On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S. diplomats leave Caracas embassy as Washington backs Maduro rival

A U.S. flag waves at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Adriana Loureiro

By Marcos Ascanio

CARACAS (Reuters) – Some U.S. diplomats left the embassy in Caracas for the airport on Friday in a convoy escorted by police, according to a Reuters witness, after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke off relations with Washington and ordered American personnel out.

The United States has rejected Maduro, a socialist in power since 2013, as the oil-rich nation’s legitimate head of state and has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

Guaido, who has galvanized the country’s opposition, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday. But he still has no control over the state’s functions, which remain loyal to Maduro despite a deep economic and political crisis.

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The State Department has ordered some U.S. government workers to leave Venezuela and said U.S. citizens should consider leaving the South American country.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the movement of embassy personnel on Friday.

A Reuters witness at around 8:30 a.m. local time (1230 GMT) saw a convoy of sport utility vehicles accompanied by police motorcycles and vehicles with flashing lights drive onto a Caracas highway in the direction of the airport. Other police blocked regular traffic.

Another video circulating on social media showed the same caravan leaving the embassy, a fortified compound overlooking the city center.

Maduro, in a fiery speech on Wednesday, said he was cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States for instigating a “coup” against him, though U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration then said its relations would be with Guaido.

To ratchet up pressure on Maduro, who began a second term on Jan. 10 following an election last year widely considered to be a fraud, the United States is seeking to cut off funds for his government, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Both Guaido, who has not appeared in public since mass anti-government protests on Wednesday, and Maduro are scheduled to hold press conferences on Friday.

In an interview with broadcaster Univision on Thursday, Guaido described the recent events as “the beginning of the end” for Maduro, who has presided over Venezuela’s worst ever economic crisis. Guaido said he would work to guarantee humanitarian aid and take new measures to pressure Maduro.

“Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship,” he said, from an undisclosed location.

(Additional reporting; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Major Venezuelan opposition parties to boycott local polls

Major Venezuelan opposition parties to boycott local polls

By Andreina Aponte and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – Three of Venezuela’s largest opposition parties vowed on Monday to boycott mayoral polls later this year in protest at an election system they say is biased in favor of President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling socialists.

The multi-party Democratic Unity coalition has had a tough 2017, first failing to bring down Maduro in four months of protests that led to 125 deaths, then losing surprisingly to the Socialist Party in a gubernatorial election earlier this month.

That has left the opposition weakened and divided, and Maduro strengthened, despite growing foreign pressure on his government over alleged rights abuses and corruption, and an unprecedented economic crisis that has millions skipping food.

Three heavyweight movements in the opposition – Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action – announced on Monday they did not trust the government-leaning election board sufficiently to participate in the municipal polls in December.

Justice First leader Julio Borges, who also heads the opposition-led congress, said authorities cheated in the 2013 presidential election, denied Venezuelans a recall referendum last year, and rigged the Oct. 15 gubernatorial vote.

So instead of going into another “manipulated” vote, the opposition should focus on demanding reforms to the election board in anticipation of next year’s presidential poll, he said.

“The objective remains getting Nicolas Maduro out of power, and in this struggle, the world is with us,” he told reporters.

To the surprise of some, the Democratic Action party also joined the boycott. Its candidates won four governorships in October’s vote and then infuriated many opposition supporters by swearing loyalty to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.

MADURO: ‘BALLOTS, NOT BULLETS’

Opposition supporters have been split over participating in elections this year. Some say it is the only way to show they are a majority and undermine Maduro, while a growing number argue there is no point in fighting a “dictator” via a system rigged in his favor.

They are pinning their hopes on international action, including U.S. sanctions against Maduro’s government.

Maduro, whose personal popularity has plunged since his 2013 election due to food shortages and runaway inflation, said “sabotage” and “insurrection” were being planned against the mayoral votes.

“I declare myself in battle,” the 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez said in a meeting with governors on Monday.

“Those who attack the election system must pay.”

Opposition leaders say the government has long been rigging elections by gross abuse of state funds in favor of socialist candidates, and dirty tricks such the last-minute moving of vote centers in opposition areas for the October ballot.

They have also presented some allegations of ballot-rigging.

However, Maduro insists Venezuela’s system is entirely trustworthy and impossible to hack. It has received international praise in the past, although it was slammed over July’s vote for the Constituent Assembly superbody.

Maduro says the street protests earlier this year were a mask for a U.S.-backed coup plot, and accuses opponents of wanting to oust him by undemocratic means.

“Venezuelans want ballots, not bullets,” said Maduro.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuelan anti-Maduro governor sacked, opposition in chaos

Venezuelan anti-Maduro governor sacked, opposition in chaos

By Isaac Urrutia and Eyanir Chinea

MARACAIBO/CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – The newly elected opposition governor of Venezuela’s western Zulia state was dismissed on Thursday by the pro-government local state legislature, adding to disarray among foes of the ruling socialists.

The sacking of Juan Pablo Guanipa, one of five opposition governors in Venezuela’s 23 states, came after he refused to swear loyalty to an all-powerful national legislative superbody aligned with President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling socialists.

“They held a secret, express session to remove him,” Guanipa’s spokeswoman Erika Gutierrez told Reuters of the morning meeting of Zulia’s state legislature.

Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity coalition, which groups several dozen anti-Maduro parties, has been in crisis since a surprise defeat at this month’s state elections.

Despite polls showing it would win a comfortable majority due to widespread public anger over Venezuela’s brutal economic crisis, the opposition only took five states compared to 18 for Maduro’s Socialist Party candidates.

Opposition leaders blamed dirty tricks by the government, including the last-minute moving of many vote centers in opposition areas, along with abstention by supporters disillusioned at the failure of protests earlier this year.

Driving home its advantage, the government said only governors who recognize the supremacy of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly could take office.

Four opposition governors did that this week, sparking recriminations and bickering within the coalition, but Guanipa said he would never “kneel before the dictatorship.”

“This is an assault on the will of the people,” he tweeted after his removal on Thursday, denouncing a “coup” in the oil-rich state on the border with Colombia.

 

OPPOSITION IN-FIGHTING

Prior to this week, the opposition, along with various major foreign nations including the United States, had refused to recognize the Constituent Assembly.

Elected in July after four months of anti-Maduro protests, the body has overridden the opposition-run national congress.

One major opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, said he would no longer participate in the coalition while Henry Ramos, leader of the Democratic Action party whose four governors swore themselves in before the assembly, was a member.

Capriles’ Justice First party, and the Popular Will party of detained opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have called for a complete reformulation of the opposition grouping.

Officials from Maduro down have been rubbing their hands in glee at the opposition implosion, and cheekily urging the controversial Ramos – a polarizing figure unpopular among young opposition militants – to stand for president in 2018.

“Backstabbing has broken out in the opposition, all against all,” crowed Maduro earlier this week.

The Constituent Assembly also announced on Thursday local mayoral elections would be held in December, giving the opposition a short time-frame to develop strategy.

Popular Will has already said it plans to boycott that vote.

Young protesters, who saw hundreds of their fellow demonstrators jailed, injured or even killed in anti-Maduro street protests earlier this year, are disgusted by what for them is now a bleak political scenario.

More than 125 people, including supporters of both sides plus security officials and bystanders, died in four months of unrest that Maduro said amounted to a U.S.-backed coup attempt.

“Let the people continue speaking loud and clear in defense of peace, sovereignty and the sacred right to self-determination,” Constituent Assembly head Delcy Rodriguez said, announcing the December municipal vote that the socialists now expect to win handily given the opposition’s disillusionment.

 

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by David Gregorio and Cynthia Osterman)

 

Venezuelan opposition disarray heaps pain on protesters

Venezuelan opposition disarray heaps pain on protesters

By Andreina Aponte and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – With some nursing wounds, others jailed and many heading abroad, Venezuela’s young opposition supporters are demoralized by the ruling socialists’ shock election win this month, after prolonged protests failed to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Having for months led rallies and battles against Maduro’s security forces in which scores died, youth demonstrators reluctantly abandoned the streets as the opposition turned its attention to the Oct. 15 gubernatorial vote.

Though the opposition looked set to win comfortably due to public anger over food and medicine shortages, plus soaring inflation, the government took 18 of 23 governorships.

That left thousands of young protesters furious and disillusioned with opposition leadership. Many had vigorously opposed participating in the election because it would legitimize what they see as a dictatorship.

“We have been betrayed,” said graphic designer Manuel Melo, 21, who lost a kidney when hit by a water cannon jet.

“The political opposition does not represent us,” he added, in his small bedroom in a poor neighborhood of the teeming capital Caracas. A stylized picture of a heart emblazoned one wall of the room, while a gas mask, used to protect him from tear gas during the unrest, adorned the other.

Melo and many others now see the protests, which left 125 people dead and thousands wounded or in jail, as a waste of time.

They have little stomach to return to the fight and view the leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition as traitors for abandoning the streets in favor of a ballot they believe was rigged by the pro-Maduro election board.

Their disillusionment heightened this week when four of the five winning opposition governors with the Democratic Action party broke ranks with the coalition to swear themselves in before an all-powerful legislative superbody that Maduro’s foes had vowed never to recognize.

That set off a round of unseemly in-fighting and recriminations within the opposition, with heavyweight leader Henrique Capriles saying he would abandon the coalition while Democratic Action leader Henry Ramos remained a member.

“I’m totally dejected because after all these protests, the election, nothing has changed,” said student Javier Lara, 18, who watched a fellow protester die in unrest in the volatile city of San Cristobal on the border with Colombia.

Like many young Venezuelans, Lara now plans to head abroad as soon as possible – to Peru in his case.

“We’ve been sold out by the opposition,” he said.

“ALL OVER THE PLACE”

The Democratic Unity coalition finds itself in crisis.

Its strategy of contesting the gubernatorial elections backfired spectacularly.

In the wake of defeat, stunned opposition leaders could not even agree whether to pursue fraud allegations, with some refusing to accept the election results and others publicly admitting defeat.

A breakup, or reformulation of the coalition, now looks inevitable, with a new strategy and possibly fresh blood needed for the 2018 presidential election.

Though polls routinely showed the opposition had majority support, many Venezuelans view their leaders as an elitist group out-of-touch with their problems.

“The MUD is all over the place,” said Antonio Ledezma, a veteran politician and former opposition mayor who is under house arrest. “The international community deserves an explanation of our behavior.”

Some young opposition supporters are seeking inspiration away from traditional leaders. They voice admiration for Lorenzo Mendoza, a billionaire businessman who has shied away from politics, and Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a former National Guard captain who led an August attack on a military base.

Heaping humiliation on the opposition, Maduro says daily in speeches that “peace” has won and a U.S.-backed plot to oust him has been defeated.

To stoke his foes’ disarray, Maduro has urged Democratic Action leader Ramos – a hate figure for some younger opposition supporters – to stand in the next presidential vote.

“Get ready for 2018, I’m waiting for you!” Maduro said this week, exulting in the opposition’s “chaos”, “back-stabbing” and “divisionism”.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)

Venezuela vote dispute escalates foreign sanctions threat

Venezuelan citizens wait in line at a polling station during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Alexandra Ulmer and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition cried foul on Monday over the ruling socialists’ win in gubernatorial elections, raising the threat of more foreign sanctions following the vote in what the United States called “an authoritarian dictatorship.”

President Nicolas Maduro’s candidates took 17 governorships, versus five for the opposition, in Sunday’s nationwide poll, according to the pro-government electoral board.

The socialists’ strong showing came despite devastating food shortages, triple-digit inflation, and a collapsing currency. Polls had suggested the opposition would easily win a majority.

Dismayed leaders of the Democratic Unity coalition demanded an audit after citing a litany of abuses, including multiple voting, state food handouts on the day of the poll, forced attendance at gunpoint and suspicious phone and power outages.

The opposition fell short of offering detailed evidence of outright fraud, however, and there were no conventional foreign observer missions to verify claims of vote-rigging.

“This is a process of electoral fraud without precedent in our history,” said opposition spokesman Angel Oropeza. An estimated 1 million voters were blocked from voting, he said, referring to claims the election board skewed results by relocating hundreds of polling places away from opposition strongholds.

Many dispirited opposition supporters now see foreign pressure as their only real hope of hurting Maduro ahead of next year’s presidential vote.

The United States condemned the elections as neither free nor fair and vowed to keep up pressure on Maduro for the erosion of democracy in the South American OPEC nation.

“As long as the Maduro regime conducts itself as an authoritarian dictatorship, we will work with members of the international community and bring the full weight of American economic and diplomatic power to bear in support of the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The Trump administration has already imposed sanctions on Maduro and top officials, including election board head Tibisay Lucena. Washington has also struck at the government’s ability to raise more funds via foreign debt.

The European Union could also take measures against Maduro, who was narrowly elected to replace the late leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has also branded Venezuela a dictatorship, expressed concern at claims of “serious irregularities” and “lack of transparency” in the gubernatorial vote.

“France deplores this situation and is working with its EU partners to examine appropriate measures to help resolve the serious crisis,” the French foreign ministry said.

POOR TURNOUT

Venezuela’s government, which insisted in advance of Sunday’s vote that it would demonstrate its commitment to democracy, still retains significant support in poorer, rural settings. And it seems unlikely that supporters of the elite-led opposition, which has struggled to capitalize on discontent over the economy, will return to the streets en masse after months of grueling protests earlier this year.

The protests failed to pressure the government into holding an early presidential election, freeing scores of jailed activists or accepting foreign humanitarian aid.

At least 125 people died, while thousands were injured and arrested in violence.

“Obviously, this was a brutal fraud,” said David Osorio, 21, who lost an eye when he was hit by a gas cannister in the clashes. “But I don’t know if going back to the streets is best … because the same will happen and many are simply not willing.”

A few hundred opposition protesters massed in front of the electoral council in the southern Bolivar state, where results were still not given by Monday evening. The National Guard used tear gas to scatter the crowd, according to a Reuters witness.

Various opposition leaders acknowledged disillusionment and people staying home had played a big role.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” legislator Jose Guerra said, noting record turnout of 74 percent in a 2015 congress vote, which the opposition won, versus 61 percent on Sunday.

Flanked by his powerful wife, soldiers, and red-shirted party members, a jubilant Maduro painted the opposition as sore losers. “When they lose they cry fraud. When they win they shout ‘Down with Maduro,'” said Maduro, 54.

The opposition pocketed governorships including the turbulent Andean states of Merida and Tachira and the oil-producing region of Zulia.

The government, which had previously controlled 20 governorships, took states across Venezuela’s languid plains and steamy Caribbean coast. It won back populous Miranda state, which includes part of the capital Caracas, and also won in Barinas, Chavez’s home state, where his younger brother retained the top job.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Andreina Aponte, Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea, Corina Pons, Girish Gupta in Caracas, Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, William Urdaneta in Ciudad Guayana and Arshad Mohammed in Washington D.C.; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tom Brown)

Thousands rally in Philippines, warn of Duterte ‘dictatorship’

Protesters burn a cube effigy with a face of President Rodrigo Duterte during a National Day of Protest outside the presidential palace in metro Manila, Philippines September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Manuel Mogato and Roli Ng

MANILA (Reuters) – Thousands of Filipinos rallied on Thursday to denounce Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and warn of what they called an emerging dictatorship, in a major show of dissent against the controversial but hugely popular leader.

Politicians, indigenous people, priests, businessmen, and left-wing activists held marches and church masses accusing Duterte of authoritarianism and protesting at policies including a ferocious war on drugs that has killed thousands.

Signs saying “Stop The Killings” and “No To Martial Rule” reflected fears that Duterte would one day deliver on his threat to declare nationwide military rule like that imposed by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The rallies marked the 45th anniversary of the start of that era, remembered by many Filipinos as brutal and oppressive.

Effigies of Duterte were burned, including one which bore both his face and that of late Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

A protester with a toy gun played dead on the ground in a reenactment of one of a spree of drug-related killings that activists say are executions staged by police. Police reject those allegations.

Anti-Duterte Senator Risa Hontiveros said democracy was under threat by a “Dutertatorship” with a “policy of killing”.

Vice President Leni Robredo, who was not Duterte’s running mate, said Filipinos should recognize signs of “rising tyranny”.

“It’s sad that we seemed to have not learned our lessons,” Robredro said. “There’s a culture of violence around us.”

Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and held power for 14 years until his removal in a bloodless, army-backed “people’s power” uprising. He abolished democratic institutions and was accused of killing, torturing and “disappearing” thousands of opponents.

‘JUST GRIPING’

Duterte has expressed admiration for Marcos. His critics are alarmed by his autocratic rhetoric and a vicious disdain for his detractors.

But he won last year’s election by a big margin and has maintained one of the highest public approval ratings of a Philippines president.

Several thousand turned out on Thursday to show their support for Duterte at a rival rally that entertained crowds with live music, dancing and food.

“This is to tell the people that ‘here we are, we are the majority who are happy with the government and not those few who are just griping’,” said rally organizer Benny Antiporda, a former journalist.

Millions of Filipinos admire Duterte’s down-to-earth style, his decisiveness and even his imperfections.

His supporters at home and among the diaspora see him as a champion of ordinary people and the best hope for change that presidents from the political elite failed to bring.

The anti-Duterte demonstrators criticized his pro-China stance and the destruction in southern Marawi City by military air strikes targeting Islamist militants.

Others decried what they see as his cozy relationship with the still-powerful Marcos family.

“It seems that what we fought for in 1972, is again back. The total disrespect for human life, dignity, human rights. And that was how we started,” said Rene Saguisag, a former senator and human rights lawyer.

“In some ways, it may be worse.”

(Additional reporting by Dondi Tawatao, Romeo Ranoco, Enrique de Castro and Ronn Bautista; Writing by Manuel Mogato and Martin Petty; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Venezuela’s Maduro seeks debt negotiations after U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela August 25, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has invited bondholders to unspecified “negotiations” over the country’s foreign debt in coming days, in response to recent U.S. financial sanctions.

With Venezuela deep in recession and its currency reserves at their lowest in more than two decades, the Maduro government and state oil company PDVSA have to pay about $4 billion in debt and interest during the rest of 2017.

“All bondholders are invited to various rounds of negotiations over the next few weeks,” the president said in a speech late on Thursday to the new Constituent Assembly.

He reiterated Venezuela would keep honoring debt, but said he wanted to talk with bondholders affected by sanctions recently imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Maduro said Vice President Tareck El Aissami, already under U.S. financial sanctions over drug trafficking allegations, and Finance Minister Ramon Lobo would coordinate talks and some “bilateral conversations” with bondholders had already begun.

In the same speech, Maduro said Venezuela would seek to “free” itself of the U.S. dollar and “implement a new system of international payments” using currencies such as the yuan, yen, rupee, euro and ruble.

The president did not, however, specify whether paying in a different currency was an option his government wanted to discuss with bondholders.

The Washington-based Institute of International Finance, which represents large banks and financial institutions, said it was advising a group of holders of Venezuelan bonds.

“This informal group will take note of the Venezuelan announcements and discuss how to proceed,” IIF Executive Managing Director Hung Tran told Reuters. The group was made up of bondholders from the United States and elsewhere, he said.

Tran said Venezuela could not change the currency of bonds without agreement by all or a large majority of holders.

Last month, Trump, who brands Maduro a “dictator,” signed an executive order that prohibits Americans from dealing in new debt issued by the Venezuelan government or PDVSA.

That could complicate any debt refinancing attempts.

Washington has also sanctioned PDVSA’s finance boss Simon Zerpa, meaning U.S. businesses are barred from dealing with him, and even Maduro himself in measures intended to punish the Venezuelan government for alleged corruption and rights abuses.

“I will be announcing Venezuela’s definitive response to the financial aggression we – and the international investors – have suffered from Donald Trump and (opposition leader) Julio Borges,” Maduro added in the speech on Thursday.

Borges, the head of the opposition-led congress whose role has been overridden by the Constituent Assembly, has been spearheading an opposition campaign for foreign financial institutions to put the squeeze on Venezuela’s government.

“Venezuela will take a position to defend the judicial and financial security of the republic and its investors or holders of financial instruments,” Maduro added.

BOND PRICES STABLE

Though Maduro gave no further details of what his government wanted to discuss with bondholders or where talks would be held, he did say 74 percent were American or Canadian.

Three bondholders consulted by Reuters said they had not received any formal approach to dialogue, though two said intermediaries for the government had been communicating with some investors informally.

“We didn’t receive an invitation or anything like that. Even if we had we don’t think we would take it too seriously,” said one portfolio manager at a large New York firm that owns Venezuelan debt, asking not to be named.

In trading on Friday, Venezuelan government and PDVSA bonds were little changed in price.

The OPEC nation of 30 million people is in the fourth year of a recession, with its population grappling with triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and medicine.

Critics say a long-failing socialist economic system is to blame for Venezuela’s financial troubles, while the government blames an alleged “economic war” by domestic foes and Washington.

International reserves stood at $9.873 billion on Wednesday, compared with nearly $30 billion five years ago, central bank data shows. They are at their lowest level since 1995.

Most of the country’s reserves are tied up in gold that cannot be used in financial transactions without going through a certification process in another country.

In another speech on Friday, Maduro said that Venezuela would begin selling its oil, gas, gold and “all products” in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, but gave no further details of the intended changes in export transactions.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Davide Scigliuzzo in New York and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by W Simon and Andrew Hay)

Sore at Macron’s ‘dictatorship’ criticism, Venezuela blasts France

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela August 25, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela accused France on Wednesday of joining an “imperialist” campaign after President Emmanuel Macron portrayed the widely criticized socialist government as dictatorial.

Adding to criticism from Washington, the United Nations and major Latin American nations, Macron on Tuesday called President Nicolas Maduro’s administration “a dictatorship trying to survive at the cost of unprecedented humanitarian distress.”

Many countries are outraged at the Venezuelan government’s overriding of the opposition-led congress, crackdown on protests, jailing of hundreds of foes and failure to allow the entry of foreign humanitarian aid to ease a severe economic crisis.

Authorities say local opposition leaders want to topple Maduro in a coup with U.S. support, but its new Constituent Assembly will guarantee peace.

“Comments like this are an attack on Venezuelan institutions and seem to form part of the permanent imperialist obsession with attacking our people,” the government said in a communique responding to Macron.

“The French head-of-state’s affirmations show a deep lack of knowledge of the reality of Venezuela, whose people live in complete peace,” the statement said.

It added that the assembly and upcoming state elections demonstrated the health of local democracy.

Leaders of the fractious opposition coalition boycotted the July 30 election of the assembly, branding it an affront to democracy.

They called for an early presidential election, which Maduro would likely lose as his popularity has sunk along with an economy blighted by triple-digit inflation and food shortages.

France’s foreign ministry on Wednesday reiterated Macron’s comments and said it was studying the best way to accompany all initiatives that would enable credible dialogue that included regional countries.

“It is up to the Venezuelan authorities to give quick pledges in terms of respecting rule of law and fundamental freedoms,” spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told reporters in a daily briefing. “The European Union and France will evaluate their relationship with Venezuela on this basis.”

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Editing by Girish Gupta/W Simon/Ken Ferris)