Trump freezes all Venezuelan government assets in bid to pressure Maduro

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Battle in the Vargas Swamp at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela July 25, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the United States on Monday, sharply escalating an economic and diplomatic pressure campaign aimed at removing socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power.

The executive order signed by Trump goes well beyond the sanctions imposed in recent months against Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA and the country’s financial sector, as well as measures against dozens of Venezuelan officials and entities.

Trump’s action, the toughest yet against Maduro, not only bans U.S. companies from dealings with the Venezuela government but also appears to open the door to possible sanctions against foreign firms or individuals that assist it.

Russian and Chinese companies are among those still doing significant business in the South American OPEC nation.

“All property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States … are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in,” according to the executive order released by the White House.

The scope of the announcement came as a surprise even to some Trump administration allies. “This is big,” said Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Quintana said it appeared the order would be a sweeping embargo on doing business with Venezuela, although she was awaiting further details.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond immediately to a request to comment.

The United States and most Western nations have called for Maduro to step down and have recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Guaido, accused by Maduro of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt, appointed a board for Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most important foreign asset, earlier this year.

DRAMATIC ACTION

Trump said on Thursday he was considering a quarantine or blockade of Venezuela, although he did not elaborate at the time on when or how such a blockade would be imposed.

He is taking more dramatic action after numerous rounds of sanctions failed to turn Venezuela’s military against Maduro or make significant progress in dislodging him.

U.S. officials have long said they had other weapons in their economic arsenal, even as they privately expressed frustration that European partners and others had not taken stronger steps and that the months-long pressure campaign had not made more headway.

Trump said in a letter to Congress the freezing of assets was necessary “in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime, as well as the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free press, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaido.”

His executive order also threatened sanctions against anyone assisting Maduro or his loyalists, suggesting that Washington could resort to so-called secondary sanctions against third-country companies and individuals.

Fernando Cutz, a former top Trump adviser on Latin America, said the executive order could be applied to non-U.S. firms and entities, limiting their ability to do business with Venezuela if they wanted to continue to deal with U.S. companies or banks.

China and Russia continue to trade oil with Venezuela. The move could escalate tensions with China, already inflamed by a tit-for-tat trade war, said Cutz, now a senior associate with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm.

China and Russia – together with Cuba – have continued to back Maduro, prompting U.S. national security adviser John Bolton to warn Beijing and Moscow on Monday against doubling down in their support for him.

Bolton is slated to give a speech on Tuesday morning at a gathering of more than 50 countries in Lima, Peru, that would outline a planned U.S. initiative to lead to a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela.

Moscow and Beijing turned down invitations to attend.

A White House official declined to comment on the implications of the order for foreign companies doing business in Venezuela, where an economic crisis has driven more than 3 million people to emigrate, fleeing hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

Trump’s order allows exceptions for the delivery of food, medicine and clothing “intended to be used to relieve human suffering.”

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Eric Beech, Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in CARACAS; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Lips and teeth’ no more as China’s ties with North Korea fray

FILE PHOTO: North Korean soldiers chat as they stand guard behind national flags of China (front) and North Korea on a boat anchored along the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jacky Chen

By Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – When Kim Jong Un inherited power in North Korea in late 2011, then-Chinese president Hu Jintao was outwardly supportive of the untested young leader, predicting that “traditional friendly cooperation” between the countries would strengthen.

Two years later, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, the country’s chief interlocutor with China and a relatively reform-minded official in the hermetic state.

Since then, ties between the allies have deteriorated so sharply that some diplomats and experts fear Beijing may become, like Washington, a target of its neighbor’s ire.

While the United States and its allies – and many people in China – believe Beijing should do more to rein in Pyongyang, the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities has coincided with a near-total breakdown of high-level diplomacy between the two.

Before retiring this summer, China’s long-time point man on North Korea, Wu Dawei, had not visited the country for over a year. His replacement, Kong Xuanyou, has yet to visit and is still carrying out duties from his previous Asian role, traveling to Pakistan in mid-August, diplomats say.

The notion that mighty China wields diplomatic control over impoverished North Korea is mistaken, said Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University.

“There has never existed a subordinate relationship between the two sides. Never. Especially after the end of the Cold War, the North Koreans fell into a difficult situation and could not get enough help from China, so they determined to help themselves.”

A famine in the mid-1990s that claimed anywhere from 200,000 to three million North Koreans was a turning point for the economy, forcing private trade on the collectivized state. That allowed the North a degree of independence from outside aid and gave credence to the official “Juche” ideology of self-reliance.

AVOID CHAOS

China fought alongside North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, in which Chinese leader Mao Zedong lost his eldest son, and Beijing has long been Pyongyang’s chief ally and primary trade partner.

While their relationship has always been clouded by suspicion and mistrust, China grudgingly tolerated North Korea’s provocations as preferable to the alternatives: chaotic collapse that spills across their border, and a Korean peninsula under the domain of a U.S.-backed Seoul government.

That is also the reason China is reluctant to exert its considerable economic clout, worried that measures as drastic as the energy embargo proposed this week by Washington could lead to the North’s collapse.

Instead, China repeatedly calls for calm, restraint and a negotiated solution.

The North Korean government does not provide foreign media with a contact point in Pyongyang for comment by email, fax or phone. The North Korean embassy in Beijing was not immediately available for comment.

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment. It has repeatedly spoken out against what it calls the “China responsibility theory” and insists the direct parties – North Korea, South Korea and the United States – hold the key to resolving tensions.

‘FEUDAL AGES’

Until his death in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made numerous entreaties to ensure China would back his preferred son as successor.

While then-President Hu reciprocated, the younger Kim, in his late 20s at the time, began to distance himself from his country’s most powerful ally.

“There’s a lot of domestic politics in North Korea where this young leader who isn’t well-known, he’s not proven yet, especially has to show that he’s not in the pocket of Beijing,” said John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University. “I think he made the decision first to keep Hu Jintao and then (current President) Xi Jinping really at bay.”

Within months of coming to power, Kim telegraphed North Korea’s intentions by amending its constitution to proclaim itself a nuclear state. The execution of Jang in 2013 sealed Beijing’s distrust of the young leader.

“Of course the Chinese were not happy,” said a foreign diplomat in Beijing focused on North Korea. “Executing your uncle, that’s from the feudal ages.”

In an attempt to warm ties, Xi sent high-ranking Communist Party official Liu Yunshan to attend the North’s October 2015 military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Liu hand-delivered a letter from Xi praising Kim’s leadership and including congratulations not just from the Chinese Communist Party but Xi’s personal “cordial wishes” in a powerful show of respect.

Xi’s overture has been repaid with increasingly brazen actions by Pyongyang, which many observers believe are timed for maximum embarrassment to Beijing. Sunday’s nuclear test, for example, took place as China hosted a BRICS summit, while in May, the North launched a long-range missile just hours before the Belt and Road Forum, dedicated to Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative.

MISREADING LIPS

Mao Zedong’s description of North Korea’s relationship with China is typically mischaracterised as being as close as “lips and teeth”.

His words are better translated as: “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” a reference to the strategic importance of the North as a geographical security buffer.

Despite its resentment at the pressure North Korea’s actions have put it under, Beijing refrains from taking too hard a line.

It said little when Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was assassinated in February at Kuala Lumpur’s airport. The half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, had been seen as a potential rival for power in Pyongyang and had lived for years in Beijing, then Macau.

An editorial in China’s influential Global Times warned after Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test that cutting off North Korea’s oil would redirect the conflict to one between North Korea and China.

Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, said North Korea was deeply unhappy with China’s backing of earlier UN sanctions.

“If China supports more radical economic sanctions that directly threaten the stability of the regime, then it is possible that North Korea becomes as hostile to China as to the United States.”

(This story has been refiled to remove reference to uncle in paragraph 18)

(Reporting by Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Lincoln Feast)

End to embargo on sales of arms to Vietnam

Vietnamese soldiers of a commando unit march during a parade marking their 70th National Day at Ba Dinh square in Hanoi,

By Matt Spetalnick

HANOI (Reuters) – The United States announced an end to its embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam on Monday, an historic step that draws a line under the two countries’ old enmity and underscores their shared concerns about Beijing’s growing military clout.

The move came during President Barack Obama’s first visit to Hanoi, which his welcoming hosts described as the arrival of a warm spring and a new chapter in relations between two countries that were at war four decades ago.

Obama, the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, has made a strategic ‘rebalance’ toward Asia a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Vietnam, a neighbor of China, is a key part of that strategy amid worries about Beijing’s assertiveness and sovereignty claims to 80 percent of the South China Sea.

The decision to lift the arms trade ban, which followed intense debate within the Obama administration, suggested such concerns outweighed arguments that Vietnam had not done enough to improve its human rights record and Washington would lose leverage for reforms.

Obama told a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever “throws their weight around”. But he insisted the arms embargo move was not linked to China.

“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations. It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam,” he said. Obama later added his visit to a former foe showed “hearts can change and peace is possible”.

The sale of arms, Obama said, would depend on Vietnam’s human rights commitments, and would be made on a case-by-case basis.

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP OUTRAGED

Human Rights Watch reacted with dismay to Washington’s decision to toss away a critical lever it might have had to spur political reform in the Communist party-ruled state.

Phil Robertson, the watchdog’s Asia director, said in a statement that even as Obama was lifting the arms embargo Vietnamese authorities were arresting a journalist, human rights activists and bloggers on the street and in their houses.

“In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it,” he said.

Obama told the news conference with President Quang Washington would continue to speak out for human rights, including citizens’ right to organize through civil society.

Obama is scheduled to meet with a group of activists on Tuesday.

Quang, who actually announced the lifting of the U.S. embargo before Obama could do so, was until recently minister of public security, which activists say harasses and arrests dissidents.

Dissent was once the domain of just a few in Vietnam, but while the party has allowed more open criticism in recent years, it is quick to slap down challenges to its monopoly on power.

LEVERAGE ON ARMS DEALS

Though the communist parties that run China and Vietnam officially have brotherly ties, China’s brinkmanship over the South China Sea – where it has been turning remote outcrops into islands with runways and harbors – has forced Vietnam to recalibrate its defense strategy.

Security analysts and regional military attaches expect Vietnam’s initial wish list of equipment to cover the latest in surveillance radar, intelligence and communications technology, allowing them better coverage of the South China Sea as well as improved integration of its growing forces.

Washington has allowed sales of defensive maritime equipment since 2014. Hanoi’s military strategists are expected to now seek drones, radar, coastal patrol boats and possibly P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft from the United States.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam’s military at Australia’s Defence Force Academy, said the steep costs of U.S. arms would remain a factor for Hanoi, pushing it toward its traditional suppliers of missiles and planes, particularly long-time security patron, Russia. On the other hand, the lifting of the embargo will provide Vietnam with leverage in future arms deals with those suppliers.

China sees U.S. support for rival South China Sea claimants Vietnam and the Philippines as interference and an attempt to establish hegemony in the region. Washington insists its priority is ensuring freedom of navigation and flight.

However, China’s response to the announcement in Hanoi was muted. The foreign ministry said it hoped the development in relations between the United States and Vietnam would be conducive to regional peace and stability.

Underlining the burgeoning commercial relationship between the United States and Vietnam, one of the first deals signed on Obama’s trip was an $11.3 billion order for 100 Boeing planes by low-cost airline VietJet.

China is Vietnam’s biggest trade partner and source of imports. But trade with the United States has swelled 10-fold over the past two decades to about $45 billion. Vietnam is now Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter to America.

In the commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Obama will on Tuesday meet entrepreneurs and tout a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal he has championed.

Obama said at the news conference he was confident the trade pact would be approved by U.S. legislators, even though it is an election year. He said he had not seen a credible argument that the deal, which will group 12 economies, would hurt U.S. business.

(Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen, Ho Binh Minh, My Pham and Martin Petty in HANOI and by Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Writing by John Chalmers)