Leon, Sep 12 (AP/UNB) — Two days after protests began in Nicaragua in April, a foreign auto components company was meeting at a hotel in the city of Leon when smoke from a burning university building just a block away billowed above the hotel's colonnaded courtyard.
The visitors quickly cut short their event and began changing their travel plans to exit Nicaragua. Within three months, the El Convento hotel itself was forced to close for lack of business, as a sister hotel in the same city had in June.
Nicaragua's economy has been devastated by the nearly five months of unrest sparked by cuts to social security benefits that quickly evolved into calls for President Daniel Ortega to step down.
In June, the country's economic activity was down 12.1 percent compared to a year earlier, according to the central bank. Economists estimate 200,000 jobs have been shed, including as many as 70,000 in the tourism sector, which has become Nicaragua's top source of foreign currency in the past two years.
Revenue at hotels and restaurants plunged 45 percent in June compared to 2017, according to Nicaragua's central bank. Similarly, construction suffered a 35 percent drop and retail 27 percent. Some $900 million in deposits fled Nicaragua's banks. They responded by tightening their lending to preserve liquidity, thus also contributed to the economic slowdown.
Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers says more than 12,000 acres of private land have been occupied by government supporters in what business leaders have called confiscations in revenge for their support of the protesters.
The producers say 91 percent of the land occupied by squatters was used for farming and livestock.
Victor Hugo Sevilla, the general manager of both Leon hotels, continues checking email, but said "I haven't gotten any requests from foreigners for reservations. We have received five, maybe eight, rate inquiries from domestic (travelers), but no firm reservations."
Leon, Nicaragua's second-largest city, was among the places where protests and roadblocks were most intense. From the beginning, those protests were met with violence from riot police and civilian government supporters. In July, they violently cleared the roadblocks and ran protesting students off occupied university campuses.
More than 300 people have been killed in the unrest, according to human rights groups. The government calls the protesters "terrorists" and says it defeated an attempt to drive Ortega from office that was sponsored by the U.S. government and domestic opposition, including some in the private sector.
Ortega conceded this month that the roadblocks and unrest have cost the country jobs. In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, he said domestic tourism was starting to return, but "where there has been more of a problem is in attracting international tourism, because this situation tends to repel the tourists."
A major factor has been that the countries that send Nicaragua's big-spending foreign tourists, including the U.S., Canada, Spain and England, issued travel warnings urging their citizens to avoid travel to Nicaragua.
Major airlines such as American and United cut their flights to Managua from three per day to one. Spirit, Delta and other carriers trimmed their flights as well, said Jose Adan Aguerri, president of the Superior Council for Private Enterprise.
The council, which is Nicaragua's main business chamber, joined the call for a national strike Sept. 7. The Civic Alliance, formed to represent a broad swath of Nicaraguan society in a stalled dialogue with the government, said the strike aimed to push the government back to dialogue and to protest the arrest of alliance members and other political prisoners.
The country's primary tourist destinations like the colonial gem Granada and the Pacific coast surfer paradise San Juan del Sur began feeling the consequences of the unrest almost immediately. Hotels and restaurants cut back hours, then days and eventually closed completely.
For years, Ortega enjoyed a relatively stable relationship with private business. Since returning to power in 2007, the one-time Marxist rebel commander had softened his views and largely left Nicaragua's private sector to do what it wanted.
The relationship was criticized by some as a tacit agreement to keep the country's business elites out of politics. In an interview in July with Venezuela's Telesur network, Ortega said his understanding with Nicaragua's private sector had been strictly economic and not political.
In April, however, the country's business interests, caught off guard by the social security system changes, quickly joined the opposition. As the social and political crisis deepened, the private sector became increasingly outspoken in calling for Ortega to move up elections.
Mario Arana, director of the Nicaragua Association of Producers and Exporters and a former head of the central bank, said the private sector decided to get more involved when student protesters were killed.
"When there was an overreaction here to a civil, peaceful protest by the students, where people began to lose their lives, society suffered a social explosion where the private sector aligned with the people," he said. "The private sector is committed to trying to find a negotiated exit from the crisis."
Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who leads the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, said the government has shown signs that it recognizes the severity of the economic impact. It has issued new debt, adjusted rules to tighten the selling of dollars and cut public spending as it forecasts a 10 percent drop in tax revenue.
Whether any of that will be enough to stop the economy's slide is doubtful unless it's accompanied by a political solution that restores stability, experts said.
For years Leon had been at best a day trip for foreign tourists beginning to explore better-known Granada or San Juan del Sur. But the city had worked hard to get attention and Art Collection Hotels had bet on its prospects by opening its second hotel, La Recoleccion, in 2017.
"We had high expectations for this year," said Sevilla, the manager of the closed hotels.
He had 113 employees between the two properties. They were able to suspend 67, which will enable them to come back without losing any benefits of seniority, but the rest were laid off. He has remained in touch with some of the workers. Those still around are taking whatever work they can find, but he estimated at least half left the country, with most of those seeking tourism sector jobs in Costa Rica.
The hotels have 190 reservations for November — the start of the high season — but that's less than half what they had in November last year. Still, he hopes they can start working their way back again in October. Even if that works out, he predicts a slow climb back to normalcy.
Cafes and shops selling handicrafts around Leon's historic center were open this week, but a number of hotels and hostels in the area were shuttered.
"I think it will take at least 12 months, maybe more, to be able to restart the tourism engine," he said.
Beijing, Sep 12 (AP/UNB) — Amid a worsening tariff battle, China is putting off accepting license applications from American companies in financial services and other industries until Washington makes progress toward a settlement, a business group says.
The disclosure Tuesday is the first public confirmation of U.S. companies' fears that their operations in China or access to its markets might be disrupted by the battle over Beijing's technology policy. China is running out of American imports for penalties in response to President Donald Trump's tariff hikes, which has prompted worries regulators might target operations of U.S. companies.
The license delay applies to industries Beijing has promised to open to foreign competitors, according to Jacob Parker, vice president for China operations of the U.S.-China Business Council. The group represents some 200 American companies that do business with China.
In meetings over the past three weeks, Cabinet-level officials told USCBC representatives they are putting off accepting applications "until the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship improves and stabilizes," Parker said.
Chinese authorities have promised to increase foreign access to areas including banking, securities, insurance and asset management.
"There seem to be domestic political pressures that are working against the perception of U.S. companies receiving benefits" during the dispute, Parker said.
As for what improvement might entail, Parker said Chinese officials want an end to Trump's tariff hikes and a negotiated settlement. He declined to identify the officials but, in a sign Beijing wants foreign companies to help lobby Washington, said the meetings represented "unprecedented access" for his group.
Beijing matched Trump's earlier tariff increase on $50 billion of imports but is running out of American goods for retaliation due to their lopsided trade balance. China bought American goods worth about $1 for every $3 of goods it exported to the United States.
Trump is poised to decide whether to raise duties on $200 billion of Chinese goods. Beijing has issued a $60 billion list of goods for retaliation.
A foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Monday that China will "definitely take countermeasures" if the tariff hike goes ahead.
Economists have warned Beijing might target service industries such as engineering or logistics, in which the United States runs a trade surplus with China.
Chinese commentators have suggested Beijing might use its multitrillion-dollar holdings of U.S. government debt as a weapon, though that would impose costs on China. State-controlled media have encouraged boycotts of Japanese and South Korean products in past disputes with those governments.
The government said in June it would impose unspecified "comprehensive measures" if necessary. That left U.S. companies on edge about whether Beijing will use its heavily regulated economy to disrupt their operations by withholding licenses or launching tax, anti-monopoly or other investigations.
Chinese leaders reject Trump's demand to roll back official industry plans such as "Made in China 2025," which calls for state-led creation of global champions in robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies.
Washington, Europe and other trading partners say those plans violate Beijing's market-opening commitments. But Communist leaders see them as a path to prosperity and global influence.
Chinese negotiators agreed in May to narrow their multibillion-dollar trade surplus with the United States by purchasing more American soybeans and other products. Beijing scrapped that deal after Trump's first tariff increase went ahead July 6.
In addition to rolling back industry plans, the Trump administration wants Beijing to reduce the privileges of state-owned companies and eliminate requirements for foreign companies to hand over technology to Chinese partners.
In their meetings with the USCBC, Chinese officials expressed willingness to buy more American exports but "showed no appetite at all" to talk about industry reform, technology policy or other U.S. priorities, Parker said.
"I don't consider that to be very positive for any kind of negotiated outcome in the short term or medium term," he said.
Chinese regulators have shown their willingness to attack foreign companies in disputes with other governments.
Last year, Beijing destroyed South Korean retailer Lotte's business in China after it sold a golf course in South Korea to the country's government for construction of a missile defense system opposed by Chinese leaders.
Beijing closed most of Lotte's 99 supermarkets and other outlets in China. Seoul and Beijing later mended relations, but Lotte gave up and sold its China operations.
New York, Sep 11 (AP/UNB) — U.S. stocks broke a four-day losing streak Monday as industrial companies and retailers rose. Technology companies recovered some of their steep losses from last week.
Transportation and other industrial companies continued their recent rally and retailers like Nike, Home Depot and Walmart all climbed. While technology companies rose overall, Apple fell after saying a new round of bigger U.S. tariffs could push it to raise prices.
CBS slipped after it announced the departure of longtime CEO Les Moonves, and Alibaba skidded after the big Chinese internet retailer said co-founder Jack Ma will step down as chairman in 2019.
The European Union's chief negotiator said the bloc might be able to reach a deal with Britain by early November. The British pound jumped.
Investors expect the U.S. to put new tariffs on Chinese imports soon. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong fell again Monday after President Donald Trump again threatened to tax almost everything the U.S. imports from China. The index has tumbled almost 20 percent since late January as the dispute has escalated.
Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab, said investors feel China has much more to lose in the conflict than the U.S. does, as it exports much more to the U.S. than it imports from it.
"If Chinese businesses and Chinese consumers get uncomfortable with this whole battle, they get nervous and they get tentative," he said. "When people do that, they stop spending."
S&P 500 index gained 5.45 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,877.13. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 59.47 points, or 0.2 percent, to 25,857.07 as health insurer UnitedHealth and aerospace company Boeing traded lower.
The Nasdaq composite edged up 21.62 points, or 0.3 percent, to 7,924.16. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks rose 4.29 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,717.47.
The S&P 500 fell 1 percent last week, its worst drop since late June.
Nike rose 2.2 percent to $82.10. The stock slumped 3 percent Aug. 31 as investors worried about potential backlash to an advertising campaign featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Nike's stock has now regained almost all the ground it lost since then.
Technology companies moved higher as Microsoft picked up 1.1 percent to $109.38 and Broadcom rose 3.5 percent to $240.61. The S&P 500 technology index is coming off its largest weekly loss since March.
Apple fell 1.3 percent to $218.33 after it might raise prices on some of its products, including the Apple Watch and the Mac mini, in response to the tariffs.
The Trump administration could soon announce tariffs on $200 billion in goods imported from China and has threatened more taxes after that. The administration has already imposed tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese products, which Beijing matched.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng index tumbled 1.3 percent. After peaking in late January, it's close to the entering what Wall Street calls a "bear market." The MSCI Emerging Markets stock index has already breached that mark as major indexes in Turkey and Russia have also skidded.
Frederick said the gap between rising U.S. indexes and falling emerging markets indexes is unusual and can't last for very long: either the difficulties in emerging markets will start to affect the rest of the world economy, potentially slowing U.S. growth, or emerging markets will start improving.
CBS announced Sunday that Moonves is stepping down after six more women accused him of sexual misconduct as well as retaliation if they resisted him. Moonves denied the charges in a pair of statements, although he said he had consensual relations with three of the women.
CBS fell 1.5 percent to $55.20, and it's fallen 4 percent since the allegations against Moonves surfaced in late July.
Alibaba fell 3.7 percent to $156.36. The company's next chairman will be Daniel Zhang. Zhang replaced Ma as CEO in 2013.
France's CAC 40 added 0.3 percent and the German DAX moved up 0.2 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 was unchanged as the pound climbed to $1.3029 from $1.2924.
Benchmark U.S. crude fell 0.3 percent to $67.54 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 0.7 percent to $77.37 a barrel in London.
Wholesale gasoline dipped 0.5 percent to $1.96 a gallon. Heating oil stayed at $2.22 a gallon. Natural gas rose 1 percent to $2.80 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Bond prices were little changed. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note remained at 2.94 percent.
The dollar rose to 111.21 yen from 111.06 yen. The euro rose to $1.1597 from $1.1566.
Gold was little changed at $1,199.80 an ounce. Silver rose 0.1 percent to $14.18 an ounce. Copper inched up 0.2 percent to $2.63 a pound.
Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 climbed 0.3 percent after the country's gross domestic product surpassed expectations by growing at a 3 percent annual rate in the second quarter.
Florianopolis, Sep 11 (AP/UNB) — Japan proposed an end to a decades-old ban on commercial whaling at an international conference Monday, arguing there is no longer a scientific reason for what was supposed to be a temporary measure.
But the proposal faces stiff opposition from countries that argue that many whale populations are still vulnerable or, even more broadly, that the killing of whales is increasingly seen as unacceptable. Japan currently kills whales under a provision that allows hunting for research purposes.
"Science is clear: there are certain species of whales whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably," reads the Japanese proposal, presented Monday at the biannual International Whaling Commission meetings taking place this week in Florianopolis, Brazil. "Japan proposes to establish a Committee dedicated to sustainable whaling (including commercial whaling and aboriginal subsistence whaling)."
Japan's proposal would also change how the international body operates, reflecting its frustration with an organization that it says has become "intolerant" and a "mere forum for confrontation."
It says it hopes that new rules — including allowing measures to be adopted by simple, rather than super, majority — would break longstanding deadlocks and allow the countries who prize conservation and those who push for sustainable use of whales to "coexist."
While Japan argues that whale stocks have recovered sufficiently to allow for commercial hunting, conservationists contend whaling on the high seas has proven difficult to manage.
"Time and again, species after species has been driven to near extinction," said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
If the ban on commercial whaling were to be lifted, it would then be up to the commission to set catch limits.
It's not clear when the vote will happen; the meeting lasts until Friday. It's also possible that the Japanese could pull back the proposal — or attempt to negotiate the inclusion of parts of it in other proposals.
Japan has hunted whales for centuries as a traditionally cheaper alternative source of protein. Its catch has fallen in recent years in part due to declining domestic demand for whale meat and challenges to its hunt.
Its quota is now 333, about a third the number it used to kill before the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that its program wasn't scientific in nature. It revised the program and resumed the hunt in 2016.
Some, however, contend the research program remains a cover for commercial whaling because the whale meat is sold for food.
The attempt to reintroduce commercial whaling could be even more contentious. Brazil has submitted a proposal that says such whaling "is no longer a necessary economic activity, has systematically reduced whale populations to dangerously low levels." The United States agrees that the ban is necessary for conservation.
"The Australian people have clearly made a decision that they don't believe that whaling is something that we should be undertaking in the 21st century," said Anne Ruston, Australia's assistant minister for international development and the Pacific, on the sidelines of Monday's meetings. "The argument that we put forward from Australia is that we don't want to see any whales killed, whether they're killed because (of) commercial whaling or whether it's so-called scientific whaling."
The commission declared a "pause" to commercial whaling beginning in the 1985-1986 season, but it remains in place today. The killing of whales is allowed for research purposes, as in Japan's program, and for indigenous communities who practice subsistence hunting.
Australia says that non-lethal research techniques actually reveal more information about whales than can be learned through killing them. The United States also opposes lethal research hunts, but both countries support the exception for subsistence whalers.
Japan says that it uses both lethal and non-lethal methods, but that some information can only be gleaned after killing.
Incheon, Sep 11 (AP/UNB) — Move over pot stickers, here comes another Asian dumpling.
South Korea's largest food company is making a multimillion-dollar bet on "mandu," developing its own machines to automate the normally labor-intensive production of the Korean dumpling and building factories around the world.
"It will be the next kimchi," predicted Cho Gun Ae, a senior researcher at CJ CheilJedang Corp. who has spent more than 20 years researching dumpling recipes and production.
The nearly 4-year-old effort is an example of how technology is transforming the food industry, in this case making over the image of frozen dumplings as a cheap and unhealthy product made by small companies. Automation made the quality, the look and the size of each bite-size dumpling consistent and significantly improved productivity, Cho said.
CJ recently opened a factory in New Jersey, its third in the U.S., and has expanded production lines in China and snapped up local companies in Vietnam and Russia so it can churn out more of its Bibigo-brand frozen dumplings.
Few workers could be seen on a recent visit to a CJ factory in South Korea. One picked out defective onions and cabbages from a conveyor belt where machines washed the vegetables with water and chopped them into cubes in seconds. At another conveyor belt, two workers picked out defective chives, while another checked the machines to make sure they were running smoothly.
A series of machines cut the dough into identically sized circles, dropped a dollop of filling inside and closed the dumpling into a crescent shape, onto which another machine put a frill-shaped pattern. Lines of dumplings streamed out on conveyor belts, like a production line of miniature cars. The facility in Incheon, outside of Seoul, produces 100 tons of dumplings a day.
One challenge was designing the machines that make the pattern on the dumplings. Instead of using machines made in Japan for its popular "gyoza" dumplings, CJ developed a new machine for mandu.
Last year, U.S. sales of CJ's Bibigo dumplings surged 70 percent to 175 billion won ($156 million).
Tess Sarosdy of San Antonio, Texas, who reviews ready-made foods on her blog "I Am Tired of Cooking," praised the mandu for being easy to heat and serve.
"American consumers are more familiar with pot stickers and not the Bibigo-style of dumpling," she said in an email interview. "My daughter loves them."
Moon Jung-hoon, a food business professor at Seoul National University, is upbeat about CJ's dumpling business.
"Its targets are Chinese, Chinese people outside China and others around the world who are familiar with Chinese dim sum," he said.
Globally, the company aims to triple its dumpling sales to 1 trillion won ($929 million) by 2020, mostly to Koreans, Americans, Chinese and Russians.
It would be an unusual feat at a time when mainstay South Korean exports, such as autos and ships, are struggling to grow and companies are reluctant to expand investment.