and Republican lawmakers say that the U.S. pullout could make way for rivals like Iran and Russia, who back Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 

 

 

 

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Esper Makes Unannounced Visit to Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan amid efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban.

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement, that is the best way forward,” Esper told reporters traveling with him Sunday.

Last month, President Donald Trump abruptly called off yearlong U.S.-Taliban talks just when the two adversaries had come close to signing a peace agreement that could have ended the 18-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest overseas military intervention.  

Trump declared the peace process process “dead,” citing continued insurgent deadly attacks on Afghan civilians and American troops in Afghanistan.

 

 

 

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Afghan Election Results Delayed

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) confirmed Saturday it had delayed the planned release of preliminary results of the Sept. 28 presidential polls. 
 
The commission’s chief, Hawa Alam Nuristani, made the widely anticipated announcement at a late evening news conference in Kabul on the day the commission was supposed to officially deliver first results. 
 
Nuristani apologized to Afghans for not being able to meet the deadline, but she defended the decision to delay the results, saying it would “further ensure the transparency of the [electoral] process” and restore the people’s confidence in it. 
 
The chief election commissioner promised to release preliminary results as soon as possible but did not say exactly when that would happen. 
 
Two senior IEC members, while speaking to VOA on Friday, predicted results would be delayed by at least one week. 

Problems from the start
 
Election officials said they had from the outset faced issues in collecting and transferring massive amounts of data to the main IEC computer server from biometric devices used to record voter fingerprints and pictures. A time-consuming exercise of identifying fraudulent votes was cited as another major factor for the slow data entry. 
 
The fourth Afghan presidential election was already under scrutiny for a record-low turnout of about 26 percent and allegations of fraud. The final turnout was expected to drop further as the IEC was expected to disqualify an estimated 700,000 of the 2.7 million votes cast last month for not meeting anti-fraud rules. 
 

FILE – Independent Election Commission workers carry ballot boxes to be taken to a counting center in Kabul, Oct. 2, 2019.

All previous elections held in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 were marred by allegations of widespread fraud and rigging, prompting the IEC to use biometric devices for the first time in the just concluded presidential polls. 
 
While security concerns stemming from violent Taliban attacks on the election process were mainly blamed for the low turnout, the polling was marred by widespread irregularities and allegations of fraud. 
 
The United Nations, in a report released this week, noted that election-related attacks had killed 85 Afghan civilians and injured 373 others. 
 
Both front-runners, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have already claimed victories, raising fears of a repeat of what happened in the 2014 fraud-marred presidential election. The United States at the time had to intervene to help the two men negotiate a power-sharing deal, ending months of nationwide chaos. 

Accuracy paramount
 
On Wednesday, U.S. acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells underscored the need for a credible outcome of the election and called on all candidates to avoid declaring victory before official results were released. 
 
“We welcome the IEC’s intention to conduct all necessary anti-fraud measures before it announces the preliminary result. An accurate result is more important than a rushed one,” Wells told reporters in Kabul after her meetings with Ghani, Abdullah and election commission officials. 
 
Abdullah and Ghani have both pledged support for the IEC to take as much time as needed to deliver a transparent outcome. 
 
“The Afghan people yearn to hear about the results of the presidential elections, but we respect the Independent Election Commission’s decision to postpone announcing the results to ensure fairness, transparency and accountability of the final vote,” Ghani tweeted shortly after the delay was announced. 

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Turkish-Backed Forces, Kurds Clash Despite Syria Cease-Fire

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish-led forces in several parts of northeastern Syria on Saturday, with some crossing the border from Turkey to attack a village, a war monitor said. Both sides blamed each other for fighting that has rattled the U.S.-brokered cease-fire.

Nearly two days into the five-day halt in fighting, the two sides were still trading fire around the key border town of Ras al-Ayn. There has also been no sign of a withdrawal of Kurdish-led forces from positions along the Syrian-Turkish border as called for under the agreement, reached between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said it was “completely abiding” by the accord and that it was in “instantaneous coordination” with Washington to ensure the continuity of calm. The ministry accused Kurdish-led fighters of carrying out 14 “attacks and harassments” the past 36 hours, most in the town of Ras al-Ayn, which is besieged by allied fighters before the cease-fire. It said the Syrian Kurdish fighters used mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank heavy machine guns.

Turkey also said Saturday said it has recaptured 41 suspected Islamic State members who had fled a detention camp amid the chaos caused by the fighting earlier this week.

The Kurds, meanwhile, appealed to Vice President Mike Pence to enforce the deal saying Turkey has failed to abide by its provisions and has continued the siege of Ras al-Ayn.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said there were still clashes inside Ras al-Ayn and medical personnel could not enter to help the wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish-backed fighters entered Syria and advanced into Kurdish-held Shakariya, a village east of Ras al-Ayn that saw clashes and a Turkish strike a day earlier.

Video posted online showed the fighters driving alongside the wall Turkey has erected along the border and boasting that they were headed on “an assault” into Syria. The video did not show them crossing the border.

Syrian state media said Turkish-backed fighters also made an “infiltration attempt” south of Ras al-Ayn but were repelled in clashes with the Syrian government military that had just moved into the area. The reports gave no further details.

People stand in a queue to receive bread in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 18, 2019.

The Observatory said Saturday that Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have prevented a medical convoy from reaching Ras al-Ayn. It said a medical convoy arrived outside the town Friday but Turkey-backed factions closed the road ahead and behind, leaving it stuck outside Ras al-Ayn.

The agreement — reached in negotiations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — would virtually hand Turkey its aims in the invasion, requiring Kurdish fighters to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border during the cease-fire.

The Kurdish-led force, which said it was in contact with the Americans during the negotiations, said it will abide by the halt in fighting but has not committed to any pull-out. Erdogan warned Friday that Turkey will relaunch its assault on Tuesday when the deal runs out if the Kurdish fighters don’t pull out of a zone 30 kilometers (20-miles) deep running the entire length of the border.

On Saturday, the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 41 suspected Islamic State members were re-captured after fleeing a detention camp amid fighting earlier this week in Syria. He said 195 other suspected IS members had already been recaptured. He said the captured IS suspects would be relocated to areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria, including Afrin and al-Bab.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters chat in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 18, 2019.

Last week, there were reports that after a Turkish shell landed near Ein Issa camp that holds members of IS families, more than 700 managed to flee amid the chaos.

Turkey’s state-run English language broadcaster TRT World said the IS members and families were captured by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces.

Erdogan has accused Syrian Kurdish forces of releasing some 750 IS members and families, amid Turkey’s offensive. The Kurds say they broke out of their camp a week ago, attacking guards, amid heavy clashes and Turkish airstrikes nearby.

 

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Bipartisan Shrug as US Budget Deficit Nears $1 Trillion

Washington is drowning in red ink again, yet the mounting fiscal problem is prompting collective yawns from the Trump Administration and Democrats alike.

It wasn’t so long ago that an announcement that the United States annual budget deficit was approaching $1 trillion — in a time of record low unemployment and steady economic growth, no less — would have set off alarm bells in the nation’s capital and sent politicians running to the television cameras to demand action to rein in federal spending. But a recent report from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic analysis that shows the deficit ballooning to a seven-year high of $984 billion in fiscal 2019 was greeted with near silence from U.S. lawmakers, the administration and other policy makers.

Instead, as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, Republicans and Democrats are promoting ambitious new spending and tax relief measures that would add many trillions of dollars to the cumulative federal debt – the sum total of past deficits — which is now approaching a staggering $23 trillion.

After forcing a $1.5 trillion tax cut through Congress in 2017 and demanding sharp increases in military spending, both of which have contributed to a 48% increase in the federal deficit since he took office, President Trump and others in his administration have floated the idea of further tax reductions heading into 2020.

FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump holds an executive order relieving qualified disabled veterans of federally held student loan debt at the AMVETS (American Veterans) National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Aug. 21, 2019.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates including liberal Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are pushing for additional federal spending on social programs, including a controversial “Medicare for All” proposal. A study by the Urban Institute found that the most expansive version of that program, which extends healthcare coverage to every American and eliminates virtually all out-of-pocket spending on health care, would cost an average of $3.4 trillion per year, or $34 trillion over a decade.

Warren, who is surging in the polls ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders, is also advocating expanded Social Security benefits, free college tuition, student debt relief and environmental initiatives with hefty price tags.

The current U.S. federal debt, now approaching $23 trillion  is equal to more than 100% of the estimated $21.3 trillion 2019 Gross Domestic Product. The country has not seen a debt-to-GDP ratio this high since World War II. But still, the primary policy proposals coming from voices on both sides of the political spectrum are in favor of measures that would likely exacerbate the deficit and add to the federal debt.

It’s a state of affairs that leaves Washington budget watchdogs frustrated and worried about the future.

“Certainly, interest in fiscal responsibility seems to be an all-time low,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

“It should be frustrating for everyone, because the deficit is at an all-time high…for this point in the economic cycle,” he said. “It’s really dangerous. And what we need to be doing is getting our debt under control now, understanding that it will have to expand during a recession, not making it even worse.”

That’s a message that neither the Trump administration nor the Democrats running for president appear to have acknowledged.

FILE – A worker aerates printed sheets of dollar bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, Nov. 15, 2017.

There are multiple reasons why demands for spending cuts and deficit reduction have been muted in recent years. For one, the seemingly constant state of crisis in Washington, made even more profound by the ongoing effort to impeach President Trump, leaves little room in the headlines for more complex issues like fiscal policy.

However, one key reason that deficit hawks’ collective voice does not command the attention in Washington that it once did is that they have been demonstrably wrong about the effects of rising federal borrowing.

For years, the twin terrors of rising interest rates and inflation were key arguments against allowing the deficit and debt to continue to mount. Expansive federal spending was supposed to goose demand and drive up prices. At the same time, lenders — in the form of the bond market — were expected to demand ever-higher interest rates from a federal government that kept driving itself further into debt.

Additionally, as the government borrowed more and at higher interest rates, the borrowing was supposed to “crowd out” more productive investment in the private sector.

But for the past decade, inflation has remained stubbornly low, even in the years immediately following the Great Recession, when the government was pouring money into the economy to increase demand.

At the same time, the federal government is still able to borrow at historically low rates, making the cost of servicing new debt much lower than budget hawks predicted it would be at this point. And the absence of any evidence that government borrowing is “crowding out” private sector investment has been sparse enough that the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation has declared it to be a concern of “minimal importance.”

Additionally, while much is made of the fact that the federal debt is now higher than annual GDP, that hardly makes the U.S. an outlier among developed nations. Other advanced economies carrying comparable levels of debt include Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, and France. Japan’s debt load is equal to more than twice its GDP.

In fact, there is a rising consensus among economists worldwide that, especially given the low interest rate environment that is expected to persist indefinitely, high debt levels among advanced economies simply are not that big a deal. Among the loudest voices making this point has been Olivier Blanchard, the former head of the International Monetary Fund — an organization that has spent decades trying to convince developing economies to avoid high debt loads.

“The right attitude…is not to pretend that debt is catastrophic if it is not,” he wrote in a recent paper with economist Ángel Ubide. “Sooner or later, a government will test that proposition and discover that it is false. The right approach is to tailor the advice to the situation of each country.”

 

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US Levies New Sanctions on Cuba Over Human Rights, Venezuela

The United States is imposing new sanctions on Cuba over its human rights record and its support for Venezuela’s government, the U.S. Commerce Department said Friday.

In a statement, the department said it will restrict Cuba’s access to commercial aircraft by revoking existing licenses for aircraft leases to Cuban state-owned airlines and denying future applications for aircraft leases.

The United States will also expand sanctions to include more foreign goods containing U.S. content and impose additional restrictions on exports to the Cuban government, the statement said.

“This action by the Commerce Department sends another clear message to the Cuban regime” that they must immediately cease their destructive behavior at home and abroad,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in the statement.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded in a post on Twitter, denouncing the move as “additional economic blockade measures evidencing moral bankruptcy of an internationally isolated policy promoted by a corrupted government.”

FILE – Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s largest dissident group, holds a T-shirt with the writing “God, Fatherland, Freedom” in Palmarito de Cauto, Cuba, March 25, 2012.

In a separate statement, the U.S. State Department criticized Cuba for its detention of dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer, calling on Havana to disclose his whereabouts, treat him humanely and release him without condition.

Ferrer, a prominent figure who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was detained in Santiago de Cuba Oct. 1 after a police raid on his home, which is also the group’s headquarters.

Cuba’s government does not typically discuss police activity, including the detention of dissidents, who Havana dismisses as provocateurs funded by the United States.

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