The uncle of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un was once among the most powerful men in the secretive country. Then, without warning, he was reportedly arrested and executed as a traitor.
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David Greene talks with the AP’s Matt Apuzzo about his story describing what is known about an American who went missing in Iran in 2007. The Associated Press reports that, despite official denials from the U.S., Robert Levinson had been working for the CIA.
No one likes a traffic jam, except perhaps the people who have figured out how to make money from people stuck in cars. Planet Money was recently in Jakarta, Indonesia, a city with horrible gridlock — and plenty of traffic entrepreneurs.
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The Virgencita Plis character from Distroller in Mexico.
In Mexico, Dec. 12 is the day to celebrate the country’s most revered religious icon: the Virgin of Guadalupe.
As many as 6 million pilgrims have made their way to the Mexican capital to pay homage to the country’s patron saint on Thursday, and one woman has taken her devotion of the Virgin and turned it into a multimillion-dollar company.
Amparo Serrano, the owner of a company called Distroller, says it’s customary on holiday to ask the Virgin of Guadalupe for something. The requests usually fall in the health or wealth categories, but she likes to lighten the religious mood and ask the Virgin for other things.
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Amparo Serrano’s company Distroller has a full line of other colorful characters, some picked up by Wal-Mart and Cartoon Network.
“Why not ask the Virgin to help you get rid of your cellulite or find a new boyfriend?” Serrano says. “Or, ‘Please tell my mother-in-law to go away for a little bit.’ “
Those are the kinds of messages she prints on dozens of products with her sparkling cartoon depictions of the Virgin, all with a “please” at the end. She spells it plis, as you would phonetically read it in Spanish. You can find her chubby-cheeked Virgencita Plis now on pens, notebooks, pajamas, plates and picture frames. All of her items are packaged at Serrano’s warehouse, tucked away in the hills of southern Mexico City.
On the warehouse floor, there are a pile of Converse shoe boxes. Last year, Distroller signed a deal with the shoe giant. Serrano says she is very careful about what she puts the Virgencita on, and shoes didn’t seem appropriate. Socks, maybe, but not shoes. Instead, she decorated them with her line of doll characters, the same ones she puts on sanitary napkins.
This year, Distroller sales will top $5 million. Wal-Mart picked up her doll line, and she penned a deal with Cartoon Network. Her lawyer says licensing fees will bring in another $45 million.
That’s quite a feat considering Serrano started out 10 years ago with nothing, she says, and with little confidence. She says she never planned on this being a business.
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“I’m very passionate about what I do, so I never thought that anyone was going to pay for a thing that I did, really,” she says.
Serrano comes from a very prominent and religious Mexican family, and says her animated products make religion fun and accessible to young people. She’s perplexed that people would say she is making fun of the revered Virgin.
Mexico’s Catholic Church agrees. “It is something positive, and to us it is not in bad taste at all,” says Father Pablo Pedrazi.
But outside the Grand Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, reaction among devotees is mixed. One mother says she loves that her kids want purses and notebooks with the Virgencita. But Angelica Espinoza, a mother of three small children, is not happy. She says she thinks it’s just a passing fad, and she wants her children to worship the real image.
Serrano shrugs off the criticism. Business is booming, and she is deeply flattered by the idea that the Virgencita is like the Hello Kitty of Mexico. She hopes her colorful images will travel well beyond her country. She has stores in Spain, Colombia and Ecuador, and hopefully soon in the United States.
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Tech companies around the world have set up shop in the financial district in Dublin, Ireland.
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Ireland is about to become the first European country to emerge from an international bailout in the wake of the financial crisis. Like other European countries, Ireland has been in a period of austerity — higher taxes and more cutbacks.
The nation’s technology sector has been protected, however, as Ireland makes a concerted effort to attract foreign businesses through tax incentives and development programs.
But Ireland’s methods have also been criticized — locally and internationally.
Apple In Ireland
The government’s heavy hand in growing its tech industries has raised some eyebrows around the world. One tech company with offices in Ireland drew the watchful eye of the U.S. Senate earlier this year: Apple.
Apple has been in Ireland for 30 years. But it drew attention in May when it came to light that Apple kept 70 percent of its profits under the umbrella of its Irish subsidiary.
Ireland’s corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent, compared to more than 30 percent in the U.S. Ireland has loopholes that make it possible for companies like Apple to pay almost nothing.
In May, Apple CEO Tim Cook was grilled by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Cook chafed at accusations that Apple’s offices in Ireland were simply a shell for profits.
“The relationship between Apple and the Irish government is still there today, and we built up a sizable population,” he insisted before McCain jumped in.
“With all due respect,” he told Cook, “given the tax rate that you are paying in Ireland, I’m sure you have a very close relationship.”
In October, in the wake of growing international pressure, Ireland announced it was closing a loophole. Off the record, at least a few company executives told me that it was the low rate that kept them in Ireland.
Grants And Pub Crawls
Yet Ireland’s efforts to draw more tech companies to its shores go beyond tax incentives.
A few weeks ago, the NASDAQ moved its opening bell to Dublin to kick off Web Summit, the largest tech conference in Europe. With financial support from the government, the tech conference brought business leaders and journalists — including me — to Ireland.
Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, rang the bell. He proclaimed to conference attendees that Ireland is “the most open economy in the Western world. And we celebrate our pro-business ethos and environment without hesitation.”
Tech entrepreneurs say Ireland’s low tax rate is just one item on an appealing checklist that includes an army of Irish officials ready to help foreign companies set up — usually with Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency, or IDA.
“Our engineers, they love them because they take them out for whiskey crawls and pub crawls and these different things,” says Mikkel Svane, the CEO of customer-support software company Zendesk.
Zendesk has its headquarters in San Francisco, and it just chose Ireland to be its European headquarters.
“There’s just a lot of experience here because they have attracted over the years so many tech companies,” Svane says. “They have the machine rolling, and they’re prepared for companies like us. They know what we need.”
Barry O’Dowd, head of the IDA’s emerging business division, spoke with me while taking some American entrepreneurs on a pub crawl.
“We help the companies when they’re here, and we get them sort of locked into the economy,” O’Dowd says. “We work with them on [research and development] agendas, for instance. We’ve got a grant and aid support program where we can give them support financially.”
According to O’Dowd, the development agency’s recent efforts to attract newer companies, like Zendesk, have created between 2,000 and 3,000 new positions. O’Dowd says the companies’ presence helps spawn other local jobs — although two-thirds of the jobs by foreign firms go to people who aren’t Irish.
Investment From Silicon Valley
Ireland competes with other European countries to draw tech investment: Amsterdam, Berlin, London. But Jennifer Schenker, editor-in-chief at Informilo — a magazine that covers the global tech industry — says Ireland stands out.
“They are, bar none, the most proactive government in Europe in trying to attract tech companies of all sizes,” she says.
But beyond that, she says, Ireland is creating an ecosystem. The country’s workforce is highly educated and young — 50 percent of the population is under 35. Young Irish techies often start work at a foreign company and then leave to do their own start-up.
“Some of Silicon Valley’s most famous angel investors are investing in very early-stage companies based in Dublin that have been founded by Irish entrepreneurs,” she says.
Certainly the country hopes that, someday, a company the size of Google or Apple will emerge from its startup scene.
But Chris Horn, an Irish former entrepreneur-turned-angel investor, says homegrown businesses face a steeper tax bill than foreign ones. If a company goes public, Irish entrepreneurs face a capital gains rate of more 30 percent on their profits.
“And what drives places like Silicon Valley and indeed Boston and New York,” he says, “is the growth of companies and then their sale and then the reinvestment of those profits and proceeds into the next companies.”
Still, despite the criticism, Irish officials say the combination of low tax rates and government support is building a tech industry that’s helping to lift it out of the economic doldrums.
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Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, appeared alongside President Obama and other world leaders during Tuesday’s memorial for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many in the deaf community are outraged over Jantjie’s sign language interpretation.
Pedro Ugarte /AFP/Getty Images
Pedro Ugarte /AFP/Getty Images
The sign language interpreter widely criticized as a “fake” for his performance at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa says he suffered a schizophrenic episode while on stage, a South African newspaper reported Thursday.
Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, claims he “lost concentration, and started hearing voices and hallucinating,” according to Johannesburg’s The Star.
He is quoted as saying, “There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry, it’s the situation I found myself in.”
Jantjie reportedly told The Associated Press on Thursday that he had visions of “angels” and previously has been violent.
During Tuesday’s memorial service, Jantjie appeared on stage alongside top South African officials and numerous heads of state. He was also within a few feet of President Obama, who eulogized Mandela in a speech that received roars of approval from the tens of thousands of people who packed the country’s largest soccer stadium.
Sign language groups in South Africa and around the world that said Jantjie’s signing was unintelligible and that he lacked the facial expressions that are crucial in conveying a speaker’s words.
The Two-Way reported Wednesday that:
“Among those who noticed what was happening was Wilma Newhoudt, the first deaf person elected to South Africa’s parliament and a vice president of the World Federation of the Deaf.
” ‘Shame on this male so called interpreter on the stage,” she wrote on Twitter during the memorial service. ‘What is he signing? He knows that the deaf cannot vocally boo him off. Shame on him!’ “
Jantjie went on the radio Thursday and defended his work, repeatedly insisting that he is qualified to serve as an interpreter for such a major event.
“I’ve interpreted many big events. There was no one at all that said I interpreted wrong,” he told Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702. He added: “If I was interpreting wrong through these years, why should it become an issue now? It’s one of the questions I’ve never ever gotten an answer for.”
Jantjie told the radio station that the African National Congress, Mandela’s political party, had hired him through SA Interpreters, the company where Jantjie has worked for many years.
The ANC has denied that it hired Jantjie and says it is investigating the incident.
But a South African deputy Cabinet minister said Thursday that “a mistake happened” in Jantjie’s hiring, the AP reported.
The news service says that:
“Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said Thursday that government officials have tried to track down the company that provided Thamsanqa Jantjie but that the owners ‘have vanished into thin air.’ Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Bogopane-Zulu apologized to deaf people offended around the world by what they say was Jantjie’s incomprehensible signing.
“She says an investigation is under way to determine how Jantjie received a security clearance.”
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Neslon Mandela’s widow Graca Machel bids farewell to South African former President Nelson Mandela, whose body lay in state Wednesday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Amid a solemn atmosphere, the body of Nelson Mandela lay in state Wednesday at an amphitheater in South Africa’s capital of Pretoria, the exact spot where he was sworn in as the country’s first black president in 1994, reconciling a land that had been torn by racial divisions for centuries.
Mandela’s coffin, draped in a South African flag, was transported by a hearse from a military hospital through the streets of Pretoria and then to the hilltop Union Buildings, the seat of South Africa’s presidency.
South Africans lined the route, many holding posters of Mandela, as the cortege traveled past the courthouse — now known as the Palace of Justice — where he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. Mandela ultimately served 27 years before his release in 1990.
A military honor guard wearing black armbands delivered the coffin to Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela. It was then placed inside a protective marquee built for the occasion at the outdoor amphitheater overlooking the sprawling grounds of the Union Buildings.
Family members, government officials and foreign leaders paid their respects Wednesday morning. Mandela’s former wife Winnie wiped away tears after she passed through the marquee and walked away.
Among the mourners was F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president and the man who freed Mandela and then lost his job to Mandela four years later in the country’s first democratic elections.
The amphitheater was being opened to the public in the afternoon. South Africans began lining up at 5 a.m. for one last chance to see Mandela.
The mood was formal and somber, in contrast with the spirited and joyous memorial service on Tuesday, when tens of thousands of South Africans and dozens of foreign leaders gathered at the country’s largest soccer stadium in the black township of Soweto. Mandela, 95, died last Thursday after a long illness.
South Africa’s white leaders ruled from the Union Buildings for decades before Mandela’s extraordinary journey that took him from a rural village to anti-apartheid leader to the world’s most famous prisoner to president of a democratic South Africa.
Mandela will lie in state through Friday in an open coffin sheathed in a glass cover. He will then be transported to his home village of Qunu in the southeastern part of the country, where he will be buried in an ancestral grave on Sunday morning.
Some say South African President Jacob Zuma embodies all that is wrong in the nation. He achieved the presidency after charges of corruption were dropped, and he was acquitted of rape charges. More recently there have been calls for his impeachment over a $20 million security upgrade at his rural home. At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service Tuesday, the theme was forgiveness, but Zuma was booed.
“For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest faith to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy, Pope Francis is Time‘s 2013 Person of the Year.”
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The magazine adds that:
“What makes this pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.’ In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.”
Meanwhile, Time says this year’s runner-up is “NSA leaker” Edward Snowden. He tells the magazine, in an interview done from Russia via emails, that the National Security Agency “is surely not the Stasi” (East Germany’s once-feared security service).
“But we should always remember that the danger to societies from security services is not that they will spontaneously decide to embrace mustache twirling and jackboots to bear us bodily into dark places, but that the slowly shifting foundation of policy will make it such that mustaches and jackboots are discovered to prove an operational advantage toward a necessary purpose,” Snowden says.
Others Time considered:
— Edith Windsor, whose battle to have the rights of same-sex partners be recognized went all the way to the Supreme Court.
— Syrian President Bashar Assad.
— Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Francis became pope in March. He succeeded Pope Benedict XVI, who was the first leader of the Catholic Church in about 600 years to retire rather than serve until his death. Pope Francis turns 77 next Tuesday (Dec. 17).
Coverage of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg includes part of President Obama’s speech.