Who needs Chavez? Venezuela’s leader pushes own image in campaign

By Andrew Cawthorne and Francisco Aguilar

CARACAS/BARINAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – During his 2013 presidential campaign, Nicolas Maduro opened rallies with an emotional recording of Venezuela’s national anthem sung by the recently-deceased Hugo Chavez.

In a strategy that earned him a narrow victory, Maduro surrounded himself with images of the popular former president, played footage of his socialist mentor anointing him as successor, and proclaimed himself “the son of Chavez.”

This time around, in a strangely unanimated presidential race boycotted by the mainstream opposition, Maduro has deliberately relegated the Chavez props.

Ignoring his personal unpopularity, fueled by rising hunger and violent crime as the oil-reliant economy implodes, the 55-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister has placed himself front-and-center of the campaign for the May 20 vote.

At rallies, he dances to a catchy reggaeton tune “Todos con Maduro” (Everyone with Maduro), amid huge ‘M’ banners on stage.

Crowds wave pictures of his beaming mustachioed visage, albeit sometimes with Chavez’s face floating above him.

“Our commander (Chavez) left us, but we must carry on the fight, don’t leave me alone!” Maduro implored at a recent rally. “Five years ago, I was a novice candidate. No more. Now I am a mature president, ready, experienced, with the balls to confront the oligarchy and imperialism.”

Maduro’s approach seems a bold one. Polls show the defunct Chavez is still the most popular political figure by far, while the incumbent president’s own ratings have sunk – along with Venezuela’s economy.

Yet the strategy reflects Maduro’s absolute confidence of winning a new six-year term.

And why not? The two most popular opposition figures are barred from the election, state resources are at his service, loyalists control potentially pesky bodies like the judiciary and election board, and the opposition has split bitterly over whether to abstain from the vote.

Furthermore, within the ruling “Chavismo” movement, Maduro outmaneuvered would-be rivals, such as powerful party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, to make his candidacy a fait accompli.

Maduro’s consolidation of power began with the 2017 defeat of opposition protests, then a purge this year of former Chavez loyalists critical of him, like former oil czar Rafael Ramirez.

Now Maduro wants to drive home the advantage, trying to establish his own brand above government power struggles.

OPTIONS LIMITED

“For good or for bad, Maduro is the only major political figure on the scene right now,” said Hebert Garcia, a former general and minister who split with Maduro several years ago.

“So this election is like putting an image in front of someone and saying ‘choose’ – but there’s no one else to choose from!” he said from the United States, where he works as a consultant, evading corruption charges by the Maduro government.

There are several other names on the ballot sheet – former state governor Henri Falcon and evangelical Christian pastor Javier Bertucci being the most prominent. But many opposition supporters see them as stooges and “collaborators” participating in a sham to legitimize Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Some polls actually give a lead to Falcon, who broke with the mainstream opposition’s boycott of the vote.

But the widespread abstention anticipated, Maduro’s formidable political machinery, the vote-winning power of state handouts, coercion of government employees, and the pro-Maduro makeup of the election board make Falcon’s task Herculean.

As confident as Maduro may appear right now on the political stage, his Achilles Heel remains the economy.

Venezuela is suffering a fifth year of recession with a double-digit contraction expected for 2018, inflation is the highest in the world, and the minimum monthly salary is worth barely $2 at the black market exchange rate.

Scarcity of food and medicines is widespread, and hundreds of thousands have left the country in recent years – increasingly by foot, bus and even bicycle.

CRISIS MAY DEEPEN

So Maduro will still have a crisis on his hands even if he wins. Washington is threatening to add oil sanctions to existing measures to stop Venezuela from issuing new debt, while restive creditors are considering more aggressive tactics.

There are no signs of reforms to the failing state-led economic model.

Maduro’s campaign mantra is to blame everyone from U.S. President Donald Trump to the local business community for the economic mess, ignoring the damage caused by botched nationalizations and dysfunctional currency controls.

Apart from promising a Utopian economic “rebirth”, he has given few details on his post-election plans. Many fear further retrenchment and moves against business such as last week’s 90-day seizure of the nation’s largest private bank.

Maduro’s election rallies around the country are notably smaller, more strictly corralled and shorter than in 2013. Away from the obediently ecstatic front rows, there is plenty of grumbling by unhappy Venezuelans.

“It’s the most flavorless and colorless campaign for at least 20 years,” scoffed former oil minister Ramirez, who had wanted to stand as the candidate of “Chavismo” but is instead in exile in an undisclosed foreign location.

At one recent campaign rally in Barinas state, flustered organizers hit the phones to try to boost numbers. A visibly irritated Maduro blamed poor turnout on rain – even though it only started falling after the event, witnesses said.

“I came to see what he would say about fixing the economy,” said Aparicio Teran, a 49-year-old peasant farmer, who like many in the agricultural savannah state is struggling for lack of bank loans, pesticides and cattle feed.

“I’m leaving without hearing anything about credits, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, food for the cows. We can’t go on like this. All we can look forward to is hunger.”

Though food has become Venezuelans’ No. 1 worry, many see no option but to vote for Maduro – in part to guarantee receiving state-subsidized food bags that millions depend on.

And Maduro still has core support among about one-fifth of Venezuelans, who swear loyalty to Chavez’s legacy come what may.

“The entire people is fighting for its future, against the destructive policies of U.S. imperialism and its European allies, against the blockade (sanctions) and against the economic war,” said Carlos Marquez, 24, in Barinas, wearing the red cap and T-shirt associated with diehard “Chavistas.”

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Paul Simao)

Matthew 24: 6-8 – A current statistic point of view

An American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York on September 11 2001

By Kami Klein

“If you want to know the future you must know the Word of the Living God.”       Jim Bakker

In every moment, the events that Jesus spoke of are evident all around us.  In the vastness of this world, it is sometimes difficult to see the big picture of what is happening NOW!  We must keep our eyes and ears open.

Matthew 24:6-8 (MEV) You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled. For all these things must happen, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines, epidemics, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.

NATION WILL RISE AGAINST NATION, KINGDOM AGAINST KINGDOM –FROM GLOBAL CONFLICT TRACKER –   Total of 25 conflicts in the world.  Below are listed most significant to U.S. and linked to the history of each conflict 

  • Critical impact on U.S. Interests

Civil War in Syria -Iran, Russia and Turkey’s deeper involvement- recent Chemical weapons attacks

War against Taliban in Afghanistan

Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

Tensions in the East China Sea

North Korea Crisis

War Against Islamic State in Iraq

  • Significant Impact on U.S. Interests

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Political Instability in Lebanon

Instability in Egypt

Conflict between Turkey and armed Kurdish groups

Islamist Militancy in Pakistan

Conflict in Ukraine

Criminal Violence in Mexico

Boko Haram in Nigeria

Conflict between India and Pakistan

Civil War in Libya

War in Yemen

Great humanitarian concerns Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan Civil War, Destabilization of Mali, extreme violence in Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

THERE WILL BE FAMINE – Global report on Current hunger crisis – March 2018 report

Around 124 million people in 51 countries face Crisis food insecurity or worse

This is an increase of 11 million people – an 11 percent rise in the last year – in the number of food-insecure people needing urgent humanitarian action across the world.

Last year’s Global Report on Food Crises identified 108 million people in Crisis food security or worse across 48 countries. The rise in numbers are attributed to increasing instability and conflict as well as drought and very poor harvests. Some countries are suffering from economic conditions that contribute to the malnutrition of their people. The country of Venezuela is now suffering from  lack of food sources or money to purchase necessary food and medicine. Thousands are fleeing to neighboring countries to feed their families. 

Approx. 21,000 people die each day, one every four seconds, of malnutrition

Forty percent of preschool-age children who suffer from malnutrition are estimated to be anemic because of iron deficiency, and anemia causes 20 percent of all maternal deaths. In addition, it is estimated that 250 to 500 thousand children go blind from Vitamin A deficiency every year.

EPIDEMICS 

Germs with Unusual Antibiotic Resistance Widespread in U.S- (From CDC Press release April 3rd, 2018)Health departments working with CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance (AR) Lab Network found more than 220 instances of germs with “unusual” antibiotic resistance genes in the United States last year, according to a CDC Vital Signs report released today.

FLU – As of the end of February 2018 4,000 people a week in the U.S. were dying of Flu and Pneumonia according to U.S. Center for Disease Control

The levels of influenza-like illnesses being reported for the 2017-2018 flu season are as high as the peak of the swine flu epidemic in 2009, and exceed the last severe seasonal flu outbreak in 2003 when a new strain started circulating, said Anne Schuchat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s acting director. Swine flu, which swept the globe in 2009 and 2010, sickened 60.8 million Americans, hospitalized 274,304 and killed 12,469, according to CDC data. Deaths from the current outbreak will likely far outstrip those of the 2009-2010 season.  It is April and the Flu season continues.

AIDS –AIDS is now second only to the Black Death as the largest epidemic in history. (From the World Health Organization) Aids or HIV was originated with non human primates (monkeys) in Central and West Africa

AIDS kills roughly 1.5 million people a year, or about one person every 20 seconds.

MALARIA  –Approximately a half million people die from malaria each year and many millions more are seriously weakened by it. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes.

CHOLERABetween 42,000 and 142,000 people die of cholera each year.  You can get cholera by eating or drinking contaminated water or food.

LASSA FEVER– Lassa fever, a viral hemorrhagic fever with symptoms similar to those of Ebola virus disease.  This disease is spread through contact with Rat feces and urine. Originated in West Africa. This year has generated more severe and fatal cases.  Usually an estimated 300,000 people are infected with the virus annually, with up to 5,000 deaths. But this year the fatality rate has gone to 50% of those infected.  

AND EARTHQUAKES IN VARIOUS PLACES

According to the USGS there have been 42 ‘significant earthquakes since January 1st, 2018. A significant earthquake is determined by a combination of magnitude, number of Did You Feel It responses, and PAGER alert level.  Those that have been counted are earthquakes above 4.2.  12 were in the U.S. The largest was a 7.9 in Alaska on 1-23-18.

227 people have died around the world.  For the last 365 days the total for all measurable earthquakes around the world has been 40,561.

Currently there are 33 erupting volcanoes and 55 that are having minor activity or have an impending warning issued.  

 

800 Venezuelans flee to Brazil daily to escape insecurity, hunger: UNHCR

Venezuelans line up to cross into Colombia at the border in Paraguachon, Colombia, Feb. 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 800 Venezuelans stream into northern Brazil each day, the United Nations said on Friday, citing Brazilian government statistics on people fleeing the worsening crisis in the economically crippled nation.

More than 52,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil since the start of 2017, including an estimated 40,000 living in Boa Vista, capital of Roraima state, it said.

About 25,000 of the migrants are asylum seekers while 10,000 have obtained temporary resident visas and the rest are seeking to regularize their status, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

“We are stepping up our response in Brazil as the number of Venezuelan arrivals grows,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing. “According to the government’s latest estimates, more than 800 Venezuelans are entering Brazil each day.”

Venezuelans have also fled to Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Argentina and Peru, while others have sought refugee status in the United States, Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica, according to the UNHCR.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas is faced with widespread discontent over hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines during a fifth year of recession that he blames on Western hostility and the fall of oil prices.

Venezuelans report they are fleeing insecurity, violence and often a loss of income, Spindler said. Many are in desperate need of food, shelter and health care.

UNHCR is working with Brazilian authorities to register Venezuelans to ensure they have proper documentation that entitles them to work and access services, Spindler said.

Ten shelters have been opened in Boa Vista, each with 500 people, but some Venezuelans are living on the streets, he said.

Venezuelans willing to relocate from Roraima to other parts of Brazil are being flown to Sao Paulo and Cuiaba this week, as communities and services in Boa Vista are over-stretched, he said.

UNHCR’s $46 million appeal to help Venezuelans across the region is only 4 percent funded, Spindler said, and he called for more donations.

Within Venezuela, the economic crisis has limited people’s access to health services and medicines, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.

“WHO is working closely with the health authorities in order to fill those shortages. We are providing medicines for malaria and anti-retrovirals. We are equipping maternal hospitals with supplies that are needed for pregnant women and babies.”

Venezuela’s crisis has posed major challenges for governments in the region, who also worry that assistance to Venezuelans could increase the number of people leaving their country.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Monsoon floods and landslides threaten 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

A woman walks through the Chakmakul camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall

CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The Rohingya refugees who live in shacks clinging to these steep, denuded hills in southern Bangladesh pray that the sandbags fortifying the slopes will survive the upcoming monsoon.

“They make it safer, but they won’t hold if the rain is really heavy,” said Mohammed Hares, 18. Cracks have already formed in the packed mud on which his shack is built.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since last August to escape a military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar. Most now live in flimsy, bamboo-and-plastic structures perched on what were once forested hills.

Bangladesh is lashed by typhoons, and the Rohingya camps are clustered in a part of the country that records the highest rainfall. Computer modeling by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) shows that more than 100,000 refugees will be threatened by landslides and floods in the coming monsoon.

The rains typically begin in April and peak in July, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.

In Kutupalong-Balukhali, the biggest of the makeshift camps, up to a third of the land could be flooded, leaving more than 85,000 refugees homeless, according to the UNHCR. Another 23,000 refugees live on slopes at risk of landslide.

The UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme are using bulldozers to level 123 acres in northern Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in an effort to make the area safer, said UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Gluck.

IOM is putting debris-removal equipment and work crews throughout the camps, it said, and trying to improve roads and stabilize slopes. It is also setting up emergency diarrhoea treatment centers and providing search and rescue and first aid training.

Bangladesh Disaster Management Secretary Shah Kamal said the government was working with the UN to relocate 133,000 people living in high-risk areas. It is also launching a Rohingya-language radio station that will act as a natural disaster warning system, he said.

Bangladesh government officials have also previously told Reuters they are pushing ahead with a controversial plan to turn an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal into a temporary home for the Rohingya and move 100,000 refugees there ahead of the monsoon.

Flooding increases the risk of disease outbreaks. It could also threaten access to medical facilities, making them difficult to reach and restock, the modeling shows. Latrines, washrooms and tube wells may also be flooded.

The risk of landslides has been exacerbated by refugee families needing firewood to cook. Trees were cut down to make way for the refugees, who also dug up the roots for firewood, making the slopes even weaker and prone to collapse.

“This was a forest when I first arrived,” said Arafa Begum, 40, who lives with her three children in a shack on a barren, vertiginous slope in Chakmakul camp. She said she wanted to move before the monsoon but must await the instructions of the majhi, or block leader.

The majhi’s name is Jahid Hussain. “I don’t know what I’ll do when the rain comes,” he told Reuters. “It depends on Allah.”

 

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall in CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP; Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Syrian government forces poised to slice eastern Ghouta in two: commander

A man stands on the rubble of a damaged building at the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Laila Bassam and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria’s army is poised to slice rebel-held eastern Ghouta in two as forces advancing from the east link up with troops at its western edge, a pro-Damascus commander said on Thursday, piling more pressure on the last major rebel enclave near the capital.

The government, backed in the war by Russia and Iran, is seeking to crush the enclave in a ferocious campaign that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has killed 909 civilians in the last 18 days, including 91 on Wednesday.

Rebels, who accuse the government of “scorched earth” tactics, said they were deploying more guerrilla-style ambushes in lost territory, trying to stop further advances.

“We came because of the intensity of the bombing,” said Abu Mohammed, a 32-year-old farmer who left his cows, sheep and farm equipment to flee to Douma, further into the rebel enclave.

“It was a miracle that we made it here,” he said, speaking of the heavy air strikes. As for his former home town of Beit Sawa: “It was totally destroyed. Burnt,” he said.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing and ground assaults.

The pro-Damascus commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, confirmed a report by the Observatory late on Wednesday that the enclave had effectively been sliced in two.

But Wael Alwan, the Istanbul-based spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, denied that the territory had been cut in half. “No” he said in a text message when asked if the report was correct.

A Red Crescent truck is seen parked near Syrian and Russian soldiers at a checkpoint at Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A Red Crescent truck is seen parked near Syrian and Russian soldiers at a checkpoint at Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

CONVOY

In northern Syria, rebels began to bombard two government-held villages besieged by insurgent forces, killing two children, the Observatory reported.

An aid convoy that intended to go to Ghouta later on Thursday was postponed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations said.

The United Nations says 400,000 people are trapped in the towns and villages of eastern Ghouta. They have been under government siege for years and were already running out of food and medicine before the assault.

“We are dying of hunger and our children are dying of hunger. Have pity on us,” said a woman reached in Douma by a voice messaging service, who identified herself as Um Mahmoud.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, has offered rebels safe passage out with their families and personal weapons. The proposal echoes previous agreements under which insurgents, in the face of military defeat, were permitted to withdraw to opposition-held areas along the Turkish border.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that a second safe route out of eastern Ghouta, along with one near Douma, had been opened in the southern part of the enclave.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Wednesday some rebels wanted to accept the proposal to evacuate. So far rebels have dismissed it in public and vowed to fight on.

BATTLES RAGING

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Hussam Aala, told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday the assault targeted “terrorist organizations in accordance with international humanitarian law”.

Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt deadly rebel shelling of the capital.

Rescue workers and opposition activists in eastern Ghouta meanwhile have accused the government of using chlorine gas during the campaign.

The government firmly denies this. Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of planning to orchestrate poison gas attacks in order to accuse Damascus of using banned weapons.

A Syria-focused medical aid group said there reports from doctors of a chlorine attack on Wednesday evening. Local rescue workers said gas had affected 50 people. Social media activists shared videos and photos, which Reuters could not verify, of people with signs of breathing difficulties.

The opposition-run rescue service also said two of its rescuers were killed when their ambulance was hit last night adding its teams were hampered from reaching many victims under rubble with extensive destruction in many areas.

The narrow point linking rebel territory in north and south parts of eastern Ghouta is all within the range of government fire and impossible for insurgents to cross, meaning the enclave has in military terms been bisected, the commander said.

A rebel fighter with Jaish al-Islam, one of the main factions in eastern Ghouta, said intense fighting was underway.

“Nothing is secure and battles are raging and it’s difficult to predict what will happen,” the fighter, who gave his name as Abu Ahmad al-Doumani, said in a text message to Reuters.

The United Nations had hoped to deliver aid to eastern Ghouta on Thursday after a convoy on Monday was unable to fully offload, but it was postponed.

“We continue to call on all parties to immediately allow safe and unimpeded access for further convoys to deliver critical supplies,” said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).

(Reporting by Laila Bassam, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Editing by Paul Tait, John Stonestreet, William Maclean)

U.N. warns of extraordinary humanitarian disaster in southeast Congo

Internally displaced Congolese civilians receive food aid at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) centre in Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – An upsurge of violence in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is set to cause a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions”, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Congo’s Tanganyika province has seen a sharp escalation of violence since late last year, with new armed groups forming and an increase in attacks and the use of firearms, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“We are warning today that a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions is about to hit the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the province of Tanganyika plunges further into violence, triggering spiraling displacement and human rights abuses,” he said.

Clashes between militias representing the Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, and Twa pygmies, have already been going on for more than four years, driven by inequalities between Bantu villagers and the Twa, a hunting and gathering people historically excluded from access to land and basic services.

Mahecic said the intercommunal violence had led to atrocities and mass displacement, but there had also been fierce clashes between the Congolese armed forces and militia groups since the end of January.

UNHCR partner agencies had documented about 800 “protection incidents” including killings, abductions and rape, in the first two weeks of February. But much of the violence was going on in areas that were impossible for aid workers to reach.

The “lion’s share” of abuses concerned extortion and illegal taxation, mostly carried out by Congolese armed forces at road blocks.

The conflict is part of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Congo. Militia violence has risen since President Joseph Kabila’s refused to step down when his constitutional mandate expired in 2016.

Congo’s military has largely stamped out an insurrection that displaced 1.5 million people in central Congo in 2016-17 but militias are increasingly active along the eastern borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Tanganyika province is three times the size of Switzerland with a population of about 3 million, of whom 630,000 have been displaced by the fighting, a number that has almost doubled in a year.

“Given the circumstances we are only observing an upward trend in displacement right now,” Mahecic said.

“How high it could go is anyone’s guess, but clearly it is a major concern for us.”

Last year UNHCR received less than $1 per person to support the 4.4 million people displaced in Congo, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

At least 43,000 Cameroonian refugees flee to Nigeria: local aid officials

A still image taken from a video shot on December 9, 2017 shows Cameroonian refugees standing outside a center in Agbokim Waterfalls village, which borders on Cameroon, Nigeria.

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 43,000 Cameroonians have fled as refugees to Nigeria to escape a crackdown by the government on Anglophone separatists, local aid officials said on Thursday.

The figure is almost three times as high as that given by the United Nations and Nigerian officials two weeks ago.

Cameroon is a majority French-speaking country but two southwestern regions bordering Nigeria are Anglophone. Last October, separatists declared independence for a state they want to create called Ambazonia, sparking a military crackdown by the government of President Paul Biya.

In Nigeria’s Cross River state, which borders southwest Cameroon, more than 33,000 Cameroonians have taken refuge from violence, John Inaku, director general of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told Reuters by phone.

In neighboring Benue state, there are 10,216 refugees, said Emmanuel Shior, director general of the regional SEMA.

Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency had said more than 8,000 refugees were in Cross River state.

Explaining the disparity, Inaku told Reuters the UN agency was only registering people in Cross River coming in through conventional routes.

“This is a war situation and refugees are trooping in by the minute through the bush paths, rivers and every other unconventional routes open to them,” he said.

“During our advocacy to our border communities we told them to allow the refugees in and not be hostile to them so our communities have been receiving them warmly and accommodating them. These are very remote areas, hard to reach without good roads,” Inaku said.

Inaku said community facilities were becoming overstretched and so people were getting hostile toward the refugees, who were in “deplorable condition”, hungry and in need of medicine.

The Benue SEMA director general said the agency had also had difficulty counting refugees because they were in remote areas.

Early on Thursday, gunmen crossed from Nigeria to attack a border post in Cameroon’s southwest, security force witnesses said, with the incident likely to further damage relations between the neighbors.

The separatists pose the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of Biya, who will seek re-election this year. The conflict is also fuelling tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Cameroonian military officials and pro-government media accuse Nigeria of sheltering the insurgents, who since last year have waged a guerrilla campaign to establish an independent homeland for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

More than 8 million Yemenis ‘a step away from famine’: U.N.

More than 8 million Yemenis 'a step away from famine': U.N.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Warring sides must let more aid get through to 8.4 million people who are “a step away from famine” in Yemen, a senior U.N. official said on Monday.

A Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen’s civil war blockaded ports last month after a missile was fired toward Riyadh.

Jamie McGoldrick, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said the blockade has since been eased, but the situation remained dire.

“The continuing blockade of ports is limiting supplies of fuel, food and medicines; dramatically increasing the number of vulnerable people who need help,” McGoldrick said in a statement.

“The lives of millions of people, including 8.4 million Yemenis who are a step away from famine, hinge on our ability to continue our operations and to provide health, safe water, food, shelter and nutrition support,” he added.

That marked an increase from past U.N. estimates of around 8 million people on the brink of famine.

The coalition accuses Iran of sending weapons to its Houthi allies, including missile parts, through Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, were most food supplies enter.

Saudi state television said on Monday a U.N delegation of experts has arrived in Riyadh to meet the coalition and the Yemeni government the coalition supports “to prevent the transfer of weapons and rockets to Houthis”.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with weapons, saying the U.S. and Saudi allegations are “baseless and unfounded”.

The United Nations says food shortages caused by the warring parties blocking supplies has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The Saudis intervened in neighboring Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis advanced on the southern port city of Aden and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government into exile.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and triggered a cholera epidemic that has infected about 1 million people.

The U.S. government on Friday called on the Saudi-led military coalition to facilitate the free flow of humanitarian aid to all of Yemen’s ports and through Sana’a airport.

A senior State Department official told reporters in Geneva on Monday that the United States had provided nearly $638 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen in the U.S. fiscal year 2017 that ended on Sept 30.

“We have called on both sides to stop the fighting and seek a political solution to the problem,” the official said.

He said the United States had made its position clear to its allies to end the blockade and called on the Houthis to allow access for humanitarian supplies as “there are shocking shortage of food, fuel and medicines that are causing great suffering”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Writing by Reem Shamseddine and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams)

Famine survey warns of thousands dying daily in Yemen if ports stay closed

More than 8 million Yemenis 'a step away from famine': U.N.

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.S.-funded famine survey said on Tuesday that thousands of Yemenis could die daily if a Saudi-led military coalition does not lift its blockade on the country’s key ports.

The warning came a day after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 2.5 million people in Yemen’s crowded cities had no access to clean water, raising the risk that a cholera epidemic will spread.

Using the internationally recognized IPC 5-point scale for classifying food security, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said that even before the current blockade, 15 million people were in “crisis” (IPC Phase 3) or worse.

“Therefore, a prolonged closure of key ports risks an unprecedented deterioration in food security to Famine (IPC Phase 5) across large areas of the country,” it said.

It said famine is likely in many areas within three or four months if ports remain closed, with some less accessible areas at even greater risk. In such a scenario, shortages of food and fuel would drive up prices, and a lack of medical supplies would exacerbate life-threatening diseases.

“Thousands of deaths would occur each day due to the lack of food and disease outbreaks,” said FEWS NET, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Famine remained likely even if the southern port of Aden is open, its report said, adding that all Yemeni ports should be reopened to essential imports.

The United Nations has said the Saudi-led coalition must allow aid in through Hodeidah port, controlled by the Houthis, the Saudis’ enemies in the war in Yemen.

U.N. humanitarian agencies have issued dire warnings about the impact of the blockade, although U.N. officials have declined to directly criticize Saudi Arabia.

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former U.N. aid chief, was blunt in his criticism, however.

“US, UK & other allies of Saudi has only weeks to avoid being complicit in a famine of Biblical proportions. Lift the blockade now,” he wrote in a tweet.

Last year Saudi Arabia was accused by then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of exerting “unacceptable” undue pressure to keep itself off a blacklist of countries that kill children in conflict, after sources told Reuters that Riyadh had threatened to cut some U.N. funding. Saudi Arabia denied this.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans)