Grand Ole Opry Tours Get Updated with New Immersive Film

The backstage of the Grand Ole Opry, a radio staple since 1925, is a place where you might run into your favorite country star, drop a letter in a singer’s mailbox or take a peek inside a dressing room where an impromptu jam session is happening. 

Every year, 1 million people come to the Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, to see a performance, or event, or take one of the backstage tours that allow fans to see behind the red curtain on the “show that made country music famous.” 

And a new feature this year on those tours is an immersive film that explains the history of the unique institution while showing video clips of over 100 different artists on stage. The 14-minute film is hosted by Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood and is projected onto three screens inside the new Circle Room, which is the first stop for fans on the Opry’s daily tours. 

Country singer Jeannie Seeley is coming up on her 52nd year as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, one of only three living female artists who have been members longer than 50 years. The singer who had a hit with “Don’t Touch Me” in 1966, has seen the radio program, the Opry House and its tours transform and be updated over the years. 

“It is so alive. It is so realistic,” said Seeley of the new film. “I think the pacing they did creates that excitement.”

The film is projected onto thousands of reflective threads that make up the screens, and the movement of the threads, as well as the curve of the screen creates a sense of dimension. Brooks and Yearwood seem almost like they are standing on a replica of the circle of wood that artists stand in on the real Opry stage. 

“It struck me how difficult it is to represent so many eras and so many people and cover 94 years,” Seeley said. “It struck me how well they did that.”

The film features archival footage of iconic stars from Roy Acuff, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and Reba McEntire, and clips of artists like Carrie Underwood and Darius Rucker being surprised with an invitation to become Opry members. The daytime tour also features a guided tour throughout the venue, including Studio A where “Hee Haw” was filmed, the dressing rooms and the stage. 

Italy Court Sentences 24 People to Life for Operation Condor

Uruguay’s government says a court in Italy has sentenced 24 people to life in prison for their involvement in human rights crimes committed during the “Operation Condor” offensive by South American governments to hunt down dissidents within the region and beyond.
South American dictators set up Operation Condor in the 1970s as a coordinated effort to track down their opponents across borders and eliminate them.
An appeals court in Rome ruled Monday against members of the military, police and others who once formed part of the former dictatorships of Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Some of the convicted were Italian citizens.
The case was initiated 20 years ago by families of the victims.
The sentences were confirmed by Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa.

Biden-Harris Clash Renews Controversy Over US School Busing

The first Democratic presidential debate for the 2020 elections brought a decades-old civil rights issue back into the public spotlight: whether to bus children to racially integrate schools.

One of the most defining moments of the debate came when U.S. Senator Kamala Harris challenged former Vice President Joe Biden’s record for not supporting the type of busing that she experienced as a black schoolgirl in California.

The exchange garnered headlines and brought the topic of busing, which had been a national issue in the 1970s but had largely fallen out of the public conversation, back into the spotlight.

Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks to the press in the Spin Room after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

What is busing?

Busing was a tool that many U.S. communities used to overcome racial segregation in public schools.

Following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, legal racial segregation in schools was outlawed across the United States. However, because of demographic trends and housing policies, many U.S. neighborhoods remained segregated, and as a result schools were effectively segregated because students attended schools in neighborhoods where they lived. 

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, courts ruled that local jurisdictions were not doing enough to promote desegregation in schools and began mandating busing to address the problem. Federal agencies oversaw and enforced busing efforts, including collecting data about the race of students and withholding money from noncompliant schools.

Who was bused?

Both black students took buses to majority-white schools and white students to majority-black schools in court-ordered busing.

However, Brett Gadsden, the author of a book about desegregation efforts in Delaware, “Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism,” said, “African American students disproportionally shouldered the burden” of efforts to desegregate schools.

Gadsden, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, said black students were forced to travel longer distances and for many more years than white students.

In this Sept. 26, 1957, file photo, members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered them into the city to enforce integration at the school.

Why was it controversial?

Busing proved to be intensely controversial nationwide. Supporters argued busing was necessary to integrate schools and to give black and white students equal access to resources and opportunities.

Critics argued that busing was dangerous and costly, and many parents did not want their children to have to travel great distances to get to school. 

While much of the opposition to busing came from whites, the black community was also divided about its merits. 

Gadsden said black critics cited the burden their children had to shoulder in terms of distance traveled and time spent on buses. They also complained that historically black schools were closed, and black administrators and teachers lost their jobs as a result of busing policies, while similar demands were not made of white schools, Gadsden said. 

In Boston, anti-busing protests turned violent in 1974, with demonstrators throwing bricks and bottles at school buses.

Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said in a Twitter post following the Democratic debate that busing was so unpopular in the 1970s that Democrats running for office often had a choice to “be a profile in courage and lose, or oppose busing in whole or in part & win to fight another day on stronger ground.”

Biden’s stance

During the 1970s when Biden was a freshman U.S. senator representing Delaware, he worked with conservative senators to oppose federally mandated busing. 

In a 1975 interview with a Delaware newspaper that was first resurfaced by The Washington Post, Biden said, “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.’”

During the Democratic debate, Biden defended his position against mandated busing in the 1970s, arguing that he did not oppose voluntary busing by communities, only federal mandates. “I did not oppose busing in America; what I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said.

Democratic presidential hopeful former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Harris responded by saying the federal government needed to be able to step in and mandate busing in some areas because “there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America.”

Schools today

While some communities still champion voluntary busing measures, most busing efforts ended by the turn of the century. Local and national court rulings in the 1990s said many communities had succeeded in improving the integration of their schools and allowed busing programs to end. 

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA said in a May report  to mark the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in schools is again on the rise and has been growing “unchecked” for nearly three decades, “placing the promise of Brown at grave risk.”

The report said white students, on average, attend a school in which 69% of the students are white, Latino students attend schools in which 55% of the students are Latino, and black students attend schools with a combined black and Latino enrollment averaging 67%. 

Gadsden agreed there is “a lot of segregation in schools now” but said there is little political will to go back to the era of busing. “Federal courts now are not particularly sympathetic to challenges to school segregation,” he said, also noting there is no great appetite in the U.S. Congress to introduce measures to advance school desegregation.  

After the debate, Harris told reporters that “busing is a tool among many that should be considered.” however, when pressed on whether she supported federally mandated busing today, she said she would not unless society became as opposed to integration as it was in the 1970s.

Some critics say Harris’ position on busing today is not that much different from Biden’s.

Nutrition Key to Patient Recovery From Injury, Illness

When people are recovering from an illness or injury, they often don’t think of nutrition, but it may be key to getting their health back.

When Monika McComb returned home from the hospital, she didn’t think about nutrition as being essential for a full recovery.   

“I was really, really weak. I could hardly even walk with a cane,” McComb said. 

McComb didn’t associate her weakness with malnutrition until she was evaluated; but, researchers from Advocate Health Care and Abbott were conducting a study to evaluate the role nutrition plays in reducing hospital admissions. 

Suela Sulo, a researcher from Abbott, says malnutrition is rarely taken into account in dealing with patients who are in recovery.

“Malnutrition is invisible to the eye, and therefore it remains under diagnosed and underrated,” Sulo said. 

McComb enrolled in a home health care program and was given a detailed nutrition plan. 

Most Americans have access to food, but one in three patients in home health care is malnourished or has some nutritional deficiency that puts his or her health — and recovery  — at risk. Katie Riley is the chief nursing officer with Advocate Aurora Health.

“Nutrition is not the primary reason why patients usually come to home health; however, it is important for us to pay attention to the nutrition to promote their strength and get them recovered quicker,” Riley said.

Abbot funded a study in partnership with Advocate Health Care to find a way to reduce hospitalizations, cut medical costs and promote patients’ health. 

Suela Sulo said the researchers found that when patients on home health care received education about nutrition along with nutritional drinks, they were nearly 20 percent less likely to be hospitalized or re-hospitalized in the 90 days after an injury or illness. 

“Through identifying the patients with malnutrition risk, feeding them with the right nutritional drinks, you are increasing their chances of recovering faster, not going back to the hospital, or not going to the hospital in the first place.”

One of the study’s goals was to create a program that patients could follow on their own, one reason they were educated about nutrition. Gretchen VanDerBosch says anyone can become malnourished and not realize it. She says educating patients about nutrition is so important.   

“Because they’re educated, they actually continue their supplements and start it back up, and their outcome is so much improved, they have more strength, they heal quicker, have fewer falls, they have less readmissions,” VanDerBosch said. 

The researchers say they hope other health care programs and hospitals can use the study to help other patients as well. 

As for Monika McComb, she says she feels stronger and has more energy than she had at the start of the program. She credits support from the home health nurse and the focus on nutrition for her improved health.

In a First, Afghan Government on Board With Taliban Talks

A 50-member delegation of Afghan elites is in Qatar for peace talks with Taliban leaders, with the hopes of ending the 18-year-long conflict in Afghanistan.

The two-day summit, facilitated by Germany and Qatar, is an “historic opportunity for all of them to bridge trust deficit, which will help pave the way for direct peace negotiations between Afghan government and the Taliban,” said Asadullah Zaeri, a spokesman of the country’s High Peace Council.

The delegation includes politicians, top members of the council, representatives of women’s groups and senior journalists, he said.

Although both sides have emphasized that members of Afghan government are attending in their personal capacity, not representing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, their presence makes this conference different from the intra-Afghan conference in Moscow in April. At that gathering, the Taliban refused to sit at the table with anyone from the administration of President Ghani – an administration they insist is a “puppet” of the United States.

Ghani termed that conference a failure.

Members of the Taliban political office are seen inside the conference hall at the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Sitting far right is Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, head of the Taliban delegation, in Doha, Qatar, July 7, 2019. (A. Tanzeem/VOA)

However, the United States seems to have succeeded in its efforts to get the Taliban to show flexibility.

“The Intra-Afghan Conference for Peace in #Doha has been a long time coming. It’s great to see senior government, civil society, women, and Taliban representatives at one table together,” tweeted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The conference organizers are hoping this first step would pave way for a bigger breakthrough in future.

“A partial success is for people to continue to talk. A great success would be for them to come up with a framework that could lead into direct negotiations, Afghan-Afghan, and hopefully catch up with the speed in which the talks between the Taliban and the United States are progressing,” said Sultan Barakat, the director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at Doha Institute, who has been closely involved in organizing the event.
The Afghan meeting comes as the U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s already holding talks with the Taliban, is nearing an agreement over a timeframe for the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from the country.

Afghan delegates inside the conference hall included Lotfullah Najafizada (2nd-R), the head of Afghan TV channel Tolo News, in Doha, Qatar, July 7, 2019. U.S special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is seen center rear, with red tie. (A. Tanzeem/VOA)

 Both sides claim the talks are progressing well.

“The last 6 days of talks have been the most productive session to date,” tweeted Khalilzad on Saturday. The two sides will resume on the 9th after this intra-Afghan interaction which Khalilzad called “a critical milestone.”

A Taliban spokesman said in a future conference, the insurgent group may be willing to talk to top level Ghani administration officials.

“If someone is coming in his or her personal capacity and expressing his or her views on how to bring about peace in Afghanistan, we have not put any restriction on that,” said Suhail Shaheen when asked whether the Taliban could sit with government ministers or top-level officials.  

Afghan High Peace Council member Jamaluddin Badar said government representatives may be in Doha in their personal capacity but they “seemed to be giving the government’s point of view.”

Media representatives were only allowed to briefly take pictures at the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue and was asked to leave before the opening statements, in Doha, Qatar, July 7, 2019. (A. Tanzeem/VOA)

He felt positive about the discussions held till late Sunday afternoon. The Taliban, he said, seemed to be willing to address some critical concerns of most Afghans, such as how to protect the gains made since the ouster of the insurgent group in 2001, particularly in terms of institution building and human rights.

“We might have disagreements with the Taliban on how to interpret those rights, but I don’t think they will be strong enough to lead to fighting,” he said. The Taliban, he added, have even been talking about the need to reduce violence against women.

He was not the only one who expressed optimism about the discussions with the Taliban.

“I think their attitude has changed tremendously. Last night they sat with women and we chatted. They tried to show that they are willing to talk to women,” said Asila Wardak, a women’s rights activist attending the conference.

Members of the Taliban delegation are seen at the Sheraton Doha, before the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue, in Doha, Qatar, July 7, 2019. (A. Tanzeem/VOA)


Iraqi Forces Begin Operation Against IS Along Syrian Border

Iraq’s security and paramilitary forces began Sunday a military operation along the border with Syria aimed at clearing the area of Islamic State group militants, the military said in a statement.

Although Iraq declared victory against IS in July 2017, the extremists have turned into an insurgency and have carried out deadly attacks in the country.

The military said the operation that began at sunrise was being carried out by Iraqi troops and members of the Popular Mobilization Forces that largely consist of Iran-backed militias.

It said the operation will last several days and was the first phase of the Will of Victory Operation securing the western province of Anbar and the central and northern regions of Salahuddin and Nineveh.

“We press on the hands of our heroic forces that will achieve victory with the will of its heroes against the gangs of Daesh,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS. “May God protect you and make you victorious.”

IS once held large parts of Syria and Iraq where it declared a caliphate in 2014. The extremists lost in March the last territory they controlled in Syria.


Rising French Far-Right Star Resurfaces and Flirts with Fire

She vowed to stay out of politics and even dropped the French far right’s signature name – Le Pen – from her moniker. But Marion Marechal, a former star lawmaker who’s still only in her 20s, is now tip-toeing back into the political arena, and is already causing trouble.

Widely seen as a potential party leader, the 29-year-old’s discreet meetings in recent days to build bridges with enemy conservatives, crippled by their crushing defeat in European Parliament elections, are further unsettling the mainstream right.

The forays into forbidden territory by the woman once voted the most popular in the far-right National Rally party (formerly the National Front) led by her aunt, Marine Le Pen, have also raised questions about Marechal’s political intentions – and whether a new war within the Le Pen clan is afoot.

Marechal is the darling of her controversial grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a National Front co-founder expelled by daughter Marine for repeating anti-Semitic remarks that got him convicted. Marechal is more conservative than her aunt. Addressing a major forum for American conservatives last year, she decried the European Union and said France is becoming “the little niece of Islam.”

To Jean-Marie’s disappointment, Marion dropped out of politics two years ago, refusing to seek a new mandate as a National Rally lawmaker to found a private school in Lyon seen as a training ground for far-right leaders.

She denies speculation she is making an end-run around Aunt Marine for a comeback. Nevertheless, the noise created after at least two below-the-radar meetings became known underscores Marechal’s potentially pivotal role in the power politics of the French right.

A dinner in late June between Marechal and more than a dozen officials and lawmakers of The Republicans, or LR, caused a firestorm within the main conservative party. The conservative mainstream has long been extremely wary of liaisons with France’s far right, but the meeting suggested that some conservatives may believe the only way to survive is by joining forces with the likes of Marechal.

Senate leader Gerard Larcher, of the LR, said those who met at a Paris restaurant with Marechal have placed themselves “outside” the party.

“I have always said there was a firewall between us and the National Rally,” party, he said on LCI TV. “Whether you like it or not, this (dinner) was a breach.” Those who attended risk exclusion from the party, Larcher said, making clear that for him they already had “placed themselves outside the values of our political formation.”

Meanwhile, France’s powerful business lobby Medef invited Marechal to speak about the rise of populism at its annual summer gathering – but then canceled the whole panel after the idea left many aghast.

The National Rally came to the forefront of French politics with its win in the European Parliament elections in May. The party bettered President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists and hopes to maintain momentum ahead of municipal elections next year.

In a TV interview in early June, she said she wanted to build a “grand alliance of the right” – though she insisted her intentions were devoid of personal ambition.

She had some stinging words for the National Rally, saying it is “indispensable to political life, but unfortunately it isn’t sufficient.” Defending the nation, and countering Macron’s progressives, needs “other voices from other movements, currents” to create alliances.

Marechal has been regarded as a potential presidential candidate in the 2022 election, or later, raising occasional tensions with her aunt, who was roundly defeated in 2017 by Macron after making it to the runoff. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon praised her as a “rising star” – on a stage he shared with Marine Le Pen at an important National Rally congress.

If Marine Le Pen is wary that her niece is setting the stage for a return to politics, neither she nor her camp is saying so.

Le Pen was politely dismissive of her niece’s initiatives.

“That Marion wants to build bridges with people of the traditional right closer to us than to Emmanuel Macron, so much the better,” she said in an interview with BFMTV this month after her niece’s remarks. As for Marechal’s “regret” about short-comings of the National Rally, Le Pen took a diplomatic dig.

“One should not be pessimistic when one is young,” she said.


Economic ‘Game Changer? African Leaders Launch Free-Trade Zone

African leaders met on Sunday to launch a continental free-trade zone that if successful would unite 1.3 billion people, create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc and usher in a new era of development.

After four years of talks, an agreement to form a 55-nation trade bloc was reached in March, paving the way for Sunday’s African Union summit in Niger where attendees will unveil which
nation will host the trade zone’s headquarters, when trading will start and discuss how exactly it will work.

It is hoped that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) — the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994 — will help unlock Africa’s long-stymied economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade, strengthening supply chains and spreading expertise.

“The eyes of the world are turned to Africa,” Egyptian President and African Union Chairman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said at the summit’s opening ceremony.

AfCFTA “will reinforce our negotiating position on the international stage. It will represent an important step.”

Africa has much catching up to do: its intra-regional trade accounted for just 17% of exports in 2017 versus 59% in Asia and 69% in Europe, and Africa has missed out on the economic booms
that other trade blocs have experienced in recent decades.

Economists say significant challenges remain, including poor road and rail links, large areas of unrest, excessive border bureaucracy and petty corruption that have held back growth and

Members have committed to eliminate tariffs on most goods, which will increase trade in the region by 15-25% in the medium term, but this would double if these other issues were dealt with, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.

The IMF in a May report described a free-trade zone as a potential “economic game changer” of the kind that has boosted growth in Europe and North America, but it added a note of caution.

“Reducing tariffs alone is not sufficient,” it said.

Divergent interests

Africa already has an alphabet soup of competing and overlapping trade zones — ECOWAS in the west, EAC in the east, SADC in the south and COMESA in the east and south.

But only the EAC, driven mainly by Kenya, has made significant progress towards a common market in goods and services. These regional economic communities (REC) will continue to trade among themselves as they do now. The role of AfCFTA is to liberalise trade among those member states that are not currently in the same REC, said Trudi Hartzenberg, director at Tralac, a South Africa-based trade law organization.

The zone’s potential clout received a boost on Tuesday when Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, agreed to sign the agreement at the summit. Benin has also since agreed to join.
Fifty-four of the continent’s 55 states have signed up, but only 25 have ratified.

One obstacle in negotiations will be the countries’ conflicting motives.

For undiversified but relatively developed economies like Nigeria, which relies heavily on oil exports, the benefits of membership will likely be smaller than others, said John Ashbourne, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

Nigerian officials have expressed concern that the country could be flooded with low-priced goods, confounding efforts to encourage moribund local manufacturing and expand farming.

In contrast, South Africa’s manufacturers, which are among the most developed in Africa, could quickly expand outside their usual export markets and into West and North Africa, giving them
an advantage over manufacturers from other countries, Ashbourne said.

The presidents of both countries are attending the summit.

The vast difference in countries’ economic heft is another complicating factor in negotiations. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa account for over 50% of Africa’s cumulative GDP, while its six sovereign island nations represent about 1%. “It will be important to address those disparities to ensure that special and differential treatments for the least developed countries are adopted and successfully implemented,” said Landry Signe, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative.

Regulations governing rules of origin, removal of non-tariff barriers and the development of a payments and settlements system are expected to be unveiled at the summit.


Reports: Apparent Gas Explosion at Florida Shopping Center Injures Several

An apparent gas explosion at a shopping plaza in Plantation, Florida, injured several people on Saturday, authorities and local media reported.

Video posted to Twitter showed the force of the blast scattered debris across a parking lot and blew out several windows at a nearby L.A. Fitness gym, sending patrons running for the exits.

The Plantation fire department said on Twitter that there were multiple patients being treated at the scene.

The Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported that witnesses said a vacant restaurant appeared to be the source of the explosion. The city of Plantation is about 6 miles west of Fort Lauderdale.


Reports: Deadly Airstrike in North Syria Kills 13 People

A war monitor and first responders group say an airstrike has killed at least 13 people in a village in northwestern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the dead, most of them internally displaced persons, include seven children and three women. They died on Saturday in a Syrian government airstrike on the village of Mhambel in the province of Idlib.
Opposition-allied first responders known as the White Helmets also reported the attack and the casualties.
Idlib is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria’s eight-year civil war. Government troops backed by Russia have been using heavy airstrikes in their campaign to take the area in the past months.