Backstory: Reporting from the dark in Venezuela

Locals gather at a street food cart during a blackout in Caracas, March 29. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

(Reuters) – Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.

Two waves of major electricity outages plunged Venezuela into darkness last month, putting even more strain on a nation struggling with food shortages and hyperinflation.

With a diesel-powered generator in their Caracas bureau, Reuters staff are better-placed than most Venezuelans to cope with the blackouts.

But reporting from a darkened city and making sure all journalists and support personnel are safe present multiple obstacles.

“Everything will go down for a minute or two, the TVs and screens will turn off, then maybe a minute later, the power generator will kick in,” said Brian Ellsworth, Reuters senior correspondent in Caracas.

That is when the problems start.

No electricity means pumps do not work, leading to shortages of clean water. Cell networks cannot operate, meaning mobile phones are useless. Bank networks go down. Transport is unpredictable.

“At first, we weren’t totally prepared for it,” said Ellsworth, who has come to accept short outages as normal after 15 years reporting in the country’s capital.

Once it was clear that March’s first blackout would be longer than usual, the bureau immediately stocked up on water and bought food for the team as payment systems collapsed.

Only the bureau has a generator, not the building it is housed in, which makes getting into the office more complicated. To make it easier, a staff member slept in the newsroom most evenings, opening the emergency staircase from the inside so reporters could start work early the next day.

Gathering the news gets more difficult to coordinate.

“Cell reception comes in and out. We can make calls over WhatsApp but we can’t call anyone in the country because no one has a functioning cell line,” Ellsworth said. “We have to rely on short-wave radios which function to about 3 km (1.9 miles), but that can be really fuzzy.”

UNCERTAINTY CLOUDS EVERYTHING

With phones unusable, Venezuelans are cut off from one another and from sources of news and social media.

Ellsworth reported on a rally in eastern Caracas to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.

“How did you know about the rally?” he asked one protester. The answer: she did not. She was looking for her mother. “When I got to her building, they told me she was here, so that’s why I came.”

Hospitals cannot perform some vital functions without electricity. Already scarce food starts to spoil. Schools are closed during power outages, which means looking after children becomes an added burden.

“All of that affects us as a bureau because people have to take care of their own homes,” Ellsworth said. “We try to make sure that all those folks have what they need,” he said.

During busy news periods, the Reuters team in Caracas can include as many as 25 people, from reporters, photographers and television staff to security, cleaning and transport crews. The bureau also tries to provide meals for the building’s security guards who are not formally linked to the company.

“They have the same problems, they are stuck here for 24 hours, and when they leave here they don’t know how they are going to get home, if they will have power at home. They don’t have a way to communicate with their families,” said Ellsworth.

“Reuters needs to look out for people that are helping us maintain the operation.”

Maduro and ruling Socialist Party officials have offered a wide range of explanations for the blackouts, including electromagnetic sabotage by the United States and opposition-linked snipers firing on the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as the country’s head of state, says it is the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

As Ellsworth walks up seven flights of stairs to his family’s apartment to light candles in the darkness, he reflects on the state of uncertainty he and 2 million other inhabitants of Caracas now face as a matter of course.

“They don’t give clear answers as to when power is going to come back on, people don’t really believe them when they say the power’s about to come back on, and when it is back, people don’t really believe it will stay back on,” he said. “The uncertainty starts to cloud everything.”

(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller)

Venezuela blackout leaves streets empty, school and work canceled

Commercial area is pictured during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela canceled work and school on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left streets mostly empty in Caracas and residents of the capital wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic and political crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, which blamed the United States and the opposition for the previous power cut, blamed an “attack” on its electrical system for the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage shuttered businesses, plunged the city’s main airport into darkness and left commuters stranded in Caracas.

The blackout came amid tensions with the United States over the weekend arrival of Russian military planes, which led Washington to accuse Moscow of “reckless escalation” of the country’s situation.

Russia, which has major energy investments in OPEC member Venezuela, has remained a staunch ally of Maduro, while the United States and most other Western nations have endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Citing the constitution, Guaido in January assumed the interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent. Maduro says Guaido is a U.S. puppet attempting to lead a coup against him and has blamed worsening economic difficulties on sanctions imposed by Washington.

Power was restored to much of the country by Monday evening but went out again during the night.

Western cities, including Maracaibo and Barquisimeto, both in the west of the South American country, as well as the central city of Valencia, had no power on Tuesday, according to witnesses.

Many people on Caracas’ streets went to work because they did not know about the government’s suspension of the workday, which was announced by the presidential press office in a 4 a.m. (0800 GMT) tweet.

“How am I supposed to find out, if there’s no power and no internet?” said dental assistant Yolanda Gonzalez, 50, waiting for the bus near a Caracas plaza. “Power’s going to get worse, you’ll see.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday said the blackout that began in the early afternoon was the result of an attack on Venezuela’s main hydroelectric Guri dam which had affected three major transmission lines.

Rodriguez did not explicitly blame Monday’s outage on any particular individual or group. But he said, “the intention of Venezuela’s far right is to attack, generate anxiety and anguish, in order to seize power and steal all our resources.”

The country suffered its worst blackout ever starting on March 7. For nearly a week it left millions of people struggling to obtain food and water and hospitals without power to treat the sick. Looting in the western state of Zulia destroyed hundreds of businesses.

Electricity experts say the outages are the result of inadequate maintenance and incompetent management of the power grid since the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized the sector in 2007.

Russia, which has warned Washington against military intervention in Venezuela, declined to comment on the planes on Tuesday or respond to the accusations from the U.S. State Department.

Venezuelan Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello confirmed that two planes had flown to the country from Russia during the weekend, but he did not give a reason or say whether they carried troops.

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said the “military option” was on the table regarding Venezuela, prompting a strong backlash from regional leaders wary of U.S. troops being deployed to Latin American soil.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – like Trump, a Republican – on Tuesday wrote on Twitter, “I hope the members of Congress & the regional leaders who said they opposed U.S. ‘military intervention’ in #Venezuela will be just as forceful now that #Russia is sending (its) military to Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré and Vivian Sequera; writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Lights, TVs back on in Indonesia quake city, but fate of thousands unknown

A father holds his daughter's hand in a hospital as she receives medical treatment for injuries sustained from the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – Electricity was restored and shops began reopening in Indonesia’s quake and tsunami-stricken city of Palu on Thursday, but the fate of many thousands of people in outlying districts remained unknown nearly a week after the disaster struck.

The small city of 370,000 people has been the focus of the aid effort launched after last Friday’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on the west coast of Sulawesi island.

A soft toy is seen among the ruins of a house after an earthquake hit the Balaroa sub-district in Palu, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

A soft toy is seen among the ruins of a house after an earthquake hit the Balaroa sub-district in Palu, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

International help for survivors has gathered pace, but communities in more remote areas have been cut off by broken roads, landslides and crippled communications, leaving people increasingly desperate for basic needs as aid has only just begun to trickle through.

By Thursday, the official death toll stood at 1,424, but it is widely expected to rise as most of the dead accounted for have been from Palu, while figures for remote areas are trickling in or remain unknown.

“There are so many challenges with this disaster, it’s never been so bad,” said Frida Sinta, an aid volunteer trying to get basic food and other supplies out to fellow residents of Palu.

The city, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has teetered close to chaos this week, with outbreaks of looting, but a recovery was evident as some shops and banks reopened and a major mobile phone network was back in operation.

A local resident stands next to damage cars days after the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A local resident stands next to damage cars days after the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Orderly queues formed at petrol stations after the arrival of fuel shipments and late in the day, traffic lights and televisions flickered back to life as the power came back on.

The improvements are helping with the aid effort.

“We carry whatever we can by car or motorbike within the city wherever we can. But not yet to the most inaccessible places,” Sinta said.

State port operator Pelindo IV said Palu’s port, which was damaged by the quake and tsunami, was open, though a Reuters reporter in the city said she had not seen any shipping activity.

Altogether, the worst affected areas in the disaster zone include some 1.4 million people.

Rescue workers are pushing into outlying districts, where residents have said they have been scavenging for coconuts, bananas, and cassava.

Villagers rushed a Red Cross helicopter that landed near the town of Donggala, northwest of Palu, to distribute bread and other food, a Reuters photographer said.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a briefing the main roads to the south, west, and east of Palu had been opened.

But there has been scant information about conditions on the road to the north, along the coast towards the epicenter of the quake, 78 km (50 miles) from Palu.

“There’s no data,” said Abdul Haris of the national search and rescue agency, when asked about the string of small settlements that line the road, which passes some sandy beaches that attract a trickle of tourists.

“Places have been damaged by the tsunami along the coast,” Nugroho said, but he had no details.

Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami queue up for fuel at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami queue up for fuel at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

‘DIFFICULT TIME’

While the power is back in Palu, it will take much longer for people to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Asril Abdul Hamid, 35, a business owner, was poking through the wreckage of his home in Palu’s Balaroa district, which was badly hit by deadly soil liquefaction.

He salvaged a few mementos including a family portrait.

“My immediate family is safe, thank God, but my cousin was killed,” he told Reuters, adding that his family had got food and water in the past few days.

International aid is beginning to arrive, including supplies from Britain and Australia, after the government overcame a traditional reluctance to accept help from abroad.

The United Nations announced an allocation of $15 million on Wednesday while the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was appealing for 22 million Swiss francs ($22 million).

The United States had provided initial funding and disaster experts and was working to determine what other help could be given, the State Department said.

Indonesian Central Bank Governor Perry Warjiyo said the disaster was a huge challenge but he played down the impact on Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

“We are united and we stand strong,” he told a briefing late on Wednesday.

Straddling the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has long been vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

But safety measures implemented after that disaster, including tsunami warning systems, failed on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Tom Allard in PALU, Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA, Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

For high-stakes summit with Kim, Trump trusts his gut over note cards

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Washignton, DC, U.S. May 17, 2018 and in Panmunjom, South Korea, April 27, 2018 respectively. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque and Korea Summit Press Pool/File Photos

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will deploy a mix of charm and pressure to coax North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into a deal to give up nuclear weapons, trusting his gut instinct over briefing books in his ability to strike an accord, aides and former administration officials said.

Kim, who at 34 is nearly half Trump’s age, will get a concentrated blast of what friends and foes of Trump have experienced since he became president: a volatile, unpredictable leader who can be at turns friendly or tough, or both at the same time.

The June 12 summit in Singapore will be the first face-to-face meeting between Trump, the former reality TV star who likes to keep people guessing up to a cliffhanger finish, and Kim, the heir to a reclusive dynasty with a history of reneging on promises to curb its nuclear ambitions.

While Trump has received a steady diet of briefings, verbal and written, about what to expect when he meets Kim, he trusts his intuition more than anything else, aides and former officials said.

His briefings have covered the gamut from Kim’s family history, the history of broken agreements with Pyongyang and the status of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, one source familiar with the matter said.

Aides expect Trump to try to use a personal touch to try build trust with Kim. The two leaders have done much to improve their relations after hurling insults and threats at each other such as who has the bigger nuclear button.

In his decades as a businessman before entering the White House 18 months ago, Trump did many deals and can bring different skills and techniques to negotiations, one source close to the president said.

“But it’s very ‘gut,’ which people are not used to in the diplomatic world because people are used to reading note cards,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Critics contend that Trump’s seat-of-the-pants approach may be too risky in dealing with North Korea, which alarmed Washington with its rapid advances on a long-range missile possibly capable of hitting the United States.

‘IT’S ABOUT ATTITUDE’

Trump has said his meeting with Kim is a get-to-know-you session and could be the first of several aimed at getting North Korea to scrap its nuclear arsenal.

Trump is preparing for the summit and taking it very seriously, said a senior White House official who asked not to be identified, “but locking himself away and doing what’s been done in the past clearly hasn’t worked.”

Trump himself said on Thursday that he did not think he had to prepare very much and that “it’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.”

Other U.S. officials have questioned whether Trump is doing enough to get up to speed.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came back from meeting Kim in Pyongyang to describe the North Korean leader as “a smart guy who’s doing his homework” for the summit, according to one U.S. official familiar with the matter.

However, the senior White House official pointed to Trump’s relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a sign of how he might deal with Kim: Trump frequently talks about how close he is to Xi, but this has not stopped him from talking tough on trade with Xi.

One former senior administration official who has watched Trump engage with world leaders said he has not had a consistent method in diplomatic dealings, describing him as “kind of all over the map” at times hectoring, at others friendly.

On Thursday, Trump dangled the prospect of inviting Kim Jong Un to the White House if he deemed the summit a success while also signaling he was willing to walk away if he thought talks did not go well.

Trump goes to Singapore confident in his deal-making skills based on his career as a New York real estate developer, which made him a billionaire.

His negotiating skills as president have had mixed success: his attempt to negotiate a healthcare deal with lawmakers fell apart last year, but then he was able to get tax-cut bill through Congress.

On the foreign policy front, his hardline stance on China to cut its massive trade surplus with the United States has risked a trade war, while talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement have stumbled badly.

But that is not likely to deter Trump from his negotiating style.

“I think he wants to go big or go home,” said Michael Allen, a former National Security Council official under Republican President George W. Bush.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom and John Walcott; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

U.S. mail carriers emerge as heroes in Puerto Rico recovery

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

By Hugh Bronstein

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – With the Puerto Rico power grid shredded by Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Postal Service has taken the place of cellphone service at the forefront of island communications.

Only 15 percent of electrical power has been restored since the storm bludgeoned the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, but 99 of Puerto Rico’s 128 post offices are delivering mail. Tents have taken the place of post offices wrecked by Maria.

Mail carriers gather information on sick and elderly residents in far-flung parts where hospitals have closed. Data is fed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief office in San Juan so medical attention can be provided.

Restoration of the power grid is months away and many rural roads are blocked by mudslides, sink holes and downed trees and telephone poles. Since the start of the month the Postal Service has nonetheless been delivering letters and care packages to family members desperate for news.

“It’s been a clutch situation, and you guys have totally come through,” a FEMA worker was heard telling Postal Service Caribbean customer service manager Martin Caballero on Sunday.

“We might know the general area where people need help, but the mail carriers are the only ones who really have the exact addresses,” the FEMA worker told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to news media.

Caballero regularly goes on AM radio, which can be heard by listeners lucky enough to have diesel to run generators, to tell people in inaccessible parts of the island where their mail is being held. He invites them to pick it up, but only when travel conditions become safe.

Even for urban middle-class customers in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, whose concrete homes were not smashed by the storm, it was a chore to recover their blown-away mailboxes or build new ones. Hurricane or not, the Postal Service will not drop off mail without a designated box.

“The wind took them all,” said resident Jenny Amador, a 42-year-old teachers’ assistant.

“I found mine in those trees,” she said, pointing to a gnarl of branches and trunks on the road. She re-attached her mailbox in a cockeyed position in front of her house, using a clothes hanger.

One plucky woman, having heard the postman was on the way, stood stoically with her mailbox tucked under her arm. No one minded when mail carrier Alfredo Martinez showed up out of uniform, unable to do laundry for lack of clean water.

One resident said the return of the mail service was comforting, a sign of a return to normalcy. But another greeted Martinez with a warning.

“If you are bringing me any utility bills, go away,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Sept. 11 drama on Air Force One unfolds in Bush aide’s handwritten notes

Ari Fleischer

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The notes are handwritten on a legal pad and provide a verbatim account of the shock, pain and grim determination aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001.

They were scribbled by Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, and he is releasing them to mark the 15th anniversary on Sunday of the worst attack on American soil since Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

There are six pages in all, the only original verbatim text of what Bush said on Air Force One as he and his senior aides absorbed the news.

“We’re at war,” Bush told Vice President Dick Cheney. Hanging up and turning to his aides, he added: “When we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president. Somebody’s going to pay.”

Fleischer adopted the role of presidential note taker as Air Force One lifted off from Florida after the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon were attacked by hijacked passenger jets.

“I always took notes. It’s how you do your job,” Fleischer told Reuters. “But on Sept. 11 it was instantly clear how much more important it was to have a record of what the president did and said. I basically glued myself to his side almost the entire day and remained in his cabin on Air Force One to listen and take notes.”

Much of the material has been part of the public record. Fleischer has used them for annual tweets about Sept. 11 and in speeches and made them available to the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. But he has not previously released them in full to the public.

The story that unfolds in Fleischer’s penmanship begins with the raw emotions Bush and his aides experienced, the president already itching to retaliate.

“I can’t wait to find out who did it,” Bush said. “It’s going to take a while and we’re not going to have a little slap on the wrist crap.”

There is a dramatic period in which Bush tries to overcome opposition from the Secret Service to letting him return to Washington. The plane first took him to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, then Offutt air base in Nebraska. He got back to Washington that night.

“I want to get home as soon as possible,” Bush said. “I don’t want whoever this is holding me outside Washington.”

An aide responded: “Our people are saying it’s too unsteady still.”

Bush said that was the message he was hearing from Cheney as well.

Bush chief of staff Andy Card said, “The right thing is to let the dust settle.”

Fleischer’s notes include an eerie reference to a communication heard on the plane from the ground that “Angel is next.” Because Air Force One’s codename at the time was “angel,” there was worry onboard that the plane was a target.

He said an armed guard was stationed outside the door leading to the Air Force One cockpit, just in case someone was a threat on the plane itself.

A month later, Bush and his team were told the reference to “angel” was a miscommunication from the ground. One offshoot of the 9/11 attacks was a major renovation of Air Force One’s communications abilities.

The president, only in office for eight months, had another priority in mind as well: making sure his family was safe. Bush’s wife, Laura, and their two daughters were whisked to secure locations.

“Barney?” Bush said, inquiring about his beloved Scottish terrier.

“He’s nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden now,” said Card.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Obama Administration Admits Deceiving Israel; Issues Travel Warning

In what some observers are calling petty acts of revenge against Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress, the Obama administration admitted they have been withholding information about negotiations with Iran from Israeli leaders.

Not only did the administration admit the withholding of information, they also attacked Israeli officials for what they called “cherry picking” of information for complaints about U.S. actions.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “not everything you’re hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate depiction of the talks.”  Critics say, however, that if Israel’s descriptions are not accurate, why the administration is hiding the details of the negotiations.

Meanwhile, the State Department lashed out at Israel by issuing a travel warning to Americans advising them against travel to that nation.  The announcement puts Israel on the same level as Iran, Yemen and Nigeria in the eyes of the state department.

The report from the State Department even admits that while conditions in major cities are the same as metro areas around the world, they are still issuing a travel warning.