In Paraguay, a Community Fights for the Right to Grow Food

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘GLOBAL VOICES’)

 

In Paraguay, a Community Fights for the Right to Grow Food

In Paraguay alone, between 700 or 800 varieties of mandioca (also called yuca or cassava) are grown on 445,000 acres, yielding 6 million tons of the staple crop. Photo by Juana Barreto. Used with permission.

This post is an abridged version of a story produced by Kurtural and published on Global Voices with the author’s permission. It is part of the series “The landless don’t go to the supermarket,” which will be published and re-edited by Global Voices.

Before dawn, Severiano Ruiz Díaz detonates an explosive firework beside his house, but his children slept right through the blast. Throughout the rest of the community of Primero de Marzo, Ruiz Díaz’s neighbors wait, listening for a second explosion that would signal the presence of police. But today, there is no second blast, and a new day begins for the 300-plus families in Primero de Marzo, a community where food is plentiful in a hungry nation.

Primero De Marzo is an asentamiento or informal settlement, one of at least 200 similar communities established by landless farmers in Paraguay. It has three schools, no church, and nearly 2,500 acres of rich red soil.

The settlement of smallholder farmers is surrounded by soy fields, engulfed by mechanized farming in a country that is the world’s fourth largest exporter of the crop. But in an effort to encourage family agriculture, Primero de Marzo prohibits cultivating soy within its territory. Instead, the community sustains itself through a diverse array of crops.

Paraguay’s small farmers face many obstacles. In Primero de Marzo, those include the lack of roads and competition from contraband produce smuggled in from abroad. Photo by Juana Barreto. Used with permission.

Their small fields are the the last plots of land in the county where food crops — not commodities — are grown. They harvest two kinds of bananas, three varieties of corn, four types beans, sugar cane, yerba mate, peanuts, papaya, sweet potatoes, watermelon and cassava.

Each member of the settlement is assigned at most 25 acres of land, which totals a little less than half of the 4,000-plus hectares of land whose ownership in disputed by the residents, the Paraguayan government, and a group of powerful landowners — the Bendlin Family.

During the long-running dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, the Bendlin family illegally traded an airplane for the land where Primero de Marzo now stands, an airplane that does not exist in the country’s official aeronautical records. The family are the Paraguayan representatives of a famous German vehicle brand; have relations with Paraguay’s president, Horacio Cartes; and own a lot of real estate in Paraguay’s largest city and capital, Asunción.

The Bendlins were accused of hiring thugs who harassed Primero de Marzo for years and who, on June 11, 2014, attempted to kill Severiano Ruiz Díaz.

But bullets aren’t the community’s only problem. Police have officially evicted the community from their lands on three occasions, burning houses, destroying crops and confiscating or killing livestock. Government officials have charged members of the community with crimes of occupying land and accused them of criminal association. In contrast, the attack on Severiano Ruiz Díaz and instances of police violence during the evictions have not been investigated.

The right to land

Activities in Primero de Marzo begin early and include the whole family. Photo by Juana Barreto. Used with permission.

Severiano Ruiz Díaz speaks about the evictions while finishing breakfast in the hallway of his family’s wooden home. It’s the second house he’s built here, just five meters from the first house that police burned to the ground. The new building is small, but has basic amenities like electricity, thanks to the 14 miles of power lines the community installed themselves to serve all the families in Primero de Marzo.

For rural farmers, the right to land transcends purely economical considerations: It is the right to a domain, the right to exist. But it is a right enjoyed by few in Paraguay. About 94 percent of the nation’s arable land is farmed using mechanized agricultural techniques to produce commodities for export, including soy, corn and wheat.

Conventional agribusiness requires only one employee for roughly every 500 acres, or 40 times fewer jobs than the style of smallholder agriculture practiced in Primero de Marzo — the kind of agriculture that got Severiano Ruiz Díaz shot.

Paraguay faces extreme inequality in land ownership, according to the Gini Index, which measures the extent to which incomes deviate from perfectly equal distribution. Fifteen landowners in Paraguay together hold property twice the size of Puerto Rico, while more than 300,000 Paraguayan families own no land at all.

Days of halfway peace

Every June, the colors of harvest fill Primero de Marzo. Along the crooked path worn by tractors and motorcycles, you can see fields of corn, banana and towering manioca rocking in a winter breeze. These are days of “halfway peace” say the residents.

The community’s agricultural abundance stands in contrast to the violence it has endured, and to the reality of the entire country: Every day, 700,000 Paraguayans face hunger. None of them lives in Primero de Marzo.

Nonetheless, the farmers of Primero de Marzo struggle to sell their products to a hungry nation. The problem begins with transporting their harvest: inadequate roads and exploitative middlemen. Then — even if products reach Paraguay’s main produce market, Mercado Abasto — they must compete against the prices of contraband produce, much of which comes from Argentina.

Although the Paraguayan government is committed to supporting smallholder agriculture in theory, between 2013 and 2016 the importation of fruits and vegetables to Paraguay doubled. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of acres dedicated to growing tomatoes, a staple of Paraguayan cuisine, was halved. This loss of production and diminishment of Paraguay’s food sovereignty has resulted in recurring periods where tomatoes cost more than five times their usual price in Asuncion.

Farmers in Primero de Marzo grow three kinds of corn: white, tupí, and chipá, but famers complain that they have no market for their harvest. Photo by Juana Barreto. Used with permission.

The families in the settlement still inhabit a territory of uncertainty. But while their land remains in dispute, a second generation is growing up in Primero de Marzo, a generation that has inhabited these lands since birth. A generation of children that run and laugh and splash in mud puddles and go to school. Who, like Ruiz Díaz’s children, hope that lunch will be chicken stew.

And while these children grow, the community of Primero de Marzo keeps waiting, each morning, for a second explosion.

Brazil: School Shooting Leaves 2 Kids Dead 4 Wounded

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF UK’S METRO NEWS)

 

A schoolboy shot dead his classmates at school this afternoon after pulling a gun from his backpack. The 14-year-old shot dead two children and wounded four more at Colegio Goyases school in Goiania, central Brazil, the emergency services said. All the victims were 12 or 13 years old, police and the fire department in the central city of Goiana said initially. However, police investigators said that the suspected shooter, who was arrested, was 14 and that students shot could be anywhere from 11 to 16. It was also reported that the teenager was ‘being bullied for not using deodorant’ prior to the shooting. The boy shot at classmates during their break (Picture: AFP/ O Popular Newspaper) Two were killed (Picture: AFP/ O Popular Newspaper) A Military Police officer comforts a woman at the scene (Picture: AFP/ O Popular Newspaper) Peeople gather outside the Goyases private school in Goiania (Picture: AFP/ O Popular Newspaper) The incident happened at Colegio Goyases school (Picture: Google) Speaking on Globo television, a police officer said the assailant was the son of a policeman and that the pistol used was police-issue. A unidentified witness said: ‘At break time, he took the gun out of his bag and began shooting. Then everyone began to run.’ Man, 29, ‘murdered mum by smashing guitar over her head’ Another witness told a local TV station: ‘He just starting shooting at everyone in the class. I held my friend’s hand. I didn’t know what to do.’ The two children killed were named as Joao Vitor Gomes and Joao Pedro Calembo. The four injured include three girls and a boy. The teenager remains in custody.

 

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Security Guard Set Fire To Nursery School: 4 Children 1 Teacher Dead

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM AND THE BBC)

 

Four Children and a Teacher Killed After a Security Guard Sets Fire to Brazil Nursery School

Oct 05, 2017

Four young children and a teacher have been killed in what is believed to be an arson attack at a nursery school in Brazil.

Authorities said the suspect is a security guard who allegedly set fire to the daycare center, in Janauba, a town in southeastern Minas Gerais state, the BBC reports.

A further 25 people — mostly children aged between four and five — were hospitalized with burns, with some requiring specialist care at a burns unit in the state capital.

One parent whose son died in the attack told local media that the family was about to move to another neighborhood, according to the BBC.

“I woke up early to drop him at the nursery,” Jane Kelly da Silva Soares told the local O Globo newspaper. “When I saw him again he was already dead in hospital.”

The guard, identified by authorities as 50-year-old Damiao dos Santos, set himself alight at the scene and later died of his injuries in hospital. Police are still looking into the causes of the attack.

Local media reports that dos Santos was sacked from his post in September, upon returning from his annual leave reportedly with a health condition.

President Michael Temer tweeted: “I’m very sorry about this tragedy involving children in Janauba. I want to express my sympathy to the families.”

Janauba’s mayor has declared a seven-day mourning period.

[BBC]

Gold miners at a bar bragged about slaughtering members of a reclusive Brazilian tribe

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

Authorities: Gold miners at a bar bragged about slaughtering members of a reclusive Brazilian tribe

 September 11 at 4:59 PM

(G.Miranda/Funai/Survival International)

The outside world might never have heard about the suspected massacre if not for some barroom boasting by a group of miners fresh from working an illegal gig in the Amazon jungle.

The garimpeiros had bragged that they’d come across members of a reclusive, uncontacted Amazonian tribe near Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, authorities say.

The tribe members were greater in number — there were as many as 10 — but the gold miners said they’d gotten the better of them and killed the entire lot, said Carla de Lello Lorenzi, communications officer for Survival International in Brazil.

The miners cut the tribe members’ bodies so that they wouldn’t float, Lorenzi said, then dropped them into the Jandiatuba River.

The miners had collected tools and jewelry from the indigenous dead, corroborating their story.

An unidentified person who overheard the story was disturbed by it, recorded the miners’ conversation and turned the audio over to authorities. They have since launched an investigation into what, if confirmed, would be one of the largest mass murders of uncontacted people in decades.

Advocates for stricter protective measures say the suspected massacre is evidence that the Brazilian government isn’t doing enough to safeguard the more than 100 vulnerable tribes that have never made contact with the outside world — and have no desire to.

“If these reports are confirmed, [Brazilian President Michel Temer] and his government bear a heavy responsibility for this genocidal attack,” said Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry. Corry said the government has slashed funds for an agency that protects the tribes, leaving them “defenseless against thousands of invaders — gold miners, ranchers and loggers — who are desperate to steal and ransack their lands.”

“All these tribes should have had their lands properly recognized and protected years ago — the government’s open support for those who want to open up indigenous territories is utterly shameful, and is setting indigenous rights in Brazil back decades.”

According to the New York Times, the government closed five of the 19 bases it uses to monitor uncontacted tribes and prevent incursions by miners and loggers.

Three of the closed bases were in the Javari Valley, home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on Earth.

For obvious reasons, little is known about the indigenous group involved in the suspected killings.

Locally, Lorenzi said, they’re known as Fleicheros, or “the ones who throw arrows,” but their language and customs — and how they interact with at least two other uncontacted tribes in the immediate area — remain a mystery.

But the tribe members are not the only people in that part of the Amazon, Lorenzi said. It is illegal to mine there, but prospectors have brought earth-moving equipment to the area, leaving giant craters that can be seen from the sky.

They also bring violence, according to the government, which says garimpeiros are responsible for threats, child prostitution and killings.

Even their nonviolent presence in the protected lands can be dangerous to uncontacted tribes, which lack the immunity to fight the diseases that miners and loggers bring.

Any contact can be contentious and even violent, with the uncontacted usually getting the worst of it because, as Lorenzi told The Post, “it’s usually bows and arrows against guns.”

Details about those contacts remain hazy, because they involve two groups of people unlikely to speak to authorities.

Still, tales of the worst violence sometimes get out. Survival International documented the story of Marisa Yanomami and Leida Yanomami, survivors of the Haximu massacre in 1993:

“The gold-miners killed our brothers and sisters and also killed our father with machetes; some of them were killed with guns,” they told the organization. “After the first 10 people died, at the start of the war, we moved to another place to hide and stayed in our shabono(communal house), but the next day, the miners appeared again.”

In a statement on its website, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, or Funai, said it had prompted the federal public prosecutor’s office to investigate the most recent allegation.

The government has also trumpeted its latest operation against incursions on protected lands. In August, it shut down an illegal mining operation. Soldiers destroyed four dredging machines and fined mining operators $1 million for environmental crimes.

Investigations are tough undertakings. The site of the suspected killing, for example, is a 12-hour trek by boat during the dry season. And it involves a group of people with their own language and a centuries-long wariness of outsiders.

Even the details of the killing are sketchy, Lorenzi said. And the vacuum of information speaks to another fear advocates have: that these types of violent interactions happen a lot more frequently than is reported.

“That’s highly probable, yes, because it’s so difficult to document,” she said. “It’s the uncontacted versus illegal miners who think they can get away with anything.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the time they do.”

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Colombian rebels ask Pope for forgiveness

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

Colombian rebels ask Pope for forgiveness

Colombian President: Pope has ‘tremendous leadership’

Villavicencio, Colombia (CNN)Amid lush greenery and tropical humidity, Pope Francis touched down in Villavicencio on Friday, bringing his message of peace to one of the most notorious sites of guerrilla warfare in Colombia for the past 50 years.

Here, in one of the last major cities before the vast expanse of the Amazon, the Pope listened to powerful testimonies from ex-guerrilla fighters and from victims of their violence, such as Pastora Mira Garcia, who lost her father, husband and two children during the civil war.
“Do not be afraid of asking for forgiveness and offering it,” the Pope told them. “It is time to defuse hatred, to renounce vengeance.”
It is a message the Pope has echoed throughout this five-day visit in the country, aiming to help Colombians, many of whose memories are still fresh with crimes committed against them, embrace the historic peace agreement reached in December 2016.

Rebels ask for forgiveness

There are signs that Francis’ words may be having an effect.
In an open letter to the Pope published on Friday, Rodrigo Londono, former leader of the leftist guerrilla group FARC, asked for forgiveness from Francis for the actions of his group during five decades of war.
“Your repeated expressions about God’s infinite mercy move me to plead your forgiveness for any tears and pain that we have caused the people of Colombia, Londono wrote.
At a Mass on Friday, Pope Francis beatified two Catholic priests who were murdered during the years of the civil war, calling their martyrdom a sign “of a people who wish to rise up out of the swamp of violence and bitterness.”
Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve of Arauca was kidnapped and shot twice in the head by Colombian Marxist guerrillas in 1989.
The Rev. Pedro Maria Ramirez Ramos, known asNM! the “martyr of Armero,” was killed at the start of the Colombian civil war in 1948. The conflict claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.

Pope meets Venezuelan bishops

On Thursday, in an unscheduled private meeting, Pope Francis briefly spoke with bishops who had come from Venezuela.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, told reporters in Bogota that the bishops had come to ask the Pope for help for the “desperate situation,” in their country.
“There are people who eat garbage,” Urosa said, “yes, the garbage, and there are people who die because there is no medicine.”
“So we want to remind the Pope of this again and especially the serious political situation, because the government is doing everything possible to establish a state system, totalitarian and Marxist.”
Francis continues his visit in Medellin on Saturday and Cartagena on Sunday, before returning to the Vatican later that evening.

Italian mafia kingpin arrested in Uruguay after two decades

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

Italian mafia kingpin arrested in Uruguay after two decades on the run

Rocco Morabito was arrested in Uruguay.

Story highlights

  • Rocco Morabito was convicted in Italy and sentenced to 30 years for drug trafficking
  • He fled Italy in the mid-1990s, was arrested in Uruguay on Friday

(CNN)A convicted drug kingpin in the Italian mafia has been arrested in Uruguay after being on the run for over 20 years, the Uruguayan Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Rocco Morabito — described by authorities as a prominent member of the Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia — had been wanted since 1994. He was convicted in absentia for drug trafficking and organized-crime activities in Italy, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Italian authorities said that Morabito had been responsible for shipping drugs into Italy and arranging distribution in Milan.

View of the villa where Italian mafia fugitive Rocco Morabito lived in the resort town of Punta del Este, Uruguay.

The Uruguayan Interior Ministry said Morabito was arrested Friday in a hotel in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. Italian police said the arrest followed “months of international cooperation and intelligence activity.”
Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti lauded Morabito’s arrest, saying he was “considered one of the sought-after members of the Ndrangheta”.
Uruguayan authorities said some months ago Morabito tried to enroll his daughter in a local school using his real name, and his fingerprints were confirmed by Italian authorities.
Interpol issued a red notice for Morabito — its highest-priority international arrest warrant — in 1995 following an arrest warrant issued by Italian prosecutors in Reggio Calabria.
Authorities said Morabito — one of Italy’s five most-wanted fugitives — entered Uruguay in 2001 using false Brazilian identification papers including a bogus birth certificate. For the last decade he lived in a comfortable rural villa near the town of Maldonado, adjacent to the resort city of Punta del Este.
When he was arrested, Morabito had 13 cell phones, an automatic pistol, 12 credit and debit cards, a large quantity of Uruguayan money and US $50,000 in cash, plus currency certificates worth US $100,000, the Uruguayan Interior Ministry said.
In a search of Morabito’s home in the town of Maldonado, authorities seized a 2015 Mercedes and a Portuguese passport in his false Brazilian name. His wife — an Angolan national with a Portuguese passport — was also arrested, authorities said.
According to the Uruguayan Interior Ministry, Morabito was indicted for three crimes of forgery and will remain in preventive detention for three months while extradition proceedings are underway Italian police say once extradited, Morabito will face the 30-year sentence handed down two decades ago.

Newly Discovered Dinosaur Makes T. Rex ‘Look Like a Dwarf’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM)

 

This Newly Discovered Dinosaur Makes T. Rex ‘Look Like a Dwarf’

6:57 AM ET

(WASHINGTON) — A study proclaims a newly named species the heavyweight champion of all dinosaurs, making the scary Tyrannosaurus rex look like a munchkin.

At 76 tons (69 metric tons), the plant-eating behemoth was as heavy as a space shuttle.

The dinosaur’s fossils were found in southern Argentina in 2012. Researchers who examined and dated them said the long-necked creature was the biggest of a group of large dinosaurs called titanosaurs.

“There was one small part of the family that went crazy on size,” said Diego Pol of the Egidio Feruglio paleontology museum in Argentina, co-author of the study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The researchers named the dinosaur Patagotitan mayorum after the Patagonia region where it was found and the Greek word titan, which means large. The second name honors a ranch family that hosted the researchers.

Six fossils of the species were studied and dated to about 100 million years ago, based on ash found around them, Pol said. The dinosaur averaged 122 feet long (37 meters) and was nearly 20 feet high (6 meters) at the shoulder.

A cast of the dinosaur’s skeleton is already on display at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s so big that the dinosaur’s head sticks out into a hallway at the New York museum .

Legendary T. rex and other meat-eaters “look like dwarfs when you put them against one of these giant titanosaurs,” Pol said. “It’s like when you put an elephant by a lion.”

Scientists have known titanosaurs for a while, but this is a new species and even a new genus, which is a larger grouping, Pol said. Another titanosaur called Argentinosaurus was previously thought to be the largest.

“I don’t think they were scary at all,” Pol said. “They were probably massive big slow-moving animals.”

“Getting up. Walking around. Trying to run. It’s really challenging for large animals,” he said.

The big question is how did these dinosaurs get so big, Pol said. Researchers are still studying it, but said it probably has to do with an explosion of flowering plants at the time. Along with a forest, it was like an all-you-can-eat buffet for these dinosaurs and they just got bigger.

“It’s hard to argue this isn’t a big deal when it concerns the (probable) largest land animal ever discovered,” University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an email.

Kristi Curry Rodgers, a paleontologist at Macalester College who wasn’t part of the study, praised the work as important. She said the fact that Patagotitan’s bones show signs that they haven’t completed their growth “means that there are even bigger dinosaurs out there to discover.”

Paramilitary Attack On Venezuela Military Base

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) Venezuela remained a powder keg on Sunday as authorities said they had quelled an anti-government paramilitary attack at a military base and the country’s attorney general defied her ouster by the newly elected National Constituent Assembly.

A man who identified himself as an army officer announced the revolt on social media, an action he called a “legitimate rebellion” aimed at the government of leftist President Nicolás Maduro.
“We are united now, more than ever, with the brave people of Venezuela who do not recognize the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s murderous tyranny,” according to a man who said he was Capt. Juan Caguaripano.
The President, speaking on his weekly TV show, “Sundays with Maduro,” made reference to the incident, saying “a week ago, we won with votes and today we had to beat terrorism with bullets.”
“They attack with terrorism and hate. We attack with our work, our love. They destruct, we construct,” he said.
Sunday’s incident came amid daily anxiety in the South American nation, where the economic hardship and bloody political turmoil that had roiled the country for months came to a head last week when the Constituent Assembly was voted into office, taking the place of the opposition-led National Assembly.
Authorities said the early-morning rebellion, which took place at a military base in Valencia, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) west of Caracas, was swiftly contained.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the attack was carried out by “delinquent civilians wearing military uniforms” in the early morning hours of Sunday, an act he labeled a “terrorist attack of a paramilitary nature.”
A tweet from the Venezuelan Minister of Communications Ernesto Villegas said seven people have been in the “mercenary attack” and an eighth person has been injured.
Social media videos showed a group of men in military uniforms launching a resistance movement they called “Operation David.”
The man speaking in the video who identified himself as Caguaripano was with a dozen others, people he identified as soldiers from the 41st Brigade of Fort Paramacay in the city of Valencia. “I am joined here by officers and troops from this glorious unit who represent the real Venezuelan army, that has fought to forge our liberty,” Caguaripano said in a video on social media.
The move, Caguaripano said in the video, was not a “coup.”
“It is a civic and military action meant to reestablish the constitutional order and, more importantly, to save the country from its total destruction and to keep our young people and families from being murdered,” he said.
But Padrino said Caguaripano was a “first lieutenant who had deserted his post,” and those involved in the attack had been “repelled immediately.”
Privately-owned online news channel Vivo Play broadcast video from outside the Fort Paramacay showing tanks moving inside the base and helicopters surrounding it. There were news images in Valencia of a barricade set by anti-government activists in flames.
The National Constituent Assembly held its first session Saturday. In its first order of business, the assembly unanimously fired Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz.
They barred her from ever seeking public office again in Venezuela, prohibited her from leaving the country and froze her assets.
Her removal from office happened after she said she would open an investigation into fraud allegations surrounding last Sunday’s election.
But Ortega, speaking Sunday at Caracas’ Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, sloughed off the exercise. “I will continue being the attorney general of this country,” she told reporters.
Ortega called the election illegal and scolded the Maduro government.
“I thought they had principles, ethics and values,” she said.
The new assembly has wide-ranging powers and is expected to rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution at Maduro’s behest.
Maduro’s loyal supporters buoyantly cast votes for new members last Sunday. Staunch opposition supporters, who see the vote as a power grab and an erosion of democracy, boycotted the vote and staged demonstrations against the development.
The firing defied the regional Organization of American States, whose human rights commission Saturday warned the Venezuelan government to guarantee Ortega’s safety and allow her to continue as attorney general.
South America’s trade bloc, Mercosur, decided to suspend Venezuela indefinitely from the group until there was a “re-establishment of democratic order.” The Organization of American States applauded that decision. Mercosur’s decision is mostly symbolic and will not impact trade or the free movement of Venezuelans among Mercosur countries.
The US Treasury Department issued sanctions in July against Saab and 12 other Maduro loyalists.
The assembly has proposed a “restructuring” of the attorney general’s office and nominated Tarek William Saab, a Maduro ally and former ombudsman, to be the interim attorney general. He was sworn in late Saturday afternoon to a rousing applause from the Constituent Assembly.

U.S. sanctions Venezuelan officials, one killed in anti-Maduro strike

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

JULY 26, 2017 / 1:07 AM / 8 MINUTES AGO

U.S. sanctions Venezuelan officials, one killed in anti-Maduro strike

A demonstrator throws a petrol bomb at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. Ueslei Marcelino

WASHINGTON/CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – The Trump administration imposed sanctions on 13 senior Venezuelan officials as the country’s opposition launched a two-day strike on Wednesday, heaping pressure on unpopular President Nicolas Maduro to scrap plans for a controversial new congress.

With clashes breaking out in some areas, a 30-year-old man was killed during a protest in the mountainous state of Merida, authorities said.

Venezuela’s long-time ideological foe the United States opted to sanction the country’s army and police chiefs, the national director of elections, and a vice president of the state oil company for alleged corruption and rights abuses.

But U.S. President Donald Trump spared Venezuela for now from broader sanctions against its vital oil industry, although such actions were still under consideration.

U.S. officials said the individual sanctions aimed to show Maduro that Washington would make good on a threat of “strong and swift economic actions” if he goes ahead with a vote on Sunday that critics have said would cement dictatorship in the OPEC country.

The leftist leader was also feeling the heat at home, where neighbors gathered from dawn across Venezuela to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while many stores remained shut.

“It’s the only way to show we are not with Maduro. They are few, but they have the weapons and the money,” said decorator Cletsi Xavier, 45, helping block the entrance to a freeway in upscale east Caracas with rope and iron metal sheets.

Overall, however, fewer people appeared to be heeding the shutdown than the millions who participated in a 24-hour strike last week when five people died in clashes.

State enterprises, including oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) stayed open and some working-class neighborhoods were still buzzing with activity.

But hooded youth were clashing with soldiers firing tear gas in various places including Caracas, where opposition lawmakers reported several injuries.

In western Merida state, Rafael Vergara was shot dead when National Guard soldiers and armed civilians confronted protesters, local opposition lawmaker Lawrence Castro told Reuters.

Maduro Defiant

Maduro has vowed to push ahead with Sunday’s vote for a Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and override the current opposition-led legislature.

The successor of late leader Hugo Chavez says the new superbody is the only way to bring peace back to Venezuela after four months of violent anti-government protests that have led to over 100 deaths.

Demonstrators clash with riot security forces at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017.Ueslei Marcelino

The opposition has said that Sunday’s vote, which it is boycotting, is a sham designed to give Maduro dictatorial powers.

One of the U.S. officials warned the sanctions were just an initial round and the administration was readying tougher measures. The most serious option is financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country’s oil and starve the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, a top cash-paying client.

But the decision to hold back for now on hitting Venezuela’s oil sector reflected a continuing internal debate that has weighed the risks of inflicting further suffering on Venezuelans, raising U.S. domestic gasoline prices, and causing problems for PDVSA’s U.S. refining subsidiary Citgo.

Even some of Maduro’s opponents have cautioned that he could rally his supporters under a nationalist banner if the United States goes too far on sanctions, as Venezuelans suffer a brutal economic crisis with food and medicine shortages.

Slideshow (17 Images)

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sanctions. In the past, Maduro’s administration has denied charges from Washington, calling them a pretext to try to topple socialism in Latin America and win control of Venezuela’s oil sector.

Among those sanctioned on Wednesday were: national elections director Tibisay Lucena, PDVSA finance vice president Simon Zerpa and former PDVSA executive Erik Malpica, as well as prominent former ministers Iris Varela and Elias Jaua.

Elections boss Lucena is scorned by opposition activists, who have said that she has delayed regional elections and blocked a recall referendum against Maduro at the behest of an autocratic government. The opposition has also long accused PDVSA of being a nest of corruption.

‘Bad Actors’

The U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the individuals targeted for sanctions were accused of supporting Maduro’s crackdown, harming democratic institutions or victimizing Venezuelans through corruption, and that additional “bad actors” could be sanctioned later.

Punitive measures include freezing U.S. assets, banning travel to the United States and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.

“What the United States is doing is bringing to light corruption in the Venezuelan government,” opposition lawmaker Franklin Duarte told Reuters. “This is the second list and we expect another one on Friday.”

Sanctions were imposed on the chief judge and seven other members of Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Supreme Court in May in response to their decision to annul the opposition-led Congress earlier this year.

That followed similar U.S. sanctions in February against Venezuela’s influential Vice President Tareck El Aissami for alleged links to drug trafficking.

Assets in the United States and elsewhere tied to El Aissami and an alleged associate and frozen by U.S. order now total hundreds of millions of dollars, far more than was expected, one of the U.S. officials told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Andrew Cawthorne, Andreina Aponte, Anggy Polanco, and Fabian Cambero in Caracas, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold

The Wall Of Shame

The Wall Of Shame

Why do we build, to keep out

Was not Berlin’s built to keep in

The Great Wall of China can be seen from space

Decide what is real, do you live a sanctified life

Your reflection in the world’s looking glass

Does it show but one face or do you have many

Division from the south, but not from the north

Do you not see your two faces shining

 

What do you think your wall will facilitate

The poor of the south are humans just like you

Hungry, tired, and scared, they come to your gates

Looking for a safe place to build, and work and pray

We build a higher wall, we tell them they have to wait

From terrorist and drugs, you say your wall will defend

You wall out your brother, your neighbor, your friends

 

How is it you can be so cold yet say you’re a Christian

Do you not know, nor see, nor care, people are starving

By your actions you do offend the Lord Himself

Do you not think that a terrorist or a drug King Pin

Can enter your haven from the cold frozen north

Do not speak to me of family values ye hypocrite

As children and mothers die of hunger and guns

At the foot of this wall, this barrier you create

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