Special Report: Why the military still stands by Venezuela’s beleaguered president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino speak during a meeting with military commanders, in Caracas, Venezuela June 3, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – One of the central mysteries of Venezuela’s slow-motion collapse: Why does the military continue to support Nicolas Maduro, the president who has led the once-prosperous South American country into poverty and chaos?

The answer, according to people familiar with Venezuela’s military structure, starts with Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the charismatic caudillo who cemented strongman socialist rule in the nation of about 30 million people.

In a series of actions that began in 1999, the former lieutenant colonel and one-time coup leader began taming the military by bloating it, buying it off, politicizing it, intimidating the rank and file, and fragmenting the overall command.

Once he took office in 2013, Maduro handed key segments of the country’s increasingly ravaged economy to the armed forces. Select military officers took control of the distribution of food and key raw materials. A National Guard general and military deputies now manage the all-important national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA [PDVSA.UL].

The two leaders also embedded intelligence agents, with the help of Cuba’s security services, within barracks, former officers say, instilling paranoia and defusing most dissent before it happens. Intelligence agents have arrested and jailed scores of perceived troublemakers, including several high-profile officers, even for minor infractions.

The overhaul, former military officials say, created a jumbled and partisan chain of command. Top officers, grateful for perks and fearful of retribution, are often more preoccupied with pleasing Socialist Party chiefs than with national defense. Instead of drills and war games, some generals find themselves fielding calls to plant vegetables or clear garbage.

Many lower-ranking soldiers, destitute and desperate like most of Venezuela’s working class, have deserted the military in recent years, joining at least 4 million other fellow emigres seeking a better life elsewhere. But few senior officers have heeded the opposition’s call for rebellion, leaving the armed forces top-heavy, unwieldy and still standing by Maduro.

“The chain of command has been lost,” said Cliver Alcala, a former general who retired in 2013 and now supports the opposition from Colombia. “There is no way to know who is in charge of operations, who is in charge of administration and who is in charge of policy.”

Some commanders, like Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, a four-star general, are nearly as much a face of the administration as Maduro. Padrino is sanctioned by the United States for ensuring Maduro’s “hold on the military and the government while the Venezuelan people suffer,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Reuters was unable to reach Padrino or other senior officers mentioned in this article. Venezuela’s defense ministry didn’t reply to email or telephone inquiries. The country’s information ministry, responsible for government communications including those of the president, didn’t reply to Reuters either.

Padrino is hardly alone.

Consider the sheer number of officers awarded flag rank in Venezuela.

The country’s roughly 150,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard troops are a fraction of the more than 1 million who make up the U.S. armed forces. Yet Venezuela, with as many as 2,000 admirals and generals, now boasts as much as twice the top brass as the U.S. military – more than 10 times as many flag officers as existed when Chavez became president.

The estimate is according to calculations by former Venezuelan officers and the U.S. military.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a military parade to celebrate the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, next to his wife Cilia Flores and Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in Caracas, Venezuela June 24, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The result, government opponents say, is a bureaucratic and operational mess, even at the very top.

Padrino, for instance, is both a general and defense minister. But he can’t officially mobilize troops without the consent of Remigio Ceballos, an admiral who also reports directly to Maduro and heads the Strategic Operations Command, an agency created by Chavez to oversee deployments.

“You have a general in chief and an admiral in chief,” said Hebert Garcia, a retired general who once served under Maduro but now supports the opposition from Washington. “Which one are you supposed to obey?”

The armed forces could still turn on Maduro, particularly if popular outrage boils over and makes military support for the president untenable. Still, calls by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in late April unsuccessfully sought to rally the troops against Maduro, thus far remain unheeded.

Guaido in May told reporters his efforts to convert troops are thwarted by the military’s fragmented structure and intimidation within its ranks. “What is preventing the break?” he asked. “The ability to speak openly, directly with each of the sectors. It has to do with the persecution inside the Socialist Party, inside the armed forces.”

To better understand the pressures and policies keeping the troops in Maduro’s camp, Reuters interviewed dozens of current and former officers, soldiers, military scholars and people familiar with Venezuelan security. In their assessment, the military has evolved into a torpid bureaucracy with few leaders capable of engineering the type of mass mutiny that Maduro’s opponents long for.

“REAL POWER”

Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” as Chavez dubbed his remaking of the country, itself has roots in military rebellion. Six years before he was elected president in 1998, Chavez led a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez, a deeply unpopular president who Congress eventually forced from office.

Once in power, Chavez immediately took steps to enlist the military in his vision for a paternalistic, state-led economy that would share abundant oil wealth with long-neglected segments of Venezuela’s population.

With a new constitution in December 1999, Chavez stripped Congress of its oversight of promotion of senior officers. That gave the president ultimate authority to assign flag ranks and empower allied officers.

Because many state and local governments at the time were still controlled by rivals, Chavez also saw the military as a tool that could show his administration hard at work. A new program, “Plan Bolivar 2000,” ordered troops to fill potholes, clean highways, refurbish schools and carry out other public works.

The $114 million effort put sizeable sums at the discretion of commanders, giving officers a taste for a new kind of influence. “What Plan Bolivar 2000 taught officers was that real power doesn’t lie in commanding troops, but rather in controlling money,” said one retired general. The general, who served under Chavez and Maduro, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Soon, some of the funds began to disappear.

Miguel Morffe, a retired major, once worked as a captain in the remote northwestern region of La Guajira. He recalls receiving a request from superiors to provide materials for an unspecified schoolhouse. When Morffe told a lieutenant colonel that he didn’t understand where the supplies would be going, the superior told him: “I need those materials for something else.”

“The school didn’t exist,” Morffe concluded.

Military officials didn’t reply to questions about the alleged incident.

By 2001, a raft of corruption allegations plagued the Plan Bolivar program.

Chavez fired General Victor Cruz, the Army’s commander in charge of the program. Cruz denied wrongdoing and wasn’t charged with any crime at the time. Venezuelan authorities arrested him last year when press reports linked him to funds in an offshore account. A Caracas court in May ordered him to stand trial on charges of illicit enrichment.

Reuters couldn’t reach Cruz for comment or identify his legal counsel.

In 2002, Chavez said he would wind down Plan Bolivar 2000.

Regional elections, he told Chilean sociologist and political activist Marta Harnecker in an interview, had put more allies in mayoral and state offices, where they could now work in unison with the national government. The military, he said, would return to its normal business.

That April, however, a small group of top officers emboldened Chavez to further remake the armed forces. Encouraged by conservative leaders and wealthy elites unhappy with his leftist agenda, the officers staged a coup and briefly arrested Chavez.

But the coup unraveled. Within two days, Chavez was back in power.

He purged the top ranks. More importantly, he reined in several powerful offices, including the Defense Ministry. Henceforth, the ministry would manage military budgets and weapons procurement, but no longer control troops themselves. Chavez created the Strategic Operations Command, the agency that manages deployments.

The move, former officers say, jumbled the chain of command.

He also rethought overall strategy.

Increasingly concerned that Venezuela’s oil wealth and leftist policies would make it a target for invasion, particularly by the United States, Chavez pushed for the military to integrate further with the government and society itself.

“We’re transforming the armed forces for a war of resistance, for the anti-imperialist popular war, for the integral defense of the nation,” he said at a 2004 National Guard ceremony.

Military leaders soon had to pledge their allegiance to Chavez and his Bolivarian project, not just the nation itself. Despite resistance from some commanders, the ruling party slogan, “Fatherland, Socialism or Death,” began echoing through barracks and across parade grounds.

As of 2005, another factor helped Chavez tighten his hold on power. Oil prices, years before fracking would boost global supply, soared along with the notion the planet’s reserves were dwindling. For most of the rest of his time in power, the windfall would enable Chavez to accelerate spending and ensure popular support.

Oil money also helped him strengthen relationships with like-minded countries, especially those seeking to counterbalance the United States. Venezuela purchased billions of dollars in arms and equipment from Russia and China. It secured medical and educational support through doctors, teachers and other advisors arriving from Cuba, the closest ally of all.

Cubans came with military know-how, too.

A “cooperation agreement” forged between Chavez and Fidel Castro years earlier had by now blossomed into an alliance on security matters, according to two former officers. Around 2008, Venezuelan officers say they began noticing Cuban officials working within various parts of the armed forces.

General Antonio Rivero, who the previous five years had managed Venezuela’s civil protection authority, says he returned to military activities that year to find Cuban advisors leading training of soldiers and suggesting operational and administrative changes.

The Cubans, he told Reuters, advised Chavez to rework the ranks, once built around strategic centers, into more of a territorial system, spreading the military’s presence further around the country. Rivero was stunned at one training session on military engineering. A Cuban colonel leading the session told attendees the meeting and its contents should be considered a state secret.

“What’s happening here?” Rivero said he asked himself. “How is a foreign military force going to possess a state secret?”

Rivero left Venezuela for the United States in 2014.

Cuban officials didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

The island’s influence soon would become apparent in day-to-day operations.

In Cuba, the military is involved in everything from public works to telecommunications to tourism. In Venezuela, too, ruling party officials increasingly began ordering officers to take part in activities that had little to do with military preparedness. Soldiers increasingly became cheap labor for governors and mayors.

In 2010, a former general working in the Andes, a western region on the Colombian border, was overseeing a complex mobilization of 5,000 troops for a month of combat training. The general spoke on condition that he not be named.

Another general, from a nearby command, called and asked him to halt the exercises. The state governor, the other officer told the general, wanted to reroute the troops – to install energy-efficient light bulbs in homes.

When the general refused, Army Commander Euclides Campos issued a formal order to scrap the training. “This would sound shocking to any military professional, but it’s exactly how the Venezuelan armed forces work,” the former general said.

Reuters was unable to reach Campos for comment.

“TRAITORS NEVER!”

Chavez, stricken by cancer, died in 2013. Maduro, his vice president and hand-picked replacement as the Socialist party candidate for president, won the election to succeed him.

The new president continued naming new flag officers and appointed even more military officials to helm agencies. By 2017, active and former military figures had held as many as half of Maduro’s 32 cabinet posts, according to Citizen Control, a Venezuelan non-profit that studies the armed forces.

In 2014, just as a collapse in oil prices torpedoed Venezuela’s economy, Maduro further fragmented the military structure.

Following the advice of the Cubans, former military officers say, Maduro created new command centers nationwide. He appointed senior officers to run new commands in each of the 23 states and Caracas, the capital, as well as eight regional commands above those. His public speeches are now increasingly peppered with terms like ZODI and REDI, acronyms for the new commands.

Near military facilities, new brass abounded.

“Before, seeing a general was like seeing a bishop or an archbishop, he was an important figure,” recalls Morffe, the retired major. “Not long ago, I saw one in an airport. He walked past a group of soldiers and they didn’t even salute.”

Flag officers now oversee some areas that were once slivers of larger commands, in areas so remote that they have few human inhabitants. The largest landmass in the Western Maritime and Insular Command, overseen by an admiral, is a rocky archipelago with little vegetation and no permanent residents.

The officer, Vice Admiral Rodolfo Sanchez, didn’t respond to a Reuters phone call to his office.

The lopsided, partisan structure has led to mission creep, former officers say.

In the Andes command, which oversees three states, six generals once oversaw roughly 13,000 troops, according to officers familiar with the region. Today, at least 20 generals are now managing ranks that have dwindled to as few as 3,000 soldiers, according to officers familiar with the region.

Last August, three of the generals, including the regional commander, met with municipal officials in the state of Tachira, a hotbed of protests against Maduro in recent years. Days earlier, the government had said explosives used in a drone attack on a military parade in Caracas had been smuggled through Tachira from Colombia.

“All of us together can solve this problem,” Major General Manuel Bernal told the assembled officers and a group of onlookers, including a Reuters reporter.

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A Venezuelan soldier loads a truck with garbage at a street in San Cristobal, Venezuela, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Bernal wasn’t talking about the drones, however. Or even national security, once a major issue in the Andean region, where Colombia’s guerrilla war long posed a threat. Instead, the generals had gathered to talk about trash overflowing at a landfill. They deployed soldiers to clear garbage and put out a fire there.

A communications official for the Andes command didn’t respond to a Reuters request to speak with Bernal about the episode.

Military bosses show few signs of shying away from such directives. In the weeks since Guaido’s failed call to arms, senior officers have reiterated their commitment to Maduro.

“We will continue fulfilling our constitutional duties, fulfilling duties under your command,” Defense Minister Padrino told Maduro alongside troops gathered in Caracas in early May.

“Loyal always!” Padrino shouted.

The troops responded in unison: “Traitors never!”

(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Paraguana, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, and Phil Stewart in Washington. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

Violence, gangs cast pall over life in Honduras

"El Fresa" (L), a Barrio-18 gang member, sits on a sofa next to another Barrio-18 gang member in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Edgard Garrido

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) – Ana Luz, sister-in-law of Ronald Blanco, looked on grimly as neighbors of the murdered Honduran man washed away the rills of blood left where his bullet-ridden body had lain outside his house in a troubled barrio on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

 

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

It was just one of many scenes I witnessed this year while on assignment in Honduras, where thousands of people sought to escape violence and poverty by joining a migrant caravan in hope of making it to safety across the Mexico-U.S. border. The problems in this small Central American country grabbed international attention as U.S. President Donald Trump cracked down on illegal immigration.

Honduras has for years been one of the world’s most murderous countries. Though official data show the homicide rate has fallen sharply, it continues to be a highly challenging environment in which to work.

According to Honduran government figures, the homicide rate reached 86 per 100,000 people in 2011-2012. This year, the rate should end below 40 per 100,000, the security ministry says. This compares to the latest statistics in the United States, where there were 5.3 murders per 100,000 in 2017, according to the FBI’s most recent report on its website.

Danger in Honduras is never far away.

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

During my roughly three months spent in Honduras in 2018, I photographed mothers waiting at the morgue for the bodies of murdered sons and daughters, police keeping watch over corpses left lying on streets after shootouts and families wailing over the coffins of loved ones.

Blanco, 37, lived in the Japon neighborhood, a breeding ground for gang violence, according to local authorities. It was here that I experienced the most tense moment of my time in Honduras, as I moved between police, soldiers, gang members, forensic experts, hearse drivers and pastors.

At Blanco’s funeral, I was stopped by a young man with piercing eyes, one green and one blue. He demanded to know why I was there.

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

I explained that I was a journalist taking photographs of the event. But the youth kept pressing me with questions about what had brought me to Blanco’s funeral. As I continued taking the photos, I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, the tension eased when one of Blanco’s friends intervened, saying that the grieving family had authorized my presence.

 

(Reporting by Edgard Garrido; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon and Julia Love; Editing by Diane Craft)

Mexicans regroup after Willa’s ‘end of world’ onslaught

Hurricane Willa brings high waves to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, October 23, 2018, in this still image taken froma video obtained on social media. Edgar Paredes, Irma Paredes via REUTERS

By David Alire Garcia

ESCUINAPA, Mexico (Reuters) – Residents on Mexico’s Pacific Coast on Wednesday began clearing up the wreckage left by Hurricane Willa, which ripped through towns overnight, tearing off rooftops, downing power lines and splitting trees apart.

Willa hit the northwestern state of Sinaloa late Tuesday as one of the strongest storms to lash the coast in recent years, with winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour).

“I thought it was the end of the world,” said Alma Rosa Ramirez, a 45-year-old resident of the town of Escuinapa, as she described how her whole house rattled in the blasting winds.

Now with the sun peeking through and wind nearly at a standstill, Ramirez and scores of other residents took to the streets to pick up debris, while emergency crews poured in to work on reestablishing basic services.

Ramirez arrived at her tiny fruit and vegetable stand in the shadow of a large stone church in Escuinapa’s central square, saying she feared the storm had devastated the farming region that supplies her with the carrots, squash and chiles she sells.

Fallen tree is seen at the park in Escuinapa, near the southern tip of Sinaloa state after Hurricane Willa hit the area, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Fallen tree is seen at the park in Escuinapa, near the southern tip of Sinaloa state after Hurricane Willa hit the area, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

“There’s going to be a lot of poverty,” she said.

No deaths have been reported as thousands of people were evacuated from coastal towns and resorts before the storm hit.

“The population took cover in time,” said Luis Felipe Puente, head of the country’s Civil Protection agency, confirming that no deaths had been reported as of early on Wednesday.

On the other side of Escuinapa, 74-year-old retiree Virginia Medina sat in a white plastic chair, a 4-week-old kitten winding between her legs, as she took in the damage.

Willa showed her little mercy: a metal corrugated roof collapsed, water pooled in the kitchen and gnarled branches littered Medina’s front patio and backyard.

“I can’t even walk in my backyard … Here in the neighborhood a lot of walls came tumbling down. Now there is no power, no gas, there’s nothing,” Medina said.

Willa struck the coast about 50 miles (80 km) south of Mazatlan, a major city and tourist resort in Sinaloa, as a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The storm had reached rare Category 5 status on Monday, with winds nearing 160 miles per hour (260 kph), as it headed toward the coast.

The storm dissipated by mid-morning as it moved quickly inland over northwest-central Mexico on Wednesday. It was still expected to dump heavy rains across the region.

By then, the storm was about 75 miles (120 km) west of the city of Monterrey, blowing maximum sustained winds of 25 mph, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Downpours in Mexico prior to Willa’s arrival have heightened the risk of flooding, and the NHC said the storm could drench some areas in as much as 18 inches (45 cm) of rain.

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham and Brendan O’Brien; writing by Anthony Esposito and Daina Beth Solomon; editing by Robert Birsel, Helen Popper, Frances Kerry and G Crosse)

Brazil judge overturns Venezuela border closure, opening path for immigrants

FILE PHOTO: People stand at the border with Venezuela, seen from the Brazilian city of Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File photo

By Ricardo Brito and Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – A Brazilian federal appeals court judge on Tuesday overturned a ruling barring Venezuelan immigrants fleeing economic and political turmoil from entering the country, the Solicitor General’s office, which had made the appeal, said.

On Sunday, a federal judge in the northern state of Roraima ordered the border closed until the state could create “humanitarian” conditions to receive a massive influx of Venezuelans, who have overwhelmed state social services and caused a growing humanitarian crisis.

Appeals court judge Kassio Marques acknowledged “grave violations of the public and judicial order,” but overturned the lower court’s ruling. He said the closure would not help to improve humanitarian conditions for Venezuelans fleeing their country, as the federal prosecutors and public defenders offices who brought the case had argued.

The Brasilia-based judge’s decision was cited in a statement by the Solicitor General’s office.

The federal police said on Tuesday that it never actually closed the frontier but had begun preparations for shutting it on Monday.

“Those measures were promptly suspended this morning, in the wake of the new judicial decision … and the normal flow of Venezuelan immigrants was re-established,” the federal police said in a statement.

A state government official in Roraima said that although the federal police never closed the border, officers did momentarily stop Venezuelans entering.

“They only let pass those who had been granted asylum, residency or could prove they have passage out of the country,” the official told Reuters. “There was even a little protest.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) welcomed the Brazilian judiciary’s decision.

Nearly 33,000 Venezuelans had asked for asylum in Brazil as of April 30, while another 25,000 had entered the country by other means, including humanitarian visas, labor and migration visas, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told reporters in Geneva.

“In 2018, the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela is already larger than for the whole of 2017,” he said.

Venezuela is in the grip of a severe economic crisis, with people going short of food, medicines and other essentials, and periodic waves of protests against the country’s leftist president, Nicolas Maduro.

In appealing Sunday’s ruling, the Solicitor General’s office said closing the border in Roraima would likely do little to stem the flow of Venezuelans, as the border is so extensive.

The Brazilian Air Force began flying Venezuelan immigrants in Roraima to other cities of Brazil in May and has so far flown more than 800 Venezuelans out of Boa Vista, the state capital.

(Additional reporting by Staphanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.S. judge grants reprieve to Puerto Ricans facing eviction

Jaykarey Skerett, a Puerto Rican mother whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, sits with her two sons for an interview in her hotel room in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. July 2 2018. Picture taken July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Joey Roule

By Joey Roulette

KISSIMMEE, Fl. (Reuters) – A federal judge will hold a hearing on Monday that could determine the fate of hundreds of Puerto Ricans who fled the hurricane-ravaged island last year and are lodging in motels, after granting them a reprieve from eviction over the weekend.

The last benefits of a federal aid program for Hurricane Maria evacuees from the island had been set to run out on Sunday morning, cutting off housing assistance for the group residing in state-side motels.

But late on Saturday U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin of Massachusetts ordered the U.S. government to extend the aid for hotel vouchers to at least check-out time on July 4. At the hearing, he could decide whether to extend it further.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said 1,722 families are currently receiving aid under its housing program, 585 of whom reside in Central Florida motels.

FEMA said in a statement on Sunday it was aware of the judge’s decision and was contacting vendors to comply with the court order.

U.S. Democratic Representative Darren Soto, whose Kissimmee district includes Puerto Ricans facing eviction, said a displaced family can either remain in the hotel with the looming fear of losing aid or take a free flight back to the island.

“There’s a couple tough decisions people really have to make,” Soto told reporters.

Hurricane Maria dealt a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 percent.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates.

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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

By Andrew Cawthorne and Francisco Aguilar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPTIONS LIMITED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRISIS MAY DEEPEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two million children in Congo at risk of starvation, U.N. warns

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 2 million children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated to be at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition if they do not get the aid they need, the United Nations warned on Friday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock will meet donors next week in the country where conditions in many areas are worsening, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke told a Geneva briefing.

“We have a great responsibility in the DRC…now is the time to stay the course,” Laerke said.

The 2 million children at risk of starvation include some 300,000 children in the Kasai region, Bettina Luescher of the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Tom Miles)

‘Migrate or die’: Venezuelan migrants flood into Colombia despite crackdown

Venezuelans line the street at the border between Venezuela and Colombia, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Julia Symmes Cobb and Anggy Polanco

MAICAO/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – The desert wind whipping their faces, hundreds of Venezuelan migrants lugging heavy suitcases and overstuffed backpacks trudge along the road to the Colombian border town of Maicao beneath the blazing sun.

The broken line snakes back 8 miles (13 km) to the border crossing at Paraguachon, where more than a hundred Venezuelans wait in the heat outside the migration office.

Money changers sit at tables stacked with wads of Venezuelan currency, made nearly worthless by hyperinflation under President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

The remote outpost on the arid La Guajira peninsula on Colombia’s Caribbean coast marks a frontline in Latin America’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Venezuelans pray as they gather at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

The Venezuelans arrive hungry, thirsty and tired, often unsure where they will spend the night, but relieved to have escaped the calamitous situation in their homeland.

They are among more than half a million Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia, many illegally, hoping to escape grinding poverty, rising violence and shortages of food and medicine in their once-prosperous, oil exporting nation.

“It’s migrate and give it a try or die of hunger there. Those are the only two options,” said Yeraldine Murillo, 27, who left her six-year-old son behind in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, some 56 miles (90 km) across the border.

“There, people eat from the trash. Here, people are happy just to eat,” said Murillo, who hopes to find work in Colombia’s capital Bogota and send for her son.

The exodus from Venezuela – on a scale echoing the departure of Myanmar’s Rohingya people to Bangladesh – is stirring alarm in Colombia. A weary migration official said as many as 2,000 Venezuelans enter Colombia legally through Paraguachon each day, up from around 1,200 late last year.

Under pressure from overcrowded frontier towns such as Maicao, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a tightening of border controls this month, deploying 3,000 additional security personnel.

But the measures are unlikely to stem the flow of illegal migrants pouring across the 1,379-mile (2,219 km) frontier.

At Paraguachon, where a lack of effective border controls has long allowed smuggling to thrive, officials estimate 4,000 people cross illegally daily.

“We left houses, cars. We left everything: money in the bank,” said former electronics salesman Rudy Ferrer, 51, who sleeps outside a warehouse in Maicao. He estimates there are 1,000 Venezuelans sleeping on the town’s streets every night.

‘THE MADURO DIET’

Some 3 million Venezuelans – or a tenth of the population – have left Venezuelan since late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez started his Socialist revolution in 1999.

Despite four months of violent anti-government protests last year, Chavez’s hand-picked successor Maduro is expected to win a fresh six-year term at elections on April 22. The opposition, whose most popular leaders have been banned from running, is boycotting the vote.

Mechanic Luis Arellano and his children were among the lucky ones who found beds at a shelter in Maicao run by the Catholic diocese with help from the U.N. refugee agency. The 58-year-old said his children’s tears of hunger drove him to flee Venezuela.

“It was 8 p.m. and they were asking for lunch and dinner and I had nothing to give them,” he said, spooning rice into his 7-year-old daughter’s mouth.

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Children from Venezuela eat a meal at a dining facility organised by Caritas and the Catholic church, in Cucuta, Colombia February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“This isn’t the size they should be,” Arellano said, raising his children’s spindly arms.

Migrants told Reuters they were paying up to 400,000 bolivars for a kilo of rice in Venezuela. The official monthly minimum wage is 248,510 bolivares – around $8 at the official exchange rate, or $1.09 on the black market.

Food shortages, which many migrants jokingly refer to as the “Maduro diet”, have left people noticeably thinner than in photos taken years earlier for their identification cards.

The shelter – where bunk beds line the walls of the bedrooms – provides food and shelter for three days and, for those joining family already in Colombia, a bus ticket onwards.

It will soon have capacity for 140 people a night – a fraction of the daily arrivals.

Colombia is letting the migrants access public health care and send their children to state schools. Santos is asking for international help to foot the bill, which the government has said runs to tens of millions of dollars.

‘NO WORK’ FOR VENEZUELANS

At another shelter in the border city of Cucuta, some 250 miles (400 km) to the south, people regularly spend the night on cardboard outside, hoping places will free up.

The largest city along the frontier, Cucuta has borne the brunt of the arriving migrants. About 30,000 people cross the pedestrian bridge that connects the city with Venezuela on daily entry passes to shop for food.

Conditions are desperate for migrants like Jose Molina, a 48-year-old butcher unable to find work after leaving his wife and son in Venezuela’s northern Carabobo state four months ago.

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

People sit on a makeshift bed, on a street, where Venezuelan migrants gather to spend the night, in Maicao, Colombia February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“I feel so depressed,” said Molina, his face puffed and tired after sleeping outside a church. “I got sick from eating rotten potatoes but I was hungry so I had to eat them.”

Molina is so hopeless he has considered returning home.

“My wife says everything’s getting worse and it’s best to wait,” he said. “I don’t want to be a burden to them. They don’t have enough to eat themselves.”

While many feel a duty to welcome the migrants, in part because Venezuela accepted Colombian refugees during that country’s long civil war, others fear losing jobs to Venezuelans being paid under the table.

After locals held a small anti-Venezuelan protest last month, police evicted 200 migrants who were living on a sports field, deporting many of them.

Migrants are verbally abused by some Colombians who refuse them work when they hear their accents, said Flavio Gouguella, 28, from Carabobo.

“Are you a Veneco? Then no work,” he said, using a derogatory term for Venezuelans.

In Maicao, locals also worry about an increase in crime and support police efforts to clear parks and sidewalks.

They already have to cope with smuggled subsidized Venezuelan goods damaging local commerce, and have grown tired of job-seekers and lending their bathrooms to migrants.

Spooked by police raids, migrants in Maicao have abandoned the parks and bus stations where they had makeshift camps, opting to sleep outside shuttered shops. Female migrants who spoke to Reuters said were often solicited for sex.

Despairing of finding work, some entrepreneurial migrants turn the nearly-worthless bolivar currency into crafts, weaving handbags from the bills and selling them in Maicao’s park.

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

A man sells bags made out of Venezuelan banknotes, in Maicao, Colombia February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“This was made from 80,000 bolivars,” said 23-year-old Anthony Morillo, holding up a square purse featuring bills with the face of South America’s 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar. “It’s not worth half a bag of rice.”

($1 = 28,927.5000 bolivar)

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Maicao and Paraguachon and Anggy Polanco in Cucuta and La Parada; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, Daniel Flynn and Daniel Wallis)

Suspected cholera cases in Yemen hit 1 million: Red Cross

A health worker reviews a list of patients admitted to a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen

DUBAI (Reuters) – The number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen has hit 1 million, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday, as war has left more than 80 percent of the population short of food, fuel, clean water and access to healthcare.

Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, is in a proxy war between the Houthi armed movement, allied with Iran, and a U.S.-backed military coalition headed by Saudi Arabia.

The United Nations says it is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization has recorded 2,219 deaths since the cholera epidemic began in April, with children accounting for nearly a third of infections.

Cholera, spread by food or water contaminated with human faeces, causes acute diarrhea and dehydration and can kill within hours if untreated. Yemen’s health system has virtually collapsed, with most health workers unpaid for months.

On Dec 3, the WHO said another wave of cholera could strike within months after the Saudi-led coalition closed air, land and sea access, cutting off fuel for hospitals and water pumps and aid supplies for starving children.

The ports were closed in retaliation for a missile fired from Yemen by the Houthis. On Wednesday, despite a fresh missile attack on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia said it would allow the Houthi-controled port of Hodeidah, vital for aid, to stay open for a month.

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Kevin Liffey)