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Voice of America

Voice of America is an international news and broadcast organization serving Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Balkan countries
  • Cuba's Proposed New Constitution - What Will Change
    Cuba has begun a public debate on issues ranging from one-party rule and socialism to inequality, gay rights, private property and restructuring of the country's government as it moves to replace a Cold War-era constitution. A Communist Party-proposed overhaul of the island's 1976 Magna Carta will be discussed in 35,000 workplaces and community meetings into November after its recent approval by the Parliament. Once the debate is wrapped up, the legislature will approve a new draft and submit it to a nationwide vote early next year. The proposed version of the constitution in part codifies changes in Cuban society that have occurred since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, long the country's benefactor, and in part modifies how the nation will function in the future. Here are the basics of how the new version would transform Cuba, how open the process really is, and what it means for investors. Communism The new version keeps the Communist Party as the only legal party and its role as the guide of the nation, stating this is irrevocable.  Yet, it eliminates a reference in the current constitution to reaching a utopian communism and another banning the use of private property to exploit the labor of others. Socialism The new version doubles down on the state's dominance over the means of production and land and the role of centralized planning. This too is deemed irrevocable. Still, for the first time there it recognizes the market as a fact of economic life, though it can be countermanded at will by the government. Government An appointed prime minister has been added at the national level to supervise the day-to-day operations of the government, in particular the state-owned economy. Regions Provincial assemblies modeled after the national assembly are eliminated in the new version and replaced by an appointed governor and deputy governor. The governor will preside over a provincial council made up of municipal leaders. Municipalities Terms of ward delegates to municipal assemblies are doubled to five years. The position of mayor has been added to that of president of the municipal assembly. Private Business and Foreign Investment Private businesses and non-farm cooperatives are included for the first time in the new version as legitimate economic activity, and the role of joint ventures and other forms of foreign investment are upgraded from secondary to "important" or "fundamental." At the same time the "accumulation" of private property by citizens is banned. LGTB Rights All prohibitions of discrimination in the new version add gender identity and the clause on marriage now refers to "persons" rather than man and woman. Legal Rights The new version adds the presumption of innocence in criminal cases and the right to habeas corpus. For the first time a person can sue the state for damages and negligence. However, the judicial system remains unchanged and all lawyers are government employees. Opposition Doubts Government opponents have blasted the top down process as a "fraud" and say the proposals will be pushed through with few substantive changes. They question whether citizens will be free to speak their minds on issues such as one-party rule and capitalism versus socialism in a land where public debate on these subjects is taboo. Bottom Line The proposals do not by themselves reduce risk or change the rules of doing business in Cuba, but they do further foreign investment and are another step toward a mixed economy and modern society, foreign businessmen and diplomats said. Cuban officials say changes in government structure aim to improve accountability and administration of the state-run economy.
  • Survey: Vienna Tops Melbourne as World's Most Liveable City
    Vienna has dislodged Melbourne for the first time at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index, strengthening the Austrian capital's claim to being the world's most pleasant city to live in. The two metropolises have been neck and neck in the annual survey of 140 urban centers for years, with Melbourne clinching the title for the past seven editions. This year, a downgraded threat of militant attacks in western Europe as well as the city's low crime rate helped nudge Vienna into first place. Vienna regularly tops a larger ranking of cities by quality of life compiled by consulting firm Mercer. It is the first time it has topped the EIU survey, which began in its current form in 2004. At the other end of the table, Damascus retained last place, followed by the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, and Lagos in Nigeria. The survey does not include several of the world's most dangerous capitals, such as Baghdad and Kabul. "While in the past couple of years cities in Europe were affected by the spreading perceived threat of terrorism in the region, which caused heightened security measures, the past year has seen a return to normalcy," the EIU said in a statement about the report published on Tuesday. "A long-running contender to the title, Vienna has succeeded in displacing Melbourne from the top spot due to increases in the Austrian capital's stability category ratings," it said, referring to one of the index's five headline components. Vienna and Melbourne scored maximum points in the healthcare, education and infrastructure categories. But while Melbourne extended its lead in the culture and environment component, that was outweighed by Vienna's improved stability ranking. Osaka, Calgary and Sydney completed the top five in the survey, which the EIU says tends to favor medium-sized cities in wealthy countries, often with relatively low population densities. Much larger and more crowded cities tend to have higher crime rates and more strained infrastructure, it said. London for instance ranks 48th. Vienna, once the capital of a large empire rather than today's small Alpine republic, has yet to match its pre-World War I population of 2.1 million. Its many green spaces include lakes with popular beaches and vineyards with sweeping views of the capital. Public transport is cheap and efficient. In addition to the generally improved security outlook for western Europe, Vienna benefited from its low crime rate, the survey's editor Roxana Slavcheva said. "One of the sub-categories that Vienna does really well in is the prevalence of petty crime... It's proven to be one of the safest cities in Europe," she said.
  • As Canada Faces Rising Gun Violence, Tighter Laws a Tough Sell
    Rising violence in Canada has prompted calls for the federal government to tighten gun laws but tougher regulations could cause a political backlash in a country where 2 million people are licensed to own a firearm. In 2016, 223 people were murdered with a gun, a 23 percent increase from 2015 and the highest rate since 2005, according to Statistics Canada. One of the deadliest shooting sprees so far this year took place on Friday when four people were shot to death in the Eastern Canadian city of Fredericton. Weeks earlier, a gunman opened fire on a bustling Danforth Avenue in Toronto, killing two and injuring 13 before turning the gun on himself. In Fredericton, a commonly available "long gun" such as a rifle or shotgun was used, police said Monday, adding that the suspect had a permit to use it. In Toronto the gunman used a handgun. It is not clear how the suspects obtained the guns. Canada's firearm homicide rate of 0.61 per 100,000 people is about 10 times greater than the rate in the United Kingdom. In the United States, by contrast, four in every 100,000 residents are killed with a gun, or almost 13,000 annually. Canada's federal government introduced gun laws earlier this year that would require retailer record-keeping and beef up background checks. The government is open to considering tougher ones after Toronto called for a ban on handguns in the wake of the Danforth shooting, said Bill Blair, the minister charged with tackling gun violence. "We're prepared to look at any measure that will reduce gun violence," he said in an interview, adding that "it's a vast country and the way in which guns are viewed in Toronto is different than they might be viewed in different municipalities or communities." The bill has passed second reading and is likely to pass in the House of Commons, where Liberals hold a majority, but may face headwinds in the Senate. But any move by the Liberal government to more heavily regulate ownership could prompt a backlash by the opposition Conservatives, who tend to do well in rural areas where hunting is popular and many farmers have guns. Canada requires residents to obtain a license and pass a safety course to buy a gun. According to the Firearms Commissioner, more than 2 million people have such licenses in a country of 36 million. There is a national registry of handguns and other restricted and prohibited guns. The government ended a similar registry for long guns such as rifles in 2012 due to its unpopularity with gun owners and conservative voters. Under proposed legislation, retailers would keep records of everyone who buys a long gun. The National Firearms Association, a lobby group similar to the U.S. National Rifle Association but with less clout, said it would campaign against the Liberals' proposed legislation, which the Conservatives said "treat law-abiding firearms owners as criminals" because of the background checks and requirements for record-keeping. National Firearms Association Executive Vice President Blair Hagen said his group, which has 150,000 members, has been in touch with the opposition Conservative party and hopes to make gun control an election issue. "It's one of those flashpoint issues," he said Monday. "As soon as you touch that third rail, you're setting yourself up for a very, very serious political fallout." The Liberals criticized the former Conservative government's 2012 move to scrap a registry of shotguns and rifles but the issue became so politically toxic that the party has promised not to bring it back. "That is not part of our plan and has never been," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Prince Edward Island Monday. The registry's elimination left a crucial gap when it comes to tracking guns, says Wayne Rideout, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer now working with the British Columbia government to tackle gun crime. Now, someone with a license buying a rifle "can buy 10 guns, 20 guns, 100 guns and they don't know who you are, they don't keep a record," he said in an interview. "There's a number of broken pieces in the chain that need to be fixed."