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News Brief: Haiti's Prime Minister, Opioid Lawsuit Negotiations, Bezos Flight

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A power struggle that emerged in Haiti after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated appears to be over.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. So two men have been fighting for control in Haiti since the president was killed. Now they are said to have come to an agreement. This deal would put in charge the man who Moise handpicked. The international community backs the choice, and he could be sworn in today.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Carrie Kahn covers Haiti and joins us from Mexico City. Carrie, what do we know about this man who has been tapped as Haiti's new prime minister?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: His name is Ariel Henry. He's 71 years old. He's a neurosurgeon. He's studied in France and Boston. He's been in the government before. And he's held several ministerial-level positions. And on Sunday, he posted a video referring to himself as the prime minister and pledging to build what he says is an inclusive government for all Haitians.

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ARIEL HENRY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He says, I'm committed to holding profound discussions with all stakeholders in Haiti. And he's saying this is the only way to overcome differences, unite the Haitian family and bring about a different future for the country.

MARTINEZ: The thing is, though, for Henry to take power, the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, has to step down. And the two men have been vying for this post for the past couple of weeks since the president was killed. Is Joseph really stepping down?

KAHN: Claude Joseph says he will. He told NPR in an interview it was never his intention to remain in power. He just wanted to make sure his friend, President Jovenel Moise, gets justice, that his killers are caught and tried. I spoke with Haiti's election minister, Mathias Pierre, yesterday, and he said that, yes, Joseph is prepared to accept this agreement and return to his role as foreign minister. Pierre also said this, that in the agreement, no interim president will be appointed, and it is the goal of all in the government to hold elections as soon as possible. September is what people are talking about.

MARTINEZ: And that's right around the corner. Is it even possible for Haiti to hold elections by then?

KAHN: You know, elections in Haiti are challenging even in the best of times, and this is definitely nowhere near that now. Gangs control large portions of Haiti, including major parts of the capital. The economy is just in ruins. The political upheaval of the final years of Moise's administration has pretty much destroyed the economy, and it just created this huge humanitarian crisis. I spoke with human rights advocate and criminal defense lawyer Samuel Madistin about Henry becoming the new prime minister and calls for elections as soon as possible. Madistin just said he doesn't have very high expectations that Henry will be able to do much better to solve Haiti's deep-rooted problems. But he did say a rushed election could just make things even worse.

SAMUEL MADISTIN: When you have bad elections, people go and protest every day, so you don't have stability. We need free and fair elections to make stability and democracy (ph).

KAHN: He's saying we need stability and democracy, and we need free and fair elections. He says if people don't believe in the elections, they'll just go back out on the streets and protest. And the political unrest and all the instability in the country will just keep continuing.

MARTINEZ: All right. So it sounds like they're going to give it a try. But what's been the international reaction of this plan for the new prime minister?

KAHN: It's being endorsed by this group - it's called the Core Group - and it's key diplomats from countries including the U.S. and Canada and the EU and representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States. And they actually came out over the weekend endorsing Ariel Henry, and that seemed to push the scales in his direction. But that could be a problem for Henry because if he's perceived not to be legitimate, if Haitians think that he was a candidate of forces outside of Haiti imposed on the country, that will definitely make it tough for him from the get-go to bring about this unity government that he's been talking about.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Negotiators appear close to a final opioid settlement meant to resolve thousands of lawsuits against some of America's biggest companies, including Johnson & Johnson.

KING: Yeah. The companies are expected to pay about $26 billion, and that money will go to drug addiction programs and other social services.

MARTINEZ: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us to talk about this. Brian, what more do we know about this final settlement?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, it's massive, A. It involves Johnson & Johnson but also McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. These are companies that made and distributed prescription opioids. These talks are still underway, but pressure on the companies to settle has grown in recent months. There have been more of these opioid lawsuits moving forward, and that's meant really embarrassing disclosures about their opioid sales and distribution practices. Sources in the offices of two state attorneys general tell NPR a national deal is very close this week, they say. And Johnson & Johnson also sent a statement to NPR, which they've issued before, saying there continues to be progress toward finalizing this agreement. And, A, this could be a game changer. The lion's share of this $26 billion would be used for treatment programs. We had 93,000 drug fatalities last year. So more help is desperately needed.

MARTINEZ: And word of this deal comes on the same day when the Justice Department is blasting another opioid settlement involving Purdue Pharma and the members of the Sackler family, who are among its owners. What's happening with that one?

MANN: Yeah. So this is a separate bankruptcy plan that's nearing completion for Purdue Pharma. They're the makers of this medication, OxyContin. And what's controversial here is that it would give immunity from opioid lawsuits to members of the Sackler family and also many of their associates, even though all those folks haven't filed for bankruptcy. And yesterday, two separate divisions of the DOJ filed legal briefs describing that provision as unfair, illegal and unconstitutional. What the DOJ pointed out is that while one portion of this deal does require the Sacklers to pay $4.3 billion out of their private fortunes to compensate victims, many of their associates involved in this bankruptcy plan, they haven't agreed to pay anything.

MARTINEZ: What do the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma have to say?

MANN: So Purdue Pharma sent a statement to NPR yesterday saying this bankruptcy deal will help people channeling again billions of dollars to families and communities hit by this epidemic. They also say there's precedent for this kind of immunity from civil lawsuits that would be extended to the Sacklers and their associates. And it is important to say that while Purdue Pharma has pleaded guilty twice to federal crimes linked to opioid sales, the Sacklers themselves have never been charged with any criminal activity. They say they've acted ethically and properly.

MARTINEZ: Brian, you've reported that this Purdue Pharma deal is likely to be approved at a hearing next month. Do these new legal arguments from the Department of Justice maybe change that?

MANN: So the experts I've been talking to say federal bankruptcy judge Robert Drain appears committed to a settlement on roughly these lines. A growing number of states have signed on. So there is a lot of momentum ahead of a confirmation hearing that's scheduled for August 9. But these objections by the DOJ do again focus new attention on questions being asked by a lot of legal scholars about how the Sacklers use the bankruptcy system here to avoid full accountability. If this plan is approved, they will once again admit no wrongdoing.

MARTINEZ: Brian Mann covers addiction and opioid litigation for NPR. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: The world's richest man, who is not me, is blasting off into space today.

KING: (Laughter) Yeah. Blue Origin, the company that Jeff Bezos founded, will make its first suborbital flight with him and some other people also not A Martinez on board. Blue Origin is competing against other companies at this point to win the space tourism race.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined now by Brendan Byrne. He covers space at NPR member station WMFE in Orlando, Fla. Brendan, so what's going to happen today?

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: So the spacecraft is called New Shepard. It's scheduled to take off from Blue Origin's facility in west Texas. Now the rocket will head to the boundary of space. And just as it reaches that point, a small capsule carrying the crew will break off from the rest of the ship. And that will give the passengers about four minutes of weightlessness. They'll have views of the Earth against the blackness of space. And then the capsule will fall back to Earth and land in the Texas desert thanks to a set of parachutes. And the whole experience is just under 11 minutes.

MARTINEZ: So because everyone's wondering - a higher or lower than Richard Branson?

BYRNE: Right now, it's planned as higher.

MARTINEZ: Higher. OK. I'm sure everyone wants to know that and Bezos probably wants to know, too. All right. So we know Bezos is on the flight. Who else is going with him?

BYRNE: That's right. So there's three other passengers. So Blue Origin hopes to make history with both the oldest and the youngest person to ever go to space. So there's 82-year-old Wally Funk. She's a pilot and was a member of the Mercury 13. That was a program back in the '60s that put female astronaut candidates through similar training and testing as NASA's male astronauts. But Funk and none of the women from that program ever got a chance to go to space. Here she is speaking with StoryCorps back in 2017.

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WALLY FUNK: I applied to NASA four times and finally they said, Wally, you know, we're sorry, but you don't have an engineering degree. I said, well, I'll get one. So I never let anything stop me.

BYRNE: So now, about a half-century later, she's finally getting her chance to go to space. Then there's also Oliver Daemen. He's only 18 years old, which would make him the youngest person to travel into space. Daemen wasn't originally supposed to be on this flight. Actually, the spot was reserved for the winner of a $28 million auction. But that person who paid for the seat ended up having a scheduling conflict, so Daemen got the seat instead. And the fourth and final spot is for the brother of Jeff Bezos, Mark.

MARTINEZ: Paid $28 million and had a scheduling conflict (laughter). I can't believe it. OK, fine. I mentioned Richard Branson. Earlier this month, another billionaire went on the space flight. So will anyone other than billionaires be able to go to space anytime soon?

BYRNE: You know, I talked to Nicole Stott about this. She's a retired NASA astronaut. She says, yes, space tourism is exciting, but...

NICOLE STOTT: One of the things that I think is really important in all this is the reality check that not everybody is going to be able to do it, at least in the near term, right?

BYRNE: So these are the very first flights, and that's why they're so pricey. You know, eventually, these prices will go down, so it'll only cost a few hundred thousand dollars...

MARTINEZ: Oh, OK.

BYRNE: ...Which means clearly - right - most people will still not get the chance to go to space.

MARTINEZ: So what's the future for this industry? I mean, is there going to be a market for these commercial space flights?

BYRNE: You know, it sure appears there is. Blue Origin says it's planning two more space tourism flights this year, half a dozen next year. And the company's long-term goal is to fly as often as once every two weeks. And for Virgin Galactic - that's Richard Branson's space tourism company - he says it already has around 600 reservations filled for flights on its spacecraft.

MARTINEZ: Not my reservation. Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE in Florida. Brendan, thanks.

BYRNE: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "DYING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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