Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections

Voting is not obligatory in Cuba and abstention has risen steadily in recent years. (AFP)
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Updated 27 March 2023
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Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections

  • Latest provisional figures show voter turnout stood at 70.33 percent
  • Modest increase from the 68.5 percent who voted in last November’s municipal elections

HAVANA: Cuba’s government managed to mobilize voters on Sunday for National Assembly elections, the results of which were a foregone conclusion, as it pushed back against a recent abstentionist trend in the communist-ruled nation.
As many as eight million eligible voters selected from the 470 candidates on the ballot — 263 women and 207 men — are vying for the 470 seats in the congress.
But what was really in play was the number of Cubans refusing to vote.
The opposition had called on citizens to abstain, with one opposition Twitter account branding the vote a farce.
Voting is not obligatory and abstention has risen steadily in recent years.
On Sunday the nation’s 23,648 polling stations closed at 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT), an hour later than initially announced by authorities.
According to the latest provisional figures released by the National Election Council, as of 5:00 p.m. turnout stood at 70.33 percent.
That marked a modest increase from the 68.5 percent who voted in last November’s municipal elections, the lowest turnout since the island’s current electoral system was set up in 1976.
Last September about 74 percent of eligible Cubans voted in a referendum on a new family code, down from the 90 percent turnout in the 2019 referendum on a new constitution.
Cuba’s communist government does not allow opposition, so most parliamentary candidates are members of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
Candidates still must receive 50 percent of votes to be elected.
Voters had two choices: they could tick the names of any number of individual candidates, or they could select the “vote for all” option.
“I voted for the unified vote because, despite the needs, the difficulties that this country can have, I could not imagine” abstaining, Carlos Diego Herrera, a 54-year-old blacksmith in Havana, said.
He said abstaining would be like voting “for those that want to crush us, the Yankees.”
Washington has imposed sanctions on the island nation since 1962, three years after the communist revolution that saw Fidel Castro take power after overthrowing US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Student Rachel Vega, 19, also said she voted for all candidates, considering it “a step forward right now” that would “improve the situation in the country.”
President Miguel Diaz-Canel is among the candidates, as is his predecessor, 91-year-old Raul Castro.
“With the united vote we defend the unity of the country, the unity of the revolution, our future, our socialist constitution,” said Diaz-Canel, 62, after voting in Santa Clara, 175 miles (280 kilometers) southeast of Havana.
The opposition scoffed at the turnout figures, with dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua of the Council for the Democratic Transition in Cuba warning about “the government’s electoral mathematics.”
“At 9am it reports that 18.2 percent of the electorate has voted. At 11am it says 41.66 percent — that is, in less than two hours the turnout increased by 23.46” points, he said on Twitter. “Impossible!!! The polling stations are empty.”
Final figures will be released Monday.


Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Updated 10 sec ago
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Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

  • Detection rates are low, diagnosis is slow
  • State asks private sector to improve workers’ health

MANILA: Saddled with high cancer rates and late diagnoses, the Philippines is trying a whole new tack: asking businesses to step into state shoes and screen millions of workers for early signs of the disease.

Be it cervical, breast or colon cancer, the Southeast Asian nation wants to lower its cancer deaths by increasing screening.
Medics say early detection is key to improving survival rates, so last year the government changed course and opted to partner with the private sector to boost testing levels.
In September, the government ordered all employers to set up cancer prevention and control programs to ease pressures on time- and cash-poor staff, who must otherwise contribute to the cost of diagnosis and treatment themselves.
Employers are now required to give employees access to cancer screening, by referrals to reputable health facilities or conducting free screenings themselves.
The order stemmed from the landmark National Integrated Cancer Control Act, which pledged better screening, diagnosis and treatment and to make health services “more equitable and affordable for all, especially for the underprivileged, poor and marginalized.”
Cervical screening
Since the start of the year, 500 Filipinos have tested under the new setup — officer worker Gemma Remojo was among the first.
“I’ve been suffering from reproductive issues and hormonal imbalance so I really needed this test,” said Remojo, a 35-year-old employed by finance company Home Credit.
Under the Philippine health system, Remojo would have to pay for tests in a private clinic or ask the national health insurance to cover her screening, which takes time to process.
Home Credit’s cervical screening service began in January, with kits distributed to workers for free after a short lecture.
The workers collect their own specimens in a designated space inside the workplace and their results are posted out by medical providers some weeks later. Employers cannot access the results, circumventing any data privacy concerns.
A positive test detects the presence of HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer — the fourth most common cancer among women globally.
Roughly 91 percent of cervical cancer cases are thought to be caused by HPV, and every year more than half of cervical cancer cases in the Philippines lead to death.
The kit was provided for free by the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics (Jhpiego), a nonprofit health organization helping hundreds of workers get free HPV screenings in the Philippines.
According to Jhpiego, the cancer awareness lecture and do-it-yourself kits help simplify the screening process for women.
The government said the aim was to screen more citizens and do it more quickly — then to speed up diagnoses.
“With cancer ranking third among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the country, the advisory serves as our proactive contribution to combating the disease,” Alvin Curada, director of the government’s Bureau of Working Conditions, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Engaging the private sector underscores the country’s commitment ... It signifies a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector,” he said.
Bridging health gaps
A key incentive for users to get tested is the lower cost, along with a better health outlook.
The cost of treatment is high; Filipino cancer patients lose a combined 35 billion Philippine pesos ($625 million) a year in medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages, according to a study by health economist Valerie Ulep of state think-tank the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
Ulep said early screening could save lives, as only 1 percent of Filipino women are ever screened for breast or cervical cancer, among the lowest rates in the world.
The poor take-up comes despite that fact that breast and cervical are among the leading cancers affecting Filipino women.
The cost of screening is also prohibitive, said Jhpiego’s Marco Ugoy, who works to raise awareness on reproductive health.
The price in hospitals can range from 3,000 to 30,000 Philippine pesos, when a minimum-wage earner in the Philippines earns an average 17,000 pesos each month.
All employers must enroll staff in the Philippines’ national health insurance company, PhilHealth, but that universal policy only partly covers a patient’s costs.
The new scheme aims to bridge some of the gap.
Hard to roll out
The government’s Curada said work was an ideal place to run a cancer program because of its structure and facilities.
To ensure company compliance, employers must submit an annual report to government detailing the extent of cancer-related activities or else risk an unspecified fine.
But health advocates worry that guidelines may be too scant and that policy awareness remains low.
“It’s a big step that a directive like this was signed. But do all companies implement it? Do the workers know about the policy?” said Ugoy of Jhpiego.
Ugoy said some business owners were already big advocates of workplace screenings, but he cited challenges in getting factories, especially those in autonomous ecozones, to comply.
The Philippines has more than 400 special economic zones that run with little or no government interference, and have historically been linked to a range of human rights concerns.
Nadia De Leon of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, a nonprofit for worker health and safety, said the new government tack represents a big step forward.
But the guidelines “may remain largely symbolic” if not strictly enforced and monitored, she said.

Screenings for women
Home Credit’s Arianne Eucogo said the company prioritized HPV screenings over other cancer programs since about 65 percent of their employees are women.
“We’re primarily doing it for health promotion of our employees, knowing that the rate of cervical cancer deaths in the Philippines is high,” she said.
Ugoy said one of the biggest barriers to health checkups was simply time, as health centers only open during office hours.
Ugoy said the private sector must also partner with community-based groups and local government to boost take-up and get around the time constraints.
For example, in Taguig City, the fifth most populous in the country, dozens of companies partnered with the city’s own team to run their HPV screenings and cancer treatment, be it through office clinics, ride-hailing services or call centers.
Ugoy said this approach — with free test kits from Jhpiego and labs paid by the city government — had sped up diagnosis.
“It shouldn’t stop at diagnostics. Screening and treatment must go hand in hand when it comes to cancer,” said Marites Diaz, who has worked for 32 years at the Taguig Health Office.


Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

Updated 23 February 2024
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Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

  • He said a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives

WASHINGTON: President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the US Congress to approve additional aid for Kyiv, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives.

Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have stalled the approval of $60 billion in new aid for Ukraine, and Zelensky made his appeal for action during an interview with Fox News — a favored channel for US conservatives.

“Will Ukraine survive without Congress’ support? Of course. But not all of us,” Zelensky told Fox’s Bret Baier in an interview near a front line in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian leader also warned that the price of helping Kyiv now is much lower than the potential cost of confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin later if he succeeds in Ukraine.

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and is by far Kyiv’s biggest donor. But existing funding has dried up, and former president Donald Trump’s allies in the House have been stalling new assistance.

Trump, the likely Republican nominee in the November presidential election, opposes helping Kyiv and recently used his sway to kill a US border reform bill that would have also authorized additional aid to Ukraine.

Zelensky told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday that he was ready to take Trump to the frontlines in Ukraine, saying policy makers should see what real war entails.


Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

Updated 23 February 2024
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Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

  • Conflict Armament Research examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2
  • In its report, CAR found date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023

WASHINGTON: Revelations that a North Korean missile fired by Russia in Ukraine contained a large number of components linked to US-based companies underline the difficulty of enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang, but could help uncover illicit procurement networks, experts say.

Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a UK-based organization that tracks the origins of weapons used in conflicts, examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2.
In a report released this week, it said it examined electronic components, including for the missile’s navigation system, and found many were recently manufactured and bore the marks of companies based in the United States.
It said 75 percent of the components documented were “linked to companies incorporated in the United States,” 16 percent to companies in Europe, and 11 percent to companies in Asia.
Date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023 and that the missile could not have been assembled before March last year, the report said.
Sanctions experts said the findings were not surprising even though for years the United States has led international efforts to restrict North Korea’s ability to obtain parts and funding for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
CAR said its findings showed both how difficult it is to control the export of commercial electronic components, and how reliant countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran are on imported technology.
“North Korea (and Russia and Iran) are experts in avoiding UN and US sanctions through front companies and other efforts,” said Anthony Ruggiero of Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, who directed North Korea sanctions efforts in the Trump administration.
“While US sanctions are robust on paper, sanctions must be enforced to be effective,” he said, stressing the need for Washington and it allies to continually update sanctions lists and spend on enforcement.
“We are not doing either one on North Korea sanctions,” he said, adding that the Biden administration particularly needed to do more to target Chinese companies, individuals, and banks aiding sanctions evasion.
CAR said it was working with industry to trace the missile components and identify the entities responsible for their diversion to North Korea, so would not identify the companies linked to their production. It also did not identify specific components.
Martyn Williams of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project, said many components made by US firms were easily available online or from electronics markets around the world.
“That North Korea can get these is not surprising at all, and I don’t think anyone imagined the sanctions regime would be able to stop the flow of common components,” he said.
“There are however much more specialized components in missiles and some of those are not a click away on the Internet. Those are also the type of thing that sanctions are meant to stop, so the presence of more specialized components would be more worrying.”
Katsu Furukawa, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts in charge of monitoring UN sanctions against North Korea, said the bulk of the components shown in a photo in the CAR report appeared to be widely available commercial items.
However, in past UN investigations, he said, there were usually a few specific items such as pressure transmitters and flight control computers that enabled investigators to track procurement routes and identify the perpetrators.
38 North director Jenny Town said such specialized items could only be obtained from a small number of vendors and should have more of a procurement paper trail.
The US State Department said Washington uses export controls, sanctions, and law enforcement actions to prevent North Korea from acquiring technology for its weapons programs and to prevent Russia from acquiring such weapons.
“We work closely with the US private sector, as well as foreign allied and partner states, in these efforts,” a spokesperson said.


Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry

Updated 23 February 2024
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Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry

WASHINGTON: A Houston-based company has landed America’s first spaceship on the Moon in more than 50 years, part of a new fleet of NASA-funded, uncrewed commercial robots intended to pave the way for astronaut missions later this decade.

But while flight controllers confirmed they had received a faint signal, it was not immediately clear whether Odysseus, the lander built by Intuitive Machines, was fully functional, with announcers on a live stream suggesting it may have come down off-kilter.

The hexagon-shaped vessel touched down near the lunar south pole at 2323 GMT, having slowed from 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) per hour.

Images from an external “EagleCam” that was supposed to shoot out from the spacecraft during its final seconds of descent could be released.

For the time being, however, nothing is certain.

“Without a doubt our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and we are transmitting,” said Tim Crain, the company’s chief technology officer. “So congratulations IM team, we’ll see how much more we can get from that.”

A previous moonshot by another American company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate that private industry has what it takes to repeat a feat last achieved by US space agency NASA during its manned Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

The current mission “will be one of the first forays into the south pole to actually look at the environmental conditions to a place we’re going to be sending our astronauts in the future,” said senior NASA official Joel Kearns.

“What type of dust or dirt is there, how hot or cold does it get, what’s the radiation environment? These are all things you’d really like to know before you send the first human explorers.”

Odysseus launched February 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time.

Its landing site, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

Instruments carried on Odysseus include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

It also carries a NASA landing system that fires laser pulses, measuring the time taken for the signal to return and its change in frequency to precisely judge the spacecraft’s velocity and distance from the surface, to avoid a catastrophic impact.

This instrument was meant to run as a demonstration only, but Odysseus eventually had to rely on it for the entire descent phase of its journey, after its own navigation system stopped working — forcing controllers to upload a software patch to make the switch.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients, and includes 125 stainless steel mini Moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

There’s also an archive created by a nonprofit whose goal is to leave backups of human knowledge across the solar system.

NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship its hardware under a new initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

The first CLPS mission, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the Moon must navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

Until now, only the space agencies of the Soviet Union, United States, China, India and Japan have accomplished the feat, making for an exclusive club.


US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’

Updated 23 February 2024
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US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’

WASHINGTON: The United States plans to impose sanctions on more than 500 targets involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine, as fighting continues to rage two years after Moscow’s invasion, the Treasury Department said Thursday.

The action to be rolled out on Friday will hit “Russia, its enablers, and its war machine,” a Treasury spokesperson told AFP.

The official added that the sanctions will be imposed by both the Treasury and State Department.

This will be the “largest single tranche since the start of Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine,” the Treasury said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, Washington and its allies have imposed a host of sanctions, targeting Moscow’s revenue and military industrial complex.

Among the efforts was a price ceiling enacted by the United States and allies, aimed at cutting down Moscow’s revenues from exports of oil and petroleum products.

To reduce revenues while ensuring supplies to the global market, a coalition involving the Group of Seven leading economies, the European Union and Australia had set a price cap of $60 per barrel of Russian crude.

Due to the price cap, Russia had the option to either sell discounted oil to coalition countries or invest in building an alternative ecosystem.

In recent months, the coalition announced plans to tighten compliance for the price ceiling.

The fresh sanctions on Friday come after Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny died last week in a Russian prison.

US President Joe Biden earlier reaffirmed plans to unveil sanctions, saying they would be “against Putin, who is responsible for his death.”

The US government also marked the upcoming two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of pro-Western Ukraine by unsealing charges against a series of wealthy Russians to help cut the “flow of illegal funds that are fueling” Moscow’s war.