Economy & business

Despite Trump Talk of ‘Tweaking’ NAFTA, Canada Could Still Be Hurt

Although U.S. President Donald Trump says he only wants to tweak trade ties with Canada, his pledge to renegotiate NAFTA to focus on Mexico is almost impossible and Canada will not emerge unscathed, Canadian officials and trade experts said Tuesday.

Trump had warm words for Canadian trade following a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, but his call for major changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement to target Mexico stymied experts.

“I can’t see how it’s possible at all. It would be very complicated to do and I don’t think Mexico would … ever go along with it,” said Mark Warner, a trade lawyer and principal at MAAW Law in Toronto.

Canada and Mexico send the bulk of their exports to the United States under NAFTA.

One senior Canadian government official, asked how the agreement could be tweaked for one partner and changed in a major way for another, admitted frankly, “I don’t know.”

Trump spoke after his first meeting with Trudeau, who is trying to sell the merits of NAFTA while opposing a border tariff, an idea circulating in U.S. political circles that could badly hit Canadian industries.

Warner said that if the U.S. government decided to impose the tariff, “the consequences of that could be described as a tweak but the significance of it would be major.”

Matthew Kronby, an international trade lawyer at Bennett Jones in Toronto, said “it is very hard to tease apart the elements of the deal that I suppose Trump might think are a disaster with Mexico while leaving it intact with Canada.”

Officials say that while Trump did not reveal any details about his intentions on NAFTA, Canada would suffer collateral damage, whatever the administration pushes for.

“We cannot be untouched or unscathed by this,” said one person familiar with the matter.

Separately, another official working on the bilateral trade file said that once talks started, the U.S. dairy industry was set to demand Canada dismantle its supply management system of tariffs and taxes that keep out most dairy imports, including those from the United States.

“That could be a very unpleasant conversation,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Trudeau’s ability to make concessions is limited since all of Canada’s major political parties have vowed to protect supply management. Holding out too firmly, though, could irritate the American side, which might demand concessions elsewhere.

Economy & business

Mexico Economy Minister Says Doubts US Border Tax Will Materialize

Mexico Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said on Tuesday he doubted a proposed border tax on Mexican imports to the United States, which the White House has said could be used to finance President Donald Trump’s border wall, would ever materialize.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event in Mexico City, Guajardo said he had spoken with several Trump’s advisors and had not found any uniformity in their backing of the border tax.

“I wouldn’t be so certain that it will end up in the proposal,” he told reporters.

Billed as a way to boost U.S. manufacturing and pay for corporate tax cuts, the so-called border adjustment would essentially tax imports but not exports. It is expected to be part of House tax reform legislation that could emerge in March or April.

It is unclear whether the border adjustment proposal has Trump’s support.

The White House has floated the idea of imposing a 20 percent tax on goods from Mexico to pay for a wall at the southern U.S. border. However, aides later said the tax was simply one of various measures being considered.

Trump has threatened to scuttle the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also includes Canada, if he cannot recast it to benefit U.S. interests, raising the risk of a major economic shock for Mexico.

Science & Health

Fossil Shows Pregnant Momma Sea Monster with Developing Embryo

An extraordinary fossil unearthed in southwestern China shows a pregnant long-necked marine reptile that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs with its developing embryo, indicating this creature gave birth to live babies rather than laying eggs.

Scientists on Tuesday said the fossil of the unusual fish-eating reptile called Dinocephalosaurus, which lived about 245 million years ago during the Triassic Period, changes the understanding of the evolution of vertebrate reproductive systems.

Mammals and some reptiles including certain snakes and lizards are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young.

Dinocephalosaurus is the first member of a broad vertebrate group called archosauromorphs that includes birds, crocodilians, dinosaurs and extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs known to give birth this way, paleontologist Jun Liu of China’s Hefei University of Technology said.

It boasted one of the longest necks relative to body size of any animal that ever existed.

Dinocephalosaurus, unearthed in Yunnan Province, was an estimated 13 feet (4 meters) long, including a slender neck roughly 5-1/2 feet (1.7 meters) long, Liu said. It had paddle-like flippers, a small head and a mouth with teeth, including large canines, perfect for snaring fish.

“I think you’d be amazed to see it, with its tiny head and long snaky neck,” said University of Bristol paleontologist Mike Benton, who also participated in the research published in the journal Nature Communications.

Its body plan was similar to plesiosaurs, long-necked marine reptiles akin to Scotland’s mythical Loch Ness Monster that thrived later during the dinosaur age, though they were not closely related.

Not laying eggs provided advantages to Dinocephalosaurus, the researchers said. It indicated the creature was fully marine, not having to leave the ocean to lay eggs on land like sea turtles,  exposing the eggs or hatchlings to land predators.

Many animal fossils have been found with the stomach contents intact, for example whole fish. Several factors showed this embryo was the female Dinocephalosaurus’ baby, not its breakfast.

Liu said it was found in a curled posture typical for vertebrate embryos. The embryo faces forward relative to the mother, while swallowed animals generally face backward because a predator will gulp prey head-first to help it get down the throat.

Montana State University evolutionary biologist Chris Organ said while some reptiles such as crocodiles determine the sex of their babies through the temperature inside the nest, Dinocephalosaurus determined its offspring’s sex genetically as mammals and birds do.

Science & Health

Small Percentage of Ebola Patients Found Responsible for Most Cases in Epidemic

A new study concludes that a tiny minority of so-called “superspreaders” was likely responsible for the lethal Ebola epidemic in West Africa.  

Researchers at Princeton University in New Jersey and Oregon State University found that 3 percent of infectious individuals with Ebola were the source for more than 61 percent of all cases.  

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 28,000 cases of the viral infection were reported between October 2014 and March 2015, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths.

Using a mathematical model, the investigators went back and analyzed 200 burials in and around Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. From this, researchers reconstructed a transmission network looking at what proportion of infected individuals were superspreaders.

Superspreaders profiled

The authors said the superspreaders were most likely children younger than 15, and adults older than 45, caretakers who tended to the sick at home and became infected, then continued to spread the disease to others.  

Researchers say this driving force was also responsible for the Ebola epidemic in Guinea and Liberia, the other West African countries hard hit by the disease.

The illness was spread through contact with infected bodily fluids of the sick. Another source of infection, researchers found, were community funerals where loved ones touched and bathed the bodies.

Had these superspreaders been identified early and treated at community health facilities with infection-control procedures, the epidemic may have been contained.

Not a new idea

The authors of the study say public health officials should concentrate on superspreaders in future epidemics to limit transmission.

The concept of superspreading is not new and played a role in the SARS epidemic in Asia in 2002-03. The Washington Post reported that one man admitted to a hospital infected 156 clinical staff and visitors. The disease, marked by trouble breathing, high fever and cough, was responsible for 40 percent of deaths in more than two dozen countries.

The most famous superspreader was Typhoid Mary, who was thought to have transmitted the disease to 50 other people, three of whom died. The transmissions occurred in New York City, in the early part of the 20th century.

Economy & business

Boeing Faces Union Vote Wednesday

A strongly contested union election pits the world’s largest aerospace company against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on Wednesday.

Three thousand workers at Boeing’s plant in South Carolina are eligible to vote on whether they want to be represented by the union.

Many businesses and key political leaders in South Carolina have spoken against the union. Union membership in the conservative state is just 1.6 percent, the lowest in the nation. The low level of union representation is said to be one reason that Boeing located the plant in the state.

Boeing employs about 7,500 people in South Carolina, and nearly 150,000 around the world. The company opened a plant in South Carolina after labor strife in Washington state, where unions have been more successful.

The plant is one of two that makes Boeing’s 787 commercial jetliner.

The union vote follows extensive organizing efforts by union supporters and a series of posters, meetings and television commercials by the company urging employees to vote against the union.

Published reports say President Donald Trump may visit the plant on Friday, after the vote.

Arts & Entertainment

Syrian Films Bring Tears and Smiles to Berlin Film Festival

One drops you, trapped and powerless, in the middle of a civil war, while the other uses humor to depict what’s it like to start a new life in Europe after escaping the same conflict.

“Insyriated” and “The Other Side of Hope” are two films about Syria, and they brought tears and smiles to the Berlin Film Festival.

The former is shot almost entirely inside the walls of an apartment that becomes like a prison for Oum Yazan, a mother determined to survive a war whose brutality is conveyed mostly through the sounds of bombs and sniper gunfire.

“It shocked people in a very smart way. Westerners saw enough images of destruction on their television screens. But few of them know what Syrians are going through or how they feel being trapped in there,” Iraqi film critic Kais Kasim said.

The film forces viewers to ask themselves how they would act in the same situation.

Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw said the silence that followed the screening as well as seeing some of his actors and members of the audience in tears at the end made him think: “Mission accomplished.”

“It is hard for me to say I was happy when I saw the film for the first time with the audience,” said actress Hiam Abbass, who plays Oum Yazan.

“It brought people close to the Syrian people,” she said, adding that she had no idea the film would leave people speechless.

“The Other Side of Hope” by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki uses humor to depicts the experiences in Helsinki of stowaway Syrian asylum seeker Khaled, who decides to remain in the country illegally after his application is rejected.

His fate is to meet the main character in the second story of the film, Finnish salesman Wikstrom, who buys a restaurant in the capital where he gives Khaled a job and a bed.

Wikstrom and the other Finns in the film are burlesque characters, the source of most of the light-hearted humor that almost obscures Khaled’s ordeal: most of his family died in a bomb in Aleppo and he lost his sister shortly after they arrived in Europe from Turkey.

“It uses comedy to convey tragedy,” said film critic Kasim. “It blends the critical with the caricature, leaving people with the question: do we laugh or do we cry?”

Economy & business

In California Border Town, 2 Businessmen Fear Downturn After Ban

Three months after Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president and less than three weeks after a controversial executive order, his intent to restrain immigration may be crimping commerce at the busiest land crossing on the country’s southern border, some local observers say.

At the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, an accountant for Transportes California said the bus company – with routes traversing the border – has “seen a drop” in ridership. Gerardo Chavez did not specify, though he said some potential passengers are fearful because they “do not know what will happen” in terms of their immigration status.

Miguel Aguirre, a longtime San Ysidro businessman and part owner of the city’s landmark McDonald’s Trolley Station Building, also said he has noticed a decrease in customers in the last few months.

But, Chavez added, “most people are optimistic” that, after the first 100 days of Trump’s administration, “everything is going to calm down.”

Fulfilling campaign promise

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly had pledged to increase security and limit irregular immigration – especially at the southern border. His executive order, issued January 25, temporarily barred U.S. immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Days later, a U.S. federal district judge in Washington state froze enforcement of the order, and that decision was upheld by a three-judge panel at the federal appeals court panel after a challenge by the administration. On Monday, a federal judge issued a new injunction to keep the ban from being implemented in the state of Virginia.

More than 14 million cars and 7 million pedestrians crossed the border at San Ysidro in 2015; last July alone, roughly 20,000 were crossing on foot every day, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The local San Diego Union-Tribune has noted San Ysidro is the Western Hemisphere’s busiest land port, connecting the Mexican city of Tijuana with the greater San Diego area. People frequently travel back and forth to work, shop and visit.

Everard Meade, who directs the Trans-Border Institute at the private University of San Diego, cautioned that the executive order’s exact impact cannot be gauged yet.

“It is far too soon to tell if there was some kind of fear effect,” he responded to VOA in an email Monday. “Most regular crossers are going for business, school and family obligations that they cannot simply cancel or postpone indefinitely.”

He also said a thorough assessment “would have to account for protests in Mexico, which have shut down the border crossing every weekend since the beginning of the year. While the protests began over Mexico ending its gasoline subsidy, they have morphed into a broader protest against President Trump’s proposed wall and the perceived weakness of the Mexican government in the face of provocation from the new administration in the United States.”

Matters of access

Businessman Aguirre serves on the institute’s advisory council. He suggested the renewed attention on the border can have a positive impact – if key people realize that frequent north-south crossings serve as economic engines for his and other U.S.-Mexico border communities.

“I believe it’s a good time to realize the potential,” Aguirre said.

Trump also had promised, during his campaign, to build or extend a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border running east from San Ysidro to Brownsville, Texas. Fencing already stretches along some 650 miles.

Groups gathering at Friendship Park just south of San Diego, California, have staged various events to expand civic awareness about the measure. 

 On Saturday, the Border Angels – a volunteer advocacy group focused on immigration reform – organized a cross-border yoga session for the second consecutive year. (Previous sessions by other groups date to at least 2008.)

Instructor Mark Andeya offered the yoga bridge as a possible metaphor for policymakers. 

“There are barriers that divide countries, and there are emotional barriers that prevent or block healthy relationships,” he said, adding that certain barriers are favorable. “… The idea is to learn to take the favorable and to reject from a little the unfavorable.”

Carol Guensburg contributed to this report from VOA’s Spanish service.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Exhibit Traces 500 Years of Robots

The word “robot” was coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek almost 100 years ago. But robots have been around, in some form, for 500 years or more. London’s Science Museum has opened a “Robots” exhibit that traces the mechanical technology over the past five centuries. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.