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 1 
 on: Today at 07:37 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Unprecedented germ diversity found in remote Amazon tribe

Originally published April 17, 2015 at 6:38 pm

The findings bolster a theory that diminished microbial diversity in Western populations is linked to immune and metabolic diseases — allergies, asthma, diabetes — that are on the rise.

By LAURAN NEERGAARD
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In a remote part of the Venezuelan Amazon, scientists have discovered that members of a village isolated from the modern world have the most diverse colonies of bacteria ever reported living in and on the human body.

The microbiome — the trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria that share our bodies — plays a critical role in maintaining health. Friday’s study raises tantalizing questions about the microbial diversity of our ancestors, and whether today’s Western diets and lifestyles strip us of some bugs we might want back.

Most surprising, this group of Yanomami Indians harbored bacteria containing genes with the ability to resist antibiotic treatment, even though the villagers presumably were never exposed to commercial medications.

This isolated population offers “a unique opportunity to put our microbial past under the microscope,” said lead researcher Jose Clemente, an assistant genetics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.   

The results bolster a theory that diminished microbial diversity in Western populations is linked to immune and metabolic diseases — allergies, asthma, diabetes — that are on the rise, said senior author M. Gloria Dominguez-Bello of NYU Langone Medical Center.

“The challenge is to determine which are the important bacteria whose function we need to be healthy,” she said.

Everyone carries a customized set of microbes that live in noses and mouths, on the skin and in the intestines. This microbial zoo starts forming at birth and varies depending on where you live, your diet, if you had a vaginal birth or a C-section and antibiotic exposure.

Most of what scientists know about the human microbiome comes from studies of Americans, such as the U.S. government’s Human Microbiome Project, or of Europeans. But increasingly, scientists are attempting to compare non-Western populations, especially those that keep traditional lifestyles like the isolated Yanomami.

“It’s a fascinating study,” said Dr. Lita Proctor of the National Institutes of Health, who wasn’t involved in the new research. “The more diverse your microbiome, the more those microbes bring properties to your body that you might need.”

The Yanomami continue to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in rain forests and mountains along the border of Venezuela and Brazil, and as a group are fairly well-known. But Friday’s research, reported in the journal Science Advances, stems from the discovery of a previously unmapped Yanomami village in the mountains of southern Venezuela.

Researchers aren’t disclosing the village’s name, but say it was first visited by a Venezuelan medical expedition in 2009 that collected fecal, skin and mouth swab samples from 34 villagers.

Scientists compared the bacterial DNA from those villagers with samples from U.S. populations and found the Americans’ microbiomes are about 40 percent less diverse. The Yanomami’s microbiomes also were somewhat more diverse than samples from two other indigenous populations with more exposure to Western culture: the Guahibo community of Venezuela and rural Malawi communities in southeast Africa.

Intriguingly, the Yanomami harbored some unique bacteria with beneficial health effects, such as helping to prevent the formation of kidney stones, the researchers reported.

Genetic testing also uncovered antibiotic-resistant genes lurking in some bacterial strains. Antibiotics still could kill the bugs. But when the genes were switched on, by antibiotic exposure, they could block activity of some common modern antibiotics, said study co-author Guatam Dantas of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Today, exposure to antibiotics in medicine or agriculture spurs germs to become harder to treat. But bacteria in soil were a natural source of early antibiotics, Dantas explained, and probably these villagers at some point picked up those bugs that had evolved resistance genes as a defense from competitors. He said it suggests people have a natural reservoir of genes that may have other duties but that can activate to trigger drug resistance in the right environment.

 2 
 on: Today at 07:31 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Once-prized Tibetan mastiffs discarded as fad ends in China

China’s boom-to-bust luxury landscape is strewn with devalued commodities such as black Audis, Omega watches, high-rise apartments in third-tier cities — and Tibetan mastiffs.

By Andrew Jacobs
4/18/2015
The New York Times

BEIJING — There was a time, during the frenzied heights of China’s Tibetan mastiff craze, when a droopy-eyed slobbering giant like Nibble might have fetched $200,000 and ended up roaming the landscaped grounds of some coal tycoon’s suburban villa.

But Tibetan mastiffs are so 2013.

Instead, this year Nibble and 20 more unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed into metal chicken crates and packed onto a truck with 150 other dogs. If not for a band of Beijing animal-rights activists who literally threw themselves in front of the truck, Nibble and the rest would have ended up at a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, at roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot-pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves.

China’s boom-to-bust luxury landscape is strewn with devalued commodities such as black Audis, Omega watches, top-shelf sorghum liquor and high-rise apartments in third-tier cities. Some are the victims of a slowing economy, while others are casualties of an official austerity campaign that has made ostentatious consumption a red flag for anti-corruption investigators.   

Then there is the Tibetan mastiff, a lumbering shepherding dog native to the Himalayan highlands that was once the must-have accouterment for status-conscious Chinese.

Four years ago, a reddish-brown purebred named Big Splash sold for $1.6 million, according to news reports, though cynics said the price was probably exaggerated. No reasonable buyer, self-anointed experts said at the time, would pay more than $250,000 for a premium specimen.

These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a fraction of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing to go far lower.

“If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business,” said Gombo, a veteran breeder in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai, who like many Tibetans uses one name. He said keeping one of his 160-pound carnivores properly fed costs $50 to $60 a day.

“The pressure we’re under is huge,” he said.

Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.

The cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Mastiffs, famed for their ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, offered their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street cred, according to Liz Flora, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily, a marketing-research company in Beijing.

“Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market,” she said, adding: “Han Chinese consumers have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet.”

Nomadic families have long used mastiffs as nocturnal sentries against livestock thieves and wolves. A primitive breed with a deep guttural bark, they are inured to harsh winters and the thin oxygen of the high-altitude grasslands; like wolves, females give birth only once a year.

“They have the power to fearlessly protect possessions, human beings and livestock from any kind of threat, and people are proud of them,” said Gombo, as three dogs in his yard, tethered to stakes, lunged madly at a group of strangers.

Crossbreeds, attacks

At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during face-lift surgery.

“If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when they want to mate their dog with mine,” the owner told the state-run Global Times newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien.

Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs, said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market. But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers.

“By 2013, the market was saturated with crossbreeds,” Li said.

News stories about mastiffs attacking people, some fatally, also dampened ardor for the breed. Although not inherently vicious, Tibetan mastiffs are loyal to a fault, increasing the likelihood of attacks on strangers, experts say.

In recent years, a number of Chinese cities have banned the breed, further denting demand and perhaps contributing to the surge in abandonments.

Ardor, abandonment

The rescuers who saved Nibble and the others from an ignominious fate said the conditions of the transport were appalling. Several of the mastiffs had broken limbs, and they had not been given food or water for three days. By the time the dogs were released from their cages — the volunteers eventually paid the driver for their freedom — more than a third of them were dead.

“It makes you feel so hopeless because not even the police will help, even though what these people are doing is illegal,” said Anna Li, who runs a hedge fund when she is not organizing guerrilla operations to stop dog-packed trucks on highways.

Animal-rights activists say many of the dogs are stolen by gangs that grab pets off the street, while some have been sold off by breeders eager to unload imperfect specimens. Judging from their swollen teats, several of the rescued female mastiffs had been nursing when they were cast off, said Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of International Center for Veterinary Services, the Beijing animal hospital that has been treating them.

During her 25 years in China, Peng has seen successive waves of dog fads, which invariably begin with speculative breeding and end in mass abandonment.

“Ten years ago, it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies,” she said. “But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck.”

 3 
 on: Today at 07:08 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
USA

New Poll Reveals That Nearly Half of America Is Stupid

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Friday, April, 17th, 2015, 10:33 am   

As comedian George Carlin once said, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups” and he was certainly referring to Americans loyal to the Republican movement. It is possible that in many Americans’ cases, stupid is the wrong term and denial a more apt descriptor; although a combination of the two terms is likely apropos when referring to half of America. In fact, it is safe to say that the two terms accurately describe Republican voters as a whole because it takes a particularly stupid person to deny what they know have experienced and seen with their own eyes; something results of a Bloomberg poll released yesterday revealed in grand fashion.

The good news is that 49 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of President Obama’s economic record and it seems to put Republicans in a very unfavorable position. In fact, the poll revealed that overall the President’s approval rating is positive in no small part due to a recovering economy that even Republicans cannot deny or take any credit for after spending six long years doing nothing. Those numbers are bad news for Republicans who continue claiming errantly that the economy is lagging regardless corporate profits are raging, unemployment is falling, GDP is up, the debt is falling, and the stock market continues setting new records. Even for stupid Americans, it is obvious that the economy under President Obama has been steadily improving and shows no signs of slowing any time soon according to economic experts forecasting continued growth with one caveat; the majority of the population is not seeing their personal finances keep pace with the rich and corporations in a growing economy. It was the one part of the poll results that a substantial majority of Americans were in complete agreement about.

What was curious about the poll results, though, was that although 69 percent of Americans say a growing problem is the widening income gap between the very rich and the rest of the population, there was a relatively even split on how best to address the economic discrepancy favoring the one percent; that is where the stupid factor is manifest. Americans who agreed that it is “better for the government to implement policies to shrink the income gap” made up 46 percent of respondents, and 47 percent said it is better “for the government to stand aside and let the market operate freely; even if the income gap gets wider.” Now, it is belligerently stupid for respondents, 69 percent of them, to acknowledge that, on the one hand, there is a growing income gap between the richest one percent and the rest of the population that has to be confronted and solved, and yet 47 percent believe the best way to address the problem is for government to ‘stand aside‘ and let the market take care of the problem; “even if it makes the gap wider.” Maybe the 47 percent agreeing with that statement failed to read the last phrase.

Obviously the stupid 47 percent who want to solve the income gap issue by, as Republicans preach, “getting government out of the way” have spent an inordinate amount of time getting their economic policy solutions from Republicans and Fox News. They also apparently have a serious issue with reality because study after report after study after life experience has revealed that nationally and particularly in states where Republicans have “got government out of the way,” economic growth is non-existent, job creation is lagging, people are getting poorer while the rich get richer, and deficits are exploding. Only a stupid person would think, even for a second, that adhering to Reagan-Republican policies founded on getting government out of the way that are proven to kill jobs, increase debt and deficits, and make the income gap wider is a valid solution for reducing the income gap that is destroying the middle class and sending more Americans into poverty.

Before the Koch brothers bought control of Congress, Republicans in the House spent the major portion of their time passing legislation to ‘get government out of the way’ for the rich and corporations to get richer; since Republicans have had control of both chambers it has only gotten worse. For example, Republicans attempted to get government out of the way by eliminating overtime pay, blocked Democrats attempt to pass an equal pay for equal work law, obstructed every attempt by President Obama to create jobs, and slashed federal spending that killed jobs. Republicans have also spent the last few months getting government out of the way of the rich getting richer by attempting to pass legislation giving the rich greater tax breaks as part of their failed trickle down scam; a scam that is a historical failure at growing the economy, creating jobs, or reducing the income gap. Either 47 percent of the respondents are too stupid to understand that the Republican anti-government approach to the economy has failed every economic test over the past thirty years, or they know it increases the income gap and foolishly think that if the richest one percent gets richer, their own financial situation will improve. If left on its own, the market will always favor the rich and it is a mystery why more Americans cannot comprehend that simple fact; or that it is the government that prevents the market from sending more Americans into poverty.

What is really curious is that everything President Obama has proposed, or presided over, is responsible for an improving economic picture and ways the government can reduce the income gap a substantial majority of Americans acknowledge is a serious issue that needs addressing. Obviously everything Republicans have proposed under the heading of getting government out of the way such as eliminating overtime pay, keeping the minimum wage at poverty level or abolishing it altogether, and giving more money to the rich is contrary to decreasing income disparity. The good news is that nearly half the population comprehends that only government can address income inequality and in that respect President Obama is, and has been recognized as, a champion for the 99 percent. He has made it easier for workers to organize, badgered Republicans relentlessly to raise the minimum wage, created millions of jobs, reduced the cost of healthcare, and created initiatives to increase funding and jobs in the burgeoning green and renewable energy industry. Conversely, he has held the line against Republican attempts to increase the income gap with more tax cuts for the rich by wielding his veto threat with increasing regularity.

The only reason there is a destructive income gap in America is because for the past thirty years Republicans have been on a crusade to get government out of the way and it has created an environment that is conducive to corporate profits and increased wealth for the richest one percent at the expense of the rest of the population. One has to hand it to Republicans for convincing nearly half of the Bloomberg poll’s respondents that going forward with an economic agenda that enriches the already wealthy at the expense of the rest of the population by eliminating government is the solution to the widening income gap. Republicans understand that at least half of America is stupid and will continue falling for the same failed approach to the economy regardless the disastrous economic consequences, and there is little doubt they will work tirelessly to convince the rest of the population that eliminating government will make them filthy rich. The good news is that half of the population understands that without government protections, the market would crush the economic life out of them. It is a message that President Obama has preached for six years and if Republicans had not been obstructionists, the economy would be doing better than it is and the income gap would be declining, not growing.

 4 
 on: Today at 07:04 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Spitzer telescope finds one of the most distant planets ever

April 16, 2015
Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Thanks to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and a technique known as microlensing, a team of astronomers has located one of the most distant exoplanets ever discovered – a remote gas planet located approximately 13,000 light-years from Earth.

The location of this far-off new world demonstrates how Spitzer can be used to help determine how planets are distributed throughout the Milky Way, according to NASA. The discovery is the topic of three new studies published recently in The Astrophysical Journal.

Using microlensing to discover new worlds

Jennifer Yee, a NASA Sagan research fellow and a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, and her colleagues used both the space-based instrument and the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) Warsaw Telescope in Chile to search for new planets by taking advantage of a phenomenon known as microlensing.

Microlensing, the US space agency explains, occurs when one star passes in front of another. Its gravity acts like a lens to magnify and brighten the light of the more distant star, and if the star in the foreground has a planet it orbit around it, it can cause a blip in the magnification.

Those blips can be used by astronomers to locate and characterize planets tens of thousands of light-years away in our galaxy’s central bulge, where these star-crossing events tend to be more common. To date, the process has led to the discovery of nearly 30 new planets, with the farthest of the new worlds resting approximately 25,000 light years away, the agency noted.

“Microlensing experiments are already detecting planets from the solar neighborhood to almost the center of the Milky Way,” explained co-author Andrew Gould of the Ohio State University in Columbus . “And so they can, in principle, tell us the relative efficiency of planet formation across this huge expanse of our galaxy.”

Monitoring a microlensing event

While the microlensing technique can be used to complement other planet-hunting tools such as the Kepler mission, it has one major drawback: it cannot always precisely determine the distance of the planets and stars that are being observed. In fact, of the nearly 30 planets that have been located to date using this method, about half cannot be placed at an exact location.

To help out, researchers use Spitzer and take advantage of the telescope’s remote Earth-trailing orbit. The instrument monitors a microlensing event at a distance of about 128 million miles (207 million kilometers) away at the same time as a telescope on the surface, but it sees the brightness at a different time due to the distance between the two telescopes. This is known as parallax.

Yee said that Spitzer is “the first space telescope to make a microlens parallax measurement for a planet,” and that typically, parallax techniques use multiple ground-based telescopes. The length of the microlensing event used to discover the newfound exoplanet was unusually long (a period of about 150 days), with Spitzer seeing it 20 days after OGLE, NASA said.

The time delay between OGLE’s viewing of the event and Spitzer’s was used to calculate how far away the star and its planet were, and knowing that also enabled the researchers to figure out the mass of the planet, which is approximately half that of Jupiter. It was the 23rd microlensing collaboration between Ogle and Spitzer, and the space-based telescope is currently scheduled to observe an additional 120 microlensing events over the course of the summer.

 5 
 on: Today at 07:03 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Dark matter may actually interact with itself

April 16, 2015
Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

By observing colliding galaxies with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have found evidence suggesting for the first time that dark matter may interact with other dark matter in a way other than through gravity.

The discovery, which was reported Wednesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, appears to contract what we already known about the mysterious substance that accounts for 85 percent of the mass of the universe and suggests that it may not be invisible after all.

Possible non-gravitational dark matter interactions found

Dr. Richard Massey, a research fellow at the Durham University Department of Physics as well as a member of the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, and his colleagues used Hubble and the VLT’s MUSE instrument to get an up-close look at four colliding galaxies in the cluster Abell 3827, which Discovery News said is a common “hunting ground” for gravitational lenses.

While dark matter cannot be directly seen, its location can be deduced using the technique of gravitational lensing, which occurs when its gravitational pull bends light from distant galaxies. As it happens, the collision they observed took place directly in front of a distant and unrelated source, and it allowed them to both pinpoint the location of the mass in the system and compare the distribution of the dark matter with the position of the luminous galaxies.

“Although dark matter is invisible, we can map it using a effect first predicted by Albert Einstein and known as gravitational lensing, Looking past something heavy (like dark matter) is similar to looking through a bathroom window,” Dr. Massey told redOrbit via email. “Although the glass is transparent, you can tell it is there because street lights over the road appear distorted.”

“By calculating the extent of the distortion, it’s possible to work out the thickness of the glass,” he added. “We do the same with very distant galaxies (6 or 7 times further away than the ones we’re interested in). The distant images appear distorted, and we can work out where the dark mass was along our line of sight, to cause that distortion.”

Even if you remove the gravitational influence of the visible galaxies, there is still a tremendous gravitational component remaining, which allowed Dr. Massey’s team to accurately measure the quantities and locations of dark matter clouds within the cluster. Using this method to map out the four colliding galaxies, they determined that the dark matter associated with each galaxy has a lag of approximately 5,000 light-years behind the normal matter there.

So exactly what’s causing that lag to happen?

In their study, the researchers report that it is likely caused by some type of interaction between the galactic halos of dark matter contained within those colliding galaxies. As they collide, the visible matter within the galaxies interact as expected, but there appears to be some sort of drag effect impacting the dark matter halos and causing the drag, according to Discovery News.

Dr. Massey explained that astronomers had previously believed that dark matter remains in one place and has no influence on its surroundings other than its gravitational pull. However, if dark matter is being slowed down during the collisions, it would provide the first-ever evidence for rich physics in the hidden parts of the universe known as the dark sector. Additional research is required to rule out other possible causes of this lag, however, he added.

This potential dark matter interaction appears to contract a recent survey of 72 galaxy cluster collisions which found little to no self-interaction amongst dark matter. However, the new study looks at individual colliding galaxies, not entire clusters, and these collisions have likely lasted far longer than those observed in the previous study, increasing the observed lag effects.

Dr. Massey explained to redOrbit that the two papers tell two parts of the same story. While the previous results found that dark matter interacts “very little – in particular units, by a value lower than 0.5,” the professor said that the new result “is that it interacts very very little, but not zero. In the same units, it is a value bigger than 0.001.”

“There have been lots of negative results over the past decade, saying that dark matter interacts less than this,” he said via email. “Our previous result dropped the bar a lot further, but all these results were fundamentally saying that we see dark matter being boring.”

“This is the first time we’ve caught dark matter in the act of doing something interesting,” Dr. Massey added. “I’m excited to finally to give a positive result because there is a HUGE difference between zero interactions (as the old ‘Cold Dark Matter’ theory would suggest), and nonzero (albeit tiny) interactions. Once the dark Universe around us is allowed to interact at all, the possibilities for what it could get up to are rich and varied.”

 6 
 on: Today at 07:02 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Cuba's love for Obama swells: Bay of Pigs veterans reflect on the 'inconceivable'

Fifty-four years after the invasion that put US and Cuba’s relationship at rock bottom, Obama’s popularity is even higher than Fidel and Raúl Castro

Joe Lamar at Bahía de Cochinos
Friday 17 April 2015 18.03 BST
Guardian

As he has done every April for the past 53 years, Percy Gómez Darna will mark Sunday’s anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion by remembering his fallen comrades and celebrating what is known in Cuba as the first great Latin American victory over “US imperialism”.

The retired militiaman, who led a mortar brigade during the three-day conflict from 17 to 19 April 1961, has been fighting the United States ever since – both as a soldier and a fiery critic of Washington’s policy in the region.

But when Gómez and his fellow veterans gather for the usual commemorative activities this weekend, there will be an unusual note of optimism – and even amiability – in their speeches and reflections on the current resident of the White House.

Following a breakthrough meeting last Saturday between Barack Obama and the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, even such battle-hardened anti-imperialists as Gómez are starting to think the US may finally have a president who understands Latin America.

“We could never have imagined Raúl would shake hands with a US president. It was inconceivable during the invasion,” he said. “But as long as it means future generations will have a better life, we will support what our government and our party decides.

Fellow veteran Roberto Navarro Rodríguez agrees. “I thought I would die before such a thing could happen,” he said. “The only one over all these years who decided to make a change was Obama. I’ve read about him. He is a good man. He is progressive.”

The praise from this unlikeliest of fan bases comes after a giddy whirly of diplomacy between the cold war enemies that has raised hopes that – more than half a century after one of its most embarrassing failures – the US may at last be getting its Cuban policy right.

In the past 10 days, the leaders of the two nations have phoned each other twice, shaken hands and held their first hour-long meeting since the Eisenhower era. At the Summit of the Americas last week, Raúl Castro gave a personal endorsement of Obama, declaring him “an honest man”. Days later, the US president announced his intention to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This has made Cubans even more enamoured of Obama, who was already popular as a result of his joint announcement with Castro on 17 December to normalise relations between the two neighbours.

Even before last week’s summit, an unauthorised poll by a Miami-based company suggested Obama enjoyed an 80% approval rating in Cuba, well above that of Fidel or Raúl Castro. As independent polling is prohibited in Cuba, it is hard to gauge the accuracy of that survey. But based on dozens of interviews by the Guardian over the past week, it is hard to dispute one of the key findings: Obama enjoys a level of popularity in Cuba than he could only dream of in the US.

That was evident on the three-hour drive from Havana to the Bay of Pigs, arguably the most iconic site of revolutionary resistance to the US. The turnoff towards this Caribbean inlet is marked with a giant propaganda billboard proclaiming: “This is the way that the Cuban people came to defend socialism.” The road to the coast is flanked with mangrove swamps, a crocodile farm and dozens of stone memorials, marking the points along the roadside where Cuban militiamen fell in the conflict.

Two successive US presidents – Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy – approved the CIA-funded and organised amphibious assault on 17 April 1961 by 1,400 Cuban exiles, which aimed to overthrow the two-year-old government of Fidel Castro.

The conflict was not so much a battle as a rout. The invading force were defeated in just 65 hours. The victors took more than a thousand prisoners, who were paraded in public trials. The US was humiliated. Castro, meanwhile, had the victory he needed to consolidate revolution on the island and export his ideals across Latin America. Survivors of the generation of rebels that followed have since taken power in Nicaragua, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela.

“It served as an example to the people of Latin America that they could fight for their freedom,” said Pedro Pérez, the guide at a museum on Girón beach where visitors can see the tanks, mortars and bullet-holed uniforms of the combatants. But he too said the political winds were changing as a result of the recent thaw, which he expected to bring in more US tourists and improve the Cuban economy. For this he credited Obama.

“I’m 27 years old and I have never seen a US president with this perspective. What he is doing will be good for us and good for them,” he said. “Obama is popular. Most people support what he has done.”

Expectations on the island are growing for an official visit by Obama before he leaves the White House at the end of next year. If such a trip goes ahead – and there are still many steps before that might be possible – he would be the first US president to visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

“If Obama comes to Cuba he would get a great reception,” says bartender Danny Morejón, who works across the street from the museum at Girón. “He’s the first US president to understand Latin America. He really wants to help and everyone likes him. It’s a big change.”

There is a similar level of enthusiasm on the nearby beach, where invading troops landed 54 years ago. These days it is a somewhat-the-worse-for-wear tourist resort. Beatrice Bueno, who sells Panama hats and other souvenirs, grins at a mention of the US president.

“I like everything about Obama, even as a man. He’s friends with Raúl now. They shook hands so we should get more tourists in the future, which means more business.”

The one somewhat discordant voice came further along the coast at Playa Larga, the other of the two main landing sites. Ricardo Peña, a 78-year-old engineer, remembers hearing mortar shells exploding. One of his friends – a 16-year-old militiaman named Hiraldo Díaz – died in the fighting. Pointing across the street from his home, Peña says two local girls were killed in that spot by the invaders. As he prepared to remember their deaths on the anniversary, he has only faint praise for Obama. “He’s the best of the bad capitalists. I don’t trust him. He should never have won the Nobel peace prize. He has been good recently with Cuba, but elsewhere he is responsible for many killings.”

Such criticism among the revolutionary old guard may grow if Obama goes ahead with promises to push for more democracy on the island. But for now, the momentum is in favour of warmer ties. Castro needs support for an ailing economy and a fledgling reform program. Obama wants to end US isolation in Latin America and win over more domestic Hispanic voters.

His popularity on the island will no doubt face more tests in the months ahead, but this weekend, the anniversary of a low point in US-Cuba relations comes at a time of rising hopes for a new start.

 7 
 on: Today at 07:00 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Brazil's 'bullets, beef and bible' caucus wants to imprison 16-year-olds

Bolstered by rising resentment toward President Dilma Rousseff, Jair Bolsonaro and other rightwing politicians want to lower age of criminal responsibility

Bruce Douglas in Rio de Janeiro
Friday 17 April 2015 12.00 BST
Guardian

Among Brazil’s weak and demoralised leftwing members of Congress, they are known as the “Bancada BBB”: Bullets, Beef and Bible Caucus.

These conservative hardliners – from Brazil’s security forces, agricultural sector and evangelical churches – triumphed in last October’s legislative elections, while President Dilma Rousseff, of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT), only narrowly won re-election.

Over the past few months, the president’s authority has been undermined by a massive corruption scandal, major street protests and the open revolt of many of her former political allies.

With a survey this week showing that 63% of Brazilians would support impeachment proceedings against her, an energised coalition of rightwing deputies are attempting to impose their agenda on Congress.

Their long-term aims include liberalising Brazil’s gun laws and opening up its indigenous territories to industry. But their first goal is to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16.

Under Brazil’s Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA), the maximum legal punishment for someone ages 12-18 is three years’ internment in a juvenile socio-educative detention centre. In theory, such a sentence is only applicable in cases involving violence, though judges often interpret the law to include drug-trafficking.

One of the prime movers behind the attempt to change the age of criminal responsibility is Jair Bolsonaro, 60, a six-time federal deputy, who won more votes than any other congressman in Rio de Janeiro in the 2014 elections.

Speaking to the Guardian at his house inside an immaculate gated community in Rio’s upmarket suburb of Barra da Tijuca, Bolsonaro said: “An adolescent can rape and kill 200 people and he is still not treated like a criminal in Brazil. Most minors know that if they are going to commit a robbery, it is better to kill the victim as there is less chance of being caught, and if they are, the punishment will be the same.”

According to Unicef, however, Brazilian adolescents are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators: of the 21 million aged 12-17, just 0.013% committed murder, robbery with murder, rape or bodily harm, while homicide was the cause of 36.5% of all adolescents’ deaths by non-natural causes. Thirty-three thousand Brazilian adolescents were murdered in Brazil from 2006 to 2012.

Bolsonaro’s response to such statistics is to argue that PT’s social assistance programmes have encouraged “irresponsible paternity”. This has created a generation of Brazilians “who, sadly, have no future whatsoever” and who are prone to violence because of the lack of a rigorous criminal justice system.

The former army captain, who hopes to run for the presidency in 2018, is the indisputable poster child of the insurgent Brazilian right, and repeatedly courts controversy with gratuitously offensive speeches.

On Tuesday he was ordered by a federal judge to pay R$150,000 (£33,000) in damages for homophobic comments he made on Brazilian TV in 2011. In an interview with Playboy that same year he said he would “rather his child died in an accident than be gay”.

He is also being sued by Maria do Rosário, a former human rights’ minister from the PT, after he described her, in Congress, as “not worth raping”. Over 10 years earlier he had told her the same thing, at the end of a televised discussion on the age of criminal responsibility.

While claiming he exaggerated “a little” over his comments to Playboy, he was unrepentant over the comments to Do Rosário. “Who is tougher on rape? I have presented two projects to Congress on the issue: first, to strengthen the sentencing for rape; second, to offer chemical castration to offenders. But the PT has blocked them both.”

With over 550,000 inmates, Brazil has the world’s fourth-largest prison population. More than 40% of those incarcerated are still awaiting trial. But Bolsonaro believes prison is the best way to reduce the country’s extremely high level of violent crime. “I prefer a prison full of criminals than a graveyard full of innocent people,” he said.

On 31 March, the bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility passed its first legislative hurdle. A Datafolha opinion poll published on Wednesday showed that 87% of Brazilians are in favour of the bill. With such popular and congressional support, Bolsonaro is confident that finally, after almost two decades of trying, he will succeed. “As soon as the law is passed, I will put forward another constitutional amendment, to lower the age to 14,” he said.

However, even if Congress approves the bill, it would still require ratification by the senate. It may also face obstacles in the supreme court. Earlier this week President Rousseff used her Facebook feed to condemn the proposal.

“Lowering the age of criminal responsibility will not solve the problem of juvenile delinquency,” she wrote, though she added that she had instructed her justice minister to begin a debate over the ECA.

Even those opposed to a lowering of the age of criminal responsibility question whether the three-year maximum sentence is sufficient.

Julita Lemgruber, a former director of Rio de Janeiro’s prison system, said there was a debate to be had over extending the period of custody for adolescents convicted of serious crimes. But she added the real issue was the state’s failure to implement existing legislation.

“The law is very clear on the services that should be provided to adolescents when they are deprived of their liberty. But they never get them. On the contrary, instead they are put into these filthy and overcrowded places with nothing to do.”

But Lemgruber is worried that Bolsonaro will get his way. “The reality is that the federal government is very vulnerable at the moment. Everything is negotiable,” she said.

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Mexico Drug Lord's Arrest Sparks Gunfights, Three Dead

by Naharnet Newsdesk 18 April 2015, 08:25

A cartel attacked Mexican security forces Friday in reaction to a drug lord's arrest in a city near the U.S. border, unleashing gunfights that killed at least three gunmen and wounded two officers.

The gang torched several vehicles, including a school bus, and used trucks and cars to block streets in Reynosa, sowing panic in the city of 610,000 people across from McAllen, Texas.

Terrified Reynosa residents posted pictures on Twitter of burning vehicles and people taking cover on the ground, while the U.S. consulate urged Americans to stay indoors.

The firefights began after a leader of the Gulf cartel was arrested in the city, two federal officials said on condition of anonymity, identifying the suspect as Jose Tiburcio Hernandez Fuentes, also known as "El Gafe" (The Jinxed One).

His arrest dealt a new blow to the gang, which holds sway in northern Tamaulipas state but has seen several leaders taken down, triggering deadly internal power struggles that have surged along the border this year.

The Gulf gang's violent reaction echoed similar operations launched by another criminal group, the Jalisco New Generation Drug Cartel, against security forces.

The New Generation launched two ambushes on federal and state police in the western state of Jalisco that left a total of 20 officers dead in recent weeks in apparent revenge over the takedown of gang members.

- Cartel 'resistance' -

A Tamaulipas security task force issued a statement saying that army troops and federal police had detained an unspecified number of gang members.

"Resulting from the operation, members of the same criminal group reacted by attacking federal and Tamaulipas forces, setting up blockades in the city," the Tamaulipas Coordination Group said.

"Up to now, three armed civilians are reported dead, and two members of the Tamaulipas Force were wounded in the attacks," it said.

The city's mayor said the gun battles began around noon. Authorities said federal and state force retook control of the situation at 6:00 pm.

One of the federal officials said the gang burned several vehicles to terrorize the population and distract police forces.

"There's obviously resistance that emerges when people of this nature are arrested," Reynosa Mayor Jose Elias Leal told Radio Formula, adding that he expected the situation to calm down overnight.

The city government issued a "red light" alert on Twitter, urging residents to avoid some areas.

The local daily El Manana reported that two U.S.-Mexico border crossings were temporarily closed.

In a separate operation further west along the border, federal forces detained the suspected leader of the Juarez drug cartel, Jesus Salas Aguayo, alias "El Chuyin," in Chihuahua state, an official said on condition of anonymity.

Authorities believe he succeeded Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias "El Viceroy," who was arrested in October.

Source: Agence France Presse

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U.S. Condemns 'Brutal' FARC Attack in Colombia

by Naharnet Newsdesk 18 April 2015, 07:13

The United States branded a FARC attack that killed 11 Colombian soldiers "brutal" Friday and accused the Marxist guerrillas of violating their unilateral ceasefire.

The attack on Tuesday-Wednesday came as the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in peace talks that have been under way in Havana since November 2012 in a bid to end more than five decades of conflict that have killed over 200,000 people.

Bogota accused the FARC of committing a war crime by ambushing a resting army unit with unconventional weapons in the attack in the western rebel bastion of Cauca.

Marie Harf, acting State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement: "We reaffirm our continuing support to the government of Colombia in its efforts to end the nation’s 50 year conflict.

"We condemn the brutal attack in Cauca orchestrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"The offensive was in direct violation of the unilateral ceasefire they committed to last December."

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos lifted a suspension of air strikes on the rebels in the wake of the attack but did not call a halt to the peace talks.

"It is our sincere hope that negotiators reach an accord soon to bring peace to all Colombians," Harf added.

Source: Agence France Presse

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 on: Today at 06:56 AM 
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U.N. Warns of Burundi Election Violence

by Naharnet Newsdesk 18 April 2015, 07:10

The U.N. Security Council on Friday warned that upcoming elections in Burundi could turn violent and vowed to take action against those who are fomenting unrest.

The 15-member council called on the government and the opposition to refrain from acts of violence and intimidation ahead of the May parliamentary vote and the presidential polls that will follow.

"The upcoming elections are an extremely sensitive issue that has the potential to spur violence and undermine the peace sustained for almost a decade in Burundi," the council said in a statement.

The members vowed "to respond to any actions in Burundi that threaten the peace, security or stability in Burundi by actively facilitating violence, including by reportedly distributing weapons to youth groups."

Burundi, a small landlocked nation in Africa's Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war.

Police on Friday fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters in Bujumbura calling for President Pierre Nkurunziza to step aside and not run for a third term.

Nkurunziza has not yet confirmed whether he intends to attempt to try stay in power.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Wednesday warned that the country was at a "crossroads" between a fair vote that would boost the country and a route back to its "horrendously violent past."

Also Friday, the U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned by the rising tensions in Burundi and called on all parties "to play a constructive and peaceful role in this electoral process."

Source: Agence France Presse

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