By BEN FOX and LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, Associated Press SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Cheering crowds in the
steamy tropical heat are expected Tuesday when President Barack Obama makes a rare presidential visit to Puerto Rico.But the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who live on the island and can’t vote in the general election aren’t really the point.Organizers are hoping this trip, the first in decades by a president to the U.S. Caribbean territory, will generate good will on the mainland, particularly in Florida, where the fast-growing Hispanic population will be essential to Obama’s re-election effort in 2012.”The past decade has witnessed a staggering growth in the Puerto Rican community,” said Andres W. Lopez, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who helped organize the visit. „They have become the quintessential battleground community in the nation’s battleground state.”There are almost a million more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than on the island. They long had been concentrated in the Northeast, but the 2010 census shows that Florida is in second place, with about 841,000, mostly in the Orlando area. These transplants tend to be younger and more educated than their counterparts in established communities in places such as Hartford, Conn., and New York. As more recent arrivals they also tend to have closer ties to family back home.[ For complete coverage of politics and policy, go to Yahoo! Politics ]Democrats see the Puerto Ricans in Florida as a potential counterbalance to the larger, traditionally Republican Cuban-American community in a state Obama needs badly to win a second term.That’s where this trip comes in.”I am sure they will be happy about this,” said Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s nonvoting representative in Congress, who has been working to generate for support for Obama on the mainland. „We have lots of Puerto Ricans in central Florida and I know they keep close eyes on Puerto Rico.”Reaching out to Puerto Ricans is part of a broader effort to court Hispanics, who accounted for more than half the U.S. population increase over the past decade and now number about 50 million. It’s hardly a uniform community, but there are „shared issues” of concern that include support for education, and social services, said Louis DeSipio, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.The number of people of Puerto Rican descent, the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S. after Mexicans, grew by 36 percent over the past decade to 4.6 million, according the census. The island’s population fell by 2 percent during that time as people fled a dismal economy.Puerto Ricans tend to be less interested in immigration overhaul because they are U.S. citizens and can move freely back and forth between the island and the mainland, but as migrants who often need to learn to speak English and face other challenges they have similar experiences, said DeSipio, chairman of Chicano-Latino Studies at the California school.”To the extent that the president talks about issues of bringing Puerto Ricans into the U.S. mainstream that will certainly resonate with other Latino communities and immigrant communities generally,” he said.George Colon, who moved to the Orlando area a month ago after losing his job managing memberships at a country club in Puerto Rico, said he’s undecided on the presidential election and won’t be persuaded by Obama’s visit. He said he will vote for the candidate best able to secure statehood for the island or „resolve its status,” as most people refer to the issue.”If he’s not interested in resolving Puerto Rico’s status, than it doesn’t mean much,” Colon said about the trip.The political aspect of the trip is a point of pride to Belmaris Santos, a marketing executive from Guaynabo, a San Juan suburb, who plans to show up at the airport to catch Obama’s arrival.”It’s historic,” the 33-year-old said. „That a sitting U.S. president decides to come is a show of the importance that our island is generating in the American political system.”Obama plans to spend only a few hours on the island. He is expected to commemorate the last official presidential visit, by John F. Kennedy in December 1961. Obama plans to meet with Gov. Luis Fortuno, a pro-statehood Republican, and attend a fundraiser.Fortuno said in an interview that he didn’t expect the president to weigh in on Puerto Rico’s status. That’s a question that Fortuno said will be put to the island’s voters before his term ends in December of next year.”Any smart political leader in America nowadays understands the importance of courting the Hispanic vote, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he said.Obama is also expected to draw attention to the $7 billion in stimulus money that went to Puerto Rico, perhaps visiting one of the schools or government buildings renovated under the program. Pierluisi, said this aid came at a crucial time, with the local economy in recession since 2006 and the government slashing its budget and laying off thousands of public sector workers.”The people might not know all these details but they see a president who has been supporting us,” Pierluisi said.Obama is neutral on the status issue, which has been stalled for decades by conflicting sentiment on the island. The president supports a plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans would choose between statehood, independence, the current semiautonomous commonwealth status or a free association in which the island would be a sovereign nation that could define its future relationship with the U.S. through treaties.The president has supported a plebiscite in the past.The trip is a big deal on the island, where the government has begun a flurry of road and public works projects in recent days and the Legislature has created a model of an Obama statue they intended to erect in the Capitol, to go with the ones of five other presidents who have visited.The pro-independence movement has announced plans to protest, but they represent a sliver of public opinion. The majority of Puerto Ricans have voted consistently to maintain ties to the U.S., and enthusiasm for the visit is widespread.Juan Carlos, a 28-year-old bank teller from the San Juan suburb of Carolina, said he asked his boss for Tuesday off so he could see the president. „This is a moment that I will tell my children about when they are old enough,” he said._Wides-Munoz reported from Miami
Syria troops storm hotbed town, ‘mass grave’ foundDAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian troops on Sunday fought violent battles with „armed gangs” in flashpoint Jisr al-Shughur town, state television said, as international outrage mounted at the regime’s harsh crackdown on protesters.Syria’s official media also reported that a mass grave was found in Jisr al-Shughur, allegedly containing the bodies of security agents killed by the gangs.Rights activists reported heavy gunfire and explosions in the northwestern town near the Turkish border after troops backed by helicopter gunships and around 200 tanks launched a two-pronged assault early on Sunday.”Army divisions entered Jisr al-Shughur and purged the state hospital of armed groups,” the television said.”Violent clashes pitched the army divisions against armed groups positioned inside and around the town,” it added.The army entered the town „after defusing dynamite placed on the bridges and roads by the armed groups,” the report said, adding that „two armed men were killed and many more arrested, with machine guns also seized.”A mass grave was discovered in Jisr al-Shughur containing the bodies of security agents from the city’s police headquarters, the television later said, without specifying the number of bodies.”Armed groups had mutilated the corpses which were removed from the mass grave,” it added.The rights activists, reached by telephone, told AFP the army fired barrages of shells into Jisr al-Shughur before entering the town, largely deserted after thousands fled ahead of the crackdown.”The army started at about 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to shell the town intensively with tanks and heavy weaponry before launching an assault from the east and south,” one activist said.”Explosions were heard and helicopter gunships patrolled over the city.”Another activist, citing residents, said that explosions had been heard throughout the morning and columns of smoke could be seen rising from the town.Syria’s Idlib province, in which Jisr al-Shughur falls, has long been a hotbed of hostility towards the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.It has been the focus of military operations for the past week, following what the authorities said was the massacre of 120 policemen by „armed gangs” in the town on Monday.Human rights activists and residents deny the allegations of a massacre and say a number of policemen were executed by other security force members when they refused to fire on protesters in Jisr al-Shughur.The crackdown in Idlib has seen more than 5,000 people flee across the border into Turkey, according to latest figures given on Sunday by Turkey’s Anatolia news agency.As the death toll mounted, detailed accounts emerged from some of the thousands who fled to Turkey from the bloodshed in Idlib.Among them were Syrian army deserters who told of atrocities committed by soldiers in suppressing protests, who themselves were under threat of execution if they disobeyed orders.Tahal al-Lush described the operation, in Ar-Rastan, a town of 50,000 people in Homs province, that had pushed him to desert.”We were told that people were armed there. But when we arrived, we saw that they were ordinary civilians. We were ordered to shoot them,” said Lush, with a blank stare in his eyes.”When we entered the houses, we opened fire on everyone, the young, the old… Women were raped in front of their husbands and children,” he said.The harrowing reports of atrocities committed during Syria’s crackdown have sparked fresh international outrage.UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at the mounting death toll, while the United States and the EU urged Assad to let aid workers in to help relieve the humanitarian crisis.Washington on Saturday called on Syria to let medics in, after reports that Syrian forces backed by helicopters had the previous day killed at least 25 protesters across the country, including in and around Jisr al-Shughur.Fridays have become a rallying point in the revolt against Assad’s regime, whose backlash on pro-democracy protests that erupted in mid-March has killed more than 1,200 civilians, rights groups say.The European Union also appealed to Assad to let international aid agencies in to help civilians caught up in the violence.Both the EU and the US are backing a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Britain and France that condemns Syria for its crackdown.Germany said on Sunday the army’s latest operations made a Security Council resolution all the more pressing.”The dangerous situation makes a clear reaction from the UN Security Council all the more urgent,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose country currently holds a non-permanent seat on the council, said in a statement.Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the council, oppose any resolution on Syria.Damascus blames the unrest on „armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators. It is not possible to verify the accounts as foreign journalists are not allowed to circulate freely in Syria.
Vineyard sale boosts Brown-Forman 4Q earningsBy BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press –
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Brown-Forman Corp.’s fourth-quarter profit spiked from the sale of its California-based Fetzer Vineyards, capping a year that showed strong growth for its flagship Jack Daniel’s brand and el Jimador tequila.The company, whose brands include Southern Comfort and Finlandia vodka, on Thursday reported a 26-cent-per-share gain from the sale of Fetzer to Chilean wine producer Vina Concha y Toro S.A. The $238 million deal closed in April.Brown-Forman, based in Louisville, Ky., also reported strong yearlong sales for its super-premium brands.For the three months ended April 30, the company reported net income of $165.4 million, or $1.13 per share. That’s up from $72.7 million, or 49 cents per share, from a year ago. Excluding gains from the Fetzer sale along with certain one-time tax benefits, the company said its earnings were 80 cents per share.Revenue rose 8 percent to $791.3 million.Analysts expected earnings of 64 cents a share on revenue of $757 million. The earnings estimates exclude one-time items.For the full year, Brown-Forman reported net income of $571.6 million, or $3.90 per share. That compares with $449.2 million, or $3.02 per share, the year before. Revenue for the year rose 6 percent to $3.4 billion.Excluding the Fetzer sale and tax benefits, the company reported earnings per share of $3.57 for the year, up 18 percent.The company said it expects the Fetzer sale to reduce its earnings by 16 cents per share in the coming year.”I expect us, starting with this fiscal year, to start to recoup some of that lost profitability and then in future years to surpass it,” Brown-Forman CEO Paul Varga said in a conference call with industry analysts.Brown-Forman said it hopes to build on sales momentum from the last half of the just-ended fiscal year.The company said it expects strong international growth in the coming year and a better performance in the U.S., where the recession made consumers less inclined to venture out to drink at bars and restaurants.Leading international markets included Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Turkey, Germany and France, Brown-Forman said.Brown-Forman Chief Financial Officer Don Berg predicted a „slightly improved pricing environment” in the coming year but said the company also will absorb higher costs, including for grain.”We will continue to seek opportunities to increase prices when and where appropriate,” he said.The company also is looking to recent brand and packaging introductions to fuel continued growth. Such brand extensions as Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Chambord Vodka and Southern Comfort Lime contributed to sales growth, it said.The company rolled out new packaging for Southern Comfort, Herradura and Chambord in the past year and recently announced packaging changes for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Finlandia.The company predicted it will earn between $3.45 and $3.85 per share in the coming year. The company said it expects underlying operating income growth in the mid- to high-single digits in the next year.Brown-Forman said its Jack Daniel’s brands had an 8 percent gain in revenue for the year, on a constant currency basis.”The broad-based performance of the Jack Daniel’s trademark drove the company, most notably in the second half of the year,” Varga said.The company’s el Jimador products posted a 9 percent gain. Its super-premium brands, which include Chambord, Herradura, Sonoma-Cutrer and Woodford Reserve, had a 13 percent upswing in revenue for the year.Meanwhile, the company’s Finlandia products had a 2 percent revenue drop for the year, while Southern Comfort had a 3 percent drop. Canadian Mist revenue fell 8 percent, while revenue for Korbel Champagne were flat.The company’s Class B shares rose $1.40, or 2 percent, to close Thursday at $71.75.
Jobs panel proposes ways to spur hiringWASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington should
streamline permitting for construction projects and make it easier for tourists to visit the United States to help boost hiring and spur the economy, a top adviser to President Barack Obama said.Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric and head of Obama’s jobs and competitiveness council, said his panel’s „progress report” outlined ways to increase hiring in manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and tourism sectors.Obama will meet the jobs council during a trip to North Carolina on Monday.The proposals to increase hiring included cutting red tape so infrastructure construction projects could proceed quickly, boosting training for manufacturing skills through partnerships between the private sector and community colleges, and improving visa processes to win market share for U.S. tourism.Making commercial buildings throughout the United States more energy efficient would also create jobs, Immelt wrote in an opinion piece co-written with American Express chief executive Ken Chenault.The opinion piece was released by the White House on Sunday ahead of publication in the Wall Street Journal on Monday.”Our objective for this first set of recommendations was to identify areas where the private sector and the administration could accelerate job creation immediately without the need for major legislation from Congress or actions that would have a long runway,” the two men wrote.”Over the next 90 days, we will turn to addressing the actions needed to make a more significant, longer-term impact.”With congressional Republicans determined to cut government spending in return for raising the country’s $14.3 trillion debt limit, there is little likelihood of additional public cash to finance fresh hiring.(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Jackie Frank)
Turkey’s Erdogan promises consensus after big winBy Pinar Aydinli and Ibon Villelabeitia –
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party has won a resounding third consecutive election victory, but the divisive leader will need to seek consensus to push ahead with a planned new constitution.Erdogan, whose AK has transformed Muslim Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and ended a cycle of military coups, won nearly 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary vote on Sunday.The results, which are likely to boost financial markets on Monday, mean AK will be forced to compromise with other parties to press on with plans to replace the existing charter, written almost 30 years ago during a period of military rule.”The new constitution requires consensus and dialogue with other parties and the society at large,” Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told Reuters.”We will see if Erdogan is ready for these with his majority or will he go his own way and impose his own views on Turkey — in which case we will have difficult times.”The vote marked AK’s highest electoral score since it first came to power in 2002, but failed to win Erdogan enough seats to call a referendum on a planned new constitution.Preliminary results based on 99.8 percent of the vote show AK winning 49.9 percent, or 325 seats, just below the 330 required for a plebiscite, and less than the 331 of the 550 seats it had in the last parliament.Critics fear Erdogan, who has a reputation for not liking dissent, might use the victory to cement power, limit freedoms and persecute opponents. But in a victory speech before thousands of flag-waving supporters in the capital Ankara, he pledged „humility” and said he would work with rivals.”People gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties. This new constitution will meet peace and justice demands.”MODEL-European Union candidate Turkey and Erdogan’s AK often are cited as models for supporters of democracy living through the „Arab Spring” in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.But opponents say Erdogan, whose party evolved from banned Islamist movements, is imposing a conservative social agenda.Since crushing old establishment parties on a wave of support from a rising middle class of religious Turks, Erdogan has challenged the secularist military and the judiciary with reforms aimed at winning Turkey membership in the European Union.He also has set the long-time NATO member and U.S. ally on a more assertive foreign policy course, forging closer ties with Middle East countries, including Iran.The new leader of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which scored its best result in more than 30 years with 25.9 percent of the vote, warned Erdogan that he would be watching his movements closely.”We wish all success to AKP, but they must remember there’s a stronger main opposition party now,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.Some financial analysts had warned that too large an AK majority could polarise a country deeply divided over the role of religion and ethnic minorities.A limited majority makes the government focus on macroeconomic imbalances, including an overheating economy.”It paves the way for the opportunity on the part of the authorities to tighten policies,” Benoit Anne, head of EM Strategy for Societe Generale, said.”We would like to see more fiscal discipline, this can be achieved after elections. The ideal scenario would be to see even the central bank to do some tightening as well.”There has been speculation that Erdogan would seek to move Turkey toward a more presidential system of government, with an ultimate aim of becoming president himself.Besides the economy, Erdogan’s government also will need to tackle a separatist conflict in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast. A strong showing by the pro-Kurdish BDP in the Kurdish region played a role in denying the AK’s advance.Analysts said Erdogan will also need to focus on reviving Turkey’s faltering EU bid and on unrest in neighbouring Syria, which has sent thousands of refugees spilling over the border as Syrians flee an increasingly bloody crackdown.(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Editing by Michael Roddy)
Exclusive: Obama’s Secret Afghan Exit Formula By
NEW YORK – Obama is keeping under wraps a hush-hush plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan—and he hopes it will satisfy those pushing for a quick exit and the diehards determined to stay the course, Leslie H. Gelb reports exclusively.By July 15, President Obama will unveil a plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by upward of 30,000, but to withdraw them
slowly under military guidance over 12 to 18 months, according to administration officials.In sum, the quick exiters get the big 30,000 or so number, and the die-harders get one last year-plus at near full strength to weaken the Taliban. Ain’t democracy grand? Officials caution that since no announcement will be made for almost a month, and since Obama is still being battered from all sides, the projected withdrawal total and end dates could change somewhat. No one, not even Obama’s most intimate national-security aides—Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, and Ben Rhodes—can be certain of their boss’ final calculations, but key officials feel confident that the president’s secret thinking will generally hold.Sorting out the formula is for chess players. The U.S. now deploys about 100,000 troops, in addition to about 40,000 NATO troops. NATO, including Washington, recently announced that it will remove all combat forces by January 2015 (i.e., three and a half years from now). The 30,000 U.S. troops to be withdrawn beginning this July constitute the full amount deployed in the so-called surge decision of late 2009. Their departure will still leave 70,000 U.S. armed personnel in country. All these numbers, to say nothing of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, make for intriguing maneuvering in Washington. The exact number of forces to be reduced and the precise time frame for their withdrawal will be determined during the review that will get underway later this week.Just maybe, Obama and Petraeus have agreed that the general will say his piece in full only in the privacy of the Oval Office.The positions of senior officials in this process reflect a mixture of serious thought and gamesmanship. Vice President Biden along with NSC Adviser Tom Donilon mark the center—there is no left. They’re pressing for a July announcement of 30,000 in cuts over 12 months. Tellingly, Obama already gave public voice to their rationale. “We will begin a transition this summer,” he said a week ago. “By killing bin Laden, by blunting the momentum of the Taliban, we have now accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish 10 years ago.” In other words, most of the job is done, and the United States and NATO now can safely transition from a counterinsurgency approach, with a lot of troops and a lot of nation-building, to a more limited and focused counterterrorist strategy. Interestingly, the Biden-Donilon approach expects little from negotiations with the Taliban and seeks to proceed with troop cuts regardless of these negotiations. Their bottom line: Start transferring responsibility for the war to where it practically and ultimately belongs, to the Afghans.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn’t settled on a formula but tends to share Pentagon concerns about withdrawing too quickly and reopening doors for a Taliban surge. She is likely to emerge somewhere between the key White House clan and the military brass; that is, somewhere between the 3,000 to 5,000 desired by the military and the full 30,000 wished for by Biden. She also might seek a compromise on the withdrawal timetable. Clinton wants to push ahead on the negotiating front as well, though with a special twist. She wouldn’t talk solely with the Taliban leadership; rather, she’d also attempt to split off as many individual tribal leaders as possible.As for departing Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, there isn’t much mystery about his dearest preference: the lowest possible reduction in the longest possible time. Barring that, he’d go along with a reduction figure of about 15,000 over 18 months with emphasis on backloading the withdrawal of combat troops and frontloading support forces. U.S. forces, he insists, can tip the scales militarily. “[I]f we can hold on to the gains we’ve made over the last year or so and expand security further,” Gates said last week, “then we may be in a position where we can say we’ve turned the corner by the end of this year.” This line of reason, expressed publicly, tends to box in Obama politically, and won’t be easy to neutralize. It reinforces mounting criticism that Obama is “abandoning” Afghanistan, a false and nasty charge.One lion has yet to roar: General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and soon-to-be CIA director. Everyone knows his position likens to Gates’. But just maybe, Obama and Petraeus have agreed that the general will say his piece in full only in the privacy of the Oval Office. If he would talk publicly only of options, that would relieve some pressure on the White House.The outgoing CIA director and incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will remain low-key during this round. He doesn’t want to alienate his new Pentagon home or undercut Obama. As for President Karzai of Afghanistan, his course is certain: Scream against large-scale withdrawals.One final piece of the July formula that remains to be developed is the policy to explain the withdrawals and guide future actions. To begin with, Obama should assert the truth: He has accomplished America’s primary goal of “defeating” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, he should remind all that the Taliban was vital only insofar as it provided safe haven to al Qaeda, and that any future Taliban threat can be blunted by the “rebuilt” Afghan forces along with a small residual U.S. force and other means. He should also repeat Gates’ line that the Taliban has already been weakened and add that after 10 years, it’s time for America’s Afghan allies to step up with some U.S. help. He’s got to define this help in terms of a small residual U.S. force, a level of about 15,000 troops to be reached in late 2013, to provide logistics, intelligence, and pinpoint military punches when necessary. Of equal import, he’s got to lay out a diplomatic strategy of containing and deterring extremism in Afghanistan by partnering with India, China, Russia, Pakistan, and even Iran. These are all states that can partner around their shared fear of Taliban religious extremism and the drug trade.Nor should the president shy away from establishing the centrality of the U.S. economy in U.S. national security. Saving money in Afghanistan is nothing to run away from, as White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to do last week. “Obviously every decision is made with a mind toward cost,” he said, “but this is about U.S. national-security interests, primarily.”Quite the contrary—reducing America’s debt is essential to maintaining U.S. military strength and diplomatic power. Obama could save more than $100 billion a year on the Pentagon budget just by sequestering savings after exiting the Iraq and Afghan wars. That goal is a good reason to start the withdrawal process this July at 30,000 and remove them within a year—and then take most of the remaining forces out by the end of 2013. Whatever happens in Afghanistan now or five years from now won’t determine America’s future; what happens with America’s crushing debt will.Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.