Special Report: Why the military still stands by Venezuela’s beleaguered president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino speak during a meeting with military commanders, in Caracas, Venezuela June 3, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – One of the central mysteries of Venezuela’s slow-motion collapse: Why does the military continue to support Nicolas Maduro, the president who has led the once-prosperous South American country into poverty and chaos?

The answer, according to people familiar with Venezuela’s military structure, starts with Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the charismatic caudillo who cemented strongman socialist rule in the nation of about 30 million people.

In a series of actions that began in 1999, the former lieutenant colonel and one-time coup leader began taming the military by bloating it, buying it off, politicizing it, intimidating the rank and file, and fragmenting the overall command.

Once he took office in 2013, Maduro handed key segments of the country’s increasingly ravaged economy to the armed forces. Select military officers took control of the distribution of food and key raw materials. A National Guard general and military deputies now manage the all-important national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA [PDVSA.UL].

The two leaders also embedded intelligence agents, with the help of Cuba’s security services, within barracks, former officers say, instilling paranoia and defusing most dissent before it happens. Intelligence agents have arrested and jailed scores of perceived troublemakers, including several high-profile officers, even for minor infractions.

The overhaul, former military officials say, created a jumbled and partisan chain of command. Top officers, grateful for perks and fearful of retribution, are often more preoccupied with pleasing Socialist Party chiefs than with national defense. Instead of drills and war games, some generals find themselves fielding calls to plant vegetables or clear garbage.

Many lower-ranking soldiers, destitute and desperate like most of Venezuela’s working class, have deserted the military in recent years, joining at least 4 million other fellow emigres seeking a better life elsewhere. But few senior officers have heeded the opposition’s call for rebellion, leaving the armed forces top-heavy, unwieldy and still standing by Maduro.

“The chain of command has been lost,” said Cliver Alcala, a former general who retired in 2013 and now supports the opposition from Colombia. “There is no way to know who is in charge of operations, who is in charge of administration and who is in charge of policy.”

Some commanders, like Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, a four-star general, are nearly as much a face of the administration as Maduro. Padrino is sanctioned by the United States for ensuring Maduro’s “hold on the military and the government while the Venezuelan people suffer,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Reuters was unable to reach Padrino or other senior officers mentioned in this article. Venezuela’s defense ministry didn’t reply to email or telephone inquiries. The country’s information ministry, responsible for government communications including those of the president, didn’t reply to Reuters either.

Padrino is hardly alone.

Consider the sheer number of officers awarded flag rank in Venezuela.

The country’s roughly 150,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard troops are a fraction of the more than 1 million who make up the U.S. armed forces. Yet Venezuela, with as many as 2,000 admirals and generals, now boasts as much as twice the top brass as the U.S. military – more than 10 times as many flag officers as existed when Chavez became president.

The estimate is according to calculations by former Venezuelan officers and the U.S. military.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The result, government opponents say, is a bureaucratic and operational mess, even at the very top.

Padrino, for instance, is both a general and defense minister. But he can’t officially mobilize troops without the consent of Remigio Ceballos, an admiral who also reports directly to Maduro and heads the Strategic Operations Command, an agency created by Chavez to oversee deployments.

“You have a general in chief and an admiral in chief,” said Hebert Garcia, a retired general who once served under Maduro but now supports the opposition from Washington. “Which one are you supposed to obey?”

The armed forces could still turn on Maduro, particularly if popular outrage boils over and makes military support for the president untenable. Still, calls by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in late April unsuccessfully sought to rally the troops against Maduro, thus far remain unheeded.

Guaido in May told reporters his efforts to convert troops are thwarted by the military’s fragmented structure and intimidation within its ranks. “What is preventing the break?” he asked. “The ability to speak openly, directly with each of the sectors. It has to do with the persecution inside the Socialist Party, inside the armed forces.”

To better understand the pressures and policies keeping the troops in Maduro’s camp, Reuters interviewed dozens of current and former officers, soldiers, military scholars and people familiar with Venezuelan security. In their assessment, the military has evolved into a torpid bureaucracy with few leaders capable of engineering the type of mass mutiny that Maduro’s opponents long for.

“REAL POWER”

Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” as Chavez dubbed his remaking of the country, itself has roots in military rebellion. Six years before he was elected president in 1998, Chavez led a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez, a deeply unpopular president who Congress eventually forced from office.

Once in power, Chavez immediately took steps to enlist the military in his vision for a paternalistic, state-led economy that would share abundant oil wealth with long-neglected segments of Venezuela’s population.

With a new constitution in December 1999, Chavez stripped Congress of its oversight of promotion of senior officers. That gave the president ultimate authority to assign flag ranks and empower allied officers.

Because many state and local governments at the time were still controlled by rivals, Chavez also saw the military as a tool that could show his administration hard at work. A new program, “Plan Bolivar 2000,” ordered troops to fill potholes, clean highways, refurbish schools and carry out other public works.

The $114 million effort put sizeable sums at the discretion of commanders, giving officers a taste for a new kind of influence. “What Plan Bolivar 2000 taught officers was that real power doesn’t lie in commanding troops, but rather in controlling money,” said one retired general. The general, who served under Chavez and Maduro, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Soon, some of the funds began to disappear.

Miguel Morffe, a retired major, once worked as a captain in the remote northwestern region of La Guajira. He recalls receiving a request from superiors to provide materials for an unspecified schoolhouse. When Morffe told a lieutenant colonel that he didn’t understand where the supplies would be going, the superior told him: “I need those materials for something else.”

“The school didn’t exist,” Morffe concluded.

Military officials didn’t reply to questions about the alleged incident.

By 2001, a raft of corruption allegations plagued the Plan Bolivar program.

Chavez fired General Victor Cruz, the Army’s commander in charge of the program. Cruz denied wrongdoing and wasn’t charged with any crime at the time. Venezuelan authorities arrested him last year when press reports linked him to funds in an offshore account. A Caracas court in May ordered him to stand trial on charges of illicit enrichment.

Reuters couldn’t reach Cruz for comment or identify his legal counsel.

In 2002, Chavez said he would wind down Plan Bolivar 2000.

Regional elections, he told Chilean sociologist and political activist Marta Harnecker in an interview, had put more allies in mayoral and state offices, where they could now work in unison with the national government. The military, he said, would return to its normal business.

That April, however, a small group of top officers emboldened Chavez to further remake the armed forces. Encouraged by conservative leaders and wealthy elites unhappy with his leftist agenda, the officers staged a coup and briefly arrested Chavez.

But the coup unraveled. Within two days, Chavez was back in power.

He purged the top ranks. More importantly, he reined in several powerful offices, including the Defense Ministry. Henceforth, the ministry would manage military budgets and weapons procurement, but no longer control troops themselves. Chavez created the Strategic Operations Command, the agency that manages deployments.

The move, former officers say, jumbled the chain of command.

He also rethought overall strategy.

Increasingly concerned that Venezuela’s oil wealth and leftist policies would make it a target for invasion, particularly by the United States, Chavez pushed for the military to integrate further with the government and society itself.

“We’re transforming the armed forces for a war of resistance, for the anti-imperialist popular war, for the integral defense of the nation,” he said at a 2004 National Guard ceremony.

Military leaders soon had to pledge their allegiance to Chavez and his Bolivarian project, not just the nation itself. Despite resistance from some commanders, the ruling party slogan, “Fatherland, Socialism or Death,” began echoing through barracks and across parade grounds.

As of 2005, another factor helped Chavez tighten his hold on power. Oil prices, years before fracking would boost global supply, soared along with the notion the planet’s reserves were dwindling. For most of the rest of his time in power, the windfall would enable Chavez to accelerate spending and ensure popular support.

Oil money also helped him strengthen relationships with like-minded countries, especially those seeking to counterbalance the United States. Venezuela purchased billions of dollars in arms and equipment from Russia and China. It secured medical and educational support through doctors, teachers and other advisors arriving from Cuba, the closest ally of all.

Cubans came with military know-how, too.

A “cooperation agreement” forged between Chavez and Fidel Castro years earlier had by now blossomed into an alliance on security matters, according to two former officers. Around 2008, Venezuelan officers say they began noticing Cuban officials working within various parts of the armed forces.

General Antonio Rivero, who the previous five years had managed Venezuela’s civil protection authority, says he returned to military activities that year to find Cuban advisors leading training of soldiers and suggesting operational and administrative changes.

The Cubans, he told Reuters, advised Chavez to rework the ranks, once built around strategic centers, into more of a territorial system, spreading the military’s presence further around the country. Rivero was stunned at one training session on military engineering. A Cuban colonel leading the session told attendees the meeting and its contents should be considered a state secret.

“What’s happening here?” Rivero said he asked himself. “How is a foreign military force going to possess a state secret?”

Rivero left Venezuela for the United States in 2014.

Cuban officials didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

The island’s influence soon would become apparent in day-to-day operations.

In Cuba, the military is involved in everything from public works to telecommunications to tourism. In Venezuela, too, ruling party officials increasingly began ordering officers to take part in activities that had little to do with military preparedness. Soldiers increasingly became cheap labor for governors and mayors.

In 2010, a former general working in the Andes, a western region on the Colombian border, was overseeing a complex mobilization of 5,000 troops for a month of combat training. The general spoke on condition that he not be named.

Another general, from a nearby command, called and asked him to halt the exercises. The state governor, the other officer told the general, wanted to reroute the troops – to install energy-efficient light bulbs in homes.

When the general refused, Army Commander Euclides Campos issued a formal order to scrap the training. “This would sound shocking to any military professional, but it’s exactly how the Venezuelan armed forces work,” the former general said.

Reuters was unable to reach Campos for comment.

“TRAITORS NEVER!”

Chavez, stricken by cancer, died in 2013. Maduro, his vice president and hand-picked replacement as the Socialist party candidate for president, won the election to succeed him.

The new president continued naming new flag officers and appointed even more military officials to helm agencies. By 2017, active and former military figures had held as many as half of Maduro’s 32 cabinet posts, according to Citizen Control, a Venezuelan non-profit that studies the armed forces.

In 2014, just as a collapse in oil prices torpedoed Venezuela’s economy, Maduro further fragmented the military structure.

Following the advice of the Cubans, former military officers say, Maduro created new command centers nationwide. He appointed senior officers to run new commands in each of the 23 states and Caracas, the capital, as well as eight regional commands above those. His public speeches are now increasingly peppered with terms like ZODI and REDI, acronyms for the new commands.

Near military facilities, new brass abounded.

“Before, seeing a general was like seeing a bishop or an archbishop, he was an important figure,” recalls Morffe, the retired major. “Not long ago, I saw one in an airport. He walked past a group of soldiers and they didn’t even salute.”

Flag officers now oversee some areas that were once slivers of larger commands, in areas so remote that they have few human inhabitants. The largest landmass in the Western Maritime and Insular Command, overseen by an admiral, is a rocky archipelago with little vegetation and no permanent residents.

The officer, Vice Admiral Rodolfo Sanchez, didn’t respond to a Reuters phone call to his office.

The lopsided, partisan structure has led to mission creep, former officers say.

In the Andes command, which oversees three states, six generals once oversaw roughly 13,000 troops, according to officers familiar with the region. Today, at least 20 generals are now managing ranks that have dwindled to as few as 3,000 soldiers, according to officers familiar with the region.

Last August, three of the generals, including the regional commander, met with municipal officials in the state of Tachira, a hotbed of protests against Maduro in recent years. Days earlier, the government had said explosives used in a drone attack on a military parade in Caracas had been smuggled through Tachira from Colombia.

“All of us together can solve this problem,” Major General Manuel Bernal told the assembled officers and a group of onlookers, including a Reuters reporter.

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Bernal wasn’t talking about the drones, however. Or even national security, once a major issue in the Andean region, where Colombia’s guerrilla war long posed a threat. Instead, the generals had gathered to talk about trash overflowing at a landfill. They deployed soldiers to clear garbage and put out a fire there.

A communications official for the Andes command didn’t respond to a Reuters request to speak with Bernal about the episode.

Military bosses show few signs of shying away from such directives. In the weeks since Guaido’s failed call to arms, senior officers have reiterated their commitment to Maduro.

“We will continue fulfilling our constitutional duties, fulfilling duties under your command,” Defense Minister Padrino told Maduro alongside troops gathered in Caracas in early May.

“Loyal always!” Padrino shouted.

The troops responded in unison: “Traitors never!”

(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Paraguana, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, and Phil Stewart in Washington. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Drones ground flights at London Gatwick, sowing chaos for Christmas travelers

Passengers wait around in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nichol

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Drones flying near London’s Gatwick airport grounded flights for at least 15 hours, causing chaos for tens of thousands of Christmas travelers in what authorities said was a reckless attempt to cripple Britain’s second busiest airport.

Flights were halted at Gatwick at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted flying near its airfield, triggering the biggest disruption to its operations since a volcanic ash cloud grounded flights in 2010.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said those flying the drones were “irresponsible and completely unacceptable” and voiced sympathy for people having their travel plans upset just days before Christmas.

The airport and Gatwick’s biggest airline easyJet told passengers to check before traveling to the airport as several thousand people waited there in chaotic scenes.

“It’s really busy. People are sitting everywhere, on the stairs, on the floors,” passenger Ani Kochiashvili, who was booked onto a Wednesday evening flight, told Reuters by phone.

Police said more than 20 units were searching for the drone operators on Thursday when the airport had expected to handle around 115,000 passengers.

“At the moment we’re still getting sightings of the drones in and around the airfield,” Gatwick Policing Airport Commander Justin Burtenshaw told the BBC.

Sussex regional police said public safety was paramount, adding in a statement: “There are no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”

Gatwick, which lies 50 km (30 miles) south of London, gave no indication on when it would reopen and described the situation as an “ongoing incident”.

There has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets, heightening concerns for safety across the aviation industry in recent years.

The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board.

Stranded passengers look at the departures board at Gatwick Airport, Britain, December 20, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Ani Kochiashvili/via REUTERS

Stranded passengers look at the departures board at Gatwick Airport, Britain, December 20, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Ani Kochiashvili/via REUTERS

“INDUSTRIAL DRONE”

Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe warned that the knock-on effects from the airport closure would last for more than 24 hours. He described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model.

“It’s definitely not a standard, off-the-shelf type drone. “Given what has happened I definitely believe it is a deliberate act, yes,” he said on BBC radio.

“We also have the helicopter up in the air but the police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets.”

Under British law it is illegal to fly drones within 1 km (0.62 mile) of an airport boundary. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Policing airport commander Burtenshaw said the police were exploring other options to try and bring the situation to a close. He said he was confident of tracking down whoever was behind the drones, but it wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s a painstaking thing with the new drones; the bigger the drones the further the reach of the operator so it’s a difficult and challenging thing to locate them.”

SAFETY FIRST

Gatwick apologized on Twitter https://twitter.com/Gatwick_Airport/status/1075530895094894594 to affected passengers, adding that safety was its “foremost priority”.

Tens of thousands of passengers were affected, with hundreds of thousands of journeys likely to be disrupted in the coming days, the airport said.

Gatwick, which competes with Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.

There have been multiple reports of drone sightings since the initial report on Wednesday evening, Gatwick said. The runway briefly appeared to reopen around 0300 GMT before drones were spotted again.

Kochiashvili, who had been due to fly to Tbilisi, Georgia, on Wednesday, said she had spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane which did not take off.

“I’m very annoyed because I’m with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old. They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it’s challenging. There’s literally zero information being shared,” she told Reuters by phone.

Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.

One waiting at the airport on Thursday said: “At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good-natured, but complete mayhem.”

(Reporting by Sarah Young in London and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)

UK defence minister says Russia looking to cause thousands of deaths in Britain

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with employees during a visit to the Gorbunov Aviation factory in Kazan, Russia January 25, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s defence minister warned that Russia was looking to damage the British economy by attacking its infrastructure, a move he said could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths”, The Telegraph newspaper reported.

Relations between Russia and Britain are strained. Prime Minister Theresa May last year accused Moscow of military aggression and in December, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said there was evidence showing Russian meddling in Western elections.

Britain has also scrambled jets in recent months to intercept Russian jets near the United Kingdom’s airspace.

“The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough, and off Brighton Beach,” defence minister Gavin Williamson, tipped as a possible successor to May, was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

“What they are looking at doing is they are going to be thinking ‘How can we just cause so much pain to Britain?’. Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country.”

The Kremlin, which under Vladimir Putin has clawed back some of the global influence lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, has denied meddling in elections in the West. It says anti-Russian hysteria is sweeping through the United States and Europe.

Williamson said Russia was look at ways to attack Britain.

“Why would they keep photographing and looking at power stations, why are they looking at the interconnectors that bring so much electricity and so much energy into our country,” he was quoted as saying.

“If you could imagine the domestic and industrial chaos that this would actually cause. What they would do is cause the chaos and then step back.”

“This is the real threat that I believe the country is facing at the moment,” he said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Friday that Williamson’s comments showed he had lost his understanding of what was reasonable, RIA news agency reported.

“It is likely he has lost his grasp on reason,” RIA quoted ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison)

Honduras awaits presidential vote count as army enforces curfew

Honduras awaits presidential vote count as army enforces curfew

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Honduras enforced a curfew on Saturday while still mired in chaos over a contested presidential election that has triggered looting and protests in which at least one person has died.

The government’s move on Friday evening to enact the nationwide curfew for 10 days and expand powers for the army and police was criticized by opposition leaders as a move to stifle protests over a presidential vote count that stalled for a fifth day without leaving a clear winner.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has clawed back a thin lead over his challenger, TV-host Salvador Nasralla, but thousands of disputed votes could still swing the outcome.

Since last Sunday’s election, at least one protester has died, over 20 people were injured and more than 100 others were arrested for looting after opposition leaders accused the government of trying to steal the election by manipulating the vote count.

“The suspension of constitutional guarantees was approved so that the armed forces and the national police can contain this wave of violence that has engulfed the country,” said Ebal Diaz, member of the council of ministers, on Friday.

Under the decree, all local authorities must submit to the authority of the army and national police, which are authorized to break up blockades of roads, bridges and public buildings.

A 10-day dusk-to-dawn curfew started Friday night.

International concern has grown about the electoral crisis in the poor Central American country, which struggles with violent drug gangs and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

In the widely criticized vote count, Nasralla’s early lead on Monday was later reversed in favor of President Hernandez, leading Nasralla to call for protests.

The count stalled on Friday evening when the electoral tribunal said it would hand-count the remaining ballot boxes that had irregularities, comprising nearly 6 percent of the total vote.

The electoral tribunal said it was set to resume the vote count at 9 a.m. local time on Saturday, but Nasralla’s center-left alliance has refused to recognize the tribunal’s authority unless it recounts three regions with alleged vote irregularities.

The 64-year-old Nasralla is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009. He said on Friday that government infiltrators had started the looting and violence to justify a military curfew.

Hernandez, speaking to reporters after the curfew went into effect, said the government put the measure in place at the request of concerned citizen groups.

“As far as the curfew, I want to clarify that various sectors requested it…in order to guarantee the safety of the people,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Ana Isabel Martinez, Adriana Barrera and Daina Beth Solomon; Writing by Dave Graham and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Michael Perry)

Desperate night search in Mexico school, other ruins as quake deaths pass 200

Desperate night search in Mexico school, other ruins as quake deaths pass 200

By David Alire Garcia and Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Desperate rescue workers scrabbled through rubble in a floodlit search on Wednesday for dozens of children feared buried beneath a Mexico City school, one of hundreds of buildings wrecked by the country’s most lethal earthquake in a generation.

The magnitude 7.1 shock killed at least 217 people, nearly half of them in the capital, 32 years to the day after a devastating 1985 quake. The disaster came as Mexico still reels from a powerful tremor that killed nearly 100 people in the south of the country less than two weeks ago.

Among the twisted concrete and steel ruin of the Enrique Rebsamen school, soldiers and firefighters found at least 22 dead children and two adults, while another 30 children and 12 adults were missing, President Enrique Pena Nieto said.

There were chaotic scenes at the school as bulldozers moved rubble under the buzz and glare of floodlights powered by generators, with parents clinging to hope their children had survived.

“They keep pulling kids out, but we know nothing of my daughter,” said 32-year-old Adriana D’Fargo, her eyes red after hours waiting for news of her seven-year-old.

Three survivors were found at around midnight as volunteer rescue teams formed after the 1985 quake and known as “moles” crawled deep under the rubble.

TV network Televisa reported that 15 more bodies, mostly children, had been recovered, while 11 children were rescued. The school is for children aged 3 to 14.

The earthquake toppled dozens of buildings, broke gas mains and sparked fires across the city and other towns in central Mexico. Falling rubble and billboards crushed cars.

In a live broadcast, one newsreader had time to say “this is not a drill”, before weaving his way out of the buckling studio.

Parts of colonial-era churches crumbled in the state of Puebla, where the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) located the quake’s epicenter, some 100 miles (158 km) southwest of the capital, at a depth of 51 km (32 miles).

As the earth shook, Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano, visible from the capital on a clear day, had a small eruption. On its slopes, a church in Atzitzihuacan collapsed during mass, killing 15 people, Puebla Governor Jose Antonio Gali said.

U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned the earthquake in a tweet, saying: “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.”

In Rome, Pope Francis told pilgrims that he was praying for all the victims, the wounded, their families and the rescue workers in the majority Catholic country. “In this moment of pain, I want to express my closeness and prayers to all the beloved Mexican people,” he said.

NIGHT SEARCHES

Residents of Mexico City, a metropolitan region of some 20 million people, slept in the streets while authorities and volunteers set up tented collection centers to distribute food and water.

Volunteers, soldiers and firefighters formed human chains and dug with hammers and picks to find dust-covered survivors and dead bodies in the remains of apartment buildings, schools and a factory.

The middle-class neighborhood of Del Valle was hit hard, with several buildings toppling over on just one street. Reserve rescue workers arrived late at night and were still pulling survivors out in the small hours of Wednesday.

With power out in much of the city, the work was carried out in the dark or with flashlights and generators. Rescue workers requested silence as they listened for signs of life.

Some soldiers were armed with automatic weapons. Authorities said schools would be shut on Wednesday as damage was assessed.

Emergency personnel and equipment were being deployed across affected areas so that “throughout the night we can continue aiding the population and eventually find people beneath the rubble,” Peña Nieto said in a video posted on Facebook earlier on Tuesday evening.

In Obrera, central Mexico City, people applauded when rescuers managed to retrieve four people alive, with cheers of “si se puede” — “yes we can” — ringing out.

Volunteers continued arriving throughout the night, following calls from the civil protection agency, the Red Cross and firefighters.

The quake had killed 86 people in the capital by early Wednesday morning, according to Civil Protection chief Luis Felipe Puente — fewer than he had previously estimated. In Morelos State, just to the south, 71 people were killed, with hundreds of homes destroyed. In Puebla at least 43 died.

Another 17 people were reported killed in the states of Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

As many as 4.6 million homes, businesses and other facilities had lost electricity, according to national power company Comisión Federal de Electricidad, including 40 percent of homes in Mexico City.

Moises Amador Mejia, a 44-year-old employee of the civil protection agency, was working late into the night to rescue people trapped in a collapsed building in Mexico City’s bohemian Condesa neighborhood.

“The idea is to stay here until we find who is inside. Day and night.”

(Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito, Lizbeth Diaz, Daina Beth Solomon, Stefanie Eschenbacher, Julia Love, Noe Torres; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Catherine Evans and Chizu Nomiyama)

Opposition stays away as Kenyatta warns against ‘destructive division’

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta walks to inspect the honour guard before the opening of the 12th Parliament outside the National Assembly Chamber in Nairobi, Kenya September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Katharine Houreld

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta opened parliament on Tuesday by warning against divisive and destructive politics, while opposition lawmakers boycotted the legislature and rallied to demand the resignation of election officials.

Kenya held parliamentary, presidential and local elections on Aug. 8, but the Supreme Court nullified the presidential results three weeks later, citing irregularities in the tallying process. New elections are scheduled for Oct. 17.

While calling for unity and respect for the constitution, Kenyatta delivered a thinly veiled warning to the opposition lawmakers who had chosen to stay away from parliament.

“My government will not tolerate anyone intent on disrupting our hard-won peace and stability. Under no circumstances must Kenyans ever allow our free competitive processes to become a threat to the peace and security of our nation,” he said, to foot-stamping and cheering from ruling party legislators.

“We shall continue to encourage vibrant democratic competition, we shall not allow destructive division.”

As he spoke, opposition leaders held a rally in Kibera, the capital’s largest slum, rejecting the Oct. 17 date unless officials on the election board, whom they blame for mishandling the polls, resign.

“Now we are putting it squarely to you that the Supreme Court of this country has found you incompetent,” said Kalonzo Musyoka, running mate of Kenyatta’s presidential rival Raila Odinga.

The surprise election annulment initially raised fears of short-term political turmoil in Kenya, the region’s richest nation and a staunch Western ally in a region roiled by conflict.

But it also raised hopes among frustrated opposition supporters, who believe the last three elections have been stolen from them, that the east African nation’s tarnished courts could deliver them justice.

That hope helped tamp down protests that threatened to spark the kind of violence that followed disputed 2007 elections, when around 1,200 people were killed in ethnic bloodletting.

In a separate development, a ruling party lawmaker and a former opposition senator appeared in a Nairobi court, charged with incitement to violence over speeches they had made in the past week. Both were freed on a 300,000 Kenya shilling ($3,000) bond.

A government body monitoring hate speech says that it has seen a spike since the Supreme Court ruling. More than three times as many incidents were reported in the week following the ruling than during the whole 10-week election campaign, it said.

 

(Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri and Humphrey Malalo; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

 

Charlottesville to cover Confederate statues after chaotic meeting

Charlottesville to cover Confederate statues after chaotic meeting

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – City councilors in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted unanimously on Tuesday to cover two statues of Confederate war heroes in black fabric after ejecting spectators from a chaotic council meeting as residents demanded answers over how a recent white nationalist rally turned deadly.

Many activists and local residents crowded into the meeting, which began late Monday and spilled into the wee hours of Tuesday. It was the first council meeting since the Aug. 12 rally, when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters and killed a 32-year-old woman.

Many at the meeting shouted at the councilors and Mayor Mike Signer, forcing them at one point to leave the chamber.

Videos posted on social media showed some in the crowd yelling “shame” and “shut it down” and calling for Signer’s resignation. A photo online showed two people holding a sign that read “Blood On Your Hands” behind the council seats.

When council members returned to the chamber after spectators were removed, they voted to cover the statues of General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, said a city spokeswoman, Paige Rice.

“Council voted unanimously at their meeting to shroud the statues to reflect the city’s mourning,” Rice said.

The planned removal of a statue of Lee in a downtown Charlottesville park had galvanized white nationalists to rally there on Aug. 12 in protest. Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia.

The rally highlights a persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery.

In the wake of the Charlottesville rally, other cities have acted to remove monuments to the Confederacy.

On Tuesday night, nearly 1,000 people rallied at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the removal of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate soldier statue on the campus.

“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! These racist statues got to go!” chanted a crowd that was kept away from the statue by two rings of barricades and police in riot gear.

The protest was largely peaceful, but two people were arrested, said the university’s communications department. No information on the charges levied, or details of the people arrested, were given.

There was no sign of professed white nationalists at the Chapel Hill rally.

In Charlottesville, the council voted to cover the Lee and Jackson statues with black fabric for now because of a pending lawsuit challenging the city’s authority to remove the statue of Lee.

During the council meeting, activists and residents questioned the police response to the Aug. 12 unrest and criticized city leaders for not heeding warnings in advance of the rally, Rice said. She said that three people were removed from the room.

Charlottesville police did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The New York Times reported that the three people ejected from the meeting were issued citations for disorderly conduct.

Signer called last week for a special session of Virginia’s legislature to let localities decide the fate of Confederate monuments such as the Lee statue.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said that would be redundant because the statue’s fate is already subject to litigation, though he said he hoped the court will rule in the city’s favor.

The night before the Aug. 12 rally, scores of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and marched with tiki torches through the campus of the University of Virginia in a display that critics called reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally.

In response to the Charlottesville violence, actor George Clooney and his humanitarian lawyer wife, Amal Clooney, have donated $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a U.S. non-profit that tracks extremist groups.

Police detain a demonstrator during a protest against a statue of a Confederate solider nicknamed Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Police detain a demonstrator during a protest against a statue of a Confederate solider nicknamed Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

(Additional reporting by Corey Risinger in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Leslie Adler and Himani Sarkar)

Trump threatens Venezuela with unspecified ‘military option’

Trump threatens Venezuela with unspecified 'military option'

By James Oliphant

BEDMINSTER, N.J. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday threatened military intervention in Venezuela, a surprise escalation of Washington’s response to Venezuela’s political crisis that Caracas disparaged as “craziness.”

Venezuela has appeared to slide toward a more volatile stage of unrest in recent days, with anti-government forces looting weapons from a military base after a new legislative body usurped the authority of the opposition-controlled congress.

“The people are suffering and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump told reporters in an impromptu question and answer session.

The comments appeared to shock Caracas, with Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino calling the threat “an act of craziness.”

The White House said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro requested a phone call with Trump on Friday, which the White House appeared to spurn, saying in a statement that Trump would gladly speak to Venezuela’s leader when democracy was restored in that country.

Venezuelan authorities have long said U.S. officials were planning an invasion. A former military general told Reuters earlier this year that some anti-aircraft missiles had been placed along the country’s coast for precisely that eventuality.

In Washington, the Pentagon said the U.S. military was ready to support efforts to protect U.S. citizens and America’s national interests, but that insinuations by Caracas of a planned U.S. invasion were “baseless.”

Trump’s suggestion of possible military action came in a week when he has repeatedly threatened a military response if North Korea threatens the United States or its allies.

Asked if U.S. forces would lead an operation in Venezuela, Trump declined to provide details. “We don’t talk about it but a military operation – a military option – is certainly something that we could pursue,” he said.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump’s new stance.

“Congress obviously isn’t authorizing war in Venezuela,” he said in a statement. “Nicolas Maduro is a horrible human being, but Congress doesn’t vote to spill Nebraskans’ blood based on who the Executive lashes out at today.”

‘MADURO MUST BE THRILLED’

The president’s comments conjured up memories of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America during the 20th century, when the United States regarded its “backyard” neighbors to the south as underlings who it could easily intimidate through conspicuous displays of military power.

The U.S. military has not directly intervened in the region since a 1994-1995 operation that aimed to remove from Haiti a military government installed after a 1991 coup.

Trump’s more aggressive discourse could be an asset to Maduro by boosting his credibility as a national defender.

“Maduro must be thrilled right now,” said Mark Feierstein, who was a senior aide on Venezuela matters to former U.S. president Barack Obama. “It’s hard to imagine a more damaging thing for Trump to say.”

The United States sanctioned Maduro and other Venezuelan officials in July after Maduro established a constituent assembly run by his Socialist Party loyalists and cracked down on opposition figures. The assembly’s election drew international condemnation and critics have said it removed any remaining checks on Maduro’s power.

Maduro says only continuing the socialist movement started by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, can bring peace and prosperity to Venezuela, which is suffering from an economic collapse and widespread hunger.

Washington has not placed sanctions on the OPEC member’s oil industry, which supplies America with about 740,000 barrels per day of oil.

Venezuela possesses a stockpile of 5,000 Russian-made MANPADS surface-to-air weapons, according to military documents reviewed by Reuters. It has the largest known cache of the weapons in Latin America, posing a concern for U.S. officials during the country’s mounting turmoil.

The United Nations Security Council was briefed behind closed doors on Venezuela in May at the request of the United States. At the time, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington was just trying to raise awareness of the situation and was not seeking any action by the 15-member Security Council.

(Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Girish Gupta in Caracas; Writing by Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Andrew Hay and Mary Milliken)

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

Demonstrators use a tire on fire to block a street at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Matt Spetalnick and Alexandra Ulmer

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 Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) for alleged corruption and rights abuses.

U.S. President Donald Trump spared Venezuela for now from broader sanctions against its vital oil industry, but 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 protesters backing the 48-hour national strike blocked roads with makeshift barricades and many stores remained shut for the day.

“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.

The opposition estimated that some 92 percent of businesses and workers adhered to the strike, although it offered no evidence for the figure. Overall, 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 PDVSA [PDVSA.UL], stayed open and some working-class neighborhoods buzzed with activity. But hooded youths clashed with soldiers firing tear gas in various places including Caracas.

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

Local rights group Penal Forum said 50 people had been arrested and opposition lawmakers said at least 4 protesters had been shot.

A demonstrator wears a Venezuelan flag during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A demonstrator wears a Venezuelan flag during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

‘IMPERIALIST SANCTIONS’

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 to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez says it will bring peace to Venezuela after four months of anti-government protests in which more than 100 people have been killed.

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 or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, a top cash-paying client.

But policy makers continue to weigh the potential risks of such sanctions, which include inflicting further suffering on Venezuelans and raising U.S. domestic gasoline prices.

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 endure a brutal economic crisis with shortages of food and medicine.

At a campaign-style rally for Sunday’s vote, broadcast on state TV late on Wednesday, a defiant Maduro presented some of those sanctioned with replicas of a sword belonging to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

“Congratulations for these imperialist sanctions,” he said, before handing out the symbolic swords. “What makes the imperialists of the United States think they are the world government?”

Among those sanctioned were national elections director Tibisay Lucena, PDVSA finance vice president Simon Zerpa, former PDVSA executive Erik Malpica, and prominent former minister Iris Varela.

Varela tweeted a picture of herself grinning and extending a middle finger toward the camera with a message that read: “This is my response to the gringos, like Chavez told them, ‘Go to hell, you piece of shit Yankees.'”

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.

A demonstrator gestures while clashing with riot security force at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A demonstrator gestures while clashing with riot security force at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

‘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.

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 Andrew Cawthorne, Corina Pons, Andreina Aponte, Anggy Polanco, Girish Gupta, 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)

Venezuela’s opposition stages two-day anti-Maduro shutdown

Opposition supporters carry a flag with a cartoon of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro while attending a rally to pay tribute to victims of violence during protests against Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Alexandra Ulmer and Mircely Guanipa

CARACAS/PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro’s adversaries launched a two-day national strike on Wednesday in a final push to pressure him into abandoning a weekend election for a super-congress they say will institutionalize autocracy in Venezuela.

Neighbors gathered from dawn in cities around Venezuela to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while many cafes and businesses remained closed in protest against the ruling Socialist Party’s planned Constituent Assembly vote.

“We need to paralyze the whole country,” said Flor Lanz, 68, standing with a group of women blocking the entrance to a freeway in upscale east Caracas with rope and iron sheets.

“I’m staying here for 48 hours. It’s the only way to show we are not with Maduro. They are few, but they have the weapons and the money,” added decorator Cletsi Xavier, 45, beside her.

There was less enthusiasm, however, for the strike in working-class neighborhoods and rural zones where the government has traditionally drawn more support.

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

Many Venezuelans, regardless of their political view, were fretting about the impact of disruptions on their wallets – and stomachs. The OPEC nation is immersed in a brutal economic crisis, with shortages of basic foods and medicines.

“I closed last week, but now I need to open in order to eat,” said Isabel Fernandez, 36, who sells vegetables at a market in the Catia neighborhood of the capital where all the stalls were open albeit with fewer customers than normal.

The opposition, which has majority support after years in the shadow of Maduro’s popular predecessor Hugo Chavez, says Sunday’s election is a farce designed purely to keep the Socialist Party in power. Its No. 1 demand is conventional elections, including for the presidency, to remove Maduro.

MADURO: ‘WAR OR PEACE?’

The 54-year-old president, who calls himself “the son of Chavez” and flag bearer of his “21st century socialism” project, insists Sunday’s vote will go ahead despite intense pressure at home and abroad including a threat of U.S. economic sanctions.

Maduro says the election for the 545-seat assembly, which will have power to rewrite the national constitution and override the current opposition-led legislature, is designed to put power in the hands or ordinary people.

“We are going to decide between war and peace, the future or the past, the sovereign power of the people or the imperialist, oligarchical coup,” he told supporters late on Tuesday of the vote, which the opposition is boycotting.

Despite the no-compromise rhetoric on both sides, mediator and former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was shuttling between the opposition and government. He discussed a proposal to postpone the vote, opposition sources said, but there was no evidence it was getting traction.

State enterprises, including oil company PDVSA that accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export income, were staying open on Wednesday. Public employees – who number 2.8 million in total – had strict orders not to skip work and to vote on Sunday.

“Who can risk their work in moments like this?” said Elio Jimenez, 40, who works at an oil refinery in the Paraguana peninsula.

Five people died during last week’s strike as National Guard troops seeking to dismantle blockades fired tear gas and rubber bullets at masked youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

That took to over 100 the number killed since protests against Maduro began in early April.

Venezuela’s best-known detained political leader, Leopoldo Lopez, issued a video overnight urging people to keep up protests. Lopez taped his 15-minute message from home in Caracas after recently being granted house arrest.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Andrew Cawthorne and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and W Simon)