Sunday, July 1, 2012

Marathon swimmer gives up Cuba-US quest

An attempt by British-Australian woman Penny Palfrey to swim unassisted from Cuba to Florida ended in failure early Sunday after she had to be pulled out of the water unable to cope with a strong ocean current.
"Penny Palfrey had to be pulled out of the water, after swimming for more than 40 hours," the team said in a tweet.
It said Palfrey had to abort her bid to reach the Florida Keys at about midnight (0400 GMT Sunday) due to a strong southeast current "that made it impossible for her to continue her swim."
"Penny is presently on her escort boat being taken care of by her crew," the team said.
The mother of three and grandmother of two had been seeking to become the first to complete the historic feat without a protective cage to ward off sharks.
The 49-year-old, who left the Cuban capital of Havana shortly after sunrise Friday, had already covered three quarters of her itinerary when she ran into trouble.
She was just 27 miles (43 kilometers) south of Key West, her final destination.
But experts say currents in the Florida Straits can be too strong for a human to fight, and if a swimmer miscalculates, he or she can end up being dragged away from land rather than getting closer to it.
By making it this far, Palfrey has already broken her own world record of the longest unassisted ocean swim of 59.64 nautical miles (110.45 kilometers), her team members said.
Despite her failure, her Facebook page quickly filled with comments by well-wishers, expressing support and saying that making it so far was already a great achievement.
The 103-mile (166-kilometer) trek from Havana to Key West is considered risky and fraught with unexpected dangers even for the best of athletes.
Earlier, Palfrey's support team reported that she had suffered "constant" jellyfish stings overnight and that her mouth was "very sore and painful" while a school of hammerhead sharks was briefly sighted below her.
Still, slathered in a fresh layer of sunscreen, she was in good spirits before hitting the treacherous current while her journey appeared to be aided by extremely calm seas.
Team members said she was averaging speeds of 4.8 kilometers (three miles) an hour when she was in her best shape on Saturday, but slowed down to about 3.2 kilometers (two miles) an hour on Sunday as she grew tired.
Before diving into the water at Havana's Hemingway International Yacht Club early Friday, Palfrey told reporters she was "a little excited, a little nervous."
Palfrey was seeking to accomplish the feat in a "call for friendly relations between the peoples of the United States and Cuba," according to the Cuban foreign ministry.
But even Cuba's national commissioner for swimming, Rodolfo Falcon, sounded a note of caution when he told AFP that "sea conditions are not similar to the pool, where she trained for many hours."
"At sea, the salt water weighs you down," said Falcon, who won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
Susie Maroney, a former Australian marathon swimmer, swam from Cuba to Florida in 1997 when she was just 22, but she used a shark cage.
Veteran US endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, 62, has tried, and failed, to complete the trek three times, twice without a shark cage.
Her latest attempt was in September, when she quit two-thirds of the way into the crossing after suffering dangerous jellyfish stings. She plans to try again later this summer.
Two yachts, a kayak and a boat were part of Palfrey's support team. The vessels carried ultrasound equipment to ward off sharks.
Palfrey, who was born in Britain and moved to Australia at the age of 19, is among the most accomplished open-water swimmers in the world and has completed swims in the Caribbean and Pacific without a shark cage.
Two years ago, she crossed the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco in three hours and three minutes, setting a new record for women.
Last year, Palfrey -- who began swimming at age nine -- swam from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman Island, again without a cage.

Mexico's old rulers claim presidential election win

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The party that ruled Mexico for much of the 20th century claimed victory in a presidential election on Sunday as exit polls showed its candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, with a clear lead and primed to restore it to power after 12 years in opposition.
Pena Nieto, 45, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), led by between 5 and 11 percentage points in exit polls published by three of Mexico's main television networks.
Shortly afterward his campaign manager, Luis Videgaray, declared victory.
"It is a resounding triumph," Videgaray told Milenio television, adding that he was hopeful the PRI would have a majority in the Senate and possibly in the lower house of Congress, too.
The PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years until losing power in 2000, has staged a comeback behind the telegenic Pena Nieto, who is promising to open state-owned oil monopoly Pemex to foreign investors, raise tax revenue and liberalize the labor market.
The exit polls showed Pena Nieto winning around 40 percent of the vote, with his leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in second place. But it appeared to be a closer finish than predicted in final opinion polls that last week showed Pena Nieto ahead by between 10 and 15 points.
Josefina Vazquez Mota, the conservative candidate of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, trailed in third place and said the voting trends did not favor her, virtually conceding the race.
"The new government ... will have the great responsibility to fulfill its promises and commitments. My party will act responsibly and watch out to make sure that they follow through and make it happen," she told supporters.
Vazquez Mota's campaign was hurt by outgoing President Felipe Calderon's failure to bring under control a brutal drug war and oversee strong economic growth.
"We're lacking a president who can really change the country, who can put an end to all the kidnappings, and all the lawlessness," said Daniela Flores, a 35-year-old Pena Nieto supporter who was selling party pins outside the PRI's headquarters in Mexico City.
Early official results also showed Pena Nieto with a lead, but Lopez Obrador made no public appearance on Sunday night and he could choose to challenge the election.
When he narrowly lost the last election in 2006, he launched months of protests against alleged fraud, and has said in recent weeks that this election campaign was dogged with irregularities, raising concerns that he might again call his supporters onto the streets.
A crowd of some 500 demonstrators gathered in Mexico City on Sunday night, shouting "Out with Pena" and chanting slogans in favor of Lopez Obrador, who was meeting with close advisers.
Still, Mexico's peso currency firmed 0.72 percent to 13.2601 per dollar, its strongest level in nearly eight weeks. Pena Nieto has promised pro-market policies while Lopez Obrador has scared investors with his radical rhetoric.
The country's benchmark 10-year bond closed on Friday at a record low of 5.33 percent.
Some voters feared a return to the worst years of PRI rule and put Pena Nieto's big lead down to his cozy relationship with Televisa, Mexico's top broadcaster.
"It's the same party as ever and the people who vote for him (Pena Nieto) believe they are going to live happily ever after like in the soap operas," Humberto Parra, a systems engineer, said as he went to vote in Mexico City.
By the time it lost to the PAN in 2000, the PRI had a reputation for widespread corruption, electoral fraud and authoritarianism.
The PRI was in disarray by 2006, when its presidential candidate came in a distant third, but it has rebounded since then and Pena Nieto gave it a new face.
He is promising to restore security to cities and towns ravaged by the drug war and he also plans to reform Pemex, a proposal once considered political suicide.
Mexicans are fiercely protective of Pemex, but the PRI, which nationalized oil production in 1938, could be the one party able to liberalize the energy industry.
The PRI laid the foundations of the modern state with a nimble blend of politics and patronage that allowed it to appeal to labor unions and captains of industry at the same time.
Mexicans eventually tired of heavy-handedness that stifled dissent, rewarded loyalists and allowed widespread corruption.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, Ana Isabel Martinez, Pablo Garibian and Ioan Grillo; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and Christopher Wilson)

Analysis: Plan to end Syria crisis falls flat

WASHINGTON (AP) — The much-hyped plan to end Syria's misery and guide its transition to democracy appears to have fallen flat despite the endorsement of Western powers.
Russia's objections gutted the most stringent conditions on a potential interim leader in Damascus. The Syrian opposition quickly dismissed the proposal as a waste of time and with "no value on the ground."
The U.S. and its allies insist the plan will force Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. Russia disagrees and Assad is unlikely to acquiesce.
It all leaves U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's efforts to end 15 months of bloodshed no better off than before.
Western nations needed to win Russia's backing for the plan at an international conference Saturday in Geneva, so they dropped the demand that "those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation" would be excluded from the process.
That was widely understood to mean Assad and much of his inner circle, and while the West insisted, Assad's main allies in Moscow resisted intensely.
As a result, the plan contains no criteria for excluding anyone from the transitional government and leaves its composition entirely up to the "mutual consent" of Assad administration and the fractured opposition. Both sides presumably have unlimited veto power over members of the interim government, which could prolong the stalemate and keep Assad in charge.
U.S. and Western officials acknowledge the possibility of that scenario. But they insist that the "mutual consent" language puts the opposition on equal footing with Assad in determining who will be part of the governing body.
Annan said he could not imagine that the Syrian people would choose anyone with blood on their hands to lead them.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, going further, said the plan requires Assad to leave because there is no chance he can meet the "mutual consent" standard.
"What we have done here is to strip away the fiction that he and those with blood on their hands can stay in power," she said.
Yet as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out, the plan excludes no one. Nor does it give anyone without a vested interest any authority to suggest who might or might not be acceptable.
That's why Assad's foes are skeptical, at the very least.
"The country has been destroyed and they want us then to sit with the killer?" asked opposition figure Haitham Maleh.
Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based spokeswoman for the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), said the agreement was "ambiguous" and lacks a mechanism or timetable for implementation.
Western officials say they expect Russia and China, which have blocked U.N. action on Syria, to make the case to Assad that he needs to step down for the good of his country. They hope, as Clinton said Saturday, that Assad will "see the writing on the wall" and remove himself from the equation.
So far, though, neither has shown any inclination to back away from defending Assad.
Clinton and her Western counterparts will take the Annan plan to a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris on Friday to get a broader endorsement of the deal. This, they hope, will raise the pressure on Russia and China to convince Assad of the need to get the transition started.
Should that fail and the process remain stalled, they intended to return to the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would compel compliance.
The SNC said nearly 800 people have been killed in violence across the country in the past week and that more than 14,000 people have died in the 15-month-old uprising against Assad's rule.
There's an urgent need for a solution because the conflict is threatening to spill across borders after Syria shot down a warplane from neighboring Turkey, which responded by setting up anti-aircraft guns along the frontier.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Lee covers international affairs and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.
Clinton statement:
An AP News Analysis