South Africa’s big retail chains race to restock looted stores

By Nqobile Dludla

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s big retailers are working round the clock to replenish shelves with food in hundreds of stores looted this week in some of the country’s worst unrest for years, they said on Friday.

Retailers also said they are racing to keep stores unaffected by the violence stocked as some shoppers were stripping shelves with panic buying, though blocked roads and disruptions to supply chains were hampering their efforts.

Retailers were just starting to recover from months of coronavirus restrictions when the violence triggered by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma erupted and the looting could now set them back several months.

Massmart, which is majority owned by U.S. retail giant Walmart Inc, said protesters had looted 41 of its stores and two of its distribution centers, with four sites suffering significant damage from arson.

TFG, the owner of Foschini clothing and @home chains, said 190 stores had been looted and damaged to varying degrees. All its stores in KwaZulu-Natal province are shut.

“The timeline to reopen will be quick in some locations whilst in others it will be dependent on the nature and extent of the damage and on the availability of the relevant resources and supply chains,” TFG said.

Pepkor, which is majority owned by Steinhoff International, said 489 stores, representing about 9% of its retail outlets, had been damaged and looted as well as one of the JD Group’s distribution centers in KwaZulu-Natal.

Pepkor’s supply chain and distribution operations in the affected areas have been severely disrupted, it said.

All three retailers, as well as grocery chains Pick n Pay, Shoprite and SPAR Group, whose 184 stores were looted and vandalized, said the priority was to replenish shelves as concerns about food shortages mount.

SPAR trucks were dispatched on Friday with security escorts and the chain said it would try to restock all its KwaZulu-Natal stores open for business over the weekend.

Woolworths said it was working closely with suppliers to make sure its stores were stocked.

“This is largely dependent on the reopening of key transport routes, the ability of local suppliers to continue production, the ability of our staff to access our stores and the safety of our logistics and distribution operations,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Jason Neely and David Clarke)

Syria opposition leader says Assad election to worsen country’s plight

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A “sham” election designed to prolong President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on Syria shows that only international pressure for a U.N.-backed peace plan can pave the way for democratic rule, a Damascus-based secular opposition leader said.

Lawyer Hassan Abdul Azim of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change added that Wednesday’s vote would only worsen the plight of a country afflicted by hunger, poverty and an “authoritarian regime”.

“This insistence on clinging to power does not bring stability,” Abdul Azim told Reuters in a phone interview, referring to acute fuel and food shortages and sky-rocketing inflation that has pushed most Syrians deeper into poverty.

“These sham elections show the regime does not want a political solution and the situation will worsen,” said Abdul Azim, the committee’s general coordinator.

“People are now dying of hunger.”

Unrepentant, Assad says Syrians made their feelings clear by coming out in large rallies to support the election. Addressing his critics as he voted, he said: “The value of your opinions is zero. “Abdul Azim’s committee, whose leaders are based mainly in Syria, was set up in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in March 2011 that spiraled into a devastating war that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

It is a coalition of mainly outlawed opposition parties inside Syria bringing together liberals, leftists and nationalists who demand real democratic change.

Syria’s political future, he argues, rests on major powers pushing forward stalled U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 that paves the way for a transitional government and free and fair elections under U.N. supervision.

“It would be real elections with competing candidates and not ones whose results are known beforehand,” Abdul Azim said of peace plan, negotiated in 2015 in a rare show of unity among major powers.

The prominent opposition figure spent several years in prison during the long decades of Assad family rule.

Abdul Azim blamed the president for wrecking several rounds of Syria Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva since October 2019 that brought together the opposition and the government to draft a new constitution.

UNIFYING OPPOSITION RANKS

Abdul Azim said the mainly domestic opposition parties made major strides in unifying their ranks this month by forming the broad based National Democratic Front (JOOD) coalition. The grouping represents about 15 political parties from a wide spectrum of groups both inside Syria and outside.

After security forces prevented them from holding a founding meeting in Damascus on March 26, a virtual meeting was held on May 18 that will hold a wider conference sometime between mid-June and the first half of July where it will approve its leadership structure, he added.

Abdul Azim and his allies had earlier parted ways with other opposition figures over the nature of opposition to Assad, with Abdul Aziz and his partners advocating peaceful protests and rejecting foreign intervention and an armed insurgency.

They later joined the Riyadh-based High Negotiation Committee that included the Istanbul-based based opposition backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Western enemies of Assad who for years financed mainstream rebel groups.

Abdul Azim said their meeting last week endorsed a political program in line with the U.N. peace plan that would allow the return of millions of Syrians who fled or were displaced and have so far resisted returning for fear of reprisals.

“We seek fundamental democratic change that ends the existing authoritarian regime with all its symbols,” he said.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by William Maclean)

Shaken by new coronavirus strain, world shuts the door on Britain

By Gerhard Mey and Ben Makori

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Several countries closed their borders to Britain on Monday over fears of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, causing travel chaos and raising the prospect of food shortages just days before the UK is set to leave the European Union.

India, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong suspended travel for Britons after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned a mutated variant of the virus, up to 70% more transmissible, had been identified in the country. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman closed their borders completely.

Several other nations blocked travel from Britain over the weekend, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Canada – although experts said the strain may already be circulating in countries with less advanced detection methods than the United Kingdom.

The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed fresh panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the U.S. government to take steps to prevent the variant entering the country, which has been worst hit by COVID-19 with almost 318,000 deaths.

“It’s high time the federal government takes swift action, because today that variant is getting on a plane and landing in JFK, and all it takes is one person,” he said.

U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir said nothing had yet been decided on any travel ban. As the pandemic accelerates there, Congress was poised to vote on a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package, after months of inaction.

EU officials met via video link to coordinate their response to the new strain of the coronavirus. The bloc is on course to start COVID-19 vaccinations within a week after its medicines regulator approved the use of a shot from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday.

Experts said there was no evidence that vaccines would not protect against this variant, but added they were working around the clock to determine whether the mutations would affect how well the shots guarded against infection.

“Since the three vaccine forerunners target the spike protein, how the variant responds to the vaccines and the protection that the vaccine will offer does still need to be examined in detail,” said Saad Shakir, a professor and director at Britain’s drug safety research unit.

FOOD SHORTAGES WARNING

France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from Britain, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe.

“No driver wants to deliver to the UK now, so the UK is going to see its freight supply dry up,” France’s FNTR national road-haulage federation said.

As families and truck drivers tried to navigate the travel bans to get back home in time for Christmas, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s said shortages would start to appear within days if transport ties were not quickly restored.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” Sainsbury’s said.

The global alarm was reflected in financial markets.

European shares slumped, with travel and leisure stocks bearing the brunt; British Airways-owner IAG and easyJet dropped about 7%, while Air France KLM lost around 3%.

Wall Street also felt the pain, with losses across the board. The S&P 1500 airlines index slid 3%, while leading cruise operators fell about 4%.

The British pound tumbled 2.5% against the dollar at one point before paring some of the losses, while the yield on two-year UK government bonds hit a record low.

‘SICK MAN OF EUROPE’

Johnson cancelled Christmas plans for millions of British people on Saturday due to the more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.

Britain’s tabloids bemoaned the crisis.

“Sick Man of Europe,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson, while the Sun newspaper said “French show no merci.”

The new variant and restrictions in Britain compound the chaos as the country prepares to finally part ways with the European Union, possibly without a trade deal, when the Brexit transition period at 2300 GMT on Dec. 31.

Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.

The new variant, which scientists said was 40%-70% more transmissible, is rapidly become the dominant strain in parts of southern England, including London.

Experts tracking the new strain said there was some early but unconfirmed evidence that it could transmit as readily among children as among adults, unlike previous dominant strains that appeared to be more easily able to infect adults.

‘2020 NOT DONE WITH US’

Cases of the new strain have also been detected in some other countries, including Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.

Australia said two people who travelled from the United Kingdom to New South Wales, its most populous state, were carrying the mutated virus. It axed dozens of domestic flights while New South Wales locked down more than 250,000 people.

“2020 is not done with us yet,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Some scientists said the prevalence discovered in Britain might be down to detection.

“Britain is simply the country which finds these mutations the most because they are looking for them more. There are countries that hardly search or do not search at all,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it.”

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Toby Melville and James Davey in London, Laurence Frost in Paris, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Sayantani Ghosh in Singapore, Frank McGurty in New York, Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul, Renju Jose in Sydney, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Pravin Char; Editing by Alison Williams and Mike Collett-White)

Islamist violence escalates in Burkina Faso, making widespread hunger worse

By Edward McAllister

DORI, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – Habibou Sore had to pause for breath as she ran barefoot from the approaching gunmen. She was pregnant with twins, due any day.

Soon after arriving at a nearby town in northern Burkina Faso, her feet cut and swollen, Sore gave birth. Then her battle with hunger began.

Attacks by Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed thousands of people this year in Africa’s Sahel region, an arid belt to the south of the Sahara Desert.

The escalating bloodshed has worsened food shortages that threaten millions in a region already hit by climate change, poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixteen months after fleeing her village, Sore lives with relatives in the town of Pisilla and eats one small meal a day.

Her twin sons Hassan and Housein each weigh 7 kg (15.5 pounds), the equivalent of a healthy 4-month-old. Their bony legs are covered in sores, their scalps bare in patches. They scream for the milk their mother cannot provide.

“I am worried about them,” Sore said, as she rocked the boys on her lap in a clinic in the town of Kaya, surrounded by paintings showing mothers how to breastfeed and the foods required for a balanced diet. “They are not doing well.”

Over 7 million people face acute hunger in a vast area comprising landlocked Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as armed groups cut off access to supplies and farmland, figures from the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) show.

Burkina Faso is deteriorating fastest. Over half a million children under 5 are acutely malnourished, U.N. figures show. WFP said in October that over 10,000 people were “one step short of famine”.

“This year has been worse than anything we have seen in the last decade, a worsening situation that is obviously connected to growing conflicts,” said Christelle Hure, spokeswoman for the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council, which offers shelter for the displaced.

‘GREAT LOSS’

This summer’s rainy season was one of the heaviest in years, bringing life to the hilly northern savannah where neem, eucalyptus and acacia trees tower over a sea of waist-high golden grass. Farmers say the conditions are perfect for crops and cattle – if only they could reach them.

Sayouba Zabre should be harvesting 10 hectares of millet and sorghum and tending dozens of cattle near his hometown in the Soum region. Instead he is in a camp for displaced people in the Center-North region after fleeing an attack this year.

Camp residents collect wood and dry hibiscus pods on the roofs of their makeshift tents – anything to make money. Zabre planted millet and peanuts, but it is not enough to feed his family.

“This is a great loss. There is a lot out there this year,” he said, referring to his farm. “I should be there.”

Many citizens rely on food from aid agencies that cannot reach some of the worst-hit areas.

Twice this year, food deliveries were hijacked, said Antoine Renard, WFP’s country director in Burkina Faso.

Dozens of health facilities have closed and about 200 others are operating at minimum staff levels, government figures show.

Malnutrition is overwhelming the clinic in Kaya where Sore took her twins. Before the crisis, it had about 30 child patients. Now it has 500.

“Every day we take children, every day we have severe cases,” said midwife Aminata Zabre.

Mothers come regularly for sachets of baby food, though sometimes there is little improvement.

“I asked one woman ‘why is your child still coming to us?’,” Zabre said. “She told me her father-in-law was eating the child’s rations.”

(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Cubans cast aside coronavirus fears to search for scarcer food

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – From the seafront capital Havana to the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, Cubans are defying fear of the new coronavirus to search for food as global trade disruptions worsen shortages of basic goods on the Caribbean island.

Residents of all ages are trudging from store to store in the country to locate scarce goods despite recommendations from health experts to stay at home and respect social distancing guidelines to avoid contracting the highly contagious disease.

Communist-run Cuba imports more than 60% of its food, but the pandemic has forced its government to close the borders, denying it the hard currency from tourism needed to pay for goods from overseas. The leisure industry accounts for 25% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

With shortages biting, many residents are using apps to swarm shops when coveted products arrive – from chicken and cheese to powdered milk and tomato sauce – creating long lines on the streets of Havana where police attempt to keep order.

While Cuba has faced scattered shortages ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union began in 1989, they have worsened since a decline in aid from socialist ally Venezuela and a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Now they are intensifying as the pandemic compounds Cuba’s cash crunch and disrupts international trade and food prices.

“There is a queue for everything, products are scarce,” Havana resident Luis Alberto said as he waited in a line for chicken that stretched for more than 100 meters (330 ft).

Since the first coronavirus cases were logged on the island last month, authorities have closed the borders to people and called on Cubans to only go out if strictly necessary, always wearing face masks. Disinfectant has been included on the ration cards that residents use to obtain goods.

“No one is walking around except the family doctor and nurse,” Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser, said from a medium-sized town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Granma province.

“But when some ground meat finally arrived the other day everyone emerged from their homes in masks and lined up with a policeman keeping order,” she said.

A soldier organizes a line of people to buy food amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in downtown Havana, Cuba, April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

‘PERFECT STORM BREWING’

President Miguel Diaz-Canel recently warned citizens they would be consuming less imported food “due to the current situation.”

When ships arrived last week with corn and rice, it was big news in the state-run media.

Cuba is not a member of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or other multilateral lending institutions it could turn to for emergency funds.

Economy Minister Alejandro Gil has said the only solution is to “find in agriculture the main source of food for the people” but the sector is suffering an intensifying lack of inputs – like fertilizer and pesticides – partly due to U.S. sanctions.

“There is a perfect storm brewing. By May, the food situation here will be much worse,” a local agricultural expert said, requesting anonymity due to restrictions on talking with foreign journalists.

FOOD PRODUCTION IN TROUBLE

Cuba is famous for fighting epidemics and infamous for its centralized and unproductive Soviet-style agricultural system long since jettisoned by other Communist-run countries.

Many express faith in the former and not the latter.

“Cuba has the virus under control and I am sure it will stay that way,” said Emandez Maseo, a teacher in eastern Cuba. “At the same time, we are going into a critical situation, there is nothing in the markets and it is getting worse.”

Cuba has reported 396 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths, all but a few linked to travelers entering from abroad.

Much of the economy not related to tourism remains open, but it is hard to see agricultural production making up for lower imports.

Just 40% of normal fuel supplies and even less fertilizer and pesticides were used for the winter crop, according to the government. Planting began before the pandemic in November and harvesting ended in March.

The government has not reported on the results of Cuba’s most important growing season. Agriculture ministry official Yojan García Rodas told local radio that farmers were able to plant less than half the planned acreage of beans – a local staple – because they had to use oxen to till the land due to lack of fuel.

Speaking about a plague that wiped out much of the crop, Rodas said only 15% of the 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) planted could be protected by chemical pesticides.

Luis Enrique Plutin, a farmer working the fields under a hot sun with fellow cooperative members on the outskirts of Havana, was phlegmatic.

“Through sacrifice and work we can produce something, but not much, for the population,” he said. “And we can continue to produce more, but imagine the difficulties we have.”

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Paul Simao)

Food shortages cripple Bolivia, new elections still uncertain

By Daniel Ramos

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians languished in long lines on the streets of La Paz on Sunday to secure chicken, eggs and cooking fuel as supporters of ousted President Evo Morales crippled the country’s highways, isolating population centers from lowland farms.

Presidency minister Jerjes Justiniano told reporters the government of interim President Jeanine Anez had established an “air bridge” to supply La Paz, using planes to bypass barricades on highways surrounding the highland capital. He said officials hoped to do the same with other cities cut off from supplies.

Bolivia remained in limbo one week after Morales, a charismatic leftist and former coca farmer, resigned over allegations of vote-tampering. Lawmakers have yet to agree on a date for new elections.

Morales fled to Mexico on Tuesday. But his supporters from largely coca-farming regions of the Andean nation have since taken to the streets, sometimes armed with homemade bazookas, handguns and grenades, barricading roads and skirmishing with security forces.

Some Morales supporters have demanded Anez, a former conservative lawmaker, resign. They have given her a deadline of midnight on Monday to step down, and have called for elections in 90 days.

As roadblocks take their toll, fuel has become scarce and many in the poorer neighborhoods of La Paz have been forced to cook over firewood.

“I hope things calm down,” said Josue Pillco, a construction worker from a working-class La Paz neighborhood. “We’re not getting any food or gasoline.”

Community leaders aligned with Morales in El Alto on Sunday were calling for a general strike Monday, raising the spectre of further supply shortfalls in the nearby capital.

POLICY RESET

Anez has agreed to new elections but also moved quickly to implement changes in policy at home and abroad.

On Friday, Bolivia asked Venezuelan officials under the country’s leftist leader Nicolas Maduro to leave the country. Anez’s government also accused Cuba, once a close ally, of stoking unrest following Morales’ resignation.

The Anez administration on Sunday renamed the state newspaper “Bolivia.” Morales called it “Change.”

Violent protests on Friday around Cochabamba, a coca-growing region and stronghold of Morales’ supporters, left at least nine people dead, officials said.

The local ombudsman in the Cochabamba region said police had used live ammunition against protesters, prompting allegations of human rights abuses by security forces under Anez.

Anez has blamed Morales for stoking violence from abroad, and has said her government wishes to hold elections and meet with the opposition to halt protests.

Morales, in exile in Mexico, has struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days, saying he would sit out the next election in an interview with Reuters on Friday.

U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said a team would hold meetings with politicians and social groups this week to end the violence and push for “free and transparent elections.”

The European Union ambassador to Bolivia Leon de la Torre also met with Anez Sunday.

He said the E.U. would provide support during the “transition period” and work to ensure “credible elections…under the most stringent international standards.”

The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Britain and Germany have also recognized Anez´s interim government.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Russia seizes North Korean vessels in poaching clampdown

A still image taken from video footage shows a boat with Russian border guards sailing towards a North Korean vessel to detain it and crew members for poaching in waters that Moscow considers its exclusive economic zone, released by Russia's Federal Security Service on September 27, 2019. Federal Security Service/Handout via REUTERS

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia detained three North Korean vessels and 252 crew on Friday in the second such incident in two weeks as part of a clampdown on poaching by the secretive nation’s fishermen.

The detentions mark rare confrontation between North Korea and Russia, which sees itself as an important player in international talks on defusing nuclear tensions around the reclusive state’s missile program.

Border guards impounded the vessels in waters off Russian’s far eastern coast that Moscow considers its exclusive economic zone, the Interfax news agency reported.

Border guards said they had seized more than 30,000 squid and illegal fishing equipment and were holding the vessels and several motorboats at the port of Nakhodka, the report said.

The Kremlin said the move would not damage its ties with Pyongyang.

“A lot of North Korean poachers cross Russia’s border and poach illegally in Russian territorial waters so of course energetic measures are needed to impose order in this area,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

FOOD SHORTAGES

North Korea, which is reeling under sanctions over its weapons program, has struggled with food shortages and a dysfunctional state rationing system for years.

Its crop production this year is expected to drop to its lowest in five years, bringing serious shortages to 40% of the population, the United Nations said last week.

Russia detained two North Korean boats in its territorial waters in the Sea of Japan on Sept. 17 after one of them attacked a Russian patrol.

In that incident, Russia said it detained a vessel for poaching, prompting a second boat to open fire. Several border guards and alleged poachers were hurt and one of the North Koreans later died from his wounds.

Moscow summoned a North Korean diplomat over the incident.

A regional border official at the Federal Security Service said last week the poachers had resisted because they feared punishment back home for the loss of state property over the confiscation of their vessel.

The countries have had disputes over fishing in the region in the past. Moscow accused Pyongyang in July of illegally detaining one of its fishing vessels. North Korea said the crew had been detained for breaching the rules for entering its territory.

(Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)

Britain faces food shortages in no-deal Brexit scenario, industry body says

FILE PHOTO: Fruit and vegetables sit in cold storage at the New Covent Garden wholesale market in London, Britain, February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will experience shortages of some fresh foods for weeks or even months if a disorderly no-deal Brexit leaves perishable produce rotting in lorries at ports, Britain’s food and drink lobby warned on Wednesday.

Retailers such as Tesco have warned that leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 without a transition deal would be problematic as so much fresh produce is imported and warehouses are stocked full ahead of Christmas.

The industry – which employs 450,000 people in the United Kingdom – views Brexit as the biggest challenge since World War Two, dwarfing previous crises such as the horsemeat scandal of 2013 and the mad cow disease outbreaks of the 1980s and 1990s.

“We’re not going to starve but there will be shortages of fresh food and some specialist ingredients. It’s going to be a little bit unpredictable,” the Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Rycroft told Reuters.

“Given that food very often is perishable and has a short shelf life, we expect that there will be some selective shortages of food in the weeks and months following no-deal Brexit,” Rycroft said. “There will be some shortages and price rises.”

Part of the problem is that Brexit could change everything – or, possibly, nothing.

Ahead of the original Brexit deadline of March 29, supermarkets and retailers spent millions of pounds preparing for Brexit and working with suppliers to increase stocks of dried goods including pasta, bottled water and toilet paper.

After three years of Brexit discussion, it is still unclear on what terms the United Kingdom will leave the European Union with options ranging from a last-minute exit deal or delay to an acrimonious divorce that would knot the sinews of trade.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly warned the European Union that unless it agrees to do a fresh divorce deal then he will lead the country out of the bloc on Oct. 31 without a deal.

BREXIT AT HALLOWEEN

As winter approaches, the United Kingdom becomes more dependent on imported food so a Halloween no-deal Brexit is potentially more disruptive.

Britain imports around 60 percent of its food by the beginning of November – just the time that delays caused by a no-deal Brexit could be clogging up ports and motorways, Rycroft said.

Fresh fruit and vegetables, which have a short shelf-life of only a few days, cannot be stored for long so any checks at Calais could lead to significant disruption at Dover, Britain’s biggest port.

Rycroft said they estimated that the cost of preparing for a no-deal exit, including reserving warehouse space, using alternative distributors and losing orders in congested ports, would cost the industry up to 100 million pounds ($121 million) a week.

“A lot of money will be spent,” Rycroft said, referring to how the industry prepared for two previous Brexit deadlines in March and April.

“Having marched the industry up the hill twice and down again, we’re now mobilizing and actually 31st of October looks a more realistic prospect than a no-deal Brexit than either of the two previous ones.”

A spokeswoman for the government said it was working to support the industry. “The UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October and our top priority is supporting consumers and businesses in their preparations for Brexit.”

The UK food and drink industry accounts for 19% of the manufacturing sector by turnover and employs over 450,000 people in Britain across 7,000 businesses including Associated British Foods Plc, Nestle and PepsiCo.

Some of the bigger companies have tested different ports to avoid the main route of Dover-Calais while pharmaceutical companies have reserved air freight capacity to fly in supplies if needed.

The trade body has urged the government to waive some competition rules to allow retailers and suppliers to be able to work together to provide the most effective coverage for the country in such a situation.

Rycroft said the industry had repeatedly asked the government to provide a guarantee that companies would not be fined for engaging in anti-competitive behavior.

Brexit supporters say there may be short-term disruption from a no-deal exit but that the UK will thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in integration that has led to Europe falling behind China and the United States.

Rolls-Royce <RR.L> said on Tuesday it was ready to cope with the fallout from a disorderly Brexit after the aero-engine maker spent around 100 million pounds to increase inventory among other preparations.

($1 = 0.8235 pounds)

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Editing by Alison Williams)

Shortages plague Cuba as U.S. sanctions sharpen economic woes

FILE PHOTO: People buy chicken in a supermarket in Havana, Cuba May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Marsh

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Israel Hidalgo and his wife left home around 7:30 a.m. to reach a supermarket across Havana, Cuba because they heard it might be selling chicken, a staple of the Cuban diet increasingly scarce on the shortage-plagued island.

After Cuba started limiting sales this month, partly blaming tightened U.S. economic sanctions on the Communist-run island, the couple wanted to buy as much as possible and lined up for three hours under the Caribbean sun to get tickets guaranteeing them their rations.

Inside, they lined up again to collect two bags of chicken thighs each, as fellow shoppers elbowed one another in pursuit of their own rations, and headed for the checkout feeling like they had won the lottery.

“We were born in this revolution and are used to rough times,” said Hidalgo, a 61-year old blacksmith. “We are bracing ourselves for it to get worse.”

Long lines outside shops with mostly bare shelves are increasingly common in Cuba, and the government has indeed signaled that things are going from bad to worse.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a speech last month, accused the Trump administration of engaging in an “asphyxiating financial persecution that makes the import of goods and resources of primary necessity particularly difficult.”

The degree to which new U.S. sanctions, due in part to Cuba’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have compounded its economic woes is open to debate.

The economy had already stagnated in recent years in tandem with the implosion of strategic ally Venezuela, resulting in cuts in fuel and energy use by state entities and this year shortages of basic goods such as bread, chicken and eggs.

But the increase in sanctions, which have hit the key tourism sector and added to investor and bank jitters about dealing with Cuba, has some economists predicting the economy will slip from stagnation into a full-blown recession later this year.

The economy has averaged 1% annual growth over the last three years, compared with the 5% to 7% rate economists say is needed to recover fully from the depression caused by the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

“While the crisis will not be as bad as in the 1990s, it will have a worrying social impact on the most vulnerable households, which are already on subsistence salaries,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana Cali.

Bracing for harder economic times, the government has resorted to what it knows best to manage the crisis and prevent social unrest: more control.

Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz said two weeks ago the government would “temporarily” ration sales of a handful of basic products like eggs on a monthly basis, using ration books distributed after the 1959 Revolution, and limit the sale of others like chicken to ensure everyone gets their fair share.

“A CRITICAL MOMENT”

Some Cuban economists say the developing crisis stems fundamentally from an inefficient centrally-planned economy that imports more than two thirds of its food needs. Calling rationing little more than a short-term solution, they say the government must open up to a series of market-oriented economic reforms before the crisis deepens.

“This could be a critical moment that generates the consensus necessary to apply changes,” said Vidal. “The government needs to give more space to the private sector and investment.”

Cuba has enacted some economic reforms in recent years, including expanding the private sector from 2010 onward and introducing a new foreign investment law that cut taxes by around 50% in 2014.

But local economists like Omar Everleny say the reforms undertaken have been too cautious so far. The government has backtracked on overhauls of areas like agriculture and the dominant public sector remains deeply inefficient.

Cuba was already behind on an estimated $1.5 billion (&pound;1.1 billion) in short-term commercial debt and warning of austerity before U.S. President Donald Trump started the latest round of tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Aid from Venezuela, in the form of subsidized oil, had long masked the true extent of Cuba’s economic problems, but it started to fall from 2015 when a drop in oil prices roiled that OPEC nation’s economy.

Venezuela’s crude shipments to Cuba are now about half what they were four years ago, and they could soon fall further. Last month, the United States also began targeting vessels and companies that ship oil to the island from Venezuela for sanctions, threatening the energy grid and transportation.

U.S. sanctions against its old Cold War foe are also hitting the two bright spots in the otherwise glum economy: tourism and foreign investment. Both had boomed briefly after the announcement of a Cuba-U.S. detente in 2014.

Tourism revenues dropped by 4.6% in 2018, according to official data released last month. The announcement in 2017 of tighter travel restrictions on U.S. citizens played a role.

“At one point U.S. visits dropped more than 40 percent,” Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Reuters, adding he still hoped tourism would grow this year.

Meanwhile the Trump administration has activated a long dormant law under which Cuban-Americans can sue foreign companies that profit from their properties nationalized during the first years of the 1959 Revolution.

Western diplomats and businessmen have called the threat of potentially costly U.S. court battles another clear disincentive for banks and outside investors to do business with Cuba.

The United States has also threatened to further tighten restrictions on travel and to impose a cap on cash remittances to Cuba, measures that could hit the economy hard.

SIEGE MENTALITY

Cuba’s government has said it will continue moving down the path toward reform. But it has failed to respond so far to calls from the island’s entrepreneurs for basic changes such as the creation of wholesale markets for the private sector, and the right to import and export.

Instead of opening the economy further, some Western diplomats and analysts say there is risk Cuba’s leadership will adopt a siege mentality in the face of increased U.S. hostility. That could mean turning to allies like Russia, Vietnam and China for help to muddle through while keeping its stranglehold on economic life.

“The U.S. sanctions could be counterproductive,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Cuba has historically closed up at times like these.”

Cubans are not going hungry like they did during the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they are increasingly connected to the rest of the world via the internet and foreign travel, and many have grown weary of government attempts to blame the U.S. embargo for the bulk of their country’s woes.

“We are in total freefall,” said Hidalgo’s wife, Carmen Lozano, 55, clinging to her two bags of rationed chicken. “They should have allowed free production and sales from the beginning of the revolution.”

Inequality has risen in recent years in Cuba and many believe the economic crisis could have a more disproportionate impact now than it might have in the past.

In a country where the government’s claim to legitimacy rests to a large extent on ensuring a certain level of equality, the authorities seem well aware that most people lack the cash to stock up on whatever basics they need on the black market.

“The government&rsquo;s new rationing program is trying to address that simmering discontent by making the small quantities of goods that are in stock more widely available,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

“The government understands that discontent over the economy is their biggest political vulnerability so they will do everything they can to maintain supplies of basic goods.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro&rsquo;s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)