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

Venezuelan troops fire on protesters at airbase, one killed  

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Venezuelan troops fire on protesters at airbase, one killed

By Andreina Aponte | CARACAS

Venezuelan troops on Thursday fired what appeared to be rubber bullets at protesters attacking the perimeter of an airbase and a demonstrator was killed, bringing renewed scrutiny of the force used to control riots that have killed at least 76 people.

At least two soldiers shot long firearms through the fence at protesters from a distance of just a few feet. One man collapsed to the ground and was carried off by other protesters, television footage showed. Paramedics took at least two other injured people to a hospital, a Reuters witness said.

The protesters who attacked the fence outside La Carlota airbase in the wealthy east of Caracas, earlier burned a truck and a motorbike when security forces broke up a march destined for the attorney general’s office.

David Jose Vallenilla, 22, died after arriving at a hospital in the Chacao municipality where the protest happened, the mayor said.

“He died at a private clinic where he arrived in very bad condition,” said Mayor Ramon Muchacho.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets over the past months to protest a clampdown on the opposition, shortages of food and medicine and President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to overhaul the constitution.

The reaction of the security forces to provocation from protesters has been in the spotlight since images showed a national guard pointing a pistol at protesters on Monday.

Opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares said Vallenilla had been killed by the national guard firing rubber bullets at point blank range. Olivares, whose arm was wounded in the protest, called for sit-ins on highways on Friday and protests at military bases on Saturday.

Vallenilla suffered wounds to the lungs and heart, a doctor who attended him told Reuters. Reuters could not independently confirm that Vallenilla was the shooting victim shown in television footage. The attorney general’s office said he was shot three times.

“The troops found responsible for crimes will be presented before the law,” said Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, calling on the opposition to stop violent protests.

Maduro says the violence is part of a foreign-led plot to overthrow his government.

A small group of protesters throwing petrol bombs and powerful fireworks from behind flimsy homemade shields was able to rip down a section of the fence surrounding the airbase, despite volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

At least one soldier aimed a shotgun through the fence, Reuters pictures showed. The national guard uses shotgun cartridges filled with small rubber balls in protests.

Venezuela’s national guard is a wing of the military charged with internal public order. It mainly uses tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to control protests that frequently escalate into riots.

On Monday, a teenager died during another protest in the same area after footage showed a national guard soldier pointing a pistol at protesters.

After that incident, Maduro moved the head of the national guard to a new position looking after security in the capital, part of a reshuffle that brought several more military figures into his cabinet.

The government is investigating troops involved in Monday’s incident. “I have ordered an investigation to see if there was a conspiracy behind this,” Maduro said earlier on Thursday, saying the men involved in Monday’s shooting had been detained.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)

Venezuela Prosecutor Rejects Maduro’s Congress Plan as Protesters Set Man on Fire

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Venezuela Prosecutor Rejects Maduro’s Congress Plan as Protesters Set Man on Fire

Venezuela

The state prosecutor has rejected embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to establish a congress as the country spiraled further into chaos when a mob set a man on fire.

Chief State Prosecutor Luisa Ortega stunned the crisis-hit country in March when she lambasted the Supreme Court for annulling the powers of the opposition-led National Assembly.

Since then, she has been a wild card within the publicly homogenous Venezuelan government, whose foes accuse it of seeking to dodge elections by creating a parallel assembly with powers to rewrite the constitution.

Socialist Party official Elias Jaua, in charge of the “constituent assembly” project, confirmed on Monday that Ortega had written him to express her discontent in a letter that was previously leaked on social media.

“It is my imperative to explain the reasons for which I have decided not to participate in this activity,” Ortega’s two-page missive reads.

“Instead of bringing stability or generating a climate of peace, I think this will accelerate the crisis,” she said, mentioning it would heighten uncertainty and alter the “unbeatable” constitution launched under late leader Hugo Chavez.

Jaua acknowledged receipt of Ortega’s letter, but quickly said she was merely expressing a “political opinion,” without any power to change the situation.

“We consider that the only organ the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s constitution empowers to interpret the constitution is the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber,” he said at a news conference, in reference to the pro-government top court.

Venezuelans are scrutinizing Maduro’s government and the armed forces for any cracks as protesters take to the streets daily to demand early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate food and medicine shortages, and freedom for jailed activists.

While anti-government protests have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, Venezuelans are increasingly concerned about spates of nighttime looting and barricades popping up in many neighborhoods.

Masked youths man roadblocks, turning back traffic or asking motorists for a monetary “collaboration” to be allowed through.

The worst nighttime unrest has largely been concentrated outside the capital, however, with the jungle and savannah state of Bolivar hard-hit overnight.

Some 51 buses were burned after a group attacked a transport company in the city of Puerto Ordaz, the prosecutor’s office said on Monday. Barricades and clashes with the National Guard were also rippling through the city on Monday, according to a Reuters witness.

One of the most violent scenes was when a crowd set a man on fire.

“I spotted a man running in front of me as a group of protesters, most of them hooded and with makeshift shields, were chasing him,” said Reuters photographer Marco Bello in an area east of Caracas.

“I followed them, and some 100 meters down the street, the protesters caught the man and surrounded him. When I walked up and went through the circle of people to take pictures, someone had already poured gasoline over the man and set him on fire.”

Though Maduro accused the mob of attacking the man, whom he identified as 21-year old Orlando Figuera, because he was pro-government, Bello said they were calling him a thief.

“All I heard throughout was that he was being accused of trying to steal from a woman. I didn’t hear anyone accusing him of being a pro-government infiltrator,” Bello said.

During Venezuela’s economic and political crisis, lynchings have become common, killing about one person every three days according to monitoring group Venezuelan Observatory of Violence.

With flames on his back, the man ran through the crowd, hit a motorbike on the ground, and tore off his shirt. Some people chased him and threw rocks, while others tried to calm the aggressors and formed a protective circle as the fire abated.

The man survived, though with severe burns.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Venezuela sends 2,000 troops to state hit by looting, protests

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Venezuela sends 2,000 troops to state hit by looting, protests

Workers of the health sector and opposition supporters take part in a protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
By Anggy Polanco | SAN CRISTOBAL, VENEZUELA

Venezuela said it was sending 2,000 soldiers on Wednesday to a border state that is a hotspot of anti-government radicalism after a night of looting in which one 15-year-old died as political unrest rumbled on in the volatile nation.

Most shops and businesses in San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state on the Colombian border, were closed and guarded by soldiers on Wednesday, though looting continued in some poorer sectors, residents said.

People made off with items including coffee, diapers, and cooking oil in a country where a brutal economic crisis has made basic foods and medicine disappear from shelves.

Barricades of trash, car tires, and sand littered the streets, as daily life broke down in the city that was also a hotspot during the 2014 wave of unrest against leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come onto the streets across Venezuela since early April to demand elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.

Maduro’s government accuses them of seeking a violent coup and says many of the protesters are no more than “terrorists.” State oil company PDVSA also blamed roadblocks for pockets of gasoline shortages in the country on Wednesday.

In Tachira, teenager Jose Francisco Guerrero was shot dead during the spate of looting, his relatives said.

“My mom sent my brother yesterday to buy flour for dinner and a little while later, we received a call saying he’d been injured by a bullet,” said his sister Maria Contreras, waiting for his body to be brought to a San Cristobal morgue.

The state prosecutor’s office confirmed his death, which would push the death toll in unrest to at least 43, equal to that of the 2014 protests.

’21ST CENTURY JEWS’

With international pressure against Venezuela’s government mounting, the United Nations Security Council turned its attention to the country’s crisis for the first time on Wednesday.

“The intent of this briefing was to make sure everyone is aware of the situation … we’re not looking for Security Council action,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters after the session.

“The international community needs to say, ‘Respect the human rights of your people or this is going to go in the direction we’ve seen so many others go’ … We have been down this road with Syria, with North Korea, with South Sudan, with Burundi, with Burma.”

Venezuela’s U.N. envoy Rafael Ramirez in turn accused the United States of seeking to topple the Maduro government.

“The U.S. meddling stimulates the action of violent groups in Venezuela,” he said, showing photos of vandalism and violence he said was caused by opposition supporters.

Venezuelans living abroad, many of whom fled the country’s economic chaos, have in recent weeks accosted visiting state officials and their family members.

Maduro on Tuesday likened that harassment to the treatment of Jews under the Nazis.

“We are the new Jews of the 21st century that Hitler pursued,” Maduro said during the cabinet meeting. “We don’t carry the yellow star of David … we carry red hearts that are filled with desire to fight for human dignity. And we are going to defeat them, these 21st century Nazis.”

The German Nazis and their collaborators persecuted and killed six million Jews in the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s.

Social media has for weeks buzzed with videos of Venezuelan emigrees in countries from Australia to the United States shouting insults at public officials and in some cases family members in public places.

Maduro’s critics say it is outrageous for officials to spend money on foreign travel when people are struggling to obtain food and children are dying for lack of basic medicines.

But some opposition sympathizers say such mob-like harassment is the wrong way to confront the government.

Graphic on Venezuela’s economic woes: here

(Reporting by Anggy Polanco, additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Brian Ellsworth, Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations in New York; Writing by Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

Venezuela Opposition Takes to Streets after Maduro Orders New Constitution

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

World

Venezuela Opposition Takes to Streets after Maduro Orders New Constitution

Maduro

The opposition in Venezuela denounced on Tuesday President Nicolas Maduro’s decision on Monday to write a new constitution.

The opposition was blocking streets on Tuesday to decry the decision to create a new super-body known as a “constituent assembly,” a move they say is a veiled attempt to cling to power by avoiding elections.

After a month of near-daily protests demanding early general elections, Maduro on Monday announced a new popular assembly with the ability to rewrite the constitution.

His government said that the opposition is promoting street violence and refusing dialogue, so it has no choice but to shake up Venezuela’s power structure to bring peace to the oil producer.

Maduro’s foes counter that Maduro, a former bus driver they say has turned into a dictator, is in fact planning to staff the new assembly with supporters and avoid elections he would likely lose amid a crushing recession and raging inflation.

Regional elections slated for last year have yet to be called and a presidential election is due for next year.

When asked about elections in an interview on state television Tuesday, the Socialist Party official in charge of the constituent assembly said the electoral schedule would be respected but also suggested the current political turmoil was working against setting a quick date.

“One of the aims of the constituent assembly is to seek the conditions of stability to be able to go to those electoral processes,” said Elias Jaua.

“Those conditions of normality do not exist,” he added, citing protests and institutional clashes between the opposition-led National Assembly and authorities.

Maduro’s critics fear the new body will further sideline the current opposition-led legislature and pave the way for undemocratic changes to the constitution, furthering what they say has been a lurch into dictatorship.

The controversial decision will likely swell anti-government protests, already the biggest since 2014, as they seek to end the socialists’ 18-year rule started under late leader Hugo Chavez.

“This is not a constituent assembly, it’s the dissolution of the republic,” said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara. “A message to Chavismo: It’s time to unite to save Venezuela from Maduro.”

Since anti-Maduro unrest began in early April, some 29 people have been killed, more than 400 people have been injured and hundreds more arrested.

Maduro was vague in a televised speech Monday evening about how members would be chosen for a citizen assembly to produce a new charter. He hinted some would selected by voters, but many observers expect the government to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates to the convention.

“This will be a citizens assembly made up of workers,” the president said. “The day has come brothers. Don’t fail me now. Don’t fail (Hugo) Chavez and don’t fail your motherland.”

If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the assembly. That could distract them from organizing the near daily street protests that they have managed to keep up for four weeks, political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.

Venezuela’s constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Chavez, who began the socialist transformation of the oil-exporting nation.

The president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, called a constitutional assembly a “giant fraud” by Maduro and his allies designed to keep them in power. Borges said it would deny Venezuelans the right to express their views at the ballot box, and he urged the military to prevent the “coup” by Maduro.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Pope Urges End Of Violence In Venezuela And For Government To Respect Human Rights

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Pope Francis urged on Sunday for an end to the violence that has marred the anti-government protests in Venezuela.

He called for the respect of human rights where nearly 30 people were killed in unrest this month.

Francis, speaking to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly address, decried a “grave humanitarian, social, political and economic crisis that is exhausting the population”.

Venezuela’s opposition is demanding elections, autonomy for the legislature where they have a majority, a humanitarian aid channel from abroad to alleviate an economic crisis, and freedom for more than 100 activists jailed by President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

“I make a heartfelt appeal to the government and all components of Venezuelan society to avoid any more forms of violence, respect human rights and seek a negotiated solution …,” he said.

Supporters say Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed head of the hardline opposition Popular Will party, and others are political prisoners whose arrests symbolize Maduro’s lurch into dictatorship.

Maduro says all are behind bars for legitimate crimes, and calls Lopez, 45, a violent hothead intent on promoting a coup.

Vatican-led talks between the government and the opposition have broken down.

Francis told reporters on the plane returning from Cairo on Saturday that “very clear conditions” were necessary for the talks to resume.

On Friday, Venezuela formally notified the Organization of American States of its intention to leave the regional body amid the protests at home and international calls for its embattled government to hold delayed elections and release prisoners.

Venezuelan interim ambassador Carmen Velasquez submitted a letter announcing the move in Washington to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a strong critic of socialist President Maduro.

The notice begins a two-year exit process from the Western Hemisphere’s largest diplomatic body, which had become a forum for its neighbors to exert pressure on Venezuela.

“This is a historic moment that marks a new independence for Venezuela and the region,” said Velasquez, adding that Venezuela would be the first country to leave the Washington-based bloc this way. “We are not going to be participating in any OAS activities.”

On Friday, hundreds marched to a military prison outside Caracas to demand the release of opposition Lopez and other jailed activists they consider political prisoners.

The march was part of an intensifying campaign by the opposition to force Maduro from office. More than 1,300 people have been arrested in almost four weeks of street clashes.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Venezuela says it will quit Organization of American States

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Americas

Venezuela says it will quit Organization of American States

An opposition activist clashes with riot police during a protest march in Caracas on April 26. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

By Mariana Zuñiga and Nick Miroff April 26 at 7:57 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela — Faced with growing criticism from its neighbors over a slide toward authoritarian rule, Venezuela announced Wednesday it will quit the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s oldest regional alliance.

The move comes after OAS member states voted Wednesday to convene an emergency meeting of their top diplomats to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis and deadly political violence that has convulsed Venezuela all month. At least three people were killed in fresh protests Wednesday, including a 20-year-old student struck by a tear gas canister in Caracas.

Speaking on national television Wednesday evening, foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez said President Nicolás Maduro would give formal notice on Thursday of Venezuela’s plans to renounce its OAS membership. During the 24-month period it will take for the country to formally leave, Rodriguez said her government will no longer participate in OAS activities or meetings with other nations she said are trying to “undermine the stability and peace of our country” with the goal of promoting an “invasion.”

OAS general secretary Luis Almagro in recent months has become a fierce critic of Maduro’s, calling him a “dictator” guilty of widespread human rights violations. His concerns are backed by the Washington-based OAS’s largest member states: the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Colombia and several others.

If Venezuela quits OAS, which was founded in 1948, it would join its leftist ally Cuba, whose communist government was expelled in 1962, as the only non-OAS nation in the hemisphere. But Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislature may attempt to block it, and if Maduro is unseated in elections due to take place late next year, his successor could halt the process.

Opposition supporters attend a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas as police respond with tear gas. (Christian Veron/Reuters)

Chris Sabatini, a Latin America expert at Columbia University, said Venezuela’s withdrawal risks a major split in OAS if Nicaragua, Bolivia and other Maduro allies follow him in protest.

“At that point, the body that had once represented the hemisphere would be fractured,” Sabatini said, adding that none of the region’s other international organizations has the same institutional heft as the OAS, including the CELAC bloc of states that excludes the United States and Canada.

Venezuela has asked for an emergency CELAC meeting, that, if boycotted by many other Latin America nations, could leave that international body crippled as well, Sabatini noted, saying Venezuela’s decision is a “rejection of long-standing international rules and commitments” that leaves it increasingly isolated.

On Wednesday, thousands of anti-Maduro protesters again seized control of the main highway through Venezuela’s capital, but their march toward government buildings downtown was pushed back by police water cannons and stinging clouds of tear gas.

Although the standoff has played out the same way several times this month, opponents of Maduro insist they will continue to pressure his government through near-daily protests, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience.

One 20-year-old protester died after being struck with a gas canister in the city’s upscale Altamira district, authorities said.

As the government lashed out at foreign critics Wednesday, the blocked march underscored the degree to which the country’s political crisis has become a battle of attrition ­between Maduro and his ­re-energized opponents.

Venezuela’s opposition clashes with police

The country’s political crisis intensified after its supreme court curbed the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature, then reversed the rulings days later.

Caracas was crippled for another day as the government shut down subway and bus systems and choked off highway access to the capital in what appeared to be an attempt to limit the size of the protests.

Thousands marched against the government anyway, some ready with gas masks. By calling their supporters into the streets repeatedly, opposition leaders say they want to wear down security forces and push the government to meet their demands: new elections, the release of political prisoners, acceptance of international aid and a return to democratic rule.

Their ability to summon huge crowds also sends a message to Venezuela’s armed forces, said political analyst Margarita López Maya, because Maduro grows increasingly dependent on their loyalty as he weakens. Opposition leaders are appealing directly to Venezuelan soldiers, asking them to defy Maduro’s orders and force the government to give ground.

“By putting thousands and thousands of people in the streets almost every day, they’re trying to keep the cost of supporting Maduro very high for the armed forces,” said López Maya. “And the government is in a slide that looks irreversible.”

[Government opponents appeal to Venezuela’s military as chaos grows]

The unrest has left at least 29 dead this month, according to Venezuelan officials, including protesters, police, government supporters, alleged looters and several others who appeared to be bystanders.

The antigovernment surge was triggered by a perfunctory attempt by pro-Maduro judges last month to incapacitate Venezuela’s legislative branch, which the opposition has controlled since it won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections.

The court mostly reversed the decision, but anger swelled again a few days later when the government barred opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office.

Venezuela’s downward spiral has left food and medicine in short supply but anger at the government in abundance. Maduro charges that his enemies are trying to sabotage the oil-rich country’s economic recovery and are paving the way for a foreign invasion.

“They want to fill our country with hate, to push our country into violence,” Maduro said Wednesday. He said he plans to announce “a historic measure” in the coming days but did not elaborate.

Venezuelans Protest Against Dictator Maduro In 4th Week, Protesting Starvation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Oré | CARACAS

Venezuelans erected barricades with garbage and even bathtubs on Monday and snarled traffic with mass “sit-ins” along major thoroughfares to press their demand for early elections as anti-government protests entered a fourth week.

Ten people have been killed during clashes this month between security forces armed with rubber bullets and tear gas and protesters sometimes throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

At least 10 people have also died during night-time looting.

President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government accuses foes of seeking a violent coup with U.S. connivance, while the opposition says he is a dictator repressing peaceful protest.

The opposition’s main demands are for elections, the release of jailed activists and autonomy for the opposition-led congress. But protests are also fueled by the crippling economic crisis in the oil-rich nation of 30 million people.

“I have an empty stomach because I can’t find food,” said Jeannette Canozo, a 66-year-old homemaker, who said police used rubber bullets against protesters blocking a Caracas avenue with trash and bathtubs in the early morning.

Demonstrators wore the yellow, blue and red colors of Venezuela’s flag and held signs denouncing shortages, inflation and violent crime as they chanted: “This government has fallen!”

In the capital, they streamed from several points onto a major highway, where hundreds of people sat, carrying bags of supplies, playing card games, and shielding themselves from the sun with hats and umbrellas.

In western Tachira, at another of the “sit-ins” planned for all of Venezuela’s 23 states, some played the board-game Ludo in the street, while others played soccer or enjoyed street theater.

At protests in southern Bolivar state, a university professor gave a lecture on politics while some people sat down to play Scrabble and others cooked soup over small fires in the streets.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful by mid-afternoon, although there were some scattered reports of security forces dispersing people with tear gas.

“In the morning they appear peaceful, in the afternoon they turn into terrorists and at night bandits and killers,” senior Socialist Party official Diosdado Cabello said. “Let me tell them straight: we’re not going, Nicolas (Maduro) is not going.”

WORST UNREST IN THREE YEARS

This month’s unrest is Venezuela’s worst since 2014 when 43 people died in months of mayhem sparked by protests against Maduro, the 54-year-old successor to late leftist leader Hugo Chavez.

The latest protests began when the pro-government Supreme Court assumed the powers of the opposition-controlled congress. The court quickly reversed course, but its widely condemned move still galvanized the opposition.

The government’s disqualification from public office of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who would be an opposition favorite to replace Maduro, gave further impetus to the demonstrations.

“I’m staying here until 6 p.m. We’re simply warming up because the day will come that we are all coming to the street until this government goes,” said Gladys Avariano, a 62-year-old lawyer, under an umbrella at the Caracas “sit-in.”

More than 1,400 people have been arrested this month over the protests, with 636 still detained as of Monday, according to local rights group Penal Forum.

Facing exhortations from around the world to allow Venezuelans to vote, Maduro has called for local state elections – delayed from last year – to be held soon.

But there is no sign the government will allow the next presidential election, slated for late 2018, to be brought forward as the opposition demands.

Given the country’s economic crisis, with millions short of food, pollsters say the ruling Socialist Party would fare badly in any vote at the moment.

Trying to keep the pressure on Maduro, the opposition is seeking new strategies, such as a silent protest held on Saturday and Monday’s “sit-ins”.

While some small demonstrations have been held in poorer and traditionally pro-government areas, most poor Venezuelans are more preoccupied with putting food on the table.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Efrain Otero in Caracas, and Anggy Polanco and Carlos Eduardo Ramirez in San Cristobal; Writing by Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish)

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Mother Of All Protest Marches In Venezuela Against President Maduro: Starvation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

Racked by food shortages and political unrest, Venezuela swelled with what organizers are calling the “mother of all protests” on Wednesday. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital, Caracas, and other major cities across the country to rally against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who assumed office precisely five years ago.

Throughout the day, those rallies often devolved into clashes between demonstrators and security forces — chaotic, violent scenes rent by tear gas, tossed rocks and even two reported deaths.

Citing witnesses in Caracas, Reuters reports that Carlos Moreno, a teenage student who had not planned to join the demonstration, was shot in the head after “government supporters approached an opposition gathering and fired shots.” The news service says he died in the hospital later.

Later in the day a 23-year-old woman named Paola Ramirez was also shot and killed by pro-government groups, according to The Associated Press.

They were not the first to be felled in the course of the anti-Maduro protests that have been mounting since late last month. As of last week, five protesters — including a 13-year-old boy — had died of injuries suffered in fights with riot police.

But the protesters who showed up Wednesday vowed to keep struggling against Maduro and voicing their displeasure with the state of the country.

“This is exhausting — but we won’t give up until we achieve a better country and democracy,” Luiza Mayorca, a lawyer and mother of three, told NPR’s Phil Reeves in Caracas. “Every time we do something, that’s what we feel: that the worst thing would be to stay home, let fear take over us. This government, this regime, is making life miserable, and we cannot accept it.”

Demonstrators clog a Caracas highway on Wednesday, shouting their resistance to President Nicolas Maduro. The president’s push to tighten his power has helped trigger deadly unrest in Venezuela.

Carlos Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

“We want to get out of all this oppression and dictatorship, all the mistreatment we have had — the hunger, the kids dying in the countryside, the poverty,” another protester, an unemployed school teacher named Libertad Diaz, told Phil.

By several media accounts, hundreds of thousands of anti-Maduro demonstrators flooded city streets to protest bread scarcity, ballooning inflation — which several estimates peg at triple digits — and what they see as an increasingly dictatorial regime.

Protesters point to a moment a few weeks ago as proof of Maduro’s ever-tightening grasp on the levers of power, when a Supreme Court loyal to the president attempted to nullify the opposition-dominated legislature. The court backpedaled and restored power to the body after the abortive attempt drew anger both in Venezuela and the international community.

Maduro’s opposition is also demanding new elections, which were indefinitely postponed last year — mere months after Maduro also canceled a recall referendum that could have ousted him from power.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was banned from public office for 15 years, protects himself against tear gas during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

“What will end the phase in which our country currently finds itself? Allowing free and democratic elections and respecting the constitution, to put a stop to this coup d’état that’s being staged and controlled by Maduro together with the Supreme Court,” Henrique Capriles, a leading figure of the opposition, tells the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Capriles, who Deutsche Welle calls “the opposition’s most promising candidate for the coming elections in 2018,” was banned last week from holding office for 15 years — a move Capriles says he does not recognize.

Maduro, for his part, has rejected the unrest as manufactured by forces outside Venezuela’s borders.

“The US government, the state department, have given the green light, the approval for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela,” Maduro said in a televised address Tuesday, according to The Guardian.

Demonstrators hurl flaming objects at riot police during a rally in Caracas against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

In response to Wednesday’s massive protests, which had long been in the works, Al Jazeera reports Maduro ordered the Venezuelan military to march in Caracas in “defense of morality” and “in repudiation of the traitors of the country.”

“From the first reveille, from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets … saying, ‘Long live the Bolivarian Revolution,’ ” he announced, referring to the populist “revolution” that brought his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to power in 1999.

The military presence did little to ease the upheaval, however — or to dissuade protesters like Diaz.

“We’re going to go on struggling,” she said Wednesday, “because the one who tires, loses.”

U.S. Says Venezuela’s Vice President Is An International Drug Trafficker

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN)U.S. authorities on Monday said the vice president of Venezuela was an international drug trafficker and slapped severe sanctions on him.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said Tareck El Aissami has played a “significant role in international narcotics trafficking,” a news release said.
“OFAC’s action today is the culmination of a multi-year investigation under the Kingpin Act to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” said John Smith, acting director of OFAC.
El Aissami, who was appointed vice president of Venezuela in January, is a former interior and justice minister and governor of the country’s Aragua state.
The Treasury Department said he “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, (and) narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States.”
In addition, the department said El Aissami is linked to coordinating drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, and provided protection to a Colombian drug lord.
Monday’s action imposes sanctions on El Aissami that prohibit anyone in the United States from doing business with him, and freezing any assets the US.
A senior administration official said Monday’s sanctions are “not a reaction to El Aissami’s role as executive vice president of Venezuela. The designation is the result of a years-long investigation of narcotics trafficking by OFAC.”
The official went on to say, “This is a narcotics trafficking case … and any other kind of activity is not a basis for our action today.”
El Aissami is also a subject of a yearlong CNN and CNN en Espanol investigation published last week.
A confidential intelligence document obtained by CNN links El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and ID‘s that it says were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
The official who ordered the issuing of the passports, the report said, is El Aissami, who “took charge of issuing, granting visas and nationalizing citizens from different countries, especially Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iranians and Iraqis.”
El Aissami has not responded to multiple requests for comment over several months. CNN reached out to the Venezuelan government Monday night but there was no immediate response.