APTOPIX Romania School Start

Sleepy start to school

Boys yawn during festivities marking the beginning of the school year at the Ferdinand I school in Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Hong Kong tells US to stay out; students protest

HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of students formed human chains outside schools across Hong Kong on Monday to show solidarity after violent weekend clashes between police and activists seeking democratic reforms in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

The silent protest came as the Hong Kong government condemned the “illegal behavior of radical protesters” and warned the U.S. to stay out of its affairs.

Thousands of demonstrators held a peaceful march Sunday to the U.S. Consulate to seek Washington’s support, but violence erupted hours later in a business and retail district as protesters vandalized subway stations, set fires and blocked traffic, prompting police to fire tear gas.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam agreed last week to withdraw an extradition bill that sparked a summer of protests, but demonstrators want other demands to be met, including direct elections of city leaders and an independent inquiry into police actions.

Protesters in their Sunday march appealed to President Donald Trump to “stand with Hong Kong” and ensure Congress passes a bill that would impose economic sanctions and penalties on Hong Kong and mainland China officials found to suppress democracy and human rights in the city.

Hong Kong’s government expressed regret over the U.S. bill, known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. It said in a statement Monday that “foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs” of Hong Kong and that the city will safeguard its own autonomy.

Lam on Monday visited a subway station vandalized by protesters in an unusual public appearance. A video distributed by the government showed Lam inspecting damage and telling a commuter she was “heartbroken” to see the destruction.

“I hope Hong Kong will be calm again soon and no more violence,” Lam said.

The unrest has become the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule since it took over Hong Kong, and is an embarrassment to its ruling Communist Party ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations of its 70th year in power. Beijing has slammed the protests as effort by criminals to split the territory from China, backed by what it said were hostile foreigners.

Israeli leader claims to find new Iranian nuke site

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister on Monday unveiled what he said was a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear weapons site, further escalating a showdown between the two enemy countries.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement came as the U.N. nuclear watchdog held a meeting in Vienna, where he’s hoping the agency will take tougher action against Iran. It also came in the final stages of Israeli national elections, drawing criticism from opponents that the sudden press conference was a campaign stunt.

Speaking to reporters, Netanyahu said Israel discovered the facility, located in the central Iranian town of Abadeh, by using information gathered in a trove of documents Israeli agents stole from an Iranian warehouse and made public early last year.

“Iran conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.

He provided no details or evidence of what those experiments were, but he showed off two satellite photos. The first, taken in June, showed the facility intact. The second, taken in July, showed parts of the building had been destroyed, in what he said was an Iranian cover-up after Israel discovered the facility.

“This is what I have to say to the tyrants of Tehran,” he said. “Israel knows what you’re doing, Israel knows when you’re doing it, and Israel knows where you’re doing it.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has said for years that Iran halted organized efforts at exploring possible nuclear weapons in 2003. U.S. intelligence officials similarly have made the same conclusion.

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and Netanyahu has been a leading opponent to the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. He says that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, a charge it denies, and has accused the Iranians of violating provisions of the agreement.

Last year, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. The deal has steadily unraveled since then, and caused tensions to heighten across the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East.

Hondurans feel fate of their president lies in US

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In a closet-sized underground hip-hop studio in one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Honduras’ capital, Leonardo Sierra believes nothing will change in his country until the United States decides it should.

In the 28-year-old’s assessment, it is Washington — fearing a leftist alternative in this Central American country important to U.S. drug and migration policy — that is keeping unpopular President Juan Orlando Hernández propped up even as U.S. prosecutors call him a co-conspirator in his brother’s drug-trafficking case and protesters call for him to step down.

From the depths of Tegucigalpa’s gang-controlled La Travesía neighborhood to the halls of the nation’s congress, Hondurans wonder how long the U.S. government can stick with Hernández. While their president jets off to Washington for meetings and photo ops, average Hondurans are glued to the slow drip of revelations coming from a federal courthouse in Manhattan.

Hernández has said the allegations in the U.S. come from drug traffickers seeking revenge against him, but U.S. prosecutors promise will provide evidence in a trial scheduled for October showing that Hernández harnessed his brother’s drug-trafficking connections to propel his own political fortunes.

“Particularly in this country the influence of the United States is decisive,” said Raul Pineda Alvarado, a political analyst and former three-term congressman from Hernández’s National Party.

If the U.S. decides Hernández is more trouble than he is worth his days will be numbered; if it doesn’t, he could finish his term, Pineda said. Many Hondurans still cite the U.S. government’s decision to not pressure for the restoration of left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya when he was ousted in a 2009 coup as a demonstration of its role as kingmaker in Honduras.

The State Department said in a response to written questions that the naming of Hernández as a co-conspirator by federal prosecutors did not constitute criminal charges. “Conversations with current heads of state are a routine part of diplomacy,” its statement added. “We have a range of diplomatic issues that are important to address for the benefit of both our countries.”

In the past year, President Donald Trump has repeatedly bashed the Honduran government for not doing more to keep its people from migrating. He suspended some aid and the U.S. continues to pressure Honduras to at least make it more difficult for migrants from other countries to cross its territory even if it can’t stop its own from leaving.

But Honduras remains a critical, if inconsistent, ally in the drug war. And, ironically, the extradition of drug capos to the U.S. under Hernández could have helped build the case against his brother.

U.S. prosecutors say Hernández took $1.5 million in trafficking proceeds for his campaign to win the presidency in 2013. Once in the presidency, Hernández could allegedly protect drug traffickers that his brother Tony was helping move tons of cocaine toward the United States, U.S. prosecutors said.

Hernández points to the two dozen drug traffickers extradited to the U.S. under his administration as proof that he was not working with them. He did not grant an interview request.

Three days after Hernández was labeled a co-conspirator last month, the top U.S. diplomat in Honduras tweeted that he had met with Hernández “to reaffirm the collaboration and cooperation between the U.S. and Honduras on important bilateral issues.” Hernández included that tweet in a press release defending himself.

A survey by pollster CID/Gallup conducted May 6 -14 said 64% of Hondurans disapproved of Hernández’s performance in office. It said the poll had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Hernández has suffered a credibility crisis since Honduras’ Supreme Court cleared the way for his re-election despite a constitutional ban. His subsequent 2017 election win was marred by irregularities. The dissatisfaction has increased even though the economy has grown moderately and Honduras’ homicide rate fell from a dizzyingly high 86.5 per 100,000 residents in 2011 to 41.4 last year.

Despite the improved numbers, the country remains among the world’s deadliest, is home to Latin America’s highest inequality rate and sees its citizens pouring out decrying systemic corruption, a lack of jobs and the hyper-violent gangs that maintain a stranglehold on many communities.

But Hernández’s party and allies control the congress and he holds the military’s support, enabling him to resist popular pressure to step down. Anti-Hernández protesters in June burned tires and barricaded key highways, clashed with security forces and ransacked stores.

“Right now there is protest, there is a strong, solid, overwhelming rejection (of the president), but there isn’t the political component of the consent of the United States government,” said Pineda.

While Hernández stays in office, Hondurans will continue to flee the country, said former President Porfirio Lobo, his predecessor for the National Party.

“For Honduras to advance and move forward (Hernández) has to step aside,” at least while an investigation into the allegations proceeds, Lobo said.

Hondurans feel the U.S. is holding back out of fear of who could replace Hernández. It is not an unfounded concern considering that Lobo is also named a co-conspirator in the case against Hernández’s brother and that Zelaya has faced his own corruption allegations.

Salvador Nasralla, a well-known television sports commentator who ran on an anti-corruption platform, lost the November 2017 election to Hernández. Nasralla held the lead when officials said a computer glitch stopped vote counting. When it came back to life hours later, his lead quickly evaporated, causing many to suspect electoral fraud, something the government denies.

As an outsider candidate, Nasralla appealed to Hondurans fed up with the country’s traditional parties, but he also allied with Zelaya’s LIBRE party. That was a mistake, Nasralla says now, “because the main thing for the United States is that Honduras doesn’t have a leftist government.”

The U.S. government’s interests in Honduras start with battling drug trafficking. The country’s geography and weak institutions have made it a major transshipment point for South American cocaine. The U.S. Southern Command maintains close relationships with Honduras’ military brass and the U.S. military has an important presence at the Soto Cano Air Base north of Tegucigalpa.

There are important business interests here as well, starting with U.S. fruit companies whose historic presence and influence spurred the label “banana republic.” During June’s protests led by doctors, nurses and teachers, a convoy of several dozen tractor trailers hauling bananas for a Dole Food subsidiary was looted and set on fire.

Jorge Cálix, a lawmaker from Zelaya’s party who has declared himself a candidate for the 2019 presidential election, said that each time it seemed Hernández might be on the ropes he appeared for meetings in Washington or at the U.S. Embassy.

“That in some way is an endorsement in the eyes of the businessmen and the country’s most influential people,” Cálix said. “In the eyes of the people it generates a mild hopelessness because the people think it doesn’t matter how many protests we hold, it doesn’t matter how big they are. While the United States supports him we are not going to be able to get him out,” said

Still, there are signs of growing isolation for Hernández. At the Tuxtla Summit hosted by Honduras in August, he was the sole head of state. And when a U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Honduras in August it didn’t meet with Hernández, not wanting to send the wrong signal.

Back in La Travesía, Sierra said his parents had him taken to the U.S. illegally when he was 11 and he lived in Tennessee until he was deported at age 19 nearly a decade ago. He still effortlessly slips into English with a southern twang.

The videos, albums and mix tapes he makes with friends at AKA Family Productions isn’t enough for them to live on now, but he hopes it can provide an alternative to crime or migration.

“In reality, politics isn’t going to change,” Sierra said. “The change is in us.”