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Pandora Papers: Mario Vargas Llosa was listed in 2015 as titleholder of an offshore company | USA

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Information from the Pandora Papers investigation has revealed that Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa was listed as the main titleholder of Melek Investments, an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2015. According to the documentation, the company was used to manage money stemming from the rights to his written works and the sale of real estate in Madrid and London. At the time the company was set up, according to the Carmen Balcells literary agency that represents Vargas Llosa, the author was not residing in either Spain or Peru, the two countries where he holds citizenship. When he became a tax resident in Spain in 2017, his investment portfolio was already in his name and not that of Melek Investments, and was declared to the Spanish tax authorities.

Carmen Balcells states that due to Vargas Llosa’s divorce from his former wife, Patricia Llosa Urquidi, US investment bank Jefferies Group LLC – which had handled the author’s business affairs for many years – set up a financial structure in the name of Melek Investments for reasons of privacy. The portfolio managed funds of €1.1 million ($1.27m). “It was the fruit of his savings. This company, during its brief existence, only managed an investment portfolio [of shares and bonds] that had been in existence for some time and that continued to exist in its name following its liquidation,” the agency added in an email.

This is not the first time that Vargas Llosa has been linked with an offshore company in a tax haven. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in 2016 that Vargas Llosa and Llosa Urquidi, while still married, appeared in the Panama Papers investigation as having arranged an offshore company through Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in 2010. The day before Vargas Llosa was made a Nobel Laureate, an intermediary asked for the shareholders of this company to be changed and it subsequently passed into the ownership of two Russian nationals. Later, Vargas Llosa would state that he had never held an offshore company and the whole incident had been a misunderstanding. On that occasion, his literary representatives insisted that he was unaware of the ownership of this company as setting up such structures is an habitual practice of the bank and a matter that is handled solely by those in charge of managing the portfolio.

Internal documents from the offices of Overseas Management Company (OMC Group), to which EL PAÍS has had access, reveal the existence of Melek Investments six years ago. Among emails and files generated by OMC, Vargas Llosa’s passport and signature are present and the author provides a residential address in the Barranco neighborhood of the Peruvian capital Lima. The conversations between lawyers for the OMC Group and their counterparts at RBC Wealth Management indicate that the creation of Melek Investments was necessary in order to open an account with Jefferies Group LLC at its Miami offices. Vargas Llosa required two references for OMC Group to sign off on the creation of Melek Investments.

The first letter of reference was signed by Lleana H. Platt, in her position as vice president of wealth management at Jefferies. Platt confirmed Vargas Llosa’s identity, his date of birth in March 1936 and his residence in Lima. She added that she had personally known the author and his family for 12 years and that he had always been of impeccable standing, and that he was a client of the investment bank and has always exercised judicious use of his account.

The second reference was signed by Carmen Balcells, the legendary literary agent who guided the careers of those writers involved in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Vargas Llosa. “He is a well-respected client of my literary agency,” wrote Balcells. The agent also stated that Vargas Llosa lived in Lima, was born in 1936 and that the signature that featured on the bank’s documentation matched the one she kept on file. “Mario Vargas Llosa has been my client for 45 years,” she concluded. The letter is dated July 2015. Balcells died two months later. Her agency maintains that it is unaware of any other letter of recommendation being issued to create an offshore company.

English version by Rob Train.

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John Cheng: California shooting: Good and evil meet face to face in Laguna Woods | International

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The sheriff of Orange County, Scott Steinle, with a photograph of John Cheng.
The sheriff of Orange County, Scott Steinle, with a photograph of John Cheng.Jae C. Hong (AP)

The crime scene revealed the terror and chaos experienced on Sunday afternoon in Laguna Woods. Inside the multipurpose room of the Geneva Presbyterian Church, 80 kilometers south of Los Angeles, there were a dozen tables decorated with long tablecloths. On these were red plastic cups. On the floor, plates and leftover popcorn. The large space, decorated with a huge black curtain and biblical phrases, was this past weekend the scene of a clash between good and evil. A group of parishioners who immigrated to the US from Taiwan were targeted by David Chou, a 68-year-old naturalized American of Chinese origin. One man was there to stop it, John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor who took on the attacker and prevented further tragedy. That heroic act was his last: Dr. Cheng has so far been the only victim of the latest case of gun violence in the country. “He is a hero in this incident… he saved dozens of people’s lives,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said on Monday.

The congregation was gathered Sunday afternoon to welcome back Billy Chang, a beloved pastor who had been in charge of the church before leaving for a mission in Taiwan. About 50 people, mostly older parishioners, were attending the banquet in his honor. Among these was a stranger who did not look familiar to any of the worshipers. He hadn’t been there for the 10.30am Mass, but now he was trying to mix and mingle with the churchgoers. He was a wolf among the sheep. David Chou, 68, pulled out two semiautomatic weapons and began shooting.

“Dr. Cheng, knowing that the room was full of elderly people, crossed the room to try to disarm the shooter,” explained Todd Spitzer, the district attorney for Orange County, where Laguna Woods is located, on Monday. After the first shot was fired, Cheng, a sports medicine doctor who was not a regular member of the congregation but had taken his mother to the special event, tackled the gunman and was shot. The shooter’s pistol jammed as he tried to finish him off. Cheng, one of the youngest people in the room, died shortly from his injury, but his gesture was enough to buy time for other members of the congregation to subdue the attacker. The pastor hit him on the head with a chair and a group of people hogtied him with extension cords. Police officers arrived on the scene minutes later.

“[Cheng] sacrificed himself so that others might live. That irony, in a church, is not lost on me,” added Spitzer, who toured the crime scene on Sunday night to prepare the indictment against Chou, who faces one count of murder and five more counts of attempted murder, in addition to unlawful possession of explosives. The room, as Spitzer described it, was decorated with phrases from the New Testament about how we should treat others. Walkers and canes had been left behind, abandoned by the congregants in their panicked flight. The five injured individuals, who are being treated at local hospitals, range in age from 66 to 92, according to authorities. Among these is a married couple in their 80s.

An image of David Chou, the assailant of Laguna Woods, in a photo provided by the Orange County sheriff.
An image of David Chou, the assailant of Laguna Woods, in a photo provided by the Orange County sheriff.AFP

It was hate that allegedly motivated Chou to carry out the crime. The man, a security guard based in Las Vegas, drove four and a half hours from the Nevada city to this peaceful community full of retirement homes in California. His goal was to do as much damage as possible. Police recovered two bags from the church. One was loaded with ammunition for the semiautomatic weapons, and the other had four Molotov-type bombs. Chou chained the doors from the inside and glued the locks to render them useless and thus prevent the elderly from leaving the premises. Only one revolving door was working when the police arrived.

“This was a politically motivated hate incident, a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes at a news conference. “It is believed the suspect was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan.” Among the evidence that has been recovered is Chou’s cellphone, which the FBI is analyzing, and notes found in the assailant’s vehicle. These reveal the political positions of the attacker, who was born in China but emigrated “several years ago” to the United States, where he acquired citizenship.

The sheriff said it is believed that Chou, who lived in Taiwan at one point, was not “well received” there and that this may have developed his hatred of the community. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stated on Monday that the security guard had legally bought the two semiautomatic weapons used in the shooting, one in 2015 and the second in 2017. Due to the nature of his work, it is believed that Chou had a permit to carry guns, valid exclusively in the state of Nevada.

Hate crimes against Asians in the United States have risen sharply in recent years in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. A report published at the beginning of 2022 by California State University in San Bernardino indicates that these types of attacks grew by 339% between 2020 and 2021. Racist incidents have grown by 11% nationally, with Asians the second most affected behind African-Americans.

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UK’s new aid strategy condemned as ‘double whammy to world’s poor’ | Global development

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A new government white paper on UK aid has been condemned as a “double whammy to the world’s poor”.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) first strategy paper on overseas assistance since the merged department was formed and large-scale cuts were implemented in 2020, is dominated by a near halving of UK aid to multilateral bodies, including the UN the World Bank, and a renewed focus on aid as an adjunct to trade.

The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, claimed that reliable private sector investments will challenge “malign actors” and bring countries into the orbit of free market economies, a clear reference to the challenge posed by China’s large aid programme.

“In an increasingly geopolitical world, we must use development as a key part of our foreign policy. Malign actors treat economics and development as a means of control, using patronage, investment and debt as a form of economic coercion and political power. We won’t mirror their malign tactics, but we will match them in our resolve to provide an alternative,” said Truss.

The 20-page development paper, which is devoid of many specific budget allocations, sets out the high-level goal of cutting the proportion of UK aid going to multilateral bodies from 40% of the budget to 25% by 2025. The UK aid budget has been cut by £4bn since 2020.

Critics will claim the move reduces the UK’s influence within these bodies at a critical time, and that Britain can never, on its own, hope to match Chinese bilateral aid. More than 100 countries have signed up to China’s “belt and road” infrastructure programmes. At the G7 in Cornwall last year, the UK pledged to work with the US administration on a western alternative to Chinese aid, but little reference is made to this plan in the paper.

Sarah Champion, chair of the Commons international development committee, said: “The foreign secretary’s strategy has two main thrusts. It advocates aid for trade – linking the provision of aid to access for UK goods and services. And it says more of our money should go on direct government-to-government spending rather than spending through international bodies such as the United Nations.

“I fear that adds up to a double whammy against the global poor.

She added: “Supporting the poorest in the world should not be conditional on a trade deal or agreeing to investment partnerships. The UK has rightly been hugely critical of China for such an approach, so I fail to see why we are following down the same road. It is depressing and disappointing that the UK would devise a strategy like this,” she said.

The paper places a new emphasis on women and girls, but says the budget to cover education, empowerment, sexual and reproductive health and rights and ending violence will only be restored to levels reached at the end of 2021. Aid groups had hoped funding would be restored to 2020 levels, before the government aid cuts started to bite.

The UK has already cut £1.5bn from a World Bank programme to help poor countries recover from Covid. It remains the largest European donor to the bank, but has now fallen behind the US and Japan.

Other priorities set out in the white paper are climate finance and humanitarian aid, which is set at £3bn over the next three years. The paper says Africa remains a priority for the UK since “geostrategic competition in Africa will intensify over the next decade, and the impacts of Covid-19, climate change and biodiversity loss are increasing the vulnerability of many countries and their citizens”.

A similar importance is attached to the Indo-Pacific, but the paper gives no country-specific funding allocations.

The paper did not give a date for when the UK will return its overall aid budget to 0.7% of GNI. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has said he expects it won’t be before 2024-5.

But the paper noted: “A return to 0.7% will allow us to scale up critical elements of our new strategy, including on climate and nature, as well as our ability to invest in countries.”

In one of the few specific pledges in the white paper, the FCDO has promised to reduce the time it takes the department to approve a business case for programmes under £40m in value, to less than six weeks – currently it can take months.

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Coronavirus BA.4 and BA.5: New virus, new Covid-19 wave | Opinion

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Anyone wishing to know what the future of the Covid-19 pandemic looks like would do well to watch South Africa. It’s not because several forms of SARS-CoV-2 first emerged there and later spread across the planet – that, too – but because of the quality of its epidemiological research, conducted by scientists who put raw reality ahead of diplomatic discretion. Thanks to them, we’ve just learned that Covid waves are tied to the emergence of new variants with a greater ability to infect and to escape our immune systems. This strongly indicates that the evolution of the virus is much like an arms race between SARS-CoV-2 and our own antibodies, in what amounts to a classic mechanism of evolution. The crab’s shell becomes thicker to avoid being eaten by a lobster, and the lobster’s claws get bigger so it will keep catching as much food as before. Inside the body of a patient who has survived Covid, antibodies become increasingly efficient while the virus becomes ever more slippery. It’s the laws of nature.

The initial waves of 2020 were caused by the original Wuhan strain and a few others derived from it. The wave of winter 2020-2021 is linked to the beta strain, which was later replaced with the delta variant in the 2021 waves. In late 2021, when things seemed to be quieting down, we had the omicron strain, which came in two flavors or subvariants: BA.1 and BA.2. And now we have BA.4 and BA.5. Each new iteration spreads more than its predecessor and does a better job at eluding human antibodies. As expected, BA.4 and BA.5, the latest designs of viral evolution, are exceptionally good at bypassing our immune system. And they are starting to gain traction in South Africa and parts of Europe. Everything seems to indicate that we will see a new wave, this time caused by SARS-CoV-2 omicron BA.4 and BA.5.

But let’s remain calm: there is no indication that these two subvariants are going to cause a rise in serious Covid cases and hospital admissions. The population’s immunity, either through vaccination or previous infection, can accomplish very little to prevent contagion, but it does protect the infected individuals from developing serious Covid. Some scientists say, half-jokingly, that a single omicron wave could be viewed as a natural vaccination campaign. Of course, people with low defenses – those who are immunocompromised – would do well to protect themselves from infection. It is hard to predict what the virus could do to them, and not even vaccines can guarantee them the same degree of protection as the general population.

Virologists have made a family tree of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. It shows that neither alfa nor beta nor gamma nor omicron are children of delta, but come from other strains that emerged at the same time as delta. This eliminates the mystical aura around omicron: it did not fall out of the sky six months ago, but simply revealed itself later than other variants. All this knowledge is helping identify which specific mutations are behind the high infection rate and ability to escape immunity. The data has not yet been peer-reviewed.

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