U.S. issues travel ban for Cuba’s Castro over human rights accusations, support for Venezuela’s Maduro

Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday imposed U.S. travel sanctions on Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro over his support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and involvement in what it called “gross violations of human rights.”

Taking a direct but largely symbolic swipe at Cuba’s leadership as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s continuing pressure campaign against Havana, the State Department banned travel to the United States by Castro, Cuba’s former president and younger brother of the late Fidel Castro, as well as family members.

“Castro is responsible for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation, and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In addition to Castro, the State Department also sanctioned his children, Alejandro Castro Espin, Deborah Castro Espin, Mariela Castro Espin, and Nilsa Castro Espin.

The measures that Pompeo said would block their entry to the United States are likely to have limited impact. Castro last visited in 2015 to address the United Nations General Assembly. His children are also believed to have rarely traveled to the United States. Mariela Castro Espin, a gay rights activist, made stops in New York and San Francisco in 2012.

Pompeo also accused Castro, Cuba’s most powerful figure, of overseeing “a system that arbitrarily detains thousands of Cubans and currently holds more than 100 political prisoners.”

The Cuban government, which strongly rejects such accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the latest in a series of punitive measures that Trump has taken against Washington’s old Cold War foe since taking office in 2017, steadily rolling back the historic opening to Havana under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump has focused especially on Cuba’s support for Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana. Earlier this year, the United States and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, though Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as the OPEC nation’s military.

“In concert with Maduro’s military and intelligence officers, members of the Cuban security forces have been involved in gross human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, including torture,” Pompeo said. Cuba has strongly denied the U.S. accusations.

Speaking in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza scoffed at the U.S. measure against Castro, saying it was an attempt to humiliate him.

“And neither Raul Castro nor his family even want to come to this country! We are forced to come here because the U.N. headquarters is in New York, for now,” said Arreaza, referring to a similar U.S. travel bar on Venezuelan officials and citing a Russian offer to host the United Nations in Sochi.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of two members of Cuba’s delegation to the United Nations.

Washington has made clear that a key objective of its tough approach to Cuba is to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has said it will never do. However, Trump has stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba restored by Obama in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility.

Maduro has accused Guaido – who earlier this year assumed an interim presidency after alleging that Maduro had rigged the last election – of trying to mount a U.S.-directed coup.

“Castro is complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” Pompeo said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

Killings, torture still going on in Venezuela: U.N. rights chief

FILE PHOTO - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights chief said on Monday that extrajudicial killings appeared to be continuing in Venezuela and the Special Action Forces (FAES) presumed to be responsible had received support from the highest levels of government.

Michelle Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council that alongside possible executions, her office had documented cases of torture of soldiers and others arbitrarily held and urged the government of President Nicolas Maduro to punish perpetrators.

Bachelet who issued a report in early July detailing witness accounts of death squads run by the FAES, said non-governmental organization Monitor de Victimas (Victims’ Monitor) had found 57 new presumed executions by FAES members in Caracas that month.

The government called her earlier report a “selective and openly partial vision” that ignored official information and relied on biased witnesses.

She has also expressed concern about U.S. sanctions aimed at pressuring Maduro to step down; on Monday she said they were among factors fuelling a mass exodus from the country, which is reeling from hyperinflation and a collapsing economy.

Bachelet said even though the sanctions envisaged exceptions for humanitarian assistance, over-caution by the financial sector, lower public revenues and a decrease in oil production were having a serious impact.

“All of this is contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian situation and the exodus of Venezuelans from the country,” noting that 4.3 million refugees and migrants had already fled the turmoil, most since the end of 2015.

Washington has urged the European Union to join the sanctions, arguing that they would help advance negotiations on a handover of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido, who assumed a rival interim presidency in January.

Guaido, who said Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate, has the support of most Western nations as well as Washington. Maduro calls him a U.S. puppet.

Bachelet called for more details from Venezuela’s Public Ministry on what she said it had told her were the convictions of 104 members of the security forces for human rights violations between August 2017 and May 2019.

Despite her recommendations to dissolve the FAES and prevent extrajudicial executions, this was not being done, she said: “On the contrary, the FAES have received support from the highest level of Government.”.

Some Latin American countries and activists are urging the Geneva forum, whose 47 members include Venezuela, to establish a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Venezuela at the three-week session.

Bachelet, who visited Venezuela in June, said 83 opposition members were freed around that time, but the cases of 27 other detainees were still pending and Judge Lourdes Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, conditionally released in early July, had not yet received unconditional freedom.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. opens Venezuelan diplomatic office in Colombian capital

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Charge d'Affaires for Venezuela James Story, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia April 12, 2019. Picture taken April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Julia Symmes Cobb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday opened a representative office for Venezuela in Bogota, Colombia, and said it will continue its opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and support for opposition leader Juan Guaido from there.

The Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) will be headed by James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, who was among the last American diplomats withdrawn from the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March as conditions deteriorated in the country.

“The VAU will continue to work for the restoration of democracy and the constitutional order in that country, and the security and well-being of the Venezuelan people,” the department said in a statement.

Washington has been trying to cut off money to Maduro’s government in an economic and diplomatic campaign aimed at pressuring the socialist leader to step down.

The United States and most Western nations support Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president. Maduro has accused Guaido of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt earlier this year.

In Caracas on Wednesday, Guaido announced the appointment of four new ministers for foreign relations, economic affairs, asset protection and human rights. The majority of them are out of the country due to legal measures from Maduro’s government.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

Leopoldo López, founder and leader of Guaido’s Volutad Popular political party, will be coordinating the new ministers. López has been in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas since May after ending his house arrest.

The new team is intended “to address the complex humanitarian emergency … and, of course, to prepare for the transition of government,” Guaido said.

More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia in recent years, fleeing the deep political and economic crisis that has caused long-running shortages of food and medicines.

Colombia has borne the brunt of mass migration from its neighbor.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

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

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

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump freezes all Venezuelan government assets in bid to pressure Maduro

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

By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRAMATIC ACTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow and Beijing turned down invitations to attend.

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

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

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

Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. cruise operators stop sailing to Cuba, travelers vent anger online

Tourists enjoy a view of the city in Havana, Cuba, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

(Reuters) – Major U.S. cruise operators said on Wednesday they will no longer sail to Cuba following the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the Caribbean island, angering travelers and prompting worries about trip cancellations and company earnings.

The new restrictions are aimed at pressuring Cuba’s Communist government to reform and stop supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” Carnival Corp said.

A spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd said the company had ceased all calls to Cuba and was modifying previously scheduled sailings.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday the country would no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, as well as private and corporate aircraft.

American Airlines Group Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp and United Airlines, which started flying to Cuba in 2016, said they were reviewing the revised regulations.

Delta Air Lines Inc said it had stopped accepting bookings to Cuba under the so-called people-to-people license as of midnight on June 4. Customers who booked under the exemption before that time will be allowed to travel.

“The reduction in the number of travelers will probably mean the end of U.S. commercial air flights from places outside Florida because there won’t be sufficient demand to fill regular flights,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and a professor of government at American University.

The ban was effective as of Wednesday, the U.S. Commerce Department told Reuters, giving cruise lines no grace period to change destinations and sowing confusion among cruise passengers.

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean said they would stop at different non-Cuban ports and would offer compensation to travelers.

Carnival said the guests currently aboard its Carnival Sensation cruise that set sail on June 3 would now stop in Mexican island Cozumel on Thursday instead of Havana. The company said the guests would receive a $100 onboard credit for the inconvenience.

“We are working as quickly as possible to secure alternative itineraries for the remainder of our Cuba voyages and expect to have information for sailings further out in the next 2-3 days,” Carnival said. It has three cruise lines that sail to Cuba.

Royal Caribbean said all cruises on the ‘Majesty of the Seas’ and ‘Empress of the Seas’ this year will have alternative ports in the Caribbean. It is also working on alternate itineraries for 2020 sailings.

Guests can cancel their current booking for a full refund, or can keep their sailing date with a new itinerary and receive a 50% refund, Royal Caribbean said.

On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean said its ships sailing Wednesday and Thursday would no longer stop in Cuba.

Travelers took to Twitter to vent their anger and frustration over the forced changes in their vacation plans.

“Has anyone’s cruise to Cuba from @CruiseNorwegian been rerouted yet? If so where did they change the port of call to? Im (sic) booked for July and PISSED! Thanks Trump!” tweeted Sabrina Carollo @superbri_22.

Susan Berland, a parenting coach from Huntersville, North Carolina, said she was enraged that a vacation designed around visiting Cuba had been upended by the Trump administration.

“To say I’m angry is an understatement. This whole (sic) cruise was chosen around going to Cuba and now we can’t,” tweeted @SusanBerland.

Neither responded to requests for further comment.

Cuba accounts for a small percent of sailings at about 4% for Norwegian Cruise, about 3% for Royal Caribbean, and about a percent for Carnival, Wolfe Research analyst Jared Shojaian wrote in a note.

Shojaian said that while cruise lines can easily swap a Cuban port for another non-Cuban port, guests may have purchased the itinerary entirely for Cuba.

“That means cruise lines may need to issue refunds or future cruise credits to compensate guests, which makes forecasting the earnings impact to 2019 even harder, and potentially more of a headwind,” he said.

Shares of Norwegian Cruise closed down 3.5%, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival ended about 3% lower.

(Reporting by Uday Sampath and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru, Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Maju Samuel and Tom Brown)

From Colombia, Venezuelan defectors arm themselves to ‘liberate’ their homeland

FILE PHOTO: People protest at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Wearing camouflage shirts and combat boots, a Venezuelan militia group stands in formation in the Colombian city of Cucuta as their commander, a former Venezuelan army sergeant, outlines plans to seize towns across the border before heading to Caracas to help oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Eight men, who said they were defectors from Venezuelan police, army and intelligence services, had gathered near the two nations’ tense frontier, from where they said they will lead an attack aimed at overthrowing Maduro and handing the reins of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Dubbing their planned offensive “Operation Venezuela,” the ex-army sergeant, Eddier Rodriguez, said there were around 150 men ready to take part with his group. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the status of the eight men or the size of the militia.

“Our goal is to liberate the country,” said Rodriguez, 37, who said he is currently working as a security guard in Bogota. “We’re troops willing to give our lives if necessary, all 150 of us.”

The Venezuelan defense ministry and the information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the formation of militias in Colombia.

Victor Bautista, border director for Colombia’s foreign ministry, said any groups who actually took up arms would be considered a paramilitary organization and would be detained by authorities if they were found.

“That would be totally rejected by our government and fully taken up by the appropriate authorities to apply corresponding legal measures,” said Bautista.

A Colombian intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the intelligence service had detected an unspecified number of Venezuelan militia groups in the country but could not act against them because they had not yet committed any crimes. Separately, a high-level Colombian government official who asked not to be named said arrestable offences could include illegal possession of weapons and conspiracy to commit a crime.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

An estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia in recent years, fleeing a painful recession and hyperinflation in their homeland that has left millions of people suffering from hunger and shortages of basic goods. They include increasing numbers of defectors from the armed forces, some of whom are forming militias with the intention of pushing for the overthrow of Maduro.

While such militias are vastly outnumbered in the face of Venezuela’s 150,000-strong military, the men told Reuters they were willing to face any consequence if they can rid their country of Maduro’s government, underscoring the frustration and desperation of many Venezuelan migrants.

Guaido cited the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro rigged last year’s election. He has appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against Maduro.

The United States and most Western nations have recognized Guaido as the South American country’s rightful leader. Maduro accuses him of being a coup-monger and so far has retained the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces.

Rodriguez said his group had been meeting different “resistance” groups in Colombia. He did not provide further details of those groups, or of how they planned to cross the border and launch an attack.

He said they had acquired handguns, easily available along the border, and were seeking to raise funds to buy further weapons, explosives, bullet-proof vests, food and water.

‘MINIMAL BLOODSHED’

Colombian President Ivan Duque has recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful ruler and branded Maduro a dictator. Maduro severed diplomatic relations with Colombia after Duque backed opposition efforts to bring U.S. aid into the country in February, although Duque has ruled out supporting any military intervention.

More than 1,400 members of the national guard and other members of the armed forces have left Venezuela for Colombia since Maduro’s troops violently drove back the aid convoys, according to Colombia’s migration office.

As per an agreement with the Venezuelan opposition, Colombia provides dissident military officials with food and housing, and the right to work.

In an interview in Caracas, Guaido said that if any decided to take up arms that would be due to Maduro’s refusal to agree to free and fair presidential elections.

“This reflects the discontent that there is in the armed forces: soldiers looking for alternatives and solutions because Maduro has shut off the electoral option,” Guaido told Reuters.

He did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Bautista’s assertion that groups who took up arms in Colombia would be detained.

Maduro has said last year’s presidential vote was fair and has branded defecting soldiers as “traitors.”

On April 30, Guaido attempted to rally Venezuela’s armed forces to rise up, but only a few dozen soldiers and one top government official defected. The military top brass reaffirmed their loyalty to Maduro.

Over the years, Maduro – and former President Hugo Chavez – won the loyalty of the armed forces in part by promoting hundreds of officers to the rank of general and rewarding them with lucrative positions in state-run entities, like oil company PDVSA.

Rodriguez’s team said they have made contact with garrisons in Venezuela and many were ready to fight once the operation began. He did not provide details about specific garrisons and Reuters could not independently verify the information.

“They’re waiting for us to enter to make their troops available (to fight),” said Pedro Meneses, an industrial engineer and rights worker who said he managed the militia’s logistics. “We want to do this with minimal bloodshed.”

Former Sergeant Major Efren Fernandez, who deserted to Cucuta in February, told Reuters that he was also ready to fight for Guaido.

“Mr President Guaido, rely on our support,” he said. “Here are your soldiers ready for battle, for combat.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, Additional reporting by Andres Rojas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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 (£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’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)