White House: Senior US, Chinese Officials to Meet This Week on Trade

Three of President Donald Trump’s senior economic aides are expected to meet this week with a top Chinese economic official to discuss trade disputes between the United States and China.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Reuters that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Trump’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, are expected to meet Chinese economic adviser Liu He in Washington.

The talks are likely to cover a range of differences including intellectual property and steel.

Trump has long called for a more balanced trade relationship with China and threatened to impose a big “fine” against China to protect American intellectual property. U.S. officials said Trump has been discussing imposing a global tariff on imports of steel from China, the world’s largest steel producer, and other countries.

The talks with Liu may help determine the trajectory of the U.S.-Chinese trade relationship, which Trump believes is heavily tilted in favor of China.

A senior U.S. official said there was skepticism on the U.S. side that a trade breakthrough could be achieved any time soon.

“We’re trying to treat this with an open mind. But the Chinese don’t really want to make a deal. They like the status quo,” the official said.

There was no plan for Trump himself to meet Liu, but officials did not rule it out if progress was being made.

Liu, a Harvard-trained economist and trusted confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has emerged as the front-runner to be the next governor of China’s central bank, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Liu is the top adviser to Xi on economic policy and is also expected to become vice premier overseeing the Chinese economy.

Steel

A source close to the White House said Trump had expressed interest in imposing a tariff on steel imports of at least 24 percent. The White House said no final decision had been made.

The Commerce Department on Feb. 16 recommended that Trump impose stiff curbs on steel imports from China and other countries and offered the president several options ranging from global and country-specific tariffs to broad import quotas.

A blanket tariff on steel would cover every steel and aluminum product entering the American market from China.

China has expressed concerns over excessive protectionism in the U.S. steel sector and urged restraint. It has also said it will oppose any “unfair and unreasonable” trade measures by countries such as the United States.


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WTO Chief Reacts Coolly to Trump’s Criticism of Trade Judges

The head of the World Trade Organization diplomatically took issue with U.S. President Donald Trump’s description of the WTO as a catastrophe on Tuesday, pointing out that the United States actually had a better deal than other countries in the club.

“World Trade Organization — a catastrophe,” Trump said on Monday at a meeting with U.S. governors, according to a White House transcript.

“The World Trade Organization makes it almost impossible for us to do good business. We lose the cases, we don’t have the judges. We have a minority of judges. It’s almost as bad as the 9th Circuit,” Trump said.

Asked about Trump’s remarks, WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo, a former Brazilian trade negotiator, told reporters in Sofia that it was not news that the United States had concerns about the work of the WTO. 

“Just one clarification,” he said.

“No member has more than one judge at the WTO. The members of the Appellate Body, they are seven, and they come from different regions, so no country has a majority there. The United States, in fact, has always had one of the Appellate Body members with U.S. nationality, which is very unusual, but it is the situation.”

Since last year, the United States has been vetoing the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s Appellate Body, in effect the supreme court of world trade.

The lack of judges has slowed down the handling of trade disputes and could halt the appeals process altogether after the next judge retires in September.

Trump has said he thinks the United States does not get a fair deal, but trade negotiators from other countries say he has not yet set any conditions for resuming judicial appointments, making it impossible to meet U.S. demands.

“This is a very serious situation that we are trying to discuss with members, to see how we can overcome this,” Azevedo said.

Former WTO chief Pascal Lamy said last week that Trump’s view of trade was “medieval,” and the U.S. win/lose rate in WTO disputes was similar to that of other countries.

“The question is whether the U.S. problem is trying to fix a number of issues or whether the U.S. strategy is trying to wreck the system,” Lamy said.


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Ford, Miami to Form Test Bed for Self-driving Cars

Ford Motor Co. is making Miami-Dade County its new test bed for self-driving vehicles.

The automaker and its partners — Domino’s Pizza, ride-hailing company Lyft and delivery company Postmates — are starting pilot programs to see how consumers react to autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Self-driving startup and Ford partner Argo AI already has a fleet of cars in the area making the highly detailed maps that are necessary for self-driving. Ford also will establish its first-ever autonomous vehicle terminal in Miami, where it will learn how to service and deploy its test fleet.

More services will likely be introduced as the partnership goes on, including Chariot, an app-based shuttle service owned by Ford. It’s all part of Ford’s effort to find viable business models for fully autonomous vehicles and get them on the road by 2021.

“This is, I think, the future of any automotive company or mobility company. If a majority of the world’s population is going to be living in cities, we need to understand how to move those people around,” said John Kwant, Ford’s vice president of city solutions, who inked the deal with Miami-Dade.

Ford isn’t the first automaker to run test fleets of autonomous vehicles. General Motors Co. will start testing autonomous vehicles in New York City this year, while Nissan Motor Co. is launching an autonomous taxi service in Yokohama, Japan, next week. Technology companies like Waymo — a division of Google — are also testing self-driving vehicles on public roads in Phoenix, San Francisco and Singapore, among other cities.

But the partnership with a specific metropolitan is less common. Both sides envision a deep relationship where Ford can help Miami-Dade solve specific issues, like how to most efficiently move people from its suburbs to its downtown monorail, and Miami-Dade can offer solutions like dedicated lanes for automated vehicles or infrastructure projects like advanced traffic lights that can send signals to connected cars. 

“We want to be on the forefront of this because we want to give our people choices,” said Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, which is home to 34 cities and 2.7 million people. 

Traffic congestion a concern

Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, says the company also intends to work closely with local businesses. The company wants to learn, for example, how a florist might use an autonomous delivery vehicle.

“Autonomous vehicle technology is interesting, but it’s a whole lot more interesting with a viable business model,” he said.

The city of Miami is the fifth-most congested in the U.S., according to a recent traffic study by the consulting firm Inrix. After more than a century of selling people vehicles, Kwant says Ford now wants to figure out ways to move people more efficiently in order to cut down on that time in traffic.

Making money

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst with the consulting firm Navigant Research, says Ford and others must figure out how to make money on self-driving cars.

“If this does take off, if people do adopt automated vehicles and use them for ride-hailing, that’s going to result in a decline in retail vehicle sales,” Abuelsamid said. “They need to figure out, if we’re going to have a decline in the number of vehicles we sell to consumers, how do we keep our business stable?”

Kwant says the testing will also help Ford determine what its future self-driving vehicles need to look like and how they must perform.

“If you don’t have steering wheels, how do you begin to use that package space? How do you begin to look different in terms of carrying more people?” he said.

Ford won’t say how many vehicles it will have on the road in Miami-Dade, but says it will be Ford’s largest test bed for autonomous vehicles by the end of this year. 

Backup safety drivers

All of the vehicles will have backup safety drivers. Domino’s experimental vehicles aren’t even technically autonomous; they’re equipped to be, but for now they have actual drivers. The windows are blacked out so customers can experience how to get pizza from the car without dealing with a person.  

Miami will give Ford new challenges. Previously, it tested Domino’s cars in suburban Michigan, where parking wasn’t an issue. But in busy Miami Beach, the cars will have to figure out where they can go to allow apartment-dwellers to safely retrieve their pizzas. An autonomous delivery vehicle from Postmates might have to switch between Spanish and English commands when it picks up a meal and delivers it to a customer. Self-driving Lyft vehicles will be tasked with mapping out the best places to wait for customers without causing more traffic headaches.

Kwant says Ford will announce more city partnerships as this year progresses. But Miami-Dade was a natural, since it has good weather, lots of different urban and suburban terrain and support from Gimenez and other government leaders.

Cheaper and safer

Gimenez, who began talking to Ford in 2017 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, says he’s not worried about consumer acceptance of self-driving cars. He thinks his community will embrace them as companies prove that shared autonomous vehicles can be cheaper and safer than regular ones.

Gimenez says self-driving vehicles also can potentially improve traffic flow without significant new investments in roadways. They can travel more closely together, for example, because they’re always watching the car in front of them and can brake automatically.

“That’s why I’m really high on this technology,” he said.

 

 

 


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‘Disagree’ Banned on China Social Media

Authorities in China have launched an intense crackdown on online commentary in the wake of a proposal by the country’s communist party leaders to amend the constitution and scrap a two-term limit on the president’s time in office.

A wide range of phrases in Chinese have been banned such as “constitutional amendments,” “constitution rules,” “emigration” and “emperor.” Even the phrase “I disagree” has been blocked from China’s SinaWeibo social media site.

Many were caught off guard by the announcement and the response online has been persistent, despite efforts to silence the debate.

The announcement comes a little more than a week ahead of meetings for China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. During the gathering, which wraps up around mid-March, the proposal is widely expected to become China’s new reality.

And while party backed media have said the amendments have the public’s broad support, clearly there is much more to the debate than the communist party is letting on.

On social media, some phrases and comments were taken down shortly after they were posted. However, phrases in Chinese such as “lifelong tenure,” “emigration” and “disagree” are blocked immediately when a user attempts to post the phrase.

Of those posts that managed to make it past authorities’ dragnet, some called the decision to allow Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely a “step backward,” others argued that China is becoming more like North Korea.

In one comment, a user said: “5,000 years of civilization and in one night, a step backwards 5,000 years.”

For some critics, the proposal to allow Xi to stay in office indefinitely and scrap what has become a predictable system of two five-year terms, marks a worrisome return to the days of Mao Zedong. Some argue the move is a sign that Xi may want to become emperor for life.

On the streets in Beijing, those we spoke with, who were willing to talk — despite the sensitivity of the issue — voiced similar concerns.

“It was a very sudden and bold move that has raised many questions and concerns and there are some who cannot understand,” why the change is needed, said one man surnamed Ding, who works in the finance sector.

Ding said China’s communist party leaders need to answer the public’s questions and concerns and clarify whether the move is meant to give Xi lifelong tenure or just to allow him to stay in office a little longer.

“The public will undoubtedly draw comparisons and have thoughts about what is happening now and China under the leadership of Mao Zedong,” Ding said.

One said emigration was something he was now considering. Others said they were taking a wait and see approach, and that they were willing to see how Xi used his extra time in office to promote more difficult reforms.

One woman surnamed Gan, an unemployed petitioner, said more time in office could be a good thing.

“If a leader is constantly being changed every two to three years, can they really do a good job and be responsible? If a leader can really focus on his work more can get done,” Gan said.

But now, given that the proposal is unlikely to be stopped, that is something that will only become clearer over time.

The New York-based rights advocacy group Freedom House warns that the end of term limits is a sign that stepped up control and repression under Xi is likely to worsen.

And the implications are both regional and global.

In a statement, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said, “the decision sends a chilling message to democratic voices in Hong Kong and to Taiwan, both of which have come under intense pressure from Beijing.

He said it also “signals that Beijing’s drive to create a new world order in which democratic institutions and norms play little or no role will be accelerated.”

Party controlled media in China have rejected suggestions that the proposed amendments mean Xi is aiming to become China’s next emperor or its leader for life.

Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher based in Hong Kong said that it looks like Xi will at least stay on for a third term until 2028, and perhaps one more until 2033 if health permits. At that point, Xi would be 80 years old.

Yang Kai-huang, head of Ming Chuan University’s Cross-Strait Research Center in Taiwan said that Xi does not strike him as someone who wants to repeat the mistakes of Mao, nor is he someone who wants to honor the two-term limit former leader Deng Xiaoping established.

“Judging from Xi’s past traits, the abolishment [of term limits] may have paved an easy path for Xi to seek his third term, but I don’t think Xi wants to be an emperor for life,” Yang said.

Xi is impatient and eager to get things done and put his own thoughts of governance into practice, Yang adds. And that’s why the announcement of the constitutional amendment package was so sudden.

Allen Ai contributed to this report.

 


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Officials: US NAFTA Autos Negotiator Called From Mexico for Consultations

The U.S. negotiator for regional content requirements in autos flew back to Washington from a NAFTA round in Mexico on Monday to talk with car companies, officials said, in a development some hoped would lead to progress on the contentious issue.

Three Mexican, Canadian and U.S. trade officials said the negotiator, Jason Bernstein, had been called back, with two of the officials saying he was there to meet U.S. automakers. Another said he would also meet U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and was due back later in the week.

The change in plans disrupted a schedule for talks early in the week about a proposal by the administration of U.S.

President Donald Trump to make automakers source more from the region and the United States, a major sticking point the industry warns would disrupt supply chains and raise costs.

Mexican negotiators have said the auto content issue must be resolved in large part between the White House and the Big Three Detroit automakers that dominate the industry.

“What I’ve heard is that he’s back in Washington because apparently they are meeting with the Detroit three. If that’s the case, that’s really positive,” said Flavio Volpe, president of the Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association.

 

“The timing is awkward. But if USTR is finally talking to those companies it’s something that we’ve been asking for for months,” Volpe said, referring to the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

U.S. trade officials and a Mexican auto industry official in Mexico City said they also believed the fact Bernstein had been called to Washington was a positive development for the talks to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

A seventh round of talks began on Sunday with the three sides aiming to finish reworking less contentious chapters while also meeting to discuss the trickiest subjects blocking progress to rework the pact that underpins $1.2 trillion in annual trade.

“We’re hopeful to make quite a bit if progress this round. So we’ll see how it goes,” said Steve Verheul, Canada’s chief

negotiator as he arrived at the negotiations on Monday.

Two auto lobbyists in the United States, who spoke on background, said they did not believe there was a joint meeting scheduled with the Detroit auto companies but individual consultations might happen.

Mexico’s government is concerned that a lack of progress on the automotive content issue could hurt the wider renegotiation, a former official still familiar with the process said.

Seeking to break the deadlock, the Mexican government has said it would put forward a proposal on rules of origin during the current round of talks, but a Mexican official said on Monday no new ideas had been presented so far.

The renegotiation began last year at the behest of Trump who said the agreement must be overhauled to better favor American interests or Washington would quit the accord. The latest round has been clouded by renewed tension between Mexico and Trump over his planned border wall.

Mexico has consistently rejected paying for the wall, and its government had hoped to arrange a meeting between President Enrique Pena Nieto and Trump in the next few weeks. However, a senior U.S. official said over the weekend that plan had been postponed after a phone call between the two soured over the wall earlier this month.

Mexico’s government has not commented officially on the derailment of the Trump-Pena Nieto meeting, but Juan Pablo 

Castanon, head of the powerful CCE business lobby, was less reticent as he took stock of the unfolding NAFTA negotiations in Mexico City.

“Obviously, the cancellation of the Mexican president’s trip to the United States is an important element in the negotiations: it’s politics that can help us resolve the technical issues we’re moving forward on,” Castanon said.

Castanon said several chapters are close to being finished, including measures on e-commerce, telecommunications and sanitary standards for agricultural products. Others close to the talks believe the energy chapter could also be concluded.

Officials do not anticipate major breakthroughs on other intractable issues such as agriculture and dispute resolution mechanisms in the Mexico City round, due to run until March 5.

There was little sign of compromise on any issues early on, with a senior Canadian agriculture official pushing back against U.S. demands to dismantle Canadian protections for the dairy and poultry sectors known as supply management.

“When it comes to supply management, we believe there can be no concession,” said Jeff Leal, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs for the province of Ontario. 


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Comcast Makes $31 Billion Offer to Buy Sky

Comcast Corp, the biggest cable operator in the United States, offered on Tuesday to pay $31 billion to buy Sky, challenging Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and Bob Iger’s Walt Disney for the European pay-TV jewel.

Comcast, a $184 billion media giant which owns NBC and Universal Pictures, said it was offering 12.50 pounds per share, significantly higher than the 10.75 pounds per share agreed by Fox. Shares in Sky soared 18 percent.

Present in 23 million homes across Europe and known for its technological innovation, Britain’s Sky has already agreed to be sold to Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox but the takeover has been delayed by concerns over the media tycoon’s influence in Britain.

That has complicated a separate $52 billion deal by Disney to buy Fox assets including Sky.

“Sky and Comcast are a perfect fit: we are both leaders in creating and distributing content,” Comcast Chief Executive Officer Brian L. Roberts, 58, said. “We think Sky is an outstanding company.”

The latest round of major deals indicates the pressures being felt by traditional cable television networks which have been losing customers to streaming services like Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc..

Media rivalries

Shares in Sky rose to 13.08 pounds as investors hoped the ensuing bid battle would push both sides to offer a higher price.

“The initial share price reaction suggests that this story has further to run, with Sky’s price leaping above the level of the already increased Comcast offer,” said Richard Hunter, Head of Markets at Interactive Investor.

The proposed offer pits Comcast’s Roberts against Murdoch, the 86-year-old tycoon who helped to launch Sky in Britain, and who has been edging towards finally getting his hands on Sky after he first bid for the company eight years ago.

It also pits Roberts against Disney’s Iger, a longtime rival after Comcast tried to buy Disney for $54 billion in 2004.

Comcast said it had not yet engaged with Sky over the proposal and nearly 90 minutes after the statement came out, Sky was yet to respond.

“We would like to own the whole of Sky and we will be looking to acquire over 50 percent of the Sky shares,” Comcast CEO Roberts said.

“Innovation is at the heart of what we do: by combining the two companies we create significant opportunities for growth,” he said.

All eyes on Sky

Sky’s chairman is Murdoch’s son James, who is the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, so Comcast will have to gain the support of the independent shareholders for its better offer if it does not make a hostile bid.

Fox agreed to buy the 61 percent of Sky it did not already own in December 2016 but the takeover has been repeatedly held up by regulatory concerns that Murdoch controls too much media in Britain.

Some Sky shareholders have also started to complain that the offer was too low. In December, hedge fund manager Crispin Odey argued that Sky was being sold too cheaply.

Britain’s competition regulator said in January that Murdoch’s planned takeover should be blocked unless a way was found to prevent him from influencing the network’s news operation, Sky News.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that the deal would give Murdoch too much influence and so would not be in the public interest.

Murdoch’s news outlets are watched, read or heard by nearly a third of Britons and have a combined share of public news consumption that is significantly greater than all other news providers, except the BBC and commercial TV news provider ITN.

Last week, Fox made further concessions, with a promise to maintain and fund a fully independent Sky-branded news service for 10 years.

Comcast said it had only a minimal presence in the British media market and did not see any plurality concerns over its proposal.

Comcast said it recognized that Sky News was an “invaluable part of the UK news landscape” and it intended to maintain Sky News’ existing brand and culture, as well as its strong track record for high-quality impartial news and adherence to broadcasting standards.

“Our strong market positions are complementary with Sky’s leadership in Europe enhancing our preeminent position in the U.S.,” Comcast’s Roberts said.


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Microsoft, Justice Department in Showdown Over Foreign-stored Data

The U.S. Justice Department and Microsoft will face off against each other Tuesday when the Supreme Court hears arguments on whether tech companies’ desire to protect user data is at odds with the government’s interest in pursuing criminals who use the internet.

The case, known as United States v. Microsoft Corp., has global implications and could potentially trigger an international backlash, subjecting Americans’ data to seizure by foreign governments, legal and digital rights experts warn.

“The case is important for privacy, it’s important for security, it’s important for the future of the internet,” said Jennifer Daskal, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.

At issue is whether a U.S.-based email provider can be forced, under the 1986 Stored Communications Act, to turn over communications stored outside the United States.

Email records

Federal prosecutors believed it could when they went to Microsoft in 2013 with a court warrant, demanding that the tech giant turn over the email records of a suspect in a drug-trafficking investigation. But there was a problem.

Although Microsoft kept the account’s metadata such as address books on servers in the U.S., the contents of the user’s emails were stored at a data hub in Ireland — one of over 100 such data centers the company operates in more than 40 countries.

U.S.-based internet providers typically cooperate with government requests for foreign-stored data.

But in 1993, Microsoft, under fire along with other tech companies for their role in a secret government surveillance program exposed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, drew a line.

The company handed over the metadata to prosecutors but refused to disclose the actual emails, arguing that the data was beyond the warrant’s reach because it was stored overseas. That set off a legal battle that eventually led the Supreme Court to take up the case last year.

The case has galvanized international attention.

The governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom have both filed briefs in the case as have the European Commission and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy (SRP).

The central dispute is whether a warrant issued under the Stored Communications Act can be applied outside the United States.The government says it has long relied on the law to obtain electronic communications regardless of their location and that it needs the authority to secure such data for criminal investigations.

Microsoft argues that the Stored Communications Act does not have extraterritorial application. It says that the laws of the country where the data is stored — in this case, Ireland — not the laws of the United States, govern its disclosure.

Digital rights advocates and some transnational legal experts have weighed in on the side of Microsoft, arguing that a decision in favor of the government could encourage foreign governments to seize Americans’ private communications. 

“You can bet many other governments in the world will come knocking on the doors of providers in the United States,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based organization that has filed a brief in support of Microsoft.

European governments are already pushing back.

Belgium recently ordered U.S. providers to destroy data that the providers store in the United States, Nojeim said. Austen Parrish, dean of the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University, noted that past attempts by the U.S. government “to extraterritorially seize documents or information from foreign countries (have) led to protests (and) blocking statutes.”

“It upsets a lot of countries because they view it not only as a violation of international law but as a violation of their own sovereignty,” Parrish said. On both counts, there is an assumption that the laws passed by Congress are designed for Americans and that they don’t violate international law, he added.

“In this case, the best result is to read the 1986 Stored Communications Act as only applying to communications within the United States,” Parrish said.

Ways to obtain data

Proponents of Microsoft acknowledge the U.S. government’s interest in foreign-stored data and point to other ways U.S. law enforcement agencies can obtain the data.One is the so-called Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, an international agreement that allows for the exchange of evidence in criminal investigations.

Another is a bilateral cross-border data sharing agreement. The U.S. and U.K. recently negotiated such an agreement, and Congress is working to clear the way for its approval.

Regardless of how the court rules, the issue could become moot if Congress passes a recently proposed bill called the CLOUD Act. The bill would enable the U.S. government to obtain user data from email providers regardless of its location but would allow providers to decline a request if it violated the host country’s laws.

Daskal, the professor at American University, said the bill “strikes the right balance.”

But critics say it can be used by foreign governments to gather data from U.S. providers for intelligence purposes.

Both the Justice Department and Microsoft have endorsed the proposed legislation.

Short of congressional action, the court should try to strike a balance between the U.S. government’s need for data in criminal investigations and foreign governments’ need to protect the privacy of citizens, Daskal said.

“My hope is that if the court rules in favor of the government, that it does so in a way that reminds the lower courts of the importance of issuing warrants in a way that also respects conflicting rules in foreign governments as well,” she said.


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Cuban Cigar Sales Hit Record as China Demand Surges

A surge in sales of Cuba’s legendary cigars in China helped manufacturer Habanos S.A.’s global revenue rise 12 percent to hit a record of around $500 million last year, the company said on Monday at the start of Cuba’s annual cigar festival.

Habanos S.A., a 50-50 joint venture between the Cuban state and Britain’s Imperial Brands Plc, said sales in China, its third export market after Spain and France, jumped 33 percent in value in 2017.

“Without doubt, there is potential for China to become the biggest market at a global level,” Habanos Vice President of Development Jose María Lopez told Reuters after the company’s annual news conference, while puffing on a smoke.

The Cuban monopoly cigar company’s hand-rolled cigars, which include brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas, are considered by many as the best in the world, and the festival attracts wealthy tobacco aficionados and retailers from all over for a week of extravagant parties and tours of plantations and factories.

Lopez said that growth in global sales of Cuban cigars last year outpaced the luxury goods market, which expanded 5 percent, according to consultancy Bain & Co. He put sales growth down to several good tobacco harvests and new products.

The Habanos executive said the outlook was also positive, given solid demand and “excellent” climatic conditions.

Hurricane Irma, which wrought havoc throughout much of Cuba last year, left the western, prime tobacco-growing state of Pinar del Rio mostly unscathed.

Cigars are one of the top exports for the Cuban economy, which is otherwise struggling with decreasing aid from key ally Venezuela, a cash crunch and a push back against market reforms.

However, the Caribbean island cannot sell its signature export to the biggest market worldwide for cigars, the United States, due to the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Improved U.S.-Cuba relations under former U.S. President Barack Obama stoked a boom in international travel to Cuba and boosted cigar sales on the island, with American visitors able to take home as many cigars as they wanted.

Lopez said U.S. President Donald Trump’s more hostile policy toward Cuba, including tighter restrictions on U.S. travel, did not appear to have impacted sales so far. Domestic revenue rose around 15 percent last year.

“We trust that despite Trump’s measures the Cuban market will continue to grow in 2018,” he said.

Cigars have been Cuba’s signature product ever since Christopher Columbus saw natives smoking rolled up tobacco leaves when he first sailed to the Caribbean island in 1492.

Late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was often seen puffing on his favored kind, the long and thin ‘lancero’ until he quit in 1985.


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Denver Weighs Olympics Bid Years After Withdrawing as Host

It promised ample snow and sunny weather on a normally bare, rocky peak easily accessible by “super highway,” thousands more hotel rooms than existed, and a cross-country ski course that looked good on paper but would have cut through some people’s backyards.

The airbrushed pitch worked, but after Denver won a bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics, its plan unraveled amid questions about the environmental impact, ballooning costs and logistics of hosting such a big event in a quickly growing state.

Now, over four decades after Denver became the only city to withdraw as an Olympic host after winning a bid, it is exploring whether to try again after many cities have decided it’s just not worth it.

The city is again growing, with low unemployment and a booming economy, and this time has a bigger airport, light rail, more hotels, seven professional sports teams and multiple stadiums. But the highway touted in ’76 — Interstate 70, which connects Denver to the Rockies — has essentially remained the same. As the population of outdoor-loving Colorado has grown, the largely four-lane route is often gridlocked on weekends.

Meanwhile, the city also is trying to lure Amazon to open its second headquarters in the metro area, which already has many worried about growth, tax breaks and the rising cost of living.

The Olympic exploratory committee convened by Mayor Michael Hancock — which includes leaders of companies like Vail Resorts and Liberty Global, along with former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and ex-Denver Nugget Chauncey Billups — is mulling a privately funded games, estimated to cost $2 billion, without any mega projects. Organizers say the strategy could even leave the state with a surplus to fund I-70 improvements or other work.

Denver already faces stiff competition from Salt Lake City, which became the first U.S. city to announce its plans to bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics this month. Salt Lake said it could host without losing money thanks to existing venues and its expertise in putting on the 2002 Olympics. Reno, Nevada, is also considering a bid.

While some worry the Olympics will distract Denver from urgent problems like affordable housing and transportation, committee members stress that the games won’t take money from those priorities and could potentially net $100 million to $200 million thanks to proceeds from ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandise.

The panel had been in a rush to decide in March whether to pursue the 2026 or 2030 games but is now focused on 2030. The U.S. Olympic Committee announced in Pyeongchang that it will not pursue a 2026 bid unless the International Olympic Committee decides to award bids for both years at once. Denver’s group now plans to make a recommendation to the mayor and governor by late April or early May, although chairman Rob Cohen said the exploratory committee would readjust its timeline if a dual bid becomes a possibility.

The International Olympic Committee is encouraging fewer billion-dollar projects and more facilities already in place after the lavish 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The three venues that would need to be built for a Denver-based Olympics — for Nordic skiing, ski jumping, bobsledding, luge and skeleton — would be temporary structures, said Cohen, CEO of insurance and wealth management company IMA Financial Group. The events could be spread around the state or concentrated along the Front Range.

The exploratory committee has been criticized for its lack of grass-roots representation for meeting behind closed doors, but it recently invited community activists to serve on advisory groups and held online meetings with the public.

Traffic jams

Architect Michael Wenham pondered the prospect of a Denver Olympics recently while at a park near downtown, noting it could be interesting to come up with environmentally friendly ways to host the Olympics. But he reconsidered when he thought about I-70 traffic. He can’t remember the last time he headed to the mountains to snowboard on a weekend because of its traffic jams.

“High-speed buses with their own lane. That is the only way they’re going to be able to do it,” Wenham said.

Cohen said buses would be one possibility for moving people to the mountains quickly during the Olympics, as would giving truckers incentives to bypass I-70. He said some of the surplus could be used to improve the interstate or on another project that would benefit the state long-term, and noted the federal government helped pay to fix highways for Salt Lake City’s 2002 Games.

Glamour vs. mundane

In the years since Denver said no thanks, more cities have become wary of pursuing the Olympics in the face of public opposition and financial concerns.

Innsbruck, Austria, which hosted the 1976 Games after Denver backed out, decided against pursuing a 2026 bid when its promise to organize low-cost and sustainable games failed to convince residents. Other cities that have considered but dropped Olympic aspirations in recent years include St. Moritz and Davos, Switzerland, Krakow, Poland and Oslo, Norway.

Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, whose political career took off after he helped fight the 1976 Olympics, is trying to keep an open mind about Denver’s latest go-around. The committee studying the issue includes savvy people with a track record of successful economic development projects, he said.

But even if Denver could pull it off, he’s not sure what’s in it for the city.

Lamm thinks officials tend to get seduced by the Olympics’ glamour when they could spend their attention on the mundane things that support the economy, such as finding money for education and roads. That takes more campaigning and alliance-making in Colorado because of its strict tax and spending limits, which require voters to approve any tax hikes.

“There’s many opportunities to make this a better state, and I don’t see how the Olympics fit into that,” he said.


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Likely Centrist Brazil Presidential Contender Says He Would Sell Petrobras

The governor of Sao Paulo and likely centrist presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin said on Monday that he would privatize Brazil’s state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA if he wins the elections in October.

Alckmin, who has single digit support in opinion polls, said during a television interview with Band TV that he favored private ownership of Petrobras, as Brazil’s biggest company is known, as long as the sale was conducted within a strict regulatory framework.

Once a taboo issue in Brazilian politics because of national sovereignty concerns, the privatization of Petrobras is set to become a campaign issue this year as Brazil struggles to bring an unsustainable budget deficit under control.

Brazil’s left fiercely rejects the sale of Petrobras, but the leftist leader leading early opinion polls, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will likely be barred from running because of a corruption conviction and there are no obvious politicians who can fill his shoes.

It is not clear where the far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently second in opinion polls, stands on relinquishing state control of Petrobras.

But his economic policy advisor Paulo Guedes told Valor newspaper in an interview published on Monday that he favored selling all state companies to raise 700 billion reais that would help pay off one fifth of Brazil’s public debt.


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