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Puerto Ricans desperate for water after Fiona’s rampage

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico — More than a half million people in Puerto Rico remained without water service three days after Hurricane Fiona slammed into the U.S. territory, and many spent hours in lines Wednesday to fill jugs from water trucks while others scooped water from mountain runoff.

Sweat rolled down the faces of people in a long line of cars in the northern mountain town of Caguas, where the government had sent a water truck, one of at least 18 so-called “oases” set up across the island.

The situation was maddening for many people across an island once again left without basic services following a storm.

“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but this was worse,” Gerardo Rodríguez said in the southern coastal town of Salinas, referring to the 2017 hurricane that caused nearly 3,000 deaths and demolished the island’s power grid.

Fiona dumped roughly two feet of rain on parts of Puerto Rico before blasting across the eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Swelled to Category 4 force, the storm was on a track to pass close by Bermuda early Friday and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturay, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

The storm played havoc with Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, which had been patched but never fully rebuilt after Maria caused a blackout that lasted 11 months in some places.

As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 70% of Puerto Rican customers lacked electricity, according to government figures.

In Caguas, the air conditioning of Emayra Veguilla’s car wasn’t working, so the bus driver propped up a small fan in the passenger seat. Earlier, she had blasted the song “Hijos del Canaveral” (“Sons of the Sugarcane Field”), written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star René Pérez as an ode to Puerto Rico and its people’s bravery.

“I needed a shot of patriotism,” she said. “I needed strength to do this once again.”

Veguilla had waited in line Tuesday, only to be told that the water had run out and that another truck would not be available until Wednesday.

Some people ahead of Veguilla gave up and drove away, with tensions running high the longer people waited.

“Move!” yelled one driver, fearful of people trying to cut in.

Some who saw the line opted instead to drive to a nearby highway where fresh water trickled down the mountainside via a bamboo pipe that someone had installed.

Greg Reyes, an English teacher, stood in line in muddy flip-flops to collect water for himself, his girlfriend and their cat. He had brought a large bag holding all the empty containers he could find in their house, including more than a dozen small water bottles.

Reyes said he and his partner had been buying water since Fiona hit, but couldn’t afford to do so any longer.

Standing behind him was retiree William Rodríguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four gallon containers. He had been living in Massachusetts and decided to return to Puerto Rico about six months ago.

“But I think I’m leaving again,” he said as he shook his head.

Those in the line grumbled about the slow pace of recovery and accused the government of not helping them as people on social media and even a gym said their doors were open to anyone who needed water or a shower.

“This hasn’t been easy,” said Juan Santos, a retiree who held the hand of his 5-year-old grandson. “We are suffering.”

None of those in line had power either, and many wondered if it would take as long to restore as it did with Hurricane Maria.

Power company officials initially said it would take a few days for electricity to be restored, but then appeared to backtrack Tuesday night, saying they faced numerous obstacles.

“Hurricane Fiona has severely impacted electrical infrastructure and generation facilities throughout the island. We want to make it very clear that efforts to restore and reenergize continue and are being affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment, and downed lines,” said Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution.

Officials said crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible.

But Luma said it expected to restore power Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s north coast, which Fiona largely spared.

The hum of generators could be heard across the territory as people became increasingly exasperated.

“I continue to hope that by the end of today, a large part of the population will have these services,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday and the agency announced it was sending hundreds of additional personnel to boost local response efforts. On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration, which would allow for more federal assistance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and deployed a couple of teams to the island.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported relatively light damage and no deaths, though the eye of the Category 4 storm passed close to Grand Turk, the small British territory’s capital island, on Tuesday.

“Turks and Caicos had a phenomenal experience over the past 24 hours,” said Deputy Gov. Anya Williams. “It certainly came with its share of challenges.”

Officials said school on Grand Turk would reopen next week.

The Hurricane Center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) late Wednesday. It was centered about 550 miles (885 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, heading north at 10 mph (17 kph).

Fiona killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others in Puerto Rico swept away by swollen rivers. Two died in the Dominican Republic: one killed by a falling tree and the other by a falling electric post.

Two additional deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: A 70-year-old man burned to death after he tried to fill his running generator with gasoline and a 78-year-old man police say inhaled toxic gases from his generator.

———

Associated Press journalists Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez and Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.

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Malaysian defence contractor ‘Fat Leonard’ seeks Venezuela asylum | News

Local media reported that Leonard Glenn Francis had requested to remain in Venezuela on health and political grounds.

A fugitive Malaysian defence contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” who orchestrated a huge bribery scheme involving dozens of United States Navy officials, has requested asylum in Venezuela almost a week after he was arrested in the South American country.

Leonard Glenn Francis — arrested on September 21 at Caracas international airport as he prepared to depart for Russia — appeared in court the day after his arrest and announced that he wished to remain in Venezuela on medical and political grounds, local media reported on Monday.

Venezuela’s government-allied newspaper Ultimas Noticias, citing judicial sources in its report, said that Francis told the court hearing that he wanted to appeal for political asylum and that he was suffering from metastatic kidney cancer.

Agencia Venezuela News also carried the report by Ultimas Noticias, adding that Francis told the court that he wished to remain in Venezuela and reunite with his wife and family.

Neither Venezuela’s Information Ministry nor its Attorney General’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

By law, the Venezuelan government must consider the asylum request.

Francis fled his home in San Diego, California, on September 4, just weeks before he was to be sentenced in a bribery case where he acknowledged overbilling the US Navy by $35m with the help of dozens of US naval officers.

Francis admitted to providing prostitutes, luxury travel, expensive meals and cigars, and other bribes to the naval officials who in return directed US Navy ships to ports Francis controlled in Southeast Asia.

The owner of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd, which supplied food, water and fuel to naval vessels for decades, Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 and faced up to 25 years in prison.

While awaiting sentencing, he was given home confinement in San Diego to receive medical care as he cooperated with the prosecution, which led to the convictions of 33 of 34 defendants.

After removing a GPS ankle monitor and fleeing his home, the US issued an Interpol red-notice request for his arrest which led to his capture in Caracas last week.

Francis had arrived in Venezuela via Mexico and Cuba, and planned to continue on to Russia, Venezuela’s Interpol office said in a statement.

Though US President Joe Biden’s administration does not officially recognise Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, Venezuela and the US have an extradition agreement.

US authorities have 30 days to formally request that he be extradited.

Washington does not have an embassy in Venezuela and has imposed crushing sanctions on Caracas, which has further embittered relations between the two countries.

That Maduro could use Francis’ extradition as a bargaining chip to have sanctions reduced or lifted by Washington has been mooted in Venezuela and abroad.

Agencia Venezuela News tweeted a cartoon over the weekend depicting Maduro holding a basketball emblazoned with the name “Fat Leonard” over the head of Uncle Sam.

Neither US nor Venezuelan officials have yet commented on Francis’s request for asylum.



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Why is the British pound tanking as the US dollar soars? | Business and Economy

As the British pound plummets in value, the US dollar is flying high.

Against a tumultuous backdrop that includes the Ukraine war, soaring prices and China’s COVID lockdowns, sharp fluctuations of some of the world’s major currencies are injecting new uncertainty into the global economic outlook.

Why is the British pound in freefall?

On Monday, the pound sank to a record low against the United States dollar as investors rushed to sell the currency and government bonds in a major vote of no confidence in new Prime Minister Liz Truss’s economic plans, which include large tax cuts funded by steep increases in government borrowing.

The pound at one point in Asian trading sank as low as $1.0327, surpassing the previous record low reached in 1985, before making back some of its value.

The price of 5-year UK bonds — through which investors loan money to the government — recorded the sharpest fall since at least 1991.

Under Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget” announced on Friday, the UK is proposing the biggest tax cuts in 50 years, including abolishing the 45 percent tax rate on incomes over 150,000 pounds ($162,000).

The tax cuts, along with a plan to support household’s rising energy bills, will require the government to borrow an extra 72 billion pounds ($77.7bn) in the next six months alone.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng has proposed the biggest tax cuts in 50 years [File: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters]

As with other goods and services, the value of most of the world’s major currencies operates on the principle of supply and demand.

When demand for a particular currency is high, the price goes up and vice versa.

The pound’s plummeting value indicates that investors are concerned about the UK’s ability to manage so much extra debt, especially as rising interest rates make borrowing much more costly.

On Monday, Raphael Bostic, a top official at the US Fed, warned that the tax overhaul had “really increased uncertainty” and raised the risk of a global recession.

“Confidence in the UK economy is low right now,” Pao-Lin Tien, an assistant professor of economics at George Washington University, told Al Jazeera.

“The new prime minister’s economic policy of lowering taxes on the wealthy is not too popular, and the consensus is that it will not work in stimulating the economy.”

While the UK’s tax plans were the initial trigger of the pound’s freefall, economists say that investors’ confidence in the British economy has been waning for some time due to developments such as Brexit.

“The British pound has long been suffering for political decisions in the UK,” Alexander Tziamalis, a senior economics lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, told Al Jazeera.

“It has been hit by Brexit and is also facing the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum and a potential trade war with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.”

What can the UK do to stop the pound’s decline?

The main tool available to prop up the pound, or any other falling currency, is to raise interest rates in order to attract foreign investors with better yields.

On Monday, Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, said the central bank would not hesitate to lift rates as necessary.

But despite calls from some economists for emergency action, the UK’s central bank opted against an unscheduled rate hike, sending the pound down to $1.06 after it made some earlier gains.

“Both the Bank of England and Bank of Japan can decide to raise rates to match the rising US interest rates,” said Tien, the professor at George Washington University.

“This will help, but if investors don’t see aggressive enough actions from BoE or BoJ — so not just an increase in rates, but a larger than expected increase in rates — it won’t help much with the currency values. The issue with aggressively large interest rate hikes is that it’s likely to push the economy into a recession, which no one wants to see.”

Governments can also intervene by buying up their own currency to prop up its value, although this is frowned on by many economies and risks invoking trade penalties.

“The pound and yen are officially floating exchange rates, governments should not and do not often intervene in the forex market,” Tien said.

Why is the US dollar so strong?

The strength of the US dollar, which has been on an upward trajectory since mid-2021 and last month hit a 20-year high against six major currencies, has two main drivers.

The first is confidence in the US economy relative to its peers.

Much in the same way a weakening currency reflects declining investor confidence in a country’s economy, a strengthening currency points to a vote of confidence in an economy’s fundamentals.

While the US economy is battling high inflation and flagging growth, the dollar has long been seen by investors as a reliable bet.

“The US dollar has always been seen as a safe haven for investors because the US is such a strong and large economy, so if there is global uncertainty, it’s always a safe bet to hold US dollars because it retains value well,” Tien said.

“So with the war in Ukraine, economic and political problems in Europe, high inflation, etc, it is not surprising investors are turning to the US dollar.”

Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at financial consultancy Bannockburn Global Forex, said that the US seemed like a safe bet to investors in light of global events even if it recorded negative growth during the last two quarters.

“The US biggest rivals have shot themselves in the foot. Here I am thinking of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s zero-Covid policy that has disrupted growth,” Chandler told Al Jazeera.

“The US allies are also having serious struggles. Japan is the only G10 country not to raise interest rates.  China actually cut rates recently.  Europe is on the verge of a recession and the UK’s new government has stirred crisis talk with its fiscal stimulus adding to its current account deficit.”

The second driver of the dollar’s rise is interest rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve, which has been raising the cost of borrowing in an effort to tame soaring inflation.

With depositors at US banks benefitting from interest rates, investors have been further encouraged to swap other currencies for dollars, pushing up the price of the greenback.

“Of course, central banks in other jurisdictions such as the UK have also been raising interest rates, and the eurozone is planning to do likewise. But they are not acting as aggressively as the US,” said Tziamalis, the economics lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Meanwhile Japan is not tightening at all, so the net result is still greater overseas demand for greenbacks.”

Who are the winners and losers?

For US consumers, a stronger dollar means cheaper imported goods in the shops and more affordable holidays abroad.

For everyone else, the picture is less rosy.

Not only does a stronger dollar mean pricier American imports and travel in the US, it is likely to exacerbate inflation generally in other countries.

Oil and other commodities such as metals and timber are usually traded in dollars, raising their cost in local currency. Higher energy prices will in turn push up the cost of other goods and services.

“The only exception is the US, where a stronger dollar makes it cheaper to import consumer products and therefore could help to tame inflation,” Tziamalis said.

The strength of the dollar also makes it more difficult for many developing countries to repay their debts, which are often held in US currency.

“As a result, many countries will struggle to find an ever-increasing amount of local currency to service their debts,” Tziamalis said.

“These countries will either have to tax their economies more, issue inflationary local money or simply borrow more. The results could be deep recession, hyper-inflation, a sovereign debt crisis or all three together, depending on the path chosen.”

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Japan honours Shinzo Abe with controversial state funeral | News

Japan prepares to bid farewell to assassinated leader as anger grows over the cost of the state funeral and his party’s ties to the Unification Church.

Japan is set to honour former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was killed while on the campaign trail in July, with a rare state funeral that has deeply split the nation.

Some 4,000 mourners — including United States Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — are expected to attend Tuesday’s ceremony for Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Hundreds of Japanese lined up outside the funeral venue in the capital, Tokyo, ahead of the official ceremony to offer floral tributes to Abe.

But the event, which is costing taxpayers some $11.5m, as well as revelations about ties between Abe, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the South Korean Unification Church, has prompted a huge public outcry in Japan.

Critics consider the religious group a “predatory cult” responsible for forcibly extracting exorbitant donations from its followers in Japan.

The relatives of Abe’s assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, say the 41-year-old’s mother donated some 100 million yen ($692,000) to the group, bankrupting his family. Yamagami has told investigators that he shot Abe on July 8 because of the prime minister’s support for the church. An internal LDP survey has since found that nearly half the governing party’s 379 national legislators also have ties with the church and affiliated groups. These range from attending the church’s events to receiving donations and accepting volunteers for election support.

Protesters took to the streets of Tokyo on Tuesday hours before Abe’s state funeral was due to get underway [Issei Kato/Reuters]

The revelations have caused Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings to plunge below 30 percent.

But Kishida has defended the state funeral as necessary because of Abe’s achievements.

The incumbent leader, the heads of Japan’s lower and upper houses of parliament, and the chief justice will speak at Tuesday’s event.

It will begin at 2pm local time (05:00 GMT) with Abe’s ashes carried into the venue as an honour guard fires 19 rounds from a cannon.

Security has been tightened in Tokyo, with schools in the vicinity of the funeral venue closed and some 20,000 police officers mobilised to ensure security for the event. Protests against the funeral are expected, with some 62 percent of respondents surveyed by the Mainichi newspaper saying they do not approve of holding such an event.

Critics say Abe is also not deserving of the honour because of his legacy of divisive policies.

These include Abe’s push to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, and nationalistic rhetoric that soured relations with neighbouring countries, including South Korea.

Members of Japan Self-Defense Forces stand in front of sacred funeral curtains creating shadows on the ground during a rehearsal for Abe's state funeral
Members of Japan Self-Defence Forces will take part in the funeral, which has divided opinion in Japan and led to a sharp drop in support for the government [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

The former leader, at the time of his resignation for health reasons in 2020, had also become mired in scandals in which he was alleged to have misused political funds and engaged in cronyism. He was also facing criticism at the time for his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his determination to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics despite the outbreak of the disease.

“Kishida’s decision to honour Abe with a state funeral without consulting the Diet or judiciary smacks of exactly the arrogance of power that the public associates with Abe. By a 2-1 margin the public opposes the state funeral and much of this opposition can be attributed to Abe’s toxic legacies and limited achievements,” said Jeffrey Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.

“Polls suggest few believe Kishida has handled the Church issue competently and this is part of the reason he has plunged in the polls. Supporters hope it will all blow over but the media spotlight may sustain the anger and now there are the Olympic bribery scandals that provide further reminders about the sleazy ways and means of the Abe government.”

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