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‘Abandons its people’: Guatemala’s malnutrition crisis deepens | Hunger News

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Coban, Guatemala – Doctor Ricardo Valdez hikes up a steep, worn path towards a series of makeshift wooden houses with rusted steel roofs in a small community on the outskirts of Coban, Alta Verapaz.

Located around 200km (124 miles) north of Guatemala City, Coban has been grappling with an epidemic of child malnutrition, worsened in the past two years by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing humanitarian crisis – a problem critics say the government has neglected.

Overall, Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of child malnutrition, with nearly half of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In some rural communities, that number is reportedly as high as 80 percent.

Valdez soon reaches the home of Margarita Xol, a 28-year-old single mother of two, who is unemployed. Her children are malnourished, which has led to multiple bouts of pneumonia in her youngest daughter, now almost two years old.

“I thought my daughter was going to die,” Xol told Al Jazeera. “I felt sad. [I didn’t know] what I was going to do.”

She says she received little assistance from the Guatemalan public healthcare system, so she sought help from a local NGO called Comunidad Esperanza, with which Valdez works. The group has provided her with food aid, including a steady supply of goat’s milk, which she continues to receive to this day.

“We stepped in because the Ministry of Health was not going to do anything,” Valdez told Al Jazeera, noting that the problem of malnutrition in the country “is much bigger than it seems, than what is shown in the statistics”.

Doctor Ricardo Valdez visits the home of Margarita Xol to check on her children who have suffered from malnutrition and pneumonia.
Doctor Ricardo Valdez visits the home of Margarita Xol to check on her children, who have suffered from malnutrition and pneumonia [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Structural inequalities

Guatemala’s malnutrition crisis, which experts say stems from structural inequalities across the country, has been worsened by the pandemic and the aftermath of hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020, which destroyed homes and ravaged crops.

“When you talk about malnutrition, you’re not just talking about food,” Sofia Letona, head of a local humanitarian group Antigua al Rescate, told Al Jazeera.

“Malnutrition is not just being hungry. Malnutrition is not having access to the basics of your human rights,” she said. “Malnutrition is not having water, not having electricity, not having roads, having a dirt floor, having to walk for hours to get from one place to another, not earning money … [It] is the way in which you can see how a state abandons its people.”

Around half of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty, and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged. Subsequent governments have failed to tackle this crisis, despite lofty campaign promises.

“There is no real interest,” Lucrecia Hernandez Mack, a Guatemalan physician and politician who formerly served as health minister, told Al Jazeera. “Generally, [combating malnutrition] is used as a campaign slogan … [but governments] do not engage the problem, because it is a structural issue.”

Guatemala has one of the world's highest rates of malnutrition with half of children under five suffering from chronic hunger, according to UNICEF.
Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of malnutrition, with nearly half of children under five suffering from chronic hunger, according to UNICEF [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

While the Guatemalan government has allocated tens of millions of dollars in its current budget to combatting child malnutrition, critics contend that this is not enough. As of March 1, the Guatemalan health ministry had used just two percent of that budget, according to the Prensa Libre newspaper, while cases continued to rise.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.

Last year, President Alejandro Giammattei suggested that Guatemalan banks could ask account holders to donate leftover cents to help combat malnutrition. Months earlier, in November 2020, Guatemalans torched Congress after the government approved a series of controversial budget cuts, including $25m destined to combat malnutrition. While the funds were subsequently restored, public anger continued to simmer.

‘How are they going to survive?’

Amid this backdrop, the work of addressing the malnutrition crisis has largely been left to NGOs. Maria Claudia Santizo, a nutritionist with UNICEF, told Al Jazeera that her organisation has worked with the Guatemalan health ministry to identify cases of malnutrition.

“[We have] supported the ministry of health to be able to actively search for cases of acute malnutrition in the most rural and remote communities, with the aim of being able to identify them in a timely manner, treat them in a timely manner and prevent their death,” Santizo said.

But as the costs of basic goods continue to rise, she asked, “how is it going to be for the people who live in the countryside; how are they going to survive?”

Margarita Xol's youngest child, now almost two years old, is malnourished has suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia.
Margarita Xol’s youngest child, now almost two years old, is malnourished and has suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

For Xol, who primarily speaks the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, this crisis is a part of her family’s daily life. Their makeshift house near the local dump has no electricity or running water, and they rely on her father’s income of about $2 a day, which he earns from selling firewood, to purchase basic food staples.

Xol’s family once had land, but her father was forced to sell it when her mother faced a health crisis and they needed money to buy medication. Today, Xol wants to work to provide for her children, but they are both under five and she must stay home to care for them.

“I desire to have a house and a small plot of land for me and my children,” Xol said. “But we do not have any money.”



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US judge blocks Biden’s plan to end Title 42 border expulsions | Migration News

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A judge in the United States has blocked the Biden administration’s plan to end a contentious immigration policy that allows US authorities to turn away most asylum seekers arriving at the country’s southern border with Mexico.

US District Judge Robert Summerhays issued a nationwide injunction on Friday barring US President Joe Biden’s administration from lifting the policy known as Title 42. It was expected to be rescinded on May 23.

“That means Title 42 will not end anytime soon,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, about the federal judge’s decision.

The ruling comes after two dozen US states sued the Biden administration over its plan, arguing that Title 42 should remain in place because proper consideration was not given to likely increases in border crossings and other issues.

The Justice Department said in a brief statement on Friday evening that it plans to appeal.

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration first invoked Title 42 in March 2020 as COVID-19 swept through the country, arguing it aimed to help prevent the spread of the virus.

But last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the measure was “no longer necessary”, and the Department of Homeland Security said it would end its use at the border.

“CDC has now determined, in its expert opinion, that continued reliance on this authority [Title 42] is no longer warranted in light of the current public-health circumstances. That decision was a lawful exercise of CDC’s authority,” the Justice Department said in Friday’s statement.

More than 1.9 million Title 42 expulsions have been carried out since the restriction was put in place, with the vast majority of asylum seekers quickly expelled back to Mexico or their countries of origin without the chance of applying for asylum in the US.

Rights advocates and immigration experts have been calling on the Biden administration to end the use of Title 42, which they say violates US and international law and puts already vulnerable asylum seekers at risk of kidnapping, torture, rape and other violence in Mexico.

‘Seeking asylum is a legal right’

Human rights groups denounced Friday’s ruling as an affront to the right to seek asylum.

“This lawsuit only serves to prevent vulnerable families and children facing unspeakable violence, persecution, and exploitation from exercising their legal right to seek asylum,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a resettlement agency.

“Beyond the devastating humanitarian impact of Title 42, the ruling also fails to recognize well-established domestic and international law. Seeking asylum is a legal right, and yet this bedrock of the American legal system is quickly eroding at a time of unprecedented need,” Vignarajah said in a statement.

Asylum seekers hug near the US-Mexico border wall
Rights groups have denounced Title 42 as a violation of US and international law [File: Go Nakamura/Reuters]

Al Otro Lado, a migrant support and advocacy group that works in the southern US and Mexico, also denounced the decision as extending suffering at the border.

“Parents are sending their children across the border alone to save their lives. This is #Title42 + its extension only means indefinite suffering,” the group said on Twitter.

“Title 42 has caused enormous harm to people seeking safety. Continuing to manipulate this public health law is beyond cruel,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also said.

For their part, several Republican officials hailed the ruling, painting it as a setback for Biden’s immigration plans, which they said aim to weaken border security.

Senator Bill Cassidy, who represents Louisiana, invoked his support for Judge Summerhays’s nomination under former President Trump in welcoming the decision.

“A Louisiana judge just halted Biden’s disastrous plan to make the border crisis worse by repealing Title 42. We need to give Border Patrol the tools they need to secure the border, not take them away,” he wrote on Twitter. “Proud to say I supported Judge Summerhays’ nomination.”

“Our request to stop the Biden Administration from revoking Title 42 was just granted by a federal judge,” tweeted Jason Miyares, Virginia’s attorney general, adding that it was “a HUGE win for securing our border”.

Political pressure

Biden has faced growing political pressure from Republicans and even some members of his Democratic Party over Title 42, especially as the country prepares for critical midterm elections in November.

Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo, reporting from Mexico City, said that political debate in Washington over immigration “is very much on the minds” of the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers waiting on the Mexican side of the border.

“Just this week there were demonstrations outside of the US consulate in Tijuana [in northern Mexico] by migrants who were pleading to US officials to lift Title 42,” Rapalo said on Friday.

“One thing that is of concern here in Mexico is that … Title 42 has been used as a pretext to interrupt the traditional asylum process in the United States, and while that asylum process remains slowed down … those numbers of migrants and asylum seekers continue to pile up here in Mexico, putting more pressure on the resources available to the Mexican government.”

Meanwhile, rights advocates also have criticised the US president and his Democratic party for failing to overturn some of his predecessor’s hardline, anti-immigration policies – despite holding a slim majority in Congress.

“President Biden could have ended Title 42 and all of Trump’s inhumane and immoral policies as soon as he took office in January 2021,” Tami Goodlette, director of litigation at RAICES, an immigration legal services organisation in Texas, said in a statement shared by the group on Twitter.

“Instead, he surrounded himself with centrist advisors who coddled his fears on immigration reform and embraced deterrence as their central priority on immigration.”





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US urges probe, accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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Washington, DC – The US State Department has renewed calls for a “thorough and transparent” investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces last week, but stopped short of calling for an independent probe.

A day after the Israeli military said it will not launch a criminal inquiry into the incident, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday that Washington continues to call for a meaningful probe that will lead to accountability.

“Again, we’ve been clear that there must be a transparent and credible investigation of Ms. Abu Akleh’s killing and that any such investigation must include accountability,” he said.

The slain journalist was a US citizen.

Price did not address Israel’s refusal to conduct such an investigation. Last week, he said the Israeli government has the “wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation” into the killing of Abu Akleh.

The administration of President Joe Biden had condemned the fatal shooting, but its expressed trust in an Israeli investigation into what happened has sparked anger and demands for an independent or US-led probe.

Earlier on Friday, 57 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Christopher Wray urging US involvement in the investigation.

Signatories to the letter – all Democrats – include some vocal supporters of Israel as well as members of the progressive wing of the party.

“Given the tenuous situation in the region and the conflicting reports surrounding the death of Ms. Abu Akleh, we request the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launch an investigation into Ms. Abu Akleh’s death,” the letter reads.

“We also request the US Department of State determines whether any US laws protecting Ms. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, were violated.

“As an American, Ms. Abu Akleh was entitled to the full protections afforded to US citizens living abroad.”

The Pentagon on Friday appeared to rule out the US military’s participation in any investigation into the killing, saying that there is no indication of a need for such involvement.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz on Thursday, and a Pentagon readout describing their talks did not make any mention of Abu Akleh.

“The secretary [Austin] brought up the issue and they discussed it, and he welcomed the Israeli government’s willingness to investigate,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday, more than 24 hours after the Israeli military said it will not pursue a criminal investigation into the incident.

The killing of Abu Akleh in Jenin in the occupied West Bank has reignited calls for reassessing US military aid to Israel.

The Al Jazeera journalist is the second American citizen to be killed by Israeli forces this year. In January, 78-year-old Omar Assad suffered a stress-induced heart attack after he was arbitrarily arrested, bound, blindfolded and gagged by Israeli forces.

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually, and this year Washington added another $1bn in assistance to “replenish” Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system after the May 2021 Gaza conflict.

Late on Thursday, progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said US assistance should not fund human rights violations anywhere, including in Palestine.

“It’s really important for us to have eyes on what happened with Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine. She was killed by Israeli forces – a venerated journalist, a US citizen,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a video broadcast on social media.

The congresswoman rejected accusations of singling out Israel for criticism, highlighting the role of US aid in the conflict.

“We can’t even get health care in the United States, and we’re funding this,” she said of rights abuses against Palestinians. “There has to be some sort of line that we draw; it has to stop at some point.”





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US, Taiwan trade officials discuss deepening relations | Politics News

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Meeting comes as US President Joe Biden began his first visit to Asia in push to show commitment to the region.

The United States’ top trade official has renewed efforts to deepen economic relations with Taiwan in a meeting with her Taiwanese counterpart, as Joe Biden began his first visit to Asia since taking office amid increasing competition with China.

In a statement on Friday, the office of US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said she met with with Taiwan’s lead trade negotiator John Deng in Bangkok ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) ministerial meeting.

“Ambassador Tai and Minister Deng directed their teams to explore concrete ways to deepen the US-Taiwan trade and investment relationship and to meet again in the coming weeks to discuss the path forward,” it said.

Such high-level meetings can increase tensions between the US and China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and is against any official exchanges between Taiwan’s government and other foreign governments.

Relations between Washington and Beijing have been strained in recent months, particularly over China’s neutral public position on the war in Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden has warned his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping of “consequences” should China provide any support to Russia in its invasion, and senior members of the Biden administration have urged Beijing to exert pressure on Moscow to end the war.

Last month, China also denounced a visit by a group of US legislators to Taipei, saying it was “deliberately provocative” and had “led to further escalation of tension in the Taiwan Strait”.

Six US legislators, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on that trip.

“With Taiwan producing 90 percent of the world’s high-end semiconductor products, it is a country of global significance, consequence and impact, and therefore it should be understood the security of Taiwan has a global impact,” Menendez told Tsai at that time.

The Biden administration has been trying to demonstrate that Washington remains focused on the Asia-Pacific as Beijing becomes an increasingly powerful player in the region.

Last week, Biden hosted a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the White House, pledging $150m on infrastructure, security and anti-pandemic efforts in the region.

On Friday, the US president began his first visit to Asia in South Korea, meeting the country’s newly sworn-in President Yoon Suk-yeol for the first time in person.

Biden said the future would be written in the region and now was the time for the US and like-minded partners to invest in each other.

“With today’s visit, I hope that Korea-US relations will be reborn as an economic and security alliance based on high-tech and supply chain cooperation,” said Yoon, urging Biden to provide incentives for South Korean and US businesses to invest in each other’s countries.



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