Amid crises, Xi seems set to uphold Party’s rule at secretive China conclave

Amid crises, Xi seems set to uphold Party’s rule at secretive China conclave
By Ben Blanchard, Kevin Yao and Keith Zhai

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China’s Communist Party leaders will on Monday start their most important meeting this year, with President Xi Jinping expected to champion the Chinese model of governance while fighting protracted economic and political crises at home and abroad.

The four-day conclave comes at a critical time, as Hong Kong grapples with anti-government protests for the fourth month, drawing Western criticism of Beijing for trampling on the rights and liberties of Hong Kong people in its handling of the violent demonstrations.

China’s economy is also growing at its slowest pace in nearly three decades, hurt in part by a prolonged trade war with the United States. Stable growth has been fundamental to the Party’s political legitimacy.

It is key for Beijing to use the occasion to cast the Chinese political system as meritocratic, unchallengeable and superior to Western democracy, said Wang Jiangyu, director of the Asian Law Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Party leaders have repeatedly warned that without Communist rule, China would descend into chaos and fall prey to hostile Western powers. In September, Xi said China was entering a period of “concentrated risks” – economic, political and diplomatic – and the country must be ready to fight.

“China’s Party-state wants to show that its political system is more attractive overseas, and others should stop their finger-pointing,” Wang said.

Plenums, as such Communist Party meetings are formally called, are generally held every autumn. The upcoming plenum will be the fourth since the last Party congress in late 2017.

It is a closed-door meeting of the party’s Central Committee, which comprises about 370 people and is the largest of its elite bodies that rule China.

Some expected the fourth plenum to have been held last autumn, but it was not, sparking speculation in Beijing of disagreements at the top of the party about the direction of the country.

“The fourth plenum will implement reform plans, and they will talk about how to improve governance, which is pressing,” one Chinese policy insider told Reuters on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“They need to transform the overall state governance capacity and adapt to changes in global rules and withstand stress tests from external risks,” the insider said, adding that the trade war is exacerbating such pressures.

The Communist Party spokesman’s office did not respond to a request for comment on what would be on the plenum’s agenda.

IDEOLOGY

Policy insiders say the trade war, China’s slowing economy and Hong Kong will be discussed, even if there is no direct mention of them in the final closing communique, released by state news agency Xinhua once the meetings have ended.

Two Chinese officials who reviewed the draft of the communique said the document was largely political and focused on ideological innovation.

Still, any ideological change may hint of new economic trajectories, because “ideology in China is never just about grand designs,” said Chucheng Feng, co-founder of GRisk, a political risk analytics firm based in Hong Kong.

“It is deeply linked to reform and the economy,” Feng said.

China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 6% in the third quarter. But U.S. President Trump said this week growth was “probably minus-something”.

Chinese leaders are expected to chart the course for the economy in 2020 at a key meeting in December.

So far, China has shown no overt sign of changing or slowing its economic reforms. Notably, it has embarked on a long-term upgrade of its industries and modernisation of its technological capabilities while moving away from low-end and polluting manufacturing.

But to appease U.S. demands for greater access to Chinese markets, Beijing has pledged open its markets and roll out some relatively pain-free reforms such as new rules next year meant to make it easier for companies to do business in China.

RESHUFFLES

The Party will also look ahead to the next congress in 2022 at this plenum.

How exactly Xi’s continuation of power will be handled after presidential term limits were removed last year will be the “elephant in the room” at the plenum, one senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“It’s unclear exactly what will happen in 2022,” the diplomat said.

One title Xi still does not hold is party chairman, and since the last party congress there has been speculation he could seek to resurrect the position.

Xi is the party’s general secretary, but not its chairman, a title Mao Zedong and his two successors, Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang, both held.

Xi also has no obvious successor.

But diplomats and leadership sources says several senior leaders could be in contention, most notably three people close to Xi: Shanghai party general-secretary Li Qiang, Chongqing party boss Chen Miner, and Guangdong party boss Li Xi.

The party has also lined up younger officials, born in the 1970s, from which it can choose the country’s next generation of leaders. Party bosses could spend the next few years promoting them to key regional positions as governors, ministers, or their equivalent.

Some of the notable young officials include 48-year-old Zhuge Yujie, general-secretary of the Party Committee of Shanghai; 49-year-old Shi Guanghui, who oversees political and legal affairs in Guizhou; and 46-year-old Guangxi deputy governor Yang Jinbai, according to leadership sources and experts.

(Reporting by Kevin Yao and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Keith Zhai in Singapore; Editing by Ryan Woo and Gerry Doyle)

Thousands of Hong Kong civil servants defy government to join protests

Civil servants attend a rally to support the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, China August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Felix Tam and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of civil servants joined in the anti-government protests in Hong Kong on Friday for the first time since they started two months ago, defying a warning from the authorities to remain politically neutral.

Protests against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China have grown increasingly violent, with police accused of excessive use of force and failing to protect protesters from suspected gang attacks.

Chanting encouragement, crowds turned out to support the civil servants at their rally on Friday evening which halted traffic on major roads in the heart of the city’s business district.

“I think the government should respond to the demands, instead of pushing the police to the frontline as a shield,” said Kathy Yip, a 26-year-old government worker.

The rally on Friday came after an open letter penned anonymously and published on Facebook set out a series of demands to the Hong Kong government by a group which said it represented civil servants.

“At present the people of Hong Kong are already on the verge of collapse,” the group wrote in the letter, saying it was “a pity that we have seen extreme oppression.”

The group also listed five demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill; a halt to descriptions of the protests as ‘rioting’; a waiver of charges against those arrested; an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.

The protests against a now suspended extradition bill have widened to demand greater democracy and the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, and have become one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

On Thursday the government said Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants must remain politically neutral as the city braced for another wave of protests over the weekend and a mass strike on Monday across sectors such as transport, schools and corporates.

“At this difficult moment, government colleagues have to stay united and work together to uphold the core values of the civil service,” the government said in a statement.

Protest organizers said over 40,000 people participated in Friday’s rally, while the police put the number at 13,000.

Police said they had arrested eight people, including a leading pro-independence leader, after seizing weapons and suspected bomb-making material in a raid.

Under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been allowed to retain extensive freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, but many residents see the extradition bill as the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control. Anson Chan, former chief secretary, said the rally was spontaneous and civil servants enjoyed the right to assembly and it could not be said to impair political neutrality.

Many civil servants, however, were apprehensive about identifying themselves, with many speaking anonymously or asking for only their first name to be used.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED

Hundreds of medical workers also demonstrated on Friday to protest against the government’s handling of the situation. Large-scale protests are planned for the weekend in Mong Kok, Tseung Kwan O and Western districts.

In a warning to protesters, China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong on Wednesday released a video of “anti-riot” exercises and its top brass warned violence was “absolutely impermissible”.

The PLA has remained in barracks since protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with protests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has described protests in Hong Kong as “riots” that China will have to deal with itself..

Police said seven men and a woman, aged between 24 and 31, were arrested on Friday after a raid on a building in the New Territories district of Sha Tin, where police seized weapons and suspected petrol bombs. Making or possessing explosives illegally can carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.

The police may arrest more people as the investigations unfold, police officer Li Kwai Wah said, adding, “Recently we are very worried about the escalating violence.”

Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was among those arrested. His arrest prompted about 100 protesters to surround a police station to demand his release, television footage showed.

On Friday night, crowds of protesters surrounded a police station where Chan was being held, drawing out riot police to the street outside.

On Wednesday, 44 people were charged in a Hong Kong court with rioting over a recent protest near Beijing’s main representative office in the heart of the city.

The escalating protests, which have shut government offices, blocked roads and disrupted business, is taking a toll of the city’s economy and scaring off tourists.

Cheng aged 39, who was speaking behind a large black mask, said the recent triad attack on protesters and slow police response had angered him and his civil service peers.

Of the five protester demands, he said the need for an independent inquiry into the actions of the police was vital.

“I hope to stay in the civil service for a long time. But we have to act now.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam, Vimvam Tong and Donny Kwok; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for uprising but military loyal to Maduro for now

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.

Early on Tuesday, several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas, and large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent. But by Tuesday afternoon an uneasy peace had returned and there was no indication that the opposition planned to take power through military force.

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota" in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase “La Carlota” in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that “as we understand it” Maduro had been ready to depart for socialist ally Cuba, but had been persuaded to stay by Russia, which has also been a steadfast supporter.

In a message posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday evening, Guaido told supporters to take to the streets once again on Wednesday. He reiterated his call for the armed forces to take his side and said Maduro did not have the military’s support.

“Today Venezuela has the opportunity to peacefully rebel against a tyrant who is closing himself in,” Guaido said.

Maduro appeared in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, among others.

“Today the goal was a big show,” Maduro said, referring to the military members who sided with Guaido as a “small group.” “Their plan failed, their call failed, because Venezuela wants peace.”

He said he had reinstated Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as the head of the Sebin intelligence agency, without providing details on the exit of Manuel Cristopher Figuera at the helm of the agency. Cristopher Figuera replaced Gonzalez Lopez at Sebin last year.

Other U.S. officials said three top Maduro loyalists – Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – had been in talks with the opposition and were ready to support a peaceful transition of power.

“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”

Flanked by uniformed men, Padrino said in a broadcast that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities,” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.

Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests.

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

BOLD, BUT RISKY, MOVE

Tuesday’s move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks sufficient support. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido early on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.

Human rights groups said 109 people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.

“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike.

In a video on his Twitter account, Guaido was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.

Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.

Oil prices topped $73 before easing, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by the U.S. sanctions and the economic crisis.

WHO BACKED WHO?

The crisis has pitted supporters of Guaido, including the United States, the European Union, and most Latin American nations, against Maduro’s allies, which include Russia, Cuba and China.

The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.

“This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.

But accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro. Neither provided evidence.

Trump threatened “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” on Cuba for its support of Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared “weak.”

Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.

The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue.

 

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

France’s Macron offers tax cuts to quell ‘yellow vest’ protests

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference to unveil his policy response to the yellow vests protest, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Thursday to cut tax further and said the French would have to work more as he outlined his response to months of anti-government protests that have challenged his authority.

Two years into his presidency, Macron is under pressure to deliver policies to quell the five-month old “yellow vest” movement, after a first salvo of measures worth 10 billion euros ($11.13 billion) last December failed to put the genie back in the bottle.

Macron said he wanted a “significant” cut in income tax, which would be financed by closing loopholes, squeezing government spending, but the French would also have to work more.

Although the number of demonstrators has declined since a peak in November, protesters clashed with police for a 23rd straight week last Saturday.

Thursday’s response is the result of a three-month long national debate, during which Macron rolled up his sleeves to discuss issues from high taxes to local democracy and decaying shopping streets with mayors, students and hard-up workers.

He stuck to his guns on Thursday, however, about the bulk of reforms his government has already implemented.

“I asked myself: Should we stop everything that was done over the past two years? Did we take a wrong turn? I believe quite the opposite,” Macron told a news conference, the first of his presidency in the Elysee Palace.

The street rebellion erupted over planned diesel tax hikes last November but morphed into a broader backlash against inequality and a political elite perceived as having lost touch with the common person.

Macron, who swept to power promising to “transform France” and “make work pay”, has seen his ambitious reform agenda derailed by the unrest. Pension and unemployment insurance reforms planned for 2019 have made little progress so far.

(Reporting by Michel Rose, Marine Pennetier, Jean-Baptiste Vey; writing by Leigh Thomas, Editing by Sarah White)

Roses in hand, Venezuelan women protesters face security forces

A demonstrator holds up a flower in front of riot policemen during a women's march to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Andreina Aponte and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – Dressed in white and chanting “Liberty!”, tens of thousands of women opposed to Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro marched on Saturday, proffering roses to security forces who blocked their way.

The women’s marches, which took place in most major cities around the South American oil producer, were the latest in five weeks of sustained protests against Maduro whom opponents decry as a dictator who has ruined the economy.

In Caracas, marchers sang the national anthem and shouted “We want elections!” They were halted at various points by lines of policewomen and National Guard troops with armored cars.

The opposition, which has majority support in Venezuela after years of being in the shadow of the ruling Socialist Party, is demanding that delayed state elections be held and the 2018 presidential vote be brought forward.

They also want the government to free scores of jailed activists, allow humanitarian aid from abroad to offset a brutal economic crisis, and respect the independence of the legislature where the opposition won a majority in 2015.

Highlighting vandalism and violence by young masked protesters, Maduro says opponents are seeking a coup with U.S. support and harbor “terrorists” and “murderers” in their ranks.

In response to the crisis, the 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez is setting up a super body known as a “constituent assembly” with powers to rewrite the constitution, shake up public powers, and potentially replace the legislature.

“This march is against opposition terrorism, they are destroying everything,” said cook Fredesvilda Paulino, 54, at a pro-government rally also in Caracas on Saturday where red-shirted women waved pro-Maduro flags and banners.

The women’s marches were organized as part of an opposition attempt to vary tactics and keep momentum against Maduro.

Women have often been feeling the brunt of Venezuela’s economic crisis due to widespread food and medicine shortages, huge lines at shops, soaring prices, and increasing hunger in the nation of 30 million people.

THIRTY-SEVEN DEATHS

Since the anti-Maduro protests began in early April, at least 37 people have died, with victims including supporters of both sides, bystanders and members of the security forces.

Opposition leaders say the constituent assembly is a biased mechanism designed to keep an unpopular leader in power.

They say the government is to blame for violence by young protesters as authorities are refusing a free vote to resolve the crisis and are needlessly blocking and repressing marches.

“Just let us vote, and this will all end,” said teacher Anlerisky Rosales, 22, in the opposition women’s march in Caracas. “There is too much suffering in Venezuela. If we have to, we will give our lives in the street until Maduro goes.”

Various female protesters marched topless with black face masks in mourning for the fatalities.

At one point, a female government official emerged from the security lines to receive a petition and talk with the demonstration leaders.

With Maduro’s approval ratings at around 24 percent – less than half the level at the time of his narrow election victory in 2013 – and Venezuela suffering a fourth year of harrowing recession, the opposition’s challenge is to keep up street pressure and draw in support from poor former “Chavista” sectors.

Officials are hoping they become exhausted and disillusioned, while highlighting the violence of young opposition hotheads to try to discredit the whole opposition.

Many Venezuelans are closely watching the armed forces, who have the potential to tip the balance if they disobey government instructions or give Maduro a nudge behind the scenes.

Top armed forces officials have been pledging loyalty in public, though opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Friday that 85 military officials had been arrested for dissent.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Venezuela death toll rises as foes protest Maduro’s power shakeup

Opposition supporters clash with riot police during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron

By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces battled protesters who lit fires and hurled stones on Wednesday in rage at President Nicolas Maduro’s decree to create an alternative congress, with another fatality taking the death toll to 34 during a month of unrest.

In a familiar pattern in protests against the socialist government, thousands of opposition supporters rallied peacefully at first before being blocked, sparking fights around the city between masked youths and soldiers.

One 17-year-old protester died in the melee from an object that hit him in the neck, said Gerardo Blyde, a district mayor for the opposition.

“A young man with all his life ahead. He simply fought for a better country,” Blyde said on Twitter of the case which the Venezuelan state prosecutor’s office said it would investigate.

More than 200 people were injured as fights raged in various parts of the capital, Blyde and another opposition mayor said.

Marchers tried to reach the National Assembly legislature, where the opposition has a majority, to protest Maduro’s creation of an alternative “popular” congress viewed by foes as a ruse to dodge free elections and cling to power.

They were pushed back by National Guard troops with teargas, armored vehicles and riot shields on the Francisco Fajardo highway, which runs through the middle of the city.

“They are mobilized as if this was a war,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, broadcasting from the scene via the Periscope app favored by protest leaders.

On the opposition side, youths donned gas masks and bandanas, throwing Molotov cocktails and using slingshots to fire stones. They protected themselves with homemade shields, painted in bright colors and decorated with slogans like “Liberty!” and “Murderer Maduro!”

Local media published footage showing two protesters being knocked over by a National Guard vehicle. Both survived.

With demonstrators erecting barricades and police helicopters whirring overhead, at least three opposition lawmakers were injured, activists said. “An injury by the dictatorship is a badge of honor,” tweeted First Justice legislator Freddy Guevara, who said he was hit by a tear gas canister.

Opposition leaders have vowed to stay in the streets after Maduro’s announcement on Monday that he was creating the “constituent assembly” which is empowered to rewrite the constitution.

“It’s a tool to avoid free elections. We’ve been marching 18 years but this is our last card. It’s all or nothing,” said pensioner Miren Bilbao, 66, with friends and family on the Francisco Fajardo highway.

While the opposition was keeping up momentum, it was unclear how the protests could achieve their aims after demonstrations in 2014 failed to dislodge Maduro. Back then, however, the opposition was splintered, protests failed to spread to poor areas and the economy was in better shape.

“WE DESERVE PEACE”

Maduro, 54, the former bus driver who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013, says his foes are seeking a violent coup with the connivance of the United States and encouragement of international media.

Officials say violence around the protests, and the opposition’s unwillingness to hold talks, left Maduro with no choice but to shake up Venezuela’s governing apparatus.

During a meeting with election officials on Wednesday, Maduro said a vote for the new assembly would take place in coming weeks. At least half of the members would be chosen by grassroots groups including workers, indigenous people and farmers, and the rest in a vote, Maduro has said, although details remained fuzzy.

“The new constituent process starting today will consolidate the Republic and bring to the nation the peace that we all deserve,” he said, clutching a pocket-size blue constitution and later dancing to the beat of drums.

“The Republic must defend itself from terrorism,” he added, joining supporters in a rally downtown after presenting his plans to the national election board, which backed the move.

The opposition is seeking to hold state gubernatorial elections delayed from 2016 and bring forward the 2018 presidential vote amid a devastating economic crisis.

It says Maduro’s use of a “constituent assembly” is a cynical ploy to confuse citizens into thinking he has made concessions when in fact he is seeking to tweak the system to avoid elections the Socialist Party would likely lose.

Maduro’s move has drawn condemnation from the United States and some Latin American countries, including regional powerhouse Brazil that labeled it a “coup.”

An influential group of U.S. senators filed sweeping legislation on Wednesday to address the crisis in Venezuela, including sanctioning individuals responsible for undermining democracy or involved in corruption.

But backing has come from regional leftist allies including Cuba. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said Venezuela had the right to “decide its future… without external intervention.”

On top of the latest death on Wednesday, officials announced four more fatalities on Tuesday.

Two people died when a vehicle tried to avoid a protester barricade in the state of Carabobo, Venezuela’s Civil Protection agency tweeted late on Tuesday.

Angel Moreira, 28, who was on a motorbike on a highway leading out of Caracas, also died after a vehicle ran him over while trying to avoid a demonstration, the state prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday.

In addition, the office said Yonathan Quintero, 21, had been killed while a group was “damaging” a business after a protest in the Carabobo state capital of Valencia.

Energy Minister Luis Motta said late on Tuesday “a right-wing terrorist plan to paralyze the country” had cut a submarine cable that provided electricity to the palm-tree-studded Caribbean island of Margarita, plunging it into darkness.

The president of state oil company PDVSA, Eulogio Del Pino, said “terrorists” had captured a company tanker truck in the western state of Lara, tweeting pictures of it in flames.

The opposition scoffs that an inept government blames Maduro critics as a smokescreen for rampant crime and lack of maintenance that have Venezuela’s infrastructure creaking.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Andreina Aponte, Corina Pons, Brian Ellsworth, Deisy Buitrago and Eyanir Chinea in Caracas, Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Diane Craft and Andrew Hay)

Sporadic violence in Johannesburg as South Africans protest against Zuma

Demonstrators carry banners as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Ed Stoddard and TJ Strydom

PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Sporadic violence broke out in Johannesburg as more than 50,000 people marched in South African cities to protest against President Jacob Zuma on Friday, demanding he quit after a cabinet reshuffle triggered the latest crisis of his presidency.

Zuma’s sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in the reshuffle last Thursday has outraged allies and opponents alike, undermined his authority and caused rifts in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

Fitch on Friday followed S&P Global Ratings and downgraded South Africa to “junk”, citing Gordhan’s dismissal as one reason. S&P had issued its downgrade on South Africa in an unscheduled review on Monday.

In Johannesburg, police “fired rubber bullets at protesters who were attacking other protesters with stones. Four protesters sustained minor injuries,” Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesman Wayne Minaar said. Some ANC backers were trying to breach a cordon separating them from members of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Elsewhere in the city, the marches were peaceful.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, which had called for the marches, held a rally of more than 10,000 people that was calm, a few streets from the scene of the violence. Some held placards saying “Fire Zuma”.

“Our country is in crisis,” Maimane, who wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt after the DA said it had received threats to the protest’s leaders, said. “The time to act is now.”

“We are unhappy about his leadership because he does not seem to care about the people,” said Syriana Maesela, 65, a retiree carrying a South African flag. “The irony is I did the same thing in 1976 when I was a student. I also marched then,” she said, referring protests against the apartheid regime.

About 10,000 gathered in a field outside the Union Buildings, the site of Zuma’s offices in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.

A PROTEST SURVIVOR

Zuma, 74, has faced protests in the past. The ANC on Wednesday rejected calls for Zuma to quit, and analysts doubted marches would shake the president. It said its members in parliament would vote against a motion of no confidence in Zuma on April 18, a key rallying call for the marchers on Friday.

And Zuma supporters also gathered. About 300 camouflage-clad veterans of the ANC’s now-disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA ) military wing ringed the party’s Luthuli House building in downtown Johannesburg, mounting mock parades and singing in support of the president.

Some clad in the yellow, green and gold colors of the ANC also danced, waving placards emblazoned with the words: “I’m prepared to die for my ANC” and “Hands off our President”.

“They are free to march freely but not to try and remove a government that was elected democratically,” said Kebby Maphatsoe, the head of the veterans group and also Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.

“Let them wait for 2019 and we will take them on, but the ones that want to remove it undemocratically, MKMVA will rise up to the occasion.”

The rand <ZAR=D3> weakened slightly after Fitch’s announcement. The currency has tumbled more than 11 percent since March 27, when Zuma ordered Gordhan to return home from overseas talks with investors, days before firing him.

“The bottom line is we are paying for the consequences of the political regime that has lost direction,” said Gary van Staden, analyst at NKC African Economics. The downgrade will add to pressure on Zuma to leave office, he said.

Capital Economics Africa economist John Ashbourne said in a note that although there was mounting opposition to Zuma “we think that the most likely outcome is still that Mr. Zuma will decide the timing of his own exit.”

PARLIAMENT

In Cape Town, motorists hooted in support of the march as about 10,000 people gathered at various points in the city, including outside parliament.

“It’s not simply a question of his removal. It is about the renewal of the ANC and democracy,” said Gerrald Ray, 56, a business strategist.

About 4,000 people were also marching in the coastal city of Durban, the main city in the KwaZulu Natal province, an ANC stronghold.

“We need to unite and fight this corruption,” said Michelle Fortune, 48, a manager who declined to say where she works. She wore a South African flag bandana.

Meanwhile, members of the ANC Youth League gathered in downtown Durban, singing “Awuleth’umshini wami”, a song popularized by Zuma, which means “bring me my gun” and held placards supporting the president.

(Additional reporting by Marius Bosch, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Nqobile Dludla and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Rogan Ward in Durban; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Larry King)

Protesters demand fall of Egypt’s government over islands deal

Egyptian Protests April 2015

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Knecht

CAIRO (Reuters) – Thousands of Egyptian protesters angered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia called on Friday for the downfall of the government, chanting a powerful slogan used in a 2011 uprising.

Sisi, who once enjoyed widespread support, has faced mounting criticism in recent months, including over his management of the economy.

“The people want the downfall of the regime,” the protesters yelled outside the Cairo press syndicate, using the same phrase heard during the 2011 revolt against president Hosni Mubarak who later stepped down.

They also chanted: “Sisi Mubarak”, “We don’t want you, leave” and “We own the land and you are agents who sold our land.”

Sisi’s government announced last week the signing of a maritime demarcation accord that put the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which lie between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, in Saudi waters, prompting an outcry in Egyptian newspapers and on social media.

Saudi and Egyptian officials say the islands belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia had asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.

In other parts of Cairo, police fired tear gas at protesters, security sources said.

A Reuters witness said a crowd was dispersed and riot police had taken control of an area outside a mosque in the Mohandiseen district of the capital. Four people were arrested, the security sources said.

Tear gas was also fired in the Giza area outside Cairo, dispersing about 200 people, security sources said.

Critics say the government has mishandled a series of crises from an investigation into the torture and killing of an Italian student in Cairo to a bomb that brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai last October.

PATIENCE WITH SISI FADING

Many Egyptians, eager for an end to the turmoil triggered by the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, enthusiastically welcomed Sisi when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after mass protests.

As military chief, Sisi toppled Egypt’s first freely elected leader, and then went on to become president on promises of stability after launching the fiercest crackdown on dissent in modern Egypt’s history.

Egyptians turned a blind eye as Islamists and other opponents of the government were rounded up, swelling prisons to about 40,000 political detainees, according to estimates by human rights groups.

But a growing number of Egyptians are losing patience over corruption, poverty and unemployment, the same issues which led to Mubarak’s downfall, while Sisi has appeared increasingly authoritarian in televised speeches.

“We want the downfall of regime. We have forced disappearances, all the youth are in jail. I just got out of jail a year ago after two years inside,” said Abdelrahman Abdellatif, 29, an air conditioning engineer, at the press syndicate demonstration.

“The youth of the revolution are still here. We are not gone. We want stability but that doesn’t mean sell our land and kill our youth. We are experiencing unprecedented fascism and dictatorship.”

There were also Sisi supporters, such as a woman with a shirt with an image of the former military intelligence chief on it.

In Alexandria, around 500 people gathered near a railway station. Meanwhile 300 Sisi supporters holding up photographs of him protested outside a mosque in the port city.

Calls for protests have gathered thousands of supporters on Facebook, including from the outlawed Brotherhood, which accused Sisi of staging a coup when it was ousted and rolling back freedoms won after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested five years ago in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against Mubarak.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Armed Militia Takes Over Oregon Wildlife Refuge

A wildlife sanctuary in rural Oregon is closed indefinitely after protesters took control of the facility.

A posting on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website says “an unknown number of armed individuals have broken into and occupied” the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is located approximately 30 miles southeast of Burns, Oregon, in the state’s southeast quadrant.

The service says there weren’t any employees in the refuge when it was overtaken.

According to The Oregonian, the group of about 20 military began occupying the refuge some on Saturday to protest how the government handled criminal proceedings against two ranchers.

In October, Dwight Lincoln Hammond and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, received five-year prison sentences for allegedly setting fires on lands the Bureau of Land Management had leased to them for cattle grazing, the Department of Justice said in news release at the time. The Hammonds originally got a more lenient sentence after arguing the mandatory minimum of five years was unconstitutional, but an appeals court ultimately ruled the five-year term fit the crime, threw out their original punishments and resentenced them to the mandatory minimum.

The Hammonds were due to report to prison on Monday, according to The Oregonian, but that hasn’t stopped the militants from staging their protest.

CNN reported the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, told the network they will not leave the land until the government meets their demands, and has threatened to use force in a self-defense capacity if authorities used force against them.

If the name sounds familiar, it could be because anti-government protests run in the family.

Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, who staged a widely publicized armed standoff with the federal government over land rights issues in Nevada in 2014. According to The Oregonian, attorneys for the Hammonds have said that Ammon Bundy does represent their clients.