Venezuela opposition marches to Congress in showdown with Maduro

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday will march to downtown Caracas with the aim of regaining control of the national legislature, which was snatched by pro-government lawmakers in January, setting up a showdown with President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

National Assembly President Juan Guaido for weeks has urged Venezuelans to join the rally as a way of reviving street protests against Maduro that surged in 2019, but have waned as the ruling Socialist Party has clung to power.

The rally will be another test of Guaido’s capacity to mobilize supporters, who have become increasingly weary with the country’s economic crisis and the opposition’s inability to oust Maduro despite a broad U.S. sanctions program.

“On March 10, Venezuelans will exercise our rights in the streets,” Guaido told reporters at a Monday news conference about the march. “The only option available for Venezuelans is to escape this disaster.”

The protest is likely to meet stiff resistance from security forces, which were deployed around the country on Monday as part of military exercises ordered by Maduro.

Troops may not allow the marchers, who will include members of Parliament, to reach the legislative palace. Lawmakers will seek a different venue to hold session if they are not allowed to reach congress, according to one opposition source.

The government has called its own separate rallies in downtown Caracas for Tuesday. Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said the opposition’s march was an attempt to rally its flagging energy.

“Every time the right-wing is cornered, they look for events that can raise the excitement of people who stopped being excited a long time ago. They try to create leadership where there is none,” Cabello said during Monday a news conference.

In January, a group of legislators backed by the Socialist Party installed themselves as the leaders of congress after troops blocked Guaido from entering the legislature.

Opposition lawmakers later re-elected Guaido for a second term in an extra-mural session, but they have been largely unable to meet at the legislative palace since then.

More than 50 countries last year recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president following Maduro’s disputed 2018 re-election, which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Venezuela this year is slated to hold parliamentary elections, but the opposition has not yet determined if it will participate due to concerns that the government will not provide adequate conditions.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

Venezuela’s Guaido pushes past troops to enter congress after socialist takeover

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces let U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido enter the legislative palace on Tuesday amid a showdown for control of parliament after the ruling socialist party installed its own rival congressional chief.

Guaido, who was re-elected on Sunday to a second one-year term as head of the opposition-held congress, had pledged to preside over Tuesday’s opening session after security forces blocked him from the building over the weekend to allow socialist legislators to swear in their own speaker.

Local television images early Tuesday showed Guaido arguing for half an hour with troops wielding riot shields who again blocked the entrance to the legislative building, but eventually allowed him to push past them.

“This is not a barracks. This is the house of laws,” Guaido told the soldiers blocking his entrance. “The military does not get to decide who can enter the house of laws.”

But inside, a brief session led by Luis Parra – who was sworn in by allies of President Nicolas Maduro as parliament chief Sunday – had already ended, according to Reuters witnesses.

Parra’s swearing in on Sunday gave Maduro sway over the last major state institution that had remained outside his control and appeared to mark a setback to Washington’s efforts to unseat him.

The gambit marked an escalation in Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition, whose key international ally – the Trump administration – has so far been unsuccessful in its year-long attempt to oust Maduro through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

U.S. special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams on Monday said Washington was preparing new sanctions to step up pressure on Caracas. But Maduro’s move suggests he does not expect major consequences from the United States, though the government has steered clear of actions – like arresting Guaido – that could provoke a harsher response.

“We once again handed imperialism a defeat,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said on his talk show Monday night.

Parra, who was elected to congress in 2015, had been expelled from the First Justice opposition party in late 2019 due to corruption allegations, which he has denied.

Dozens of countries, including the United States, denounced Parra’s appointment as illegitimate, and said they continued to recognize Guaido as the parliament’s head and as Venezuela’s rightful president.

On Sunday, after soldiers prevented Guaido from entering parliament, he held a separate session elsewhere in which 100 lawmakers backed his bid despite the earlier swearing-in of Parra. The legislature has 167 seats.

‘THE PEOPLE ARE IN CHARGE’

Guaido had vowed to preside over Tuesday’s legislative session despite what he called Parra’s “parliamentary coup.” Parra has rejected that description, while saying he wants to end confrontations with Maduro’s government. “We came to save parliament from destruction,” he said on Twitter.

After security forces opened the gates to allow him to pass, Guaido stood in the leadership post and sang the Venezuelan national anthem with allies. Electricity swiftly went out in the chamber, and state television – which had broadcast footage of Parra’s session – cut away from the congress.

“In here, the people are in charge,” lawmakers chanted as Guaido entered.

Guaido was elected head of the congress in January 2019 and invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as a usurper who had secured re-election in a 2018 vote widely considered fraudulent.

So far, Maduro has fended off Guaido’s challenge, retaining control of the armed forces and tightening the noose around opposition lawmakers. More than 30 of Guaido’s congressional allies are in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

Guaido has also been losing support as Venezuelans tired with Maduro lose patience with his floundering movement. It remains to be seen whether his defiant response to Maduro’s move could galvanize his supporters, who turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest Maduro early last year.

Parra’s new policy agenda focuses on reducing conflict with the government. Maduro was quick to celebrate his swearing-in, highlighting a “rebellion” among opposition lawmakers.

Parra said Monday his priority was to set up a new electoral council to preside over free and fair elections.

His brief session included a debate over proposals to tackle widespread shortages of gasoline. The session began around 10 a.m. and ended in under an hour.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

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)