In Venezuela talks, Maduro allies said they would consider fresh elections: sources

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had discussed holding a presidential election in the coming months during talks to find a breakthrough in the country’s political crisis, four sources told Reuters on Monday.

Opposition politicians will travel to Washington to speak to U.S. officials this week, the sources said.

Maduro and a delegation representing opposition leader Juan Guaido have been meeting in Barbados as part of talks to resolve a political stalemate in the struggling OPEC nation that is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido’s delegation had proposed a presidential vote in six to nine months on a number of conditions including changes to the elections council and supreme court, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The government had, in theory, agreed to a presidential vote on the condition that the United States lift economic sanctions, Maduro be allowed to run as the Socialist Party candidate, and that the vote be held in a year, one of the sources said.

However, the government has since pulled out of the talks to protest a new round of sanctions by Washington, and no new date has been set to resume the discussions, despite a visit by Norway foreign ministry officials – acting as mediators – seeking to revive them.

U.S. officials have expressed support for an election but without Maduro as a candidate, which may be a point of discussion, two of the sources said.

Venezuela’s information ministry, Norway’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Preparing the groundwork for an election requires a raft of changes to state institutions, including both the elections council and the supreme court – both of which have aggressively intervened in election processes to favor Maduro.

Another possible roadblock would be the existence of the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislative body controlled by Socialist Party supporters that opposition leaders say could also intervene in any potential vote.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Widespread blackout hits Venezuela, government blames ‘electromagnetic attack’

People wait for transportation outside a closed metro station during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – More than half of Venezuela’s 23 states lost power on Monday, according to Reuters witnesses and reports on social media, a blackout the government blamed on an “electromagnetic attack.”

A man uses a flashlight to illuminate a woman boarding her car at a parking garage during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A man uses a flashlight to illuminate a woman boarding her car at a parking garage during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

It was the first blackout to include the capital, Caracas, since March, when the government blamed the opposition and United States for a series of power outages that left millions of people without running water and telecommunications.

The blackouts exacerbated an economic crisis that has halved the size of the economy.

Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the outage on Monday was caused by an “electromagnetic attack,” without providing evidence. He added that authorities were in the process of re-establishing service.

Power returned for about 10 minutes to parts of southeastern Bolivar state, site of the Guri hydroelectric dam – the source of most of Venezuela’s generation – but went out again, according to a Reuters witness. Electricity was still out throughout Caracas.

“It terrifies me to think we are facing a national blackout again,” said Maria Luisa Rivero, a 45-year-old business owner from the city of Valencia, in the central state of Carabobo.

“The first thing I did was run to freeze my food so that it does not go bad like it did like the last time in March. It costs a lot to buy food just to lose it,” she said.

The oil-rich country’s hyperinflationary economic crisis has led to widespread shortages in food and medicine, prompting over 4 million Venezuelans to leave the country.

Venezuela’s national power grid has fallen into disrepair after years of inadequate investment and maintenance, according to the opposition and power experts.

“These blackouts are catastrophic,” said 51-year-old janitor Bernardina Guerra, who lives in Caracas. “I live in the eastern part of the city and there the lights go out every day. Each day things are worse.”

(Reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz ; Writing by Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian; Editing by G Crosse and Peter Cooney)

Four million Venezuelans have fled crisis: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail into Brazil, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Four million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled an economic and political crisis in their homeland, all but 700,000 of them since the end of 2015, U.N. aid agencies said on Friday.

The “alarming” figure highlights the urgent need to support host countries, mainly in Latin America – led by Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina – the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement issued in Geneva.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Venezuelans seek joy amid the chaos

A woman holds a child as they get ready to hit a pinata at a birthday party celebration in Caracas,Venezuela, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Shaylim Valderrama and Ivan Alvarado

CARACAS (Reuters) – A night at a bar is interrupted by a power outage, going to a baseball game is prohibitively expensive, and a trip to a nearby beach requires months of savings. But many Venezuelans have not given up on finding ways to smile.

Despite an economic crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicine and has prompted more than three million to emigrate, Venezuelans are seeking ways to have fun and spend time with family in the hope of easing their discomfort.

Still, the increased frequency of blackouts and a political showdown between the socialist government and the opposition has cast a cloud of uncertainty, leaving many Venezuelans bereft of simple pleasures.

Venezuela fell to the 108th place in the 2019 World Happiness Report prepared by the United Nations, down from 102nd place in 2018. In the Western hemisphere, only Haiti was below the oil-rich nation, ranking 147th out of 156 countries studied by the U.N.

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. "It's a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country," said Martinez. "It's not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country,” said Martinez. “It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country.” REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The happiness report – which in its first edition in 2012 placed Venezuela in the 19th position – is based on indicators such as gross domestic product per capita, generosity, life expectancy, social freedom and absence of corruption.

Venezuela was plunged into darkness with two massive blackouts in March, generating water shortages and prompting the government to suspend work and school. Earlier this month, the government launched a power rationing plan, and electricity remains intermittent in many parts of the country.

In search of distraction, Venezuelans from the country’s capital of Caracas have long taken to the nearby seaside state of Vargas to spend weekends with family and friends on the shores of the Caribbean.

“You put your mind in another place,” said Leonel Martinez, a 26-year-old soldier while relaxing on the sand with his girlfriend while her nephews played nearby. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country.”

But in a country where the monthly minimum wage amounts to just $6 per month, the $15-$20 a day trip to the beach can require months of savings and advance planning.

Martinez, who said he used to take the 40-kilometer (25 mile) trip to the beach frequently, said it was the first time he had gone in a year.

“It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country,” said Martinez.

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. "After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive," said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarad

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. “After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive,” said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

‘IN THIS WORLD THERE IS NO CRISIS’

For Venezuelans, queuing for food is a daily ordeal. They also are used to trying multiple pharmacies and hospitals in search of the medicines they need, and more recently have grown accustomed to collecting water from streams.

But that has not stopped Joaquin Nino, a cash-strapped 35-year-old father of two, from taking his kids to an amusement park in southern Caracas.

“We have to work miracles just to have some fun,” Nino said.

At a parade in eastern Caracas celebrating Holy Week, revelers dressed in straw hats topped with flowers sang, banged drums and blew trumpets to tropical beats. With the sun beating down, one marcher who gave his name as Carlos remembers how in past years onlookers would douse those marching with water to cool them down.

“Now, because of the problems with the water, that probably will not happen,” he said.

In central Caracas, a group of men of all ages meet every Sunday to play softball while a handful of their relatives watch. The wire fence that once surrounded the field was long ago stolen. The lights, which once allowed the group to play at night, were also pilfered.

“I always come because my husband plays,” said Delia Jimenez, a 62-year-old industrial designer who jumps up from the stands whenever her husband comes up to bat. “We have fun and we shake off our stress.”

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. "Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars)," said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. “Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars),” said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A few blocks away, groups of young people come together to break-dance, which they say is a way to disconnect. But some admitted that they had not been eating enough recently to be able to spend as much time dancing as they used to.

“When we’re out here dancing, we don’t think about the state of the country,” said Yeafersonth Manrique, a 24-year-old drenched in sweat after a long practice. “In this world there is no crisis.”

 

(Editing by Vivian Sequera, Pablo Garibian and Diane Craft)

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)

Water is now gold for desperate Venezuelans

Wilson Hernandez stands next to buckets of water on the roof of an apartment block in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Living with a scarcity of water is becoming the norm for many Venezuelans.

Families interviewed by Reuters say they have spent months without receiving any water from the tap after power blackouts cut off supply and pipes failed due to a lack of maintenance. Faced with the uncertainty of when it might return, and whether it would be enough, they are conserving as much as water as they can take from rivers or buy at shops. They are bathing, washing clothes and dishes, and cooking with just a few liters a day.

From the poorest slums to the wealthiest neighborhoods, the shortage of water cuts across Venezuelan society as families endure the country’s deepest ever economic crisis.

A 5 liter (1.32 gallons) bottle costs about $2 at a Caracas supermarket, out of reach for many low-income people in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage is only around $6 each month.

“We try to save water scrubbing ourselves standing in bowls,” said Yudith Contreras, a 49-year-old lawyer, in her apartment where little water has arrived over the past two years. She has taken to getting water from streams that run down the Avila mountain above Caracas.

Contreras, who is from one of the families interviewed by Reuters in a ten-story housing complex in downtown Caracas, said her family recycles the water by using it to flush the toilet. In her kitchen and bathroom, she keeps containers of water, which she carries up the nine floors to her apartment as the elevator does not work.

“You have to save water because we don’t know how long this situation will go on for,” she said.

Some residents of the building, a few blocks from the presidential Miraflores Palace, have already exhausted their water supplies. “Today I finished all that I had stored,” said David Riveros, a retired bus driver living on the first floor.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government blames the scarcity of water on a long drought and also accuses opponents of sabotaging its supply. The country’s opposition, led by Juan Guaido, who in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s re-election a fraud, says the problem is due to little maintenance done over many years on Venezuela’s power and water networks.

Earlier this month, Venezuela was plunged deeper into chaos after a near week-long power blackout cut off the already scant water supply to most residents. Since then, Maduro has promised to place enormous water tanks on the roofs of houses and apartment blocks to alleviate the problem.

Since the nationwide blackout, the worst in decades, lines of people queuing to fill up water flowing from the Avila have multiplied, despite warnings that the water was not fit for consumption and could contain bacteria and parasites.

Yuneisy Flores, a 31-year-old homemaker whose family live on the fourth floor, washes her dishes in cartons and strains the water to remove the leftovers of food. She then uses the liquid to flush the toilet. She bathes her 3-year-old daughter in a sink to recycle the water.

In her home, three tanks and several other containers collect water when it comes intermittently. Flores, her husband, and their two little children bathe in one of the tanks, which holds some 18 liters.

“It’s hard, too hard, you can die without water,” she said. “We weren’t aware of this before. Water now is gold.”

 

(Additional reporting by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Carlos Jasso; Writing by Angus Berwick; editing by Diane Craft)

Despite Putin’s swagger, Russia struggles to modernize its navy

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching the Zapad-2017 war games, held by Russian and Belarussian servicemen, at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia September 18, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin calls improving the Russian navy’s combat capabilities a priority.

The unfinished husks of three guided-missile frigates that have languished for three years at a Baltic shipyard show that is easier said than done.

Earmarked for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the frigates fell victim to sanctions imposed by Ukraine in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, prompting Kiev to ban the sale of the Ukrainian-made engines needed to propel them.

With Moscow unable to quickly build replacement engines for the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, construction stopped. Russia is now cutting its losses and selling the three ships to India without engines.

The navy’s problems stem largely, but not exclusively, from the Ukrainian sanctions. There are also problems, for different reasons, with new equipment for the army and air force.

The picture that emerges is that Russia’s armed forces are not as capable or modern as its annual Red Square military parades suggest and that its ability to project conventional force is more limited too.

“You need to always distinguish between reality and the shop window,” said Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Russian magazine Arms Exports.

“Red Square is a shop window. It’s like in restaurants in Japan where there are models of the food. What we see on Red Square are models of food, not the food itself.”

Western diplomats and military experts say Putin has long projected an image of military might to strengthen his and Moscow’s image at home and abroad, but that Russia is overhauling its military far more slowly than China.

“Moscow’s problems mean its ability to project conventional military force — something it is doing in Syria and has done in Ukraine — is not as great as the Kremlin would have the world believe,” said one Western official with knowledge of Russia’s military.

In a speech on Wednesday, Putin did not mention the navy’s engine problems, focusing instead on how it is due to receive seven new multi-purpose submarines ahead of time and 16 new surface ships by 2027.

Defense spending has risen sharply under Putin. But Russian officials and military experts say Moscow has a shortage of modern factories and skilled labor and does not have the available financial resources needed to reverse decades of post-Soviet decline as quickly as it wants.

Frolov said Russia had successfully produced prototypes of new weapons systems, but struggled to move to serial production.

That does not mean Russia’s military is not a force with which to be reckoned. Some of its hardware, such as its S-400 air defense systems, is world-class. Putin has also spent heavily on missile technology, unveiling new hypersonic systems.

But Russia’s air force and army, like its navy, are experiencing re-armament problems. Its new stealth fighter first took to the air more than nine years ago and a super tank made its Red Square debut almost four years ago. Neither is due to be deployed in large numbers soon, government officials say.

NAVAL DISARRAY

The program to build Russia’s most advanced stealth frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov-class, has been paralyzed by sanctions — even before the sanctions hit it took 12 years to build the lead ship, which entered service last summer.

Russia hopes to add 14 more such ships to its navy but has no engines for 12 of those vessels.

Moscow is trying to develop its own gas turbine engines and its own full-cycle manufacturing base.

That task has been handed to aircraft manufacturer NPO Saturn, which is part of Rostec, an industrial conglomerate run by Sergei Chemezov, who served as a KGB spy with Putin.

Ilya Fedorov, Saturn’s then director, said in 2014 he had concerns about costs, and the company failed to deliver the first engines to the navy in 2017.

Fedorov told the Russian news agency Interfax at the time that “all our ships run on these turbines, and if we don’t make our own everything will grind to a halt.”

Fedorov is no longer with the company. Viktor Polyakov, Saturn’s current director, said early last year that prototypes of its three new engine types had passed tests and that serial production had begun.

Chemezov told Reuters at a military exhibition in Abu Dhabi this month that an undisclosed number of engines had been handed to the navy. But none has yet been fitted to the frigates.

Saturn says it has received initial orders from the Ministry of Defense. But one source close to the matter said the ministry had not yet guaranteed how many engines it would buy.

“We shouldn’t expect Russia to start fully fledged serial production for at least another five years,” said Serhiy Zgurets, director of Defense Express, a Ukrainian consultancy.

Alexei Rakhmanov, head of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, said in December that the first Russian-made engine should be fitted to the fourth of 14 more planned frigates in the “very nearest future.”

Even if that happens, Igor Ponomarev, the head of the St Petersburg shipyard making the new stealth frigates, says that vessel is not due to be ready before the end of 2022. The rest of the program is likely to stretch into the 2030s.

TROUBLED STEALTH FIGHTER AND TANK

Russia’s planned new Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jet is also experiencing problems.

Moscow had initially been expected to procure about 150 of the fifth-generation Su-57s, but defense industry and government officials say they now expect just one plane, the first serially-produced aircraft, this year. A further 14 may follow.

Experts say the costs of mass-producing the new plane are simply beyond Russia.

Plans for Russia’s super tank have also foundered.

Oleg Sienko, the then director of the factory which produces the new T-14 Armata battle tank, said in 2016 Putin had approved the purchase of 2,300 Armatas. Since then, various prototypes have been tested, but the tank had to be reworked.

The army will receive the first 12 serially-produced tanks of around 100 only by the end of this year, Defense Ministry sources told daily newspaper Izvestia this month.

Dr. Richard Connolly, a Russia specialist at the University of Birmingham, said Moscow’s military might should not be underestimated but Russia was still suffering from the legacy of an economic crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, hitting state arms orders and the military-industrial complex.

“It’s not as easy as simply saying, ‘Right, we’ve got the money, so go and make it happen because a lot of the shipyards have rusted,” Connolly said.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, by Gleb Stolyarov and Anton Zverev in Moscow and by Stanley Carvalho in Abu Dhabim, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Venezuelan troops to remain on border ahead of aid entry, minister says

Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan troops will remain stationed along the country’s borders to prevent territorial violations, the defense minister said on Tuesday, ahead of the opposition’s plan to bring in humanitarian aid to alleviate an economic crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro has rejected offers of foreign food and medicine, denying there are widespread shortages and accusing opposition leader Juan Guaido of using aid to undermine his government in a U.S.-orchestrated bid to oust him.

Guaido has said that aid will enter Venezuela from neighboring countries by land and sea on Saturday. The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, but Maduro has refused to let it in.

In comments broadcast on state TV, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the opposition would have to pass over “our dead bodies” to impose a new government. Guaido, who has invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, denounces Maduro as illegitimate and has received backing from some 50 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned members of Venezuela’s military who remain loyal to Maduro that they would “find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out.”

“You’ll lose everything,” Trump told a crowd of Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants in Miami.

Guaido has beseeched the armed forces to disavow Maduro, promising them future amnesty, though only a few high-ranking military officials have so far done so.

Padrino said it was unacceptable for the military to receive threats from Trump, and said officers and soldiers remained “obedient and subordinate” to Maduro.

“They will never accept orders from any foreign government … they will remain deployed and alert along the borders, as our commander in chief has ordered, to avoid any violations of our territory’s integrity,” Padrino said.

“Those that attempt to be president here in Venezuela … will have to pass over our dead bodies,” he said, referring to Guaido.

Maduro, who won a second term last year in an election that critics denounced as a sham, retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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)

President Maduro to start new term as Venezuela isolation grows

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures while he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro begins a second term in office on Thursday, shrugging off international criticism that his reelection last year was illegitimate but facing further isolation as an economic crisis fuels a humanitarian emergency.

Leaders from the ruling Socialist Party have disavowed criticism of Maduro’s inauguration, which will keep him at the helm of the OPEC member until 2025, and called for rallies in his support.

Opposition leaders, however, have portrayed the inauguration as the moment at which Maduro will be internationally branded a dictator following a widely boycotted 2018 election that many foreign governments described as a farce.

But continued support from the military, a fractured opposition and a relentless crackdown on opposition critics means that Maduro appears to face few serious challenges at home, despite the international outcry.

“They’ve tried to turn a constitutional swearing-in ceremony into a world war,” Maduro said during a news conference on Wednesday. “But whether there’s rain, thunder or lightning, we’re going to triumph.”

He will be sworn in by the Supreme Court rather than the opposition-run congress, which has been stripped of its powers since the Socialist Party lost control of it in 2016 – a move that underpins opposition criticism that Maduro has consolidated a dictatorship.

Maduro will then head to a ceremony at Venezuela’s military academy, signaling the importance of the armed forces in his governing coalition.

His triumphalist discourse echoes that of his predecessor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who used abundant oil revenues to flood Venezuela with consumer goods while providing heavily subsidized food and medicine.

That contrasts sharply with the Venezuela of today.

Inflation is fast approaching 2 million percent. Some three million people have emigrated since 2015 – many on foot – to escape malnutrition and disease, according to the United Nations.

Bank notes that once paid for months’ worth of groceries are now tossed in trash cans or even woven into multi-colored women’s handbags sold by street merchants.

Maduro last year won reelection despite the economic chaos in large part because the opposition boycotted the vote. He blames an “economic war” led by the United States and the domestic opposition to try to undermine socialism as the cause for the country’s woes.

“I agree with the measures that Venezuela is taking,” said Francisco Rivas, 53, a state employee wearing a red shirt who joined a crowd outside the Miraflores presidential palace in support of Maduro. “[Maduro] is looking out for the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people, but many have betrayed him.”

LOSING PATIENCE

The United States and many Latin American and European countries condemned the vote, leaving Maduro backed by just a handful of stalwart allies from leftist governments.

There are few signs that countries will shutter embassies or sever ties with Venezuela, according to diplomatic sources, but most will not send diplomats to the inauguration.

Opposition activists have called for protests on Thursday. Authorities have responded by filling streets with police checkpoints and rifle-toting troops.

“They’re trying to scare us so that we don’t protest,” said Henry Ramirez, 39, a computer engineer in the western city of San Cristobal, attempting to cut into a line for gasoline, the type of queue that has become increasingly frequent during the crisis. “Tomorrow the dictatorship continues.”

While politically motivated demonstrations have faded, protests take place nearly every day to demand salary improvements, access to food and medicine, or improvements to erratic power and water services. Even supporters of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” were losing patience with the economy.

“I ask that the president focus on increasing wages,” said Daveli Valecillos, a 29-year-old homemaker who traveled to Caracas from the eastern state of Monagas to witness the inauguration. “Every time prices go up it’s a blow to this country, and we don’t know how much longer we can last.”

But many had lost hope that Maduro’s inauguration could change anything.

“I’m just trying to get a few more documents together so I can leave the country,” said Angela Perez, 26, who works the cash register at a fast-food restaurant in the city of Valencia. “There’s no future here. It’s sad but true.”

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mariela Navas in Maracaibo; editing by Angus MacSwan and Susan Thomas)