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)

U.S. peace plan conference is blip on Israel’s radar as political, Iran crises swirl

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S.-led conference in Bahrain designed to drum up investment in the Palestinian economy and pave a path to peace with Israel has gone largely unremarked by Israelis preoccupied with a political crisis and their arch-foe Iran.

Palestinians, who view the Trump administration as biased towards Israel, boycotted this week’s meeting in Manama.

It was also held without an official Israeli delegation.

Organizers said privately this was due to worry about a further dent to the event’s credibility after an election in Israel in April election failed to produced a new coalition government.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his ministers and former Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his ministers and former Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing proliferating challengers in a new election due in September, and beset by corruption scandals, the hazier-than-ever peacemaking horizon with the Palestinians drew scant discussion in Israeli media.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen went as far as to suggest that Bahrain may have closed the door on further diplomacy.

“We saw that, even in an economic conference where the Palestinians were meant to come and get money, to come and get tools and inducements, to come and develop their economy, they did not come,” he told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV.

“We see, really, that they do not want a peace accord. They simply don’t want us here…Again, the Palestinians’ true face has been exposed.”

The Palestinians, who have shunned the United States since it recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017, suspected the conference sought to lure them into surrendering their statehood goal in return for global financial relief.

It is not clear whether a peace plan promised by the Trump administration will call for a “two-state solution” sought by the Palestinian Authority and backed internationally, which involves creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu voiced conditional acceptance in 2009 of a future demilitarized Palestinian state. He has since said its creation would not happen on his watch and that he plans to annex some Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, communities many countries view as illegal.

Stalled since 2014, peacemaking has been on a backburner for some Israelis, while others feel a need to work for coexistence.

FILE PHOTO: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

“This is a matter that’s important to me. We need an end to this situation,” said Jerusalem chef Israel Bachar, 45.

“It’s a little odd that the Americans held this (Bahrain) conference without convening the two main parties involved. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to impose things from outside.”

Netanyahu described the Bahrain gathering as part of a U.S. effort “to bring about a better future and solve the region’s problems”.

Two days before it opened, he toured the strategic Jordan Valley, the eastern-most part of the West Bank that borders Jordan, with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and said Israel must retain a presence there in any peace deal.

Israeli journalists were at Bahrain, a rarity for a Gulf state that does not formally recognize Israel. The resulting coverage focused as much on wider Israeli-Arab contacts and Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community as on the Palestinian no-shows.

Cohen, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said Arab delegates saw Bahrain as a chance to close ranks with Israel on bilateral commerce and in the face of a common adversary.

“This was, in fact, a regional summit against Iran,” he said. “We see here a coalition in the Middle East…They (Arab powers) understand that their security threat is Iran.”

Washington and Tehran have exchanged threats and heated rhetoric in recent weeks, with a U.S. increasing sanctions on Iran and Iranian forces shooting down a U.S. drone in the Gulf.

The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University gave a cautious welcome to the initiatives announced in Manama, including a global investment fund for the Palestinians. But it said these could not trump statecraft.

“While a willingness to earmark huge investments in economy, infrastructure, education, health, and welfare in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be good news…what is also required is a political plan that is both creative and beneficial to the Palestinians,” INSS scholars Tomer Fadlon and Sason Hadad wrote.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war. It pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 and Hamas Islamists, who have called for Israel’s destruction, now rule the enclave. Palestinians seek both territories for a future state.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

With Venezuela in collapse, towns slip into primitive isolation

A man weighs coffee beans, given as a means of payment, in a hardware store in Guarico, Venezuela April 24, 2019. Picture taken April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

By Corina Pons

PATANEMO, Venezuela (Reuters) – At the once-busy beach resort of Patanemo, tourism has evaporated over the last two years as Venezuela’s economic collapse has deepened and deteriorating cellphone service left visitors too afraid of robbery to brave the isolated roads.

Gone are the vendors who once walked the sands of the crescent-shaped beach hawking bathing suits and empanadas – a traditional savory pastry.

These days, its Caribbean shoreline flanked by forested hills receives a different type of visitor: people who walk 10 minutes from a nearby town carrying rice, plantains or bananas in hopes of exchanging them for the fishermen’s latest catch.

With bank notes made useless by hyperinflation, and no easy access to the debit card terminals widely used to conduct transactions in urban areas, residents of Patanemo rely mainly on barter.

It is just one of a growing number of rural towns slipping into isolation as Venezuela’s economy implodes amid a long-running political crisis.

From the peaks of the Andes to Venezuela’s sweltering southern savannahs, the collapse of basic services including power, telephone and internet has left many towns struggling to survive.

The subsistence economy stands in stark contrast to the oil boom years when abundance seeped into the most remote reaches of what was once Latin America’s richest nation.

“The fish that we catch is to exchange or give away,” said Yofran Arias, one of 15 fishermen who have grown accustomed to a rustic existence even though they live a 15-minute drive from Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello.

“Money doesn’t buy anything so it’s better for people to bring food so we can give them fish,” he said, while cleaning bonefish, known for abundant bones and limited commercial value.

In visits to three villages across Venezuela, Reuters reporters saw residents exchanging fish, coffee beans and hand-picked fruit for essentials to make ends meet in an economy that shrank 48% during the first five years of President Nicolas Maduro’s government, according to recent central bank figures.

Venezuela’s crisis has taken a heavy toll on rural areas, where the number of households in poverty reached 74% in 2017 compared with 34% in the capital of Caracas, according to an annual survey called Encovi carried out by private Venezuelan universities.

Residents rarely travel to nearby cities, due to a lack of public transportation, growing fuel shortages and the prohibitive cost of consumer goods.

In some regions, travel requires negotiating roads barricaded by residents looking to steal from travelers. At one such roadblock in eastern Venezuela, a Reuters witness saw a driver fire gunshots in the air to disperse a crowd

“I haven’t been to the city center in almost two years. What would I do there? I don’t have enough (money) to buy a shirt or a pair of shorts,” said a fisherman in Patanemo who identified himself only as Luis.

“I’m better off here swapping things to survive.”

COFFEE FOR FUEL

Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic collapses in modern history. Inflation has topped 1 million percent, according to figures released by the opposition-run congress. The United Nations says 4 million citizens have fled Venezuela, 3.3 million of them since 2015.

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen's camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen’s camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Maduro blames the situation on an “economic war” waged by his political adversaries as well as U.S. sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.

The central bank in April released economic indicators for the first time in the nearly four years, showing a less severe cataclysm than figures published by Congress. But the bank’s data underscored a dramatic contraction and spiraling consumer prices, nonetheless.

The bolivar has lost 99% of its value since Maduro took office in 2013.

In the mountains of the central state of Lara, residents of the town of Guarico this year found a different way of paying bills – coffee beans.

Residents of the coffee-growing region now exchange roasted beans for anything from haircuts to spare parts for agricultural machinery.

“Based on the cost of the product, we agree with the customer on the kilos or number of bags of coffee that they have to pay,” said hardware store manager Haideliz Linares.

The transactions are based on a reference price for how much coffee fetches on the local market, Linares said. In April, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beans was worth the equivalent of $3.00.

In El Tocuyo, another town in Lara state, three 100 kilo sacks of coffee buy 200 liters (53 gallons) of gasoline, which is in increasingly short supply in the OPEC nation due to chronic operational problems at state oil company PDVSA.

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

In Borburata, another town a few miles from Patanemo, Keila Ovalles harvests eggplant, tomato and passion fruit in the backyard of her modest home. She said it was similar to the way her family lived in the early 20th century.

She stopped drinking coffee after being unable to pay for it, and now makes tea out of lemongrass instead.

“I tell the guys that I’m swapping passion fruit for something else, they spread the word and someone always comes,” said the 55-year-old woman.

(Reporting by Corina Pons; additional reporting by Keren Torres in Guarico, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Angus Berwick in Cumana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Venezuela blackout leaves streets empty, school and work canceled

Commercial area is pictured during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela canceled work and school on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left streets mostly empty in Caracas and residents of the capital wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic and political crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, which blamed the United States and the opposition for the previous power cut, blamed an “attack” on its electrical system for the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage shuttered businesses, plunged the city’s main airport into darkness and left commuters stranded in Caracas.

The blackout came amid tensions with the United States over the weekend arrival of Russian military planes, which led Washington to accuse Moscow of “reckless escalation” of the country’s situation.

Russia, which has major energy investments in OPEC member Venezuela, has remained a staunch ally of Maduro, while the United States and most other Western nations have endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Citing the constitution, Guaido in January assumed the interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent. Maduro says Guaido is a U.S. puppet attempting to lead a coup against him and has blamed worsening economic difficulties on sanctions imposed by Washington.

Power was restored to much of the country by Monday evening but went out again during the night.

Western cities, including Maracaibo and Barquisimeto, both in the west of the South American country, as well as the central city of Valencia, had no power on Tuesday, according to witnesses.

Many people on Caracas’ streets went to work because they did not know about the government’s suspension of the workday, which was announced by the presidential press office in a 4 a.m. (0800 GMT) tweet.

“How am I supposed to find out, if there’s no power and no internet?” said dental assistant Yolanda Gonzalez, 50, waiting for the bus near a Caracas plaza. “Power’s going to get worse, you’ll see.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday said the blackout that began in the early afternoon was the result of an attack on Venezuela’s main hydroelectric Guri dam which had affected three major transmission lines.

Rodriguez did not explicitly blame Monday’s outage on any particular individual or group. But he said, “the intention of Venezuela’s far right is to attack, generate anxiety and anguish, in order to seize power and steal all our resources.”

The country suffered its worst blackout ever starting on March 7. For nearly a week it left millions of people struggling to obtain food and water and hospitals without power to treat the sick. Looting in the western state of Zulia destroyed hundreds of businesses.

Electricity experts say the outages are the result of inadequate maintenance and incompetent management of the power grid since the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized the sector in 2007.

Russia, which has warned Washington against military intervention in Venezuela, declined to comment on the planes on Tuesday or respond to the accusations from the U.S. State Department.

Venezuelan Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello confirmed that two planes had flown to the country from Russia during the weekend, but he did not give a reason or say whether they carried troops.

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said the “military option” was on the table regarding Venezuela, prompting a strong backlash from regional leaders wary of U.S. troops being deployed to Latin American soil.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – like Trump, a Republican – on Tuesday wrote on Twitter, “I hope the members of Congress & the regional leaders who said they opposed U.S. ‘military intervention’ in #Venezuela will be just as forceful now that #Russia is sending (its) military to Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré and Vivian Sequera; writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Four dead, hundreds detained after Venezuela blackout: rights groups

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Four people were killed and at least 300 were detained in association with protests and looting that took place during Venezuela’s nationwide blackout, rights groups said on Thursday.

The OPEC nation suffered its worst blackout in history last week following technical problems that the government of President Nicolas Maduro called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage but critics dismissed as the result of incompetence.

Rights groups Provea and the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said via Twitter that three people were killed in the central state of Lara and one person was killed in the western state of Zulia. The cause of the deaths was unclear.

Alfredo Romero of rights group Foro Penal said at a news conference that 124 people had been detained in protests over public services since the March 8 blackout and that another 200 were arrested over looting.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Power has returned to many parts of Venezuela, though service has not been fully restored to scattered areas of the capital Caracas and much of the western region.

Venezuela plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled congress, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham.

That move has put Venezuela at the heart of a geopolitical tussle, with the United States leading most Western nations in recognizing Guaido as the legitimate head of state, while Russia, China and others support Maduro.

Guaido is scheduled to join a meeting of local residents in the El Hatillo district of the capital of Caracas on Thursday.

The blackout that began a week ago left hospitals struggling to keep equipment running, and food rotted in the tropical heat. The nongovernmental organization Doctors for Health said 26 people died in public hospitals during the blackout.

The western state of Zulia suffered intense looting that hit some 350 businesses.

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama and Vivian Sequera, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

One year on, Baghdad falls silent to mark defeat of Islamic State

A member of security forces flashes the victory sign, during marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A hush descended on central Baghdad on Monday as Iraqis observed a minute’s silence for those killed in the battle against Islamic State a year after the group was defeated.

Fireworks were scheduled to be set off later in the evening. The government has made the date a national holiday and dubbed it “victory day” but some Iraqis felt little cause for celebration, however.

Iraqis with security forces stop during a minute of silence, marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Iraqis with security forces stop during a minute of silence, marking the one year anniversary of the military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Little meaningful reconstruction has taken place in cities decimated by battles against the jihadists between 2014 and 2017, and Iraq is in the throes of a new political crisis which has prevented it forming a government that can tackle widespread corruption and lack of jobs and services.

Meanwhile, Islamic State militants are still carrying out insurgent-style attacks against security forces and have been blamed for car bombs and assassinations of local notables.

“Iraqis are scared that the problems in parliament … and the inability to form a full cabinet … have helped create the (unstable) environment for Islamic State cells to re-emerge,” Najah Jameel, 48 a civil society activist, said.

Another Baghdad resident, Dawood Salman, 55, said he would remember the soldiers and fighters who were killed battling the jihadists.

“We congratulate the military and the Popular Mobilisation Forces,” a grouping of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries, he said.

Iraq’s military, Kurdish forces and the Shi’ite militias backed by U.S.-led air strikes and special forces drove Islamic State militants out of areas they had controlled for three years in 2017.

Former prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the Sunni Muslim extremists defeated in Iraq on Dec. 9, 2017. The group had ruled over a self-styled caliphate, governing large parts of northern Iraq and eastern Syria according to its fanatical interpretation of Islam and Islamic law.

“This is a day that we are all proud of when our courageous country defeat the enemies of peace,” Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said in a televised address.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Ukraine halts all cargo traffic with rebel-held territory

FILE PHOTO: Activists walk along carriages loaded with coal from the occupied territories which they blocked at Kryvyi Torets station in the village of Shcherbivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Konstantin Chernichkin/File Photo

By Pavel Polityuk and Alexei Kalmykov

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday halted all cargo traffic with rebel-held territory in the east of the country, formalizing an existing rail blockade by Ukrainian activists that has fueled the worst political crisis in nearly a year.

In a standoff that is hurting the economies of both sides, separatists have seized control of some Ukrainian businesses in their territory after having their coal and steel shipments halted in the rail blockade.

Tensions have escalated in recent days, leading to clashes between law enforcement agencies and the activists, who have been joined by some members of parliament.

The blockade posed a dilemma for President Petro Poroshenko: breaking it up by force could provoke a major domestic backlash, but allowing it to proceed unilaterally risked undermining the state’s authority.

Poroshenko’s Security and Defense Council introduced the state-led cargo ban to counter what he described as the political and social threat posed by the unofficial blockade.

The decision “is dictated by the necessity to prevent the destabilizing of the situation in the country, which is being undermined by political operators,” he told the council.

“Our wish is to prevent social strife,” he said.

The suspension will remain until rebels hand back control of a number of Ukraine-registered businesses and comply with a 2015 peace agreement, according to the Security Council.

The asset seizures have mostly affected businesses in the financial and industrial group owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

On Wednesday, Akhmetov’s DTEK Energy said its main mining assets in rebel-held territory, already idling because of the blockade, had been taken under separatist control. On the international debt market, its 2024 dollar bond fell 1.6 cents to a two-week low on the news.

The crisis has put pressure on Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman’s government just as it is about to lose its year-long immunity from facing any vote of no confidence. It was appointed last April by a fragile coalition that includes Poroshenko’s party, after the previous government fell.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said Ukraine’s decision had nothing to do with the separatists, saying it was instead “evidence of an internal power struggle in Kiev.”

The suspension will further squeeze the Ukrainian economy, already facing potential rolling blackouts and monthly economic losses of up to 4 billion hryvnias ($150 million) from the existing blockade, according to the government.

The central bank says expected economic growth could nearly halve this year to 1.5 percent if rail traffic does not resume.

Poroshenko expects the government on Thursday to come up with fresh forecasts for the impact of the broader ban on the economy, energy security and currency stability.

The trade squeeze has highlighted the complicated economic relationship between the two sides and represents a new phase in a stand-off that has killed more than 10,000 people.

Germany, which has taken a leading role in trying to end the conflict, said it was seriously concerned about “increasing partitionist tendencies” in eastern Ukraine.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told a government news conference: “The danger of a military escalation is far from over.”

He said Berlin was urging Ukraine and Russia to live up to agreements made as part of the 2015 Minsk peace process, citing troubling actions by both sides, including the rebel asset seizures and the government’s decision to cut off trade.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Matthias Williams and Mark Trevelyan)