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Used to crisis, Argentines pivot to survive COVID economic blow



Buenos Aires, Argentina – Former chef turned taxi driver Carolina Ascona is in the midst of another reinvention.

The 44-year old single mother is learning to sew miniature tents for children as well as picnic blankets she plans to hawk from the roadside on the outskirts of the Argentine capital.

“It’s the only thing I can come up with right now,” she says of her latest tent venture. “There is no work. With the age that I have, it is very hard.”

It is Ascona’s second attempt to establish a solid income footing as the financial ground beneath her buckles and bends to the coronavirus pandemic and its wrath.

After Argentina went into lockdown in March, and the airports she depended on for taxi customers closed, she created a new business – purchasing cheeses for resale and delivering them to customers around Buenos Aires.

It’s the only thing I can come up with right now

Carolina Ascona, chef turned taxi driver and soon, a vendor of homemade tents and blankets

But that work soon dried up as people’s orders shrank alongside the South American nation’s economy.

Argentina recorded its most severe economic contraction in 16 years in the three months ending June, when the economy shrank 19.1 percent compared with the same period a year earlier

The country is in the third year of recession, which means its people were sinking under high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, and soaring poverty even before the pandemic dealt an even harsher blow.

But for Argentines used to lurching from one economic crisis to the next, pivoting to find new sources of income has become such a well-honed skill, it is known as “el rebusque”. Translated loosely as ”the rummage” – the term captures a nimble spirit that works the margins in order to survive.

We’re among the countries whose economies fell the most

Gabriel Rubinstein, a former governor of the Argentine Central Bank

Record economic plunge

Argentina has been under some form of quarantine since March 19. Its fast lockdown to safeguard against COVID-19 was lauded by a citizenry terrified by the scenes emanating from Europe and helped to bolster the public healthcare system.

But with restrictions still in place six months later, for many Argentines, the scales are tipping away from fear of the virus towards fear of economic ruin. This, even as the number of new cases shows no sign of slowing down, and with cases branching out across the country, not only in urban centres as had been the case in the first half of the crisis.

Some 840,000 Argentinians have been infected with COVID-19 while more than 22,000 have lost their lives to the disease, according to Johns Hopkins data.

People wearing protective masks stand in line outside a Banco Provincia bank branch in the financial district of Buenos Aires, Argentina [File: Erica Canepa/Bloomberg]

The government has extended a slew of measures intended to help them weather the financial ravages of the pandemic, including continuing direct cash payments to the poor and self-employed, a moratorium on evictions, and throwing a financial lifeline to companies so they do not fire their employees.

Still, tens of thousands of businesses have shut down for good, and people who could not pay their rent ended up on the street, despite the evictions prohibition.

Unemployment hit 13.1 percent in the three months ending June, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census in Argentina. Interannual inflation in August hit 40.7 percent – fed by a slide in the Argentine peso. Poverty in the first quarter sat at 40 percent – a number the Catholic University of Argentina says is by now at 46-47 percent.

The Argentine government was able to restructure $65bn in foreign debt in September, buying itself some crucial fiscal breathing room with foreign creditors. But the need to print pesos in order to bankroll economic measures to survive the pandemic has contributed to growing uncertainty, economists say.

The reaction has been a predictable one – Argentines have been exchanging their pesos for the more reliable United States dollar, which is commonly used to save here by those who are able.

Argentina places limits on how much foreign currency individuals can buy.

People wearing protective masks enter and leave a bus in Buenos Aires, Argentina [File: Erica Canepa/Bloomberg]

According to official figures, 3.9 million Argentines bought the permissible amount of $200 in July. In August, it was about five million.

In an attempt to shore up depleting foreign exchange reserves, the country’s Central Bank imposed stricter currency control measures in September. In lockstep, the main unofficial exchange rate – known as the dollar blue – shot up, to around 145 pesos per US dollar, nearly double the official exchange rate.

‘A great deal of uncertainty’

“We’re among the countries whose economies fell the most [in the world in the second quarter], and we might be among the group that will see the slowest growth,” said Gabriel Rubinstein, a former governor of the Argentine Central Bank and head of the Buenos Aires firm Gabriel Rubinstein & Associates.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty. The country risk level, despite the debt restructuring, is very high. It’s among the worst in the emergent countries, if not the worst, along with Angola and a few other countries. So the situation is very bad. And in a political context that clouds things, that makes everything seem worse.”

The country risk level, despite the debt restructuring, is very high

Gabriel Rubinstein, a former governor of the Argentine Central Bank

The government has since tweaked rules around the movement of the greenback, and created incentives for Argentines to save in pesos. In a radio interview this week, Economy Minister Martin Guzman described the capital control rationale.

“The first condition to invest is stability and the alternative of doing nothing would result in an exchange rate jump. These are not measures that make us happy but they do allow us to protect the exchange rate situation, which is a pillar of stability,” he said.

‘I’m learning’

For people like Ascona, the burden of an economy that swings from crisis to crisis is engraved on her recent history.

She lives in Ezeiza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. She has a daughter who is six and a son who is 19. They live in the home that she grew up in, with her mother.

After she lost her job as a chef at the age of 40, it took her nine months to find work, in part, she says, because most of the offers were for people under the age of 35. She turned to taxi driving out of an airport and was able to make ends meet until the pandemic decimated air travel.

Now, her family relies on donated groceries from social organisations, and her daughter’s school, and an emergency benefit from the government which amounts to 10,000 pesos ($130) every two months.

“Today because of the needs that we’re facing in my house, and everywhere actually, my son has to go out and work in construction,” she said. “Today, for example, he had a situation where he almost cut his hand with a saw. He’s 19, and he has to do a job he isn’t qualified for, because there is no other option today. If he cuts his hand, he has that mutilation for the rest of his life.”

Ascona also worries her children will get used to relying on a donated bag of groceries in order to survive.

“I don’t want that for them. I don’t want anyone to manage their quality of life,” she said.

Gustavo Ponce de Leon has also reinvented himself, twice, during the pandemic. The 35-year-old plumber and gas operator had twelve people working for him on a construction site but lost all of that work in one fell swoop with the pandemic.

He started a vegetable stand with a sack of potatoes, that stretched into a wider offering that lasted a few months, but it became unsustainable and he had to close.

A couple of weeks ago, he opened a corner store in the garage of the house that he rents, with tables to sit at out front, and a foosball table. Like the grocery store before it, he named it El Rebusque.

“I have a bike lane in front of my house, so everyone passes by here on their way to the park,” said the father of a blended family of four, who lives in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Villa Urquiza.

In between the odd plumbing job, he is learning how to navigate the ferocious world of price hunting and inflation.

“I do what I have to do. Look for the best prices. Today for example I went to a hotdog factory because it’s a lot cheaper,” he said. “Every week the prices change, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but I’m learning.”


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained



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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year



From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.


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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube



Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.


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