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Voice of America

  • US Adds New Sanctions on Cuba Tourist Attractions
    The Trump administration is adding new names to a list of Cuban tourist attractions that Americans are barred from visiting.   The 26 names range from the new five-star Iberostar Grand Packard and Paseo del Prado hotels in Old Havana to modest shopping centers in beachside resorts far from the capital. All are barred because they are owned by Cuba's military business conglomerate, GAESA.   Travel to Cuba remains legal. Hundreds of U.S. commercial flights and cruise ships deliver hundreds of thousands of Americans to the island each year. And nothing prevents the government from funding its security apparatus with money spent at facilities that aren't owned by GAESA and banned by the U.S. But the sanctions appear to have dampened interest in travel to Cuba, which has dropped dramatically this year.    

  • Arizona Judge Won't Give More Time to Find Victims of Illegal Detentions
    A judge in Arizona who ordered taxpayer-funded compensation for Latinos who were illegally detained when then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio defied a court order has declined to give the victims more time to apply for the money. The two-sentence ruling issued Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow in the racial-profiling case means the one-year period for filing claims will end on Dec. 3.   Two years ago, Snow ordered the creation of a $500,000 compensation fund as a remedy for Arpaio's acknowledged disobedience of the 2011 order to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.   Advocates for immigrant rights had argued that more time was needed to locate the victims.   Attorneys for Maricopa County countered by urging the judge to reject the proposed extension and accused opposing lawyers of trying to rewrite the terms of the compensation plan.   Under plan, Maricopa County will pay $500 for the first hour of a person's illegal detention and $35 for each additional 20-minute increment.   A $10,000 cap was imposed on such compensation, but victims can also seek money for damages such as lost wages and emotional distress.   The compensation costs are a small piece of the overall cost of the case, which so far have totaled $90 million.   Lawyers who filed the profiling lawsuit have said at least 190 people were detained in violation of the 2011 order. But they added that far fewer people than expected have filed claims because of the difficulty of locating victims.   Only one claim totaling $1,095 has been paid among the 93 filed. Twelve others are considered payable but await a rebuttal from the sheriff's office, according to county records.   Arpaio was accused of prolonging the patrols to boost his 2012 re-election campaign. He was later convicted of criminal contempt of court for violating the court order, though a pardon by President Donald Trump spared Arpaio a possible jail sentence. He lost the 2016 sheriff's race.   Taxpayers in metro Phoenix remain on the hook for compensation for the illegal detentions made during the patrols between late December 2011 and May 2013.   Lawyers involved in the profiling case and a firm running the claims process have worked with community organizations and foreign consulates offices in hopes of finding victims. A group in Mexico has reached out to news organizations to publicize the compensation efforts.   The attorneys also watched traffic-stop videos and pored over arrest and other police records. They also did interviews with news organizations.

  • White House Official Criticized by First Lady Removed From Position
    Mira Ricardel, the White House deputy national security adviser, was forced out of her job on Wednesday after President Donald Trump's wife, Melania, said Ricardel did not deserve the honor of working for her husband. Ricardel "will continue to support the president as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the administration," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. Sanders did not elaborate on what Ricardel's new job would be. Trump, after congressional elections last week in which his Republican Party saw its power eroded, is also preparing to oust Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as part of a post-election Cabinet shakeup, several U.S. officials said. Ricardel is a former Commerce Department official hand-picked by Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, to serve as his deputy. She ran afoul of Melania Trump and her staff in negotiations over the first lady's trip to Africa in October and the use of government resources for the trip, a senior administration official said. Ricardel has also built a reputation in the White House for berating staff, several sources said. Melania Trump's office took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement on Tuesday saying that Ricardel should be ousted. While first ladies historically have been known to pressure their husbands over official business, they do not typically issue statements about it. "It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House, Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman, had said. Bolton had fought behind the scenes to keep Ricardel from being forced out but ultimately lost the battle, two officials said.

  • US Envoy: Fight Against IS in Its Last Syrian Stronghold Nearing End
    The Trump administration hopes that the U.S.-backed fight against Islamic State in its last foothold in northeastern Syria will end within months but American forces will remain to ensure the "enduring defeat" of the militant group, a top U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, said the United States believes the way forward in Syria includes defeating Islamic State, reinvigorating the political process and winding down the long-running civil war. Toward that end, he said, the United States hopes to see the formation of a committee before the end of the year to work on a new constitution for Syria as agreed by the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Turkey during their meeting in Istanbul in October. He said U.S. forces would remain in place after the coalition forces prevail over Islamic State military units to ensure the group does not "regenerate itself." "The enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of ISIS' conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that ISIS doesn't immediately come back in sleeper cells, come back as an insurgent movement," Jeffrey said, using an acronym for the group. Washington also wants the withdrawal of Iranian military forces from Syria once the underlying causes of the conflict have been resolved, he said, noting that Iran's continued military presence would represent a threat to U.S. partners in the region. Jeffrey said the final ground combat is along the Euphrates River and is being led by Syrian Democratic Forces assisted by U.S. military personnel. "The fight is continuing and we hope that it will be over in a few months and that will be the last of ISIS' terrain that it holds in a quasi-conventional way," he said. Jeffrey said convening a committee under U.N. auspices to begin work on a new Syrian constitution was a "critical step" toward advancing the political process. He said the United States would hold Russia to account to use its influence to bring the government of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to the negotiating table. "Our goal, which again was supported by Russia, France, Germany and Turkey and agreed in the Oct. 27 Istanbul communique, is to establish this constitutional committee by the end of the year," he said. Jeffrey said getting Iranian forces out of Syria, where they back Assad's rule, was not a U.S. military goal but should be an outcome of the process to end the civil war and the only way to achieve lasting peace. He said newly reinstated U.S. sanctions against Iran would encourage Tehran to scale back its presence in Syria.

  • Uber's Losses Continue Ahead of IPO
    The ride-sharing and delivery company Uber continues to lose money, with growth slowing as it prepares to go public some time next year. The San Francisco-based company announced it lost just over $1 billion from July through September, a 20 percent increase from the previous quarter. Uber's revenue rose 38 percent in the third quarter from a year ago to $2.95 billion, down from a gain of 51 percent in the second quarter. Uber is seeking to expand in freight hauling, food delivery and electric bikes and scooters, as growth in its now-decade-old ride-hailing business dwindles. Uber is intent on showing it can still grow enough to become profitable and satisfy investors in an initial public offering. "We had another strong quarter for a business of our size and global scope," said Nelson Chai, Uber's chief financial officer, who joined the company in September after the job had been vacant for three years. He emphasized the "high-potential markets in India and the Middle East, where we continue to solidify our leadership position."

  • Dozens Plead With Trump Administration to Keep Air Rules
    Dozens of people who live near oil and gas wells pleaded with the Trump administration Wednesday not to roll back rules for methane pollution, while industry representatives said the changes should go further. The Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing in Denver on the administration's plans to loosen regulations imposed by the Obama administration in 2016. The rules require energy companies to step up the detection and elimination of methane leaks at well sites and other oil and gas facilities. Methane is the primary component of natural gas and also is a greenhouse gas. Opponents argued Wednesday that changing the rules would threaten people's health, worsen climate change and squander natural gas by allowing leaks to go undetected. They also argued it would cost taxpayers, investors and mineral owners money from the lost sale of the gas. Many accused the EPA of abetting polluters, looking out for the wealthy and failing its legal duty to protect public health and the environment. “Polluters do not need your protection. I do,” said 13-year-old Alexis Elliott, who said emissions from oil and gas wells near her school are causing her nosebleeds, rashes, bruising and other health problems. Susanne Beug told agency officials, “The EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency, not the Energy Protection Agency.” Matthew Todd of the American Petroleum Institute said the industry is already reducing methane emissions even while natural gas production is increasing. He said the EPA should do more to allow technological innovation and streamline the rules. When it unveiled the new, looser rules in September, the EPA said they would save energy companies up to $75 million a year. But the agency conceded that the rules “may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health and welfare.” It said the new rules would allow an additional 380,000 U.S. tons (350,000 metric tons) of methane and 100,000 U.S. tons (91,000 metric tons of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere from 2019 to 2025. Volatile organic compounds an ingredient of ozone or smog. The EPA wants to reduce the frequency of inspections for methane leaks and give energy companies more time to repair leaks after they are detected. The changes would also allow an energy company's in-house engineers to certify some aspects of methane control instead of requiring an outside professional engineer to do so.  The EPA also wants to let energy companies opt to follow state rules instead of the federal rules in California, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.  The EPA rules apply to oil and gas drilling on private land and some public land.  The administration is also relaxing a separate set of methane rules imposed by the Interior Department on oil and gas drilling on U.S. public lands and tribal lands.  Loosening the methane rules is part of a broad effort by the Trump administration to roll back environmental protections, particularly ones that apply to coal, oil and gas. The hearing in Denver is the only one the EPA has scheduled. Some people urged the agency to hold more sessions in other cities.

  • Trump's Baseless Voter Fraud Allegations Could Hurt US Faith in Elections
    More than a dozen times in the past seven days, President Donald Trump has alleged, contrary to evidence, that the recount of Florida's elections for governor and the U.S. Senate has been marred by fraud. "Many ballots are missing or forged," he tweeted on Monday. "Ballots massively infected.” The unsubstantiated allegations could help Trump bolster a narrative that appeals to his core supporters ahead of his expected 2020 bid for a second term - that of an aggrieved president at risk of being cheated by what he often decries at rallies as an unfair system. It may also stoke doubts among his loyal base of supporters over the legitimacy of elections - a potentially dangerous tactic, especially if he were to adopt a similar stance in response to razor-close results in the 2020 presidential election. "For a long time, the American democratic process has been based on the idea that if an election has an outcome that one side doesn't like, it's still considered legitimate," said Tom Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. "If there's ever been a time for elected politicians to draw a line in the sand ... this is it.” Fellow Republicans including Florida's outgoing governor, Rick Scott, whose Senate campaign is the subject of a recount mandated under state law, incumbent U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and lower-ranking officials have amplified Trump's charges. Researchers have long concluded that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare in U.S. elections. The final result of the match-up between Scott and three-term Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson will not affect the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans increased their majority in the Noveber 6 elections even as Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives. Sowing ‘seeds of doubt’ "What we're seeing now is a new and potentially dangerous development," said Jonathan Brater, a voting rights lawyer at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, referring to a call by Trump on Florida officials to abandon the recount. "Not only would that tactic risk throwing out legitimate votes if it is successful, it also sows seeds of doubt about our entire democratic process in the minds of millions of people.” Narrow margins of victory for Scott and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis over Democrat Andrew Gillum triggered the recount under state law last week. It stirred memories of Florida's disputed results in the 2000 presidential election that Republican George W. Bush ultimately won after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount. Trump has said the Florida election should be called in favor of Scott and DeSantis because "large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged." He cited no evidence. A senior White House official said Trump was pressing the issue out of real concern. "He genuinely thinks there is corruption there," the official said. Another source close to the White House said the president was following the lead of Scott and Rubio. "He's echoing in his Trump way the message on this, which is to be aggressive," the source said. 'It's rigged' Florida law enforcement officials have said they have seen no evidence of fraud during voting or the recount. Vote totals often change even after an election, as absentee, provisional and overseas ballots are recorded. Trump supporters who protested on Tuesday outside county offices where votes were being counted rejected that idea. "It's rigged, this is absolute system corruption and everybody is playing dumb," said Sofia Manolesco, a 49-year-old fitness trainer who said she had voted for all Republicans on her ballot and wore a red "Trump 2020" hat. Following his 2016 victory, Trump falsely claimed that millions of illegal immigrants had voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton. U.S. politicians, particularly Republicans, have long cited concerns about fraud to justify laws restricting access to polls. But independent researchers have documented only a handful of cases over the years. Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, tracked just 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation in U.S. elections from 2000 to 2014. In that time, more than 1 billion ballots were cast, Levitt found. There have been some documented instances of problems in this year's Florida voting that could benefit both parties. In Broward County, where Democrats typically do well, nearly two dozen rejected ballots were counted with a batch of valid ones. The Florida secretary of state's office said it had received reports that voters in Bay County, a Republican-leaning area hit hard by Hurricane Michael, may have been permitted to vote by email, which is prohibited under state law. Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist and former top aide to former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said he doubted there would be political fallout from Trump's rhetoric. "Trump claimed the last election was rigged, until he won," he said. "We will likely be talking about a million things between now and the 2020 elections. These tweets may be just a distant memory.”      

  • Missing in California Fire Include Many People in Their 80s and 90s
    Authorities searching through the blackened aftermath of California's deadliest wildfire have released the names of about 100 people who are still missing, including many in their 80s and 90s, and dozens more could still be unaccounted for. As the names were made public late Tuesday, additional crews joined the search, and the statewide death toll climbed to at least 51, with 48 dead in Northern California and three fatalities in Southern California. "We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "This is a very difficult task." A sheriff's department spokeswoman, Megan McMann, acknowledged that the list was incomplete. She said detectives are concerned they will be overwhelmed by calls from relatives if the entire list is released. "We can't release them all at once," McMann said. "So they are releasing the names in batches." She said the list would be updated. Authorities have not updated the total number of missing since Sunday, when 228 people were unaccounted for. Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the missing grew increasingly desperate. A message board at a shelter was filled with photos of the missing and pleas for any information. "I hope you are okay," read one hand-written note on the board filled with sheets of notebook paper. Another had a picture of a missing man: "If seen, please have him call." Some of the missing are not on the list, said Sol Bechtold, who is searching for his 75-year-old mother, Joanne Caddy, whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise, the town of 27,000 that was consumed by flames last week. Bechtold said he spoke with the sheriff's office Wednesday morning, and they confirmed they have an active missing person's case on Caddy. But Caddy, a widow who lived alone and did not drive, was not on the list. "The list they published is missing a lot of names," Bechtold said. Community members have compiled their own list. Greg Gibson was one of the people searching the message board Tuesday, hoping to find information about his neighbors. They've been reported missing, but he does not know if they tried to escape or hesitated a few minutes too long before fleeing Paradise, where about 7,700 homes were destroyed. "It happened so fast. It would have been such an easy decision to stay, but it was the wrong choice," Gibson said from the Neighborhood Church in Chico, California, which was serving as a shelter for some of the more than 1,000 evacuees. Inside the church, evacuee Harold Taylor chatted with newfound friends. The 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, who walks with a cane, said he received a call Thursday morning to evacuate immediately. He saw the flames leaping up behind his house, left with the clothes on his back and barely made it out alive. Along the way, he tried to convince his neighbor to get in his car and evacuate with him, but the neighbor declined. He doesn't know what happened to his friend. "We didn't have 10 minutes to get out of there," he said. "It was already in flames downtown, all the local restaurants and stuff," he said. The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone's genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks. "In many circumstances, without rapid DNA technology, it's just such a lengthy process," said Frank DePaolo, a deputy commissioner of the New York City medical examiners' office, which has been at the forefront of the science of identifying human remains since 9/11. Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29. At the other end of the state, firefighters made progress against a massive blaze that has killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed well over 400 structures in Southern California. The flames roared to life again in a mountainous wilderness area Tuesday, sending up a huge plume of smoke near the community of Lake Sherwood. Still, firefighters made gains. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke canceled a trip to Asia and planned to visit the fire zones Wednesday and Thursday. The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place that two utilities reported equipment trouble. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who takes office in January, sidestepped questions about what action should be taken against utilities if their power lines are found to be responsible. People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. An email to PG&E was not immediately returned. Linda Rawlings was on a daylong fishing trip with her husband and 85-year-old father when the fire broke out. Her next-door neighbors opened the back gate so her three dogs could escape before they fled the flames, and the dogs were picked up several days later waiting patiently in the charred remains of their home, she said. After days of uncertainty, Rawlings learned Tuesday morning that her "Smurf blue" home in Magalia burned to the ground. She sat looking shell-shocked on the curb outside a hotel in Corning. "Before, you always have hope," she said. "You don't want to give up. But now we know."

  • As Laws Fail to Slow Online Sex Trade, Experts Turn to Tech
    The online sale of sex slaves is going strong despite new U.S. laws to clamp down on the crime, data analysts said Wednesday, urging a wider use of technology to fight human trafficking. In April, the United States passed legislation aimed at making it easier to prosecute social media platforms and websites that facilitate sex trafficking, days after a crackdown on classified ad giant Backpage.com. The law resulted in an immediate and sharp drop in sex ads online but numbers have since picked up again, data presented at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference showed. "The market has been destabilized and there are now new entrants that are willing to take the risk in order to make money," Chris White, a researcher at tech giant Microsoft who gathered the data, told the event in London. New players Backpage.com, a massive advertising site primarily used to sell sex — which some analysts believe accounted for 80 percent of online sex trafficking in the United States — was shut down by federal authorities in April. Days later, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which introduced stiff prison sentences and fines for website owners and operators found guilty of contributing to sex trafficking, was passed into law. The combined action caused the number of online sex ads to fall 80 percent to about 20,000 a day nationwide, White said. The number of ads has since risen to about 60,000 a day, as new websites filled the gap, he said. In October — in response to a lawsuit accusing it of not doing enough to protect users from human traffickers — social media giant Facebook said it worked internally and externally to thwart such predators. Using technology to continuously monitor and analyze this kind of data is key to evaluating existing laws and designing new and more effective ones, White said. "It really highlights what's possible through policy," added Valiant Richey, a former U.S. prosecutor who now fights human trafficking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), echoing the calls for new methods. Law enforcement agencies currently tackle slavery one case at a time, but the approach lacks as the crime is too widespread and authorities are short of resources, he said. As a prosecutor in Seattle, Richey said his office would work on up to 80 cases a year, while online searches revealed more than 100 websites where sex was sold in the area, some carrying an average of 35,000 ads every month. "We were fighting forest fire with a garden hose," he said. "A case-based response to human trafficking will not on its own carry the day." At least 40 million people are victims of modern slavery worldwide — with nearly 25 million trapped in forced labor and about 15 million in forced marriages.

  • Calls for End to Yemen War Offer Little Hope for Hungry Children
    Lying on a dust-covered bed in a hospital ward in Taiz, Ghazi Mohammed, 10, barely has enough energy to watch doctors and nurses examine his emaciated body.  The boy weighs 8.5 kilograms (18 pounds), less than a third of the average weight of a child his age. He fled hunger and poverty in his mountain village last year to find only more suffering in Yemen's third-largest city.  "This shows that the humanitarian aid that comes to Yemen does not reach people who really need it. Distribution remains random," said his doctor, Amen al-Asli.  Western powers who have for three years provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen are now pressing for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.  The West toughened its stance after the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, at Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.  His death sparked a global outcry and exposed Saudi Arabia's crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy, including its role in the war in Yemen, which human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have criticized.  But calls for an end to the fighting have come far too late for millions of Yemeni civilians, including children, who face acute malnutrition and hunger in a complex, multisided war.  "They need complete care, here in the hospital and later at home. Of course, it depends on the parents' financial condition, as malnutrition can hit the whole family," said Youssef al-Salawi, another doctor.  In Taiz, children fighting for their lives in hospitals are traumatized by daily artillery fire, rockets and anti-aircraft guns as Saudi-backed government forces battle the Iran-aligned Houthis along pulverized streets.  The United Nations says out of 29 million Yemenis, 22 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million are severely hungry.  Discussions about getting the peace process back on track offer hope, “but it is very imperative for the people of Yemen that this conflict stops as soon as possible," said Stephen Anderson, the World Food Program's (WFP) country director in Yemen.  Offensive on port  U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the warring parties together yet this year.  After seizing the southern port of Aden in 2015, the coalition has made little progress. While it has air supremacy, the Houthis have proved better at guerrilla warfare.  The Houthis still control Yemen's most populated areas, including the capital, Sanaa, and the port city of Hodeida.  The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeida, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a cease-fire.  Aid groups fear an attack on Hodeida’s port would disrupt its operations and endanger more civilians as it remains the main source of food imports as well as much-needed humanitarian aid.  Street fighting and airstrikes resumed late Tuesday in Hodeida despite a lull in battles as U.N. officials visited the Red Sea city to assess food security.  A resident told Reuters that calm descended on Hodeida on Wednesday after heavy clashes and airstrikes rocked the city.  "It is very surprising," he said. 

  • Migrant Caravan Groups Arrive by Hundreds at US Border
    Migrants in a caravan of Central Americans scrambled Wednesday to reach the U.S. border, arriving by the hundreds in Tijuana, while U.S. authorities across the border were readying razor wire security barriers. Mexican officials in Tijuana were struggling to deal with a group of 357 migrants who arrived aboard nine buses Tuesday and another group of 398 that arrived Wednesday. "Mexico has been excellent; we have no complaint about Mexico. The United States remains to be seen," said Josue Vargas, a migrant from Honduras who finally pulled into Tijuana on Wednesday after more than a month on the road. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meanwhile, went to visit U.S. troops posted to the border in south Texas and said the deployment provides good training for war. President Donald Trump has said the caravan of migrants amounts to an "invasion." That didn't deter arriving groups of Central Americans from going to a stretch of border fence in Tijuana to celebrate. On Tuesday, a couple of dozen migrants scaled the steel border fence to celebrate their arrival, chanting "Yes, we could!" and one man dropped over to the U.S. side briefly as border agents watched from a distance. He ran quickly back to the fence. Tijuana's head of migrant services, Cesar Palencia Chavez, said authorities offered to take the migrants to shelters immediately, but they initially refused. "They wanted to stay together in a single shelter," Palencia Chavez said, "but at this time that's not possible" because shelters are designed for smaller groups and generally offer separate facilities for men, women and families. But he said that after their visit to the border, most were taken to shelters in groups of 30 or 40.  Up to 10,000 migrants expected With a total of three caravans moving through Mexico including 7,000 to 10,000 migrants in all, questions arose as to how Tijuana would deal with such a huge influx, especially given U.S. moves to tighten border security and make it harder to claim asylum. On Wednesday, buses and trucks carried some migrants into the state of Sinaloa along the Gulf of California and further northward into the border state of Sonora. The bulk of the main caravan appeared to be about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) from the border, but was moving hundreds of miles per day. The Rev. Miguel Angel Soto, director of the Casa de Migrante — House of the Migrant — in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan, said about 2,000 migrants had arrived in that area. He said the state government, the Roman Catholic Church and city officials in Escuinapa, Sinaloa, were helping the migrants. The priest also said the church had been able to get "good people" to provide buses for moving migrants northward. He said so far 24 buses had left Escuinapa on an eight-hour drive to Navojoa in Sonora state. Small groups were reported in the northern cities of Saltillo and Monterrey, in the region near Texas. About 1,300 migrants in a second caravan were resting at a stadium in Mexico City, where the first group had stayed last week. By early Wednesday, another 1,100 migrants from the third and last caravan had also arrived at the stadium. Like most of those in the third caravan, migrant Javier Pineda is from El Salvador, and hopes to reach the United States. Referring to the first caravan nearing the end of the journey, Pineda said "if they could do it, there is no reason why we can't." It is unclear whether the two caravans would merge or when they would set out on the road north. Many say they are fleeing poverty, gang violence and political instability in the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Efforts to 'harden' border Mexico has offered refuge, asylum or work visas, and its government said Monday that 2,697 temporary visas had been issued to individuals and families to cover them during the 45-day application process for more permanent status. Some 533 migrants had requested a voluntary return to their countries, the government reported. The U.S. government said it was starting work Tuesday to "harden" the border crossing from Tijuana ahead of the caravans. Customs and Border Protection announced it was closing four lanes at the busy San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry in San Diego, California, so it could install infrastructure. That still leaves a substantial path for the tens of thousands of people who cross daily: Twenty-three lanes remain open at San Ysidro and 12 at Otay Mesa. San Ysidro is the border's busiest crossing, with about 110,000 people entering the U.S. every day. That traffic includes some 40,000 vehicles, 34,000 pedestrians and 150 to 200 buses.

  • EU Trade Chief Ready to Retaliate If US Imposes Auto Tariffs
    European Union trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said on Wednesday that the EU has a list of potential retaliation targets ready in case U.S. President Donald Trump imposes auto tariffs on EU member states. Malmstrom told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that the two did not speak specifically about auto tariffs but focused instead on regulatory cooperation issues and ways to enable EU countries to import more American soybeans and liquefied natural gas. Malmstrom did not specify the U.S. products on which the EU would levy retaliatory tariffs, as consultations would need to take place with member states. But she said the list could include "all kinds" of products. "It could be cars, it could be agriculture, it could be industrial products, it could be everything. And we will do that, but hope we don't have to get to that situation." Trump administration officials on Tuesday said the president's trade team made no decisions on how to proceed with new recommendations from the Commerce Department on whether to impose tariffs on autos and auto parts to protect the U.S. industry on national security grounds. The contents of the recommendations have not been disclosed. Malmstrom said that the EU is willing to negotiate a limited trade deal on industrial goods, including autos, that seeks to bring tariff rates to zero for both the United States and Europe, but the scope of these talks cannot be defined until early next year, when the USTR completes its consultation process with Congress and the EU receives a negotiating mandate from member states.  

  • European Mayors Urge Wider Political Push to Tackle Climate Action
    European cities are seeking greater recognition and support for their pioneering efforts to tackle climate change, both from national governments and the European Union, mayors leading the charge said on Wednesday. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau urged all political parties with candidates standing for the European Parliament next May to outline how they plan to help curb global warming. "The elections should be an occasion for battling against climate change, and putting this important problem on the European agenda," said Colau, speaking at a conference on smart cities in Barcelona. The Catalan city adopted a climate plan this year, which the mayor said lays out a path to cut its planet-warming emissions 45 percent by 2030 and to become carbon-neutral by 2050. The plan also aims to protect vulnerable citizens from intensifying heatwaves, rain storms and drought. December's U.N. climate talks in Poland are an opportunity for European cities to "remind their nations and the European Commission that we have to be leaders against climate change," Colau added. Georgios Kaminis, mayor of Athens — which is also feeling the effects of rising heat — said the EU should provide direct funding to cities to help them act on climate change. That can be discussed as cities and the European Commission work out how to implement a U.N. plan for sustainable development of urban areas, he added. Spanish climate law At national level, Colau called on the Spanish government to support cities by boosting investment in infrastructure for public transport and cutting subsidies for diesel immediately. The Socialist-led government on Tuesday published a draft document for a law on climate change and energy transition that it hopes to present to parliament by the end of the year. The document proposes setting a timetable to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, in line with an overall goal of decarbonizing the economy, as well as a ban on sales of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2040. Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the government wanted to work with cities, as it would be impossible for them to achieve emissions reductions and build resilience to climate change impacts alone. But putting together their own plans would enable them to identify where cooperation with different institutions is needed, she said on the sidelines of the Barcelona conference. The Spanish government wants to assist, and is working on reforms to help finance flow to the municipal level, she added. Mayors stressed the urgency for all levels of government to move faster in line with a recent report from the U.N. climate science panel on ways the world can keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, who is also vice chair of the C40 network of cities acting on climate change, said 72 cities worldwide had pledged to develop plans by the end of 2020 to help meet the lower 1.5C warming goal in the Paris Agreement. "We are strongly committed — the people of Milan strongly understand that if we go beyond 1.5C, it will be a disaster," Sala said. The Italian city is taking measures on a large scale to get people out of cars and onto public transport, such as building a fifth metro line connecting the airport to the city center, and changing its fleet of buses to run on electricity. Athens, meanwhile, is rolling out ways to protect residents from heatwaves such as an app to alert them, and directing elderly people in poorer neighborhoods to green spaces and air-conditioned public buildings where they can cool down. And Berlin's governing mayor, Michael Muller, said the German city had been taking back control of energy, housing and transport in the city, after many operations were privatized in the 1990s, so that it can move them onto a cleaner path faster. Colau noted that Barcelona is setting up its own power company to drive a shift towards 100 percent renewable sources. "If a city can do this, what can a state do if they put the political will to it? It is time to be brave," she said.

  • Uber Sees Opportunity for Minibus Service in Nairobi
    Uber Technologies may roll out a new service in Kenya to help users book seats on minibuses that ply the streets of the congested capital, if tests on the product in Egypt and Mexico prove successful, a company executive said Wednesday.  Uber estimates that more than a third of Kenyans in Nairobi use the often-crowded minibuses, known as matatus, as their main form of transport around the city, Uber's East Africa General Manager Loic Amado told Reuters.  "We want to be part of the transportation ecosystem in Nairobi, and matatus are a big part of how people move around," he said, adding the feature would be available on the Uber app.  The company already operates Uber Pool and Uber Express Pool in cities such as London and New York, so taxi drivers can carry more passengers heading to the same or nearby destinations.  The service that may be rolled out in Kenya is being tested in Egypt's capital, Cairo, and the Mexican city of Monterrey.  Uber, which launched in Kenya four years ago and now has 6,000 active drivers, is seeking an edge over rival operators in the East African nation, such as Estonian ride-hailer Taxify and Little, set up by Nairobi-based Craft Silicon.  Once the service is proven in Nairobi, Amado said, it could be expanded to Kenya's neighbors, such as Uganda's capital, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The idea would be to apply it to vehicles carrying up to 16 people, he added.  Amado said the new Uber product would allow customers to track and trace the minibuses.  "It would help reduce idle time at the bus stop during slow hours," said Jackson Onyinkwa, chairman of one of Nairobi's matatu associations. His association has 46 vehicles.  The government announced this week measures to bring more order to the matatu industry, seeking to curb traffic violations and overcrowding.  Matatu drivers staged a one-day strike in protest but returned to work after 2,000 were detained by the authorities. 

  • California Wildfires Death Toll Climbs to 50
    Search teams in California looked Wednesday for the remains of more people killed by devastating wildfires that have ravaged the western U.S. state, with the toll now at 50 and expected to increase. Rescue workers with cadaver dogs and a rapid DNA analysis system focused much of their attention near the northern California town of Paradise, a community of 27,000 people virtually destroyed by the infernos in what is now the deadliest blaze in the state's history. In the span of a few days, the intense fires destroyed more than 7,000 homes, but the fires are only 35 percent contained. Survivors escaped to rescue shelters, posting pictures of their loved ones and friends on bulletin boards in hopes someone might know whether they were able to flee to safety. One evacuee, Harold Taylor, told the Associated Press, "We didn't have 10 minutes to get out of there. It was already in flames downtown, all of the local restaurants and stuff." He said he unsuccessfully sought to convince a neighbor friend to escape with him and does not know what happened to him. President Donald Trump said he spoke with California Governor Jerry Brown "to let him know that we are with him, and the people of California, all the way!" Trump praised rescue workers after being briefed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Brock Long, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on their tour of the devastation. "Thank you to the great Firefighters, First Responders and @FEMA for the incredible job they are doing w/ the California Wildfires. Our Nation appreciates your heroism, courage & genius. God Bless you all!" Trump said on Twitter. Search for missing continues Authorities said more than 200 people were still unaccounted for as the searches continued and the fire advanced to the north and east of Paradise. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters the six bodies discovered Tuesday were found in homes. When asked if authorities had done enough to warn people to evacuate, Honea said they did their best, and that after this fire is fully dealt with there will be time to examine what lessons can be learned for the future. "We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area, very rapidly, with the fire coming very rapidly, and no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you're dealing with that much chaos," he said. Wildfires are common in California, particularly at this time of year when warm, dry winds help quickly spread flames. Honea said it's possible people were lulled into a false sense of security by the past success fire crews had in controlling fires that broke out in the region. "I think often times people rely on their past experience, and perhaps in this case to their detriment," he said. Fire officials said they had some success in fighting the fire as weather conditions that had made the fires so prone to spread eased somewhat, but that lingering swirling winds and the steep terrain where they are working present challenges. Aviva Braun of the National Weather Service said the air will remain dry this week and that the prospects for rain are looking more promising toward the end of next week.  She also said that the lighter winds are causing smoke from the fires to settle instead of blow away, making for poor air quality. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although two utility companies reported circuit and transmission problems about the time the fires started last Thursday. In addition to the “Camp Fire,” as the blaze in northern California was dubbed, two smaller fires in the southern part of the state have killed two people since last week. Trump has declared the fires a major disaster, freeing up federal funding for those affected by the blazes. He pledged Tuesday to do "everything in our power to support our fellow citizens in harm's way."

  • Experts Target Missing Link in Contraception: Men
    Ask Esther Imaniragena to name her top challenge as she doles out contraceptive advice and supplies at a Rwandan health clinic and the answer comes short and fast: men.  Too many men do not share the task of family planning, said Imaniragena, one of many birth-control champions who are deploying wily tactics to encourage burden-sharing. Be it cornering men after their wives give birth or touting a new type of "model husband" in a society that values virility, champions of birth control are trying new ways get men involved.  If they can find them, that is.  "The biggest challenge we have is males do not come," said Imaniragena, who runs family planning at the Rwamagana Health Center in the east of the country.  Patients strolling the center's grounds on a recent day were overwhelmingly female, babies wrapped tightly to their backs and umbrellas in hand to protect against the fierce sun.  Getting men on board has major benefits in developing nations that struggle with booming populations, a trend that puts pressure on limited resources and fuels fresh cycles of poverty, said experts, researchers and policymakers gathered at an international family planning conference this week in Rwanda.  Involving men increases contraceptive use, reducing infant and maternal mortality and the number of unwanted children. All of this frees up women for school or jobs.  Insuring universal access to family planning by 2030 is among the global targets for sustainable development that were adopted in 2015 by the United Nations.  The experts said the key to success is to inform and involve men while preserving women's autonomy. And while some of the more creative efforts have worked, most schemes are localized and remain small-scale in the face of deep-seated resistance.  One way to find men To target men, the Rwamagana clinic has started talking about contraception to husbands when they come to collect their wives after childbirth, Imaniragena said.  It is a start.  "We cannot say that they are involved as we wish, but this is the occasion to find them," she told visitors at the rural outpost, which was ringed by rice paddies, banana trees and fields of maize.  The results are impressive in terms of numbers reached. Last week, 15 out of 16 couples went home with newborns as well as family planning methods, according to the clinic, which serves more than 50,000 people.  Most couples opted for hormonal implants or injectable contraception.  The effort mirrored a campaign launched two years ago in Benin whose focus was cutting child and maternal deaths, said Gisele Dunia of the University Research Co., a health care company working in the west African nation. Not only did the number of couples using family planning more than double within a year, but men would influence other men to do the same, she said.  Male support 'generally low'  As of last year, four in 10 women of reproductive age in developing regions were using modern contraceptive methods — implants, injections and contraceptive pills — with rates ranging from two in 10 in Africa to half in South America and the Caribbean, according to research by the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission, a global group of experts, published this year in The Lancet, a medical journal.  But men's support for partners' sexual and reproductive health and empowerment "is generally low," the Lancet report said. Such support dips as low as 12 percent in Lesotho and climbs as high as 77 percent in Rwanda, it said.  "Women continue to shoulder the responsibility of contraceptive use," the Lancet report said. "Given that men are often gatekeepers for women's access to services, involving men during pregnancy, childbirth and onward (when women want) can potentially increase gender equality and male support." 'Not listening' The best way to reach men in Uganda is to empower women, said Reuben Kizito of the Zaam Community Health Development Organization, which trains women and offers small loans. "There are so many women out there who believe that the more children you give him, the more he loves, yet they are practically destroying themselves," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "So if we are in a position to empower them economically, then they are in a position to stop that habit." Men take little responsibility for family planning and think that pregnancy will keep other men away from their women, he said. "When we have more women economically empowered, then the men will listen," Kizito said. "Now they are not listening."   Mali runs a project that trains "model husbands" in local communities, organizers said, while programs in Togo are promoting "positive masculinity" for boys.  In the Philippines, a project called El Hombre — using men-to-men conversations — nearly doubled the rate of contraceptive usage where it was employed, said Jose Augustus Villano of the Commission on Population, a government agency. Those rates have dropped significantly since the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, he said. Duterte's policies and practices, including a war on drugs that has killed thousands of people, have drawn international condemnation. 

  • Study: Neanderthals Faced Risks, But So Did Our Ancestors
    Life as a Neanderthal was no picnic, but a new analysis says it was no more dangerous than what our own species faced in ancient times. That challenges what the authors call the prevailing view of our evolutionary cousins, that they lived risky, stressful lives. Some studies have suggested they had high injury rates, which have been blamed on things like social violence, attacks by carnivores, a hunting style that required getting close to large prey, and the hazards of extensive travel in environments full of snow and ice. While it's true that their lives were probably riskier than those of people in today's industrial societies, the vastly different living conditions of those two groups mean comparing them isn't really appropriate, said Katerina Harvati of the University of Tuebingen in Germany. A better question is whether Neanderthals faced more danger than our species did when we shared similar environments and comparable lifestyles of mobile hunter-gatherers, she and study co-authors say in a paper released Wednesday by the journal Nature. To study that, they focused on skull injuries. They reviewed prior studies of fossils from western Eurasia that ranged from about 80,000 to 20,000 years old. In all they assessed data on 295 skull samples from 114 individual Neanderthals, and 541 skull samples from 90 individuals of our own species, Homo sapiens. Injury rates turned out to be about the same in both species. That questions the idea that the behavior of Neanderthals created particularly high levels of danger, Marta Mirazon Lahr of Cambridge University wrote in an accompanying commentary. But the new study is not the final word on Neanderthal trauma, she wrote. It didn't include injuries other than to the skull. And scientists still have plenty of work to do in seeking the likely cause of injuries and evidence of care for the injured, which could give insights into the behavior of both Neanderthals and ancient members of our species, she wrote.

  • Pro-Trump Diplomat to Become Brazil's Foreign Minister
    President-elect Jair Bolsonaro announced Wednesday that he is naming an admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump to be Brazil's foreign minister in the new administration.   Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who takes office Jan. 1, went on Twitter to announce the choice of diplomat Ernesto Araujo.   Araujo now heads the foreign ministry's department for United States, Canada and Inter-American affairs. He is anti-left and a self-proclaimed nationalist, and he campaigned for Bolsonaro, who was elected Oct.28.   "The Brazilian foreign policy must be a part of the moment of recovery that Brazil lives today," the president-elect said about his appointee.   Araujo has praised Trump's approach to foreign relations, saying the U.S. leader proposes a view of the West that is based on the recovery of its symbolic past. The Brazilian diplomat also believes globalism is an anti-Christian ideology.   Bolsonaro, a former army captain and longtime congressman, has on several occasions compared himself to Trump, although many analysts say his tough anti-crime and pro-gun positions resemble more those of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.   Some diplomats were surprised with Araujo's appointment because he has never been in charge of an embassy during his 29-year diplomatic service.   Bolsonaro's aggressive rhetoric has already caused tensions with Egypt and Cuba, issues that Araujo will deal with once in office.   The Arab nation cancelled a trip of Brazilian lawmakers this year after the president-elect promised to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Bolsonaro later said the decision was not taken.   Cuba announced earlier Wednesday that it was ending a program that sent almost 9,000 medics to Brazil, acting after Bolsonaro said the program could continue only under new conditions. Among other things, he said the doctors must receive their salaries directly from Brazil and not through the Cuban government and be allowed to bring their families with them during their assignments.   Bolsonaro will also be starting his administration with some friction with China, which has invested billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure and oil projects in Brazil. During the campaign, he complained: "The Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil itself."   In a recent editorial in the China Daily newspaper, the Chinese government warned Bolsonaro against aggressive statements aimed at China, saying they could cause troubles for Brazil. Soon afterward Bolsonaro was visited by China's ambassador to Brasilia.

  • Recording Leads to New Allegations Colombia Prosecutor Covered Up Bribes
    A dramatic recording from beyond the grave has led to allegations that Colombia's chief prosecutor — a key U.S. ally in the war on drugs — tried to cover up bribery payments that were part of Latin America's biggest corruption scandal, prompting calls for his resignation. The recording shows Nestor Martinez, then a legal counsel to Colombia's biggest banking group, browbeating an internal auditor who reported finding likely bribe payments in a $2 billion highway project undertaken jointly with scandal-scarred Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. "You already got into this and you're the only idiot who can finish it," Martinez tells auditor Jorge Pizano in a profanity-laced conversation broadcast Monday by the Noticias Uno television program. Pizano admits he can't be certain the suspicious payments were bribes, suggesting they may have even been outlays to paramilitary groups, and the conversation ends with Martinez telling Pizano not to discuss the matter with others. The news program said Pizano, who had cancer, gave it the recording on the condition it not be aired until his death, which came last week. Authorities initially said he died of a heart attack, but that is now under review after his son died less than 72 hours later from exposure to cyanide contained in a bottle of flavored water found on his father's desk. The Pizano recording dates from June 2015, just as the scandal over bribery payments was starting to engulf Odebrecht — revelations that that would lead to criminal charges against scores of senior politicians and business executives across Latin America. In a 2016 plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Odebrecht admitted to paying $788 million in bribes to win contracts in 12 nations — including $11.1 million in Colombia. Martinez later became attorney general in 2016 despite complaints about his corporate background and years of service to the Aval Group, a New York Stock Exchange-listed banking conglomerate run by Colombia's richest man that was allied with Odebrecht. He formally recused himself when his office opened an investigation into the Aval Group-Odebrecht contracts in 2017, charged a deputy minister and former senator with taking bribes and issued arrest orders against several middlemen as well as the former head of the Aval unit involved in the consortium. Martinez has since accused Odebrecht of shelling out almost $50 million in bribes in Colombia — or more than three times the amount the company acknowledged to U.S. authorities. Pizano was himself under investigation for an unrelated Odebrecht project. New calls for resignation Now the recording has revived calls for Martinez to quit. The union representing thousands of judicial workers called on Tuesday for Martinez's resignation, saying his apparent failure to denounce corruption he learned about in his law practice undermines his credibility as the standard bearer of Colombians' fights for justice. "Whoever doesn't comprehend that sacred mission, or performs it with disregard, should step aside," the group said in a statement. Martinez through a spokesman declined a request for comment. The 64-year-old, who also served in three previous Cabinet posts, was appointed to an autonomous, four-year term as Colombia's top law enforcement official in 2016 and he's been praised by U.S. officials who rely heavily on his agency's cooperation in hundreds of drug investigations every year aimed at breaking the Colombian cartels who are the world's top suppliers of cocaine. Praise, criticism Martinez's cooperation has extended to ordering the controversial arrest on a U.S. drug warrant of a former guerrilla ideologue who negotiated the recent peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker in September called Colombia's handling of the Odebrecht case "the best in the world, by far" and attributed its success to the dedication of Martinez's office. But his reputation took a hit when his top anticorruption prosecutor was arrested last year on a U.S. warrant for extorting bribes from politicians in exchange for soft-pedaling investigations against them. And he has been fending off allegations that he is abusing his authority to protect his long-time employer by Luis Andrade, the former head of Colombia's infrastructure agency. For the past year, Andrade has been under house arrest on what he calls bogus charges that he favored Odebrecht's co-conspirators, though he has not been accused of taking bribes himself. He has called the charges payback by Martinez for his attempt at the outbreak of the scandal to invalidate the Aval-Odebrecht highway contract. An American citizen who previously helped run McKinsey & Company's consulting business in Latin America, he has enrolled a team of PR specialists and convinced a former U.S. senator to try to get the case dismissed. But that effort has been complicated by the death of Pizano, who was supposed to be his key witness and is believed to have prepared detailed reports on corruption. "Jorge Pizano was a courageous man who dared to render testimony against Odebrecht and Aval," Andrade said. "Unfortunately, it cost him his life."

  • When It Came to Racism, the Pen Was Stan Lee's Superpower
    Stan Lee was a seminal part of Miya Crummell's childhood. As a young, black girl and self-professed pop culture geek, she saw Lee was ahead of his time. "At the time, he wrote `Black Panther' when segregation was still heavy," said the 27-year-old New Yorker who credits Lee with influencing her to become a graphic designer and comic book artist. "It was kind of unheard of to have a black lead character, let alone a title character and not just a secondary sidekick kind of thing." Lee, the master and creator behind Marvel's biggest superheroes, died at age 95 on Monday. As fans celebrate his contributions to the pop culture canon, some have also revisited how the Marvel wizard felt that with great comic books came great responsibility. When black people were risking their lives in the 1960s to protest discrimination where they lived and worked, Lee enacted integration with the first mainstream black superhero. Black Panther, along with the X-Men and Luke Cage, are on-screen heroes today. But back then, they were the soldiers in Lee's battle against real-world foes of racism and xenophobia. Under Lee's leadership, Marvel Comics introduced a generation of comic book readers to the African prince who rules a mythical and technologically advanced kingdom, the black ex-con whose brown skin repels bullets and the X-Men, and a group of heroes whose superpowers were as different as their cultural backgrounds. The works and ideas of Lee and the artists behind T'Challa, the Black Panther; Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; and Professor Xavier's band of merry mutants — groundbreaking during the 1960s and 1970s — have become a cultural force breaking down barriers to inclusion. Lee had his fingers in all that Marvel produced, but some of the characters and plot lines "came from the artists being inspired by what was happening in the '60s," said freelance writer Alex Simmons. Still, there was some pushback by white comics distributors when it came to black heroes and characters. Some bundles of Marvel Comics were sent back because some distributors weren't prepared for the Black Panther and the kingdom of Wakanda developed by artist and co-creator Jack Kirby. "Stan had to take those risks," Simmons said. "There was a liberation movement, and I think Marvel became the voice of the people, tied into that rebellious energy and rode with it." Lee also spoke to readers directly about the irrationality of hate. In 1968, a tumultuous year that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Lee wrote one of his most vocal "Stan's Soapbox" columns calling bigotry and racism "the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today." "But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun," Lee wrote. Marvel's characters always were at the forefront of how to deal with racial and other forms of discrimination, according to Mikhail Lyubansky, who teaches psychology of race and ethnicity at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. With the X-Men, many readers saw the mutants, ostracized for their powers, as a commentary on how Americans treated blacks and anyone seen as "the other." "The original X-Men were less about race and more about cultural differences," Lyubansky said. "Black Panther and some of the (Marvel) films took the mantle and ran with the racial issue in ways I think Stan didn't intend. But they were a great vehicle for it." Some of the efforts to break out minority characters haven't aged well. Marvel characters like the Fu Manchu-esque villain The Mandarin and the Native American athletic hero Wyatt Wingfoot were considered groundbreaking in the '60s and '70s, but may seem dated and too stereotypical when viewed through a 21st-century lens. "It's interesting. Stan Lee kind of takes the credit and the blame, depending on the character," said William Foster III, who helped establish the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention and is an English professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut. Foster, who started reading Marvel Comics in the 1960s, said even doing something as minor as including people of color in the background was monumental. "Stan Lee had the attitude of `We're in New York City. How can we possibly not have black people in New York City?"' Foster said. Blacks began taking on the roles of heroes and villains. Foster said some characters may have been seen as "tokenism" but that's sometimes where progress has to start. In 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have netted more than $17.6 billion in worldwide grosses. The "Black Panther" movie pulled in more than $200 million in its debut weekend earlier this year. Next year, actress Brie Larson will take flight as "Captain Marvel." An animated movie centered on Miles Morales, a half-black and half-Puerto Rican teen who inherits the Spider-Man suit, will drop next month. And there continues to be interest around Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim superhero. "I had a lot of white friends growing up," said freelance writer Simmons, who is black. "We watched `Batman' and we also watched `The Mod Squad.' My personal belief is that if you put the material out in front of folks and they connect with it, they are going to connect with it." For many fans and consumers, it's about the product not the skin color or sexual orientation of the character, he added. Crummell, the comic book artist, said she thinks representation for minorities and women in comic books is improving. "I think now, they're seeing that everybody reads comics. It's not a specific group now," Crummell said. "It's not just African-American people — it's women, it's Asians, Hispanic characters now. I would credit Stan Lee with kind of breaking the barrier for that."