Global coronavirus cases surpass 5 million, infections rising in South America

By Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 5 million on Wednesday, with Latin America overtaking the United States and Europe in the past week to report the largest portion of new daily cases globally.

It represents a new phase in the virus’ spread, which initially peaked in China in February before large-scale outbreaks followed in Europe and the United States.

Latin America accounted for around a third of the 91,000 cases reported earlier this week. Europe and the United States each accounted for just over 20%.

A large number of those new cases came from Brazil, which recently surpassed Germany, France and the United Kingdom to become the third-largest outbreak in the world, behind the United States and Russia.

Cases in Brazil are now rising at a daily pace second only to the United States.

The first 41 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 10 and it took the world until April 1 to reach its first million cases. Since then, about 1 million new cases are reported every two weeks, according to a Reuters tally.

At more than 5 million cases, the virus has infected more people in under six months than the annual total of severe flu cases, which the World Health Organization estimates is around 3 million to 5 million globally.

The pandemic has claimed over 326,000 lives, though the true number is thought to be higher as testing is still limited and many countries do not include fatalities outside of hospitals. Over half of the total fatalities have been recorded in Europe.

Despite the continued increase in cases, many countries are opening schools and workplaces following weeks of lockdown that have stemmed the spread.

Financial markets have also been boosted slightly by promising early results from the first U.S. vaccine trial in humans.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell; editing by Jane Wardell)

Disaster hacks: South American cities harness tech and nature to tackle flooding

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hit with ever-more-frequent torrential rain that triggers worsening flooding and mudslides most years, Rio de Janeiro is looking to an unusual gathering for answers: a hackathon.

Starting Saturday, teams of university students, tech start-up leaders, software developers and computer engineers will try to come up with innovative ways to help the seaside Brazilian city limit its losses as climate change brings wilder weather.

Tech experts at the city hall-led event hope to, for instance, come up with new ways to leverage data from GPS systems already used in the city’s buses to allow emergency services to better understand and monitor floods in real time.

“We know we have problems of floods and heavy rains, and we see an opportunity to use GPS to know where the flooding and landslide incidents are,” said Simone Silva, a mobility advisor at city hall and one of the organizers.

Right now, “at the very local level, we don’t know exactly what happens,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RISING URBANIZATION

Around Latin America, tens of millions of people are at risk from worsening flooding linked to climate change, many of them living in urban slums often built along rivers or on mountain slopes prone to landslides.

About 80% of Latin America’s people live in the region’s urban areas, according to the United Nations.

But across the region, cities are working to cut the risks, harnessing technology, better data and insights from affected communities to come up with new ways to keep people safe.

Flooding is clearly seen as one of the most severe threats. Of 530 cities worldwide that reported their climate hazards in 2018 to CDP, a London-based international environmental non-profit, 71% said floods were their top worry.

Extreme heat came next, at 61%, followed by drought at 36%, according to the study, published last month.

But over half of cities have not carried out risk assessments to map which areas, residents and businesses are under threat from extreme weather, the study found.

“We have seen that cities that take vulnerability assessments, they take six times as many actions to adapt as cities that haven’t done them,” said Kyra Appleby, who heads the CDP’s cities, states and regions team.

Geographic information system (GIS) technology that allows data about hazards and climate risks to be overlayed with existing maps of cities has made it easier for authorities to do risk assessments, she added.

That and other technologies are among the measures being used in a range of cities around Latin America to deal with worsening economic and human losses from floods.

In recent decades, Rio de Janeiro, for instance, has put in place early warning systems to help evacuate people ahead of threats, mapped of floodplain areas, built shelters and conducted emergency drills in slum areas, Appleby said.

The city also has installed cameras to monitor street flooding and set up social media alert systems.

Other cities are introducing digital sensors to try to cut risks. Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, is developing a network of sensors to monitor rainfall and feed back data in real time to the city’s central control centre.

Ensuring climate change adaptation measures are included in all urban planning is crucial, Appleby said, noting that the city of Belo Horizonte, in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, is one of those leading the way.

“It’s in the process of creating a new masterplan for the city and they are integrating all their adaption measures into their masterplan. That is really ahead of the curve,” she said.

To be effective, climate adaption plans must include the input of local communities, according to Anjali Mahendra, head of research at the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

“Latin American cities are particularly good with involving communities,” she said.

That’s largely because early urbanization in the region means cities have had longer experience working with informal settlements and other disadvantaged communities, she said.

African and South Asian cities, facing rapid urbanization are “starting to learn from some Latin American cities,” Mahendra said.

Colombia’s second city of Medellin and Ecuador’s capital Quito – which has a climate change panel that includes youth, women and indigenous groups – in particular have worked hard to include local communities in decisions about urban planning and climate risks, said Mahendra.

USING NATURE

To tackle growing flood threats, more investment also is needed in “nature-based solutions” – such as expanding green areas to absorb floodwaters, said Pedro Ribeiro, head of the Urban Flooding Network at C40, a group of cities pushing climate action.

Creating green buffer areas to stem urban sprawl and protecting and restoring degraded ecosystems around cities, including forests, watersheds, grasslands and wetlands, can help slow the movement of water and avoid flooding, he said.

“It’s easier to recover ecosystems that were in the city before building .. and the results are better” than trying to establish wholly new anti-flooding systems, Ribeiro said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by XXXX. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Season of discontent: protests flare around the world

Season of discontent: protests flare around the world
(Reuters) – Another day, another protest.

On Monday it was Bolivia – angry people clashed with police after the political opposition said it had been cheated in an election won by incumbent President Evo Morales.

Last week, the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago descended into chaos, as demonstrators enraged by a hike in public transport fares looted stores, set a bus alight and prompted the president to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, Ecuador’s leader did the same after violent unrest triggered by the decision to end fuel subsidies that had been in place for decades.

And that was just South America.

Hong Kong has been in turmoil for months, Lebanon’s capital Beirut was at a standstill, parts of Barcelona resembled a battlefield last week and tens of thousands of Britons marched through London at the weekend over Brexit.

Protests have flared around the world in the last few months. Each has had its own trigger, but many of the underlying frustrations are similar.

Globalization and technological progress have, in general, exacerbated disparities within countries, said Sergei Guriev, former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, while noting that not all of the current protests were driven by economic concerns.

Digital media has also made people more acutely aware of global inequalities, said Simon French, chief economist at UK bank Panmure Gordon.

“We know that the economics of happiness is largely driven by a relative assessment of your position versus your benchmark,” he said, a benchmark that now stretched way beyond the local community.

ECONOMICS

In at least four countries hit by recent violent protests, the main reason for the uprising is economic.

Governments in Chile and Ecuador have incurred their people’s wrath after trying to raise fares and end fuel subsidies.

As clashes engulfed Quito, Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno reached out to indigenous leaders who had mobilized people to take to the streets.

Within minutes, chief protest organizer Jaime Vargas had rejected that outreach.

“We’re defending the people,” Vargas said in a live Facebook video from the march in Quito.

His response, visible to millions of people, underlines an added challenge authorities have when trying to quell dissent: social media has made communication between protesters easier than ever.

Tens of thousands of people have flooded Beirut in the biggest show of dissent against the establishment there in decades. People of all ages and religions joined to protest about worsening economic conditions and the perception that those in power were corrupt.

Similar factors were behind deadly civil unrest in Iraq in early October.

More than 100 people died in violent protests across a country where many Iraqis, especially young people, felt they had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State militants were defeated in 2017.

Security forces cracked down, with snipers opening fire from rooftops and the internet being shut to stem the flow of information among protesters.

GIVE US OUR AUTONOMY

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests over fears Beijing is tightening its grip on the territory, the worst political crisis since colonial ruler Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

There have been few major rallies in recent weeks, but violence has escalated at those held, with militant activists setting metro stations ablaze and smashing up shops, often targeting Chinese banks and stores with mainland links.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, hundreds of rubber bullets and three live rounds at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing activists.

The events in Hong Kong have drawn comparisons to Catalonia in recent days. There, too, people are angry at what they see as attempts to thwart their desire for greater autonomy from the rest of Spain, if not outright independence.

Protesters set cars on fire and threw petrol bombs at police in Barcelona, unrest sparked by the sentencing of Catalan separatist leaders who sought to declare an independent state.

Demonstrators also focused on strategic targets to cause maximum disruption, including the international airport, grounding more than 100 flights.

That came several days after similar action in Hong Kong, suggesting that protest movements are following and even copying each other on social media and the news.

“In Hong Kong they have done it well, but they are crazier,” said Giuseppe Vayreda, a 22-year-old art student at a recent Catalan separatist protest.

On Thursday, Hong Kong protesters plan a rally to show solidarity with those demonstrating in Spain.

LEADER OR NO LEADER

In some cases, individuals rise to the forefront of protest movements, using social media to get their message across.

In Egypt, where demonstrations last month were relatively small yet significant in their rarity, the catalyst of dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was an Egyptian posting videos from Spain.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, inspired millions of people to march through cities around the world in September to demand that political leaders act to stop climate change.

Tens of thousands gathered in a New York park to listen to her speech.

“If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you,” she said. “Because this is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Heather Timmons in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Sonya Hepinstall)

China buys U.S. soybeans after declaring ban on American farm goods

FILE PHOTO: Soybeans fall into a bin as a trailer is filled at a farm in Buda, Illinois, U.S., July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Acker

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – China snapped up a small volume of U.S. soybeans last week after pledging to halt purchases of American farm products due to the escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed on Thursday.

The world’s largest soybean importer struck deals from Aug. 9 to 15 to buy 9,589 tonnes for delivery in the current marketing year and 66,000 tonnes, approximately one cargo, for the next year, the data showed.

China’s Commerce Ministry said on Aug. 5 that Chinese companies stopped buying U.S. farm products in the latest escalation of the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

“You do have some buying going on,” said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist for INTL FCStone. “It’s a little bit of a surprise.”

China last year imposed retaliatory tariffs that remain in place on imports of U.S. farm products including soybeans and pork. The duties have slashed exports of U.S. crops and prompted the Trump administration to compensate American farmers for losses over two years with as much as $28 billion.

China said on Thursday it hopes the United States will stop a plan to impose new tariffs, adding that any new duties would lead to a further escalation.

China has largely turned to South America for soybeans since the trade war began last year. U.S. soybean sales to China in 2018 dropped 74% from the previous year.

“Compared to what they used to buy, they essentially have halted – but some have gotten through,” Suderman said.

The sales of 9,589 tonnes for delivery in the current marketing year will probably be rolled ahead to be delivered in the next year, which begins on Sept. 1, said Don Roose, president of Iowa-based broker U.S. Commodities.

The cargo sold for delivery in the next marketing year could have been in the works before Beijing said Chinese companies would suspend purchases of U.S. farm goods, said Terry Reilly, senior commodity analyst for Futures International.

“The government may have just given the green light to say, ‘Let this one go through,'” Reilly said.

“One cargo is not going to change the fact that they’re not buying millions of tons of soybeans.”

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Solar eclipse plunges Chile into darkness

A person observes a solar eclipse at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of tourists scattered across the north Chilean desert on Tuesday to experience a rare, and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs: a total eclipse of the sun viewed from beneath the world’s clearest skies.

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.

The best views this time were from Chile’s sprawling Atacama desert north of the coastal city of La Serena, where a lack of humidity and city lights combine to create the world’s clearest skies.

The region had not seen an eclipse since 1592, according to the Chilean Astronomy Society. The next one is expected in 2165.

Eclipse-watchers in Chile were not disappointed on Tuesday. The 95-mile (150-kilometer) band of total darkness moved eastward across the open Pacific Ocean late in the afternoon, making landfall in Chile at 4:38 p.m. EDT (2038 GMT).

Clear skies dominated from the South American country’s northern border with Peru south to the capital of Santiago, where office workers poured from buildings to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.

Earlier in the day, a run on special “eclipse-viewing” glasses downtown had led to a shortage in many stores, with street vendors charging as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.

“This is something rare that we may never see again,” said Marcos Sanchez, a 53-year-old pensioner from Santiago who had purchased 16 of the lenses from an informal vendor downtown for himself and his family.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Colombia rejects Russia warning against Venezuelan military action

Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during the presentation of a security report, accompanied by the military commands in the presidential palace, in Bogota, Colombia April 2, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia on Tuesday rejected a Russian warning against foreign military intervention in Venezuela and said it supported a peaceful transition to democracy in the neighboring South American country.

“Colombia reiterates that the transition to democracy must be conducted by the Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a statement.

He was responding to a March 28 letter from the upper house of Russia’s parliament, forwarded to Colombia’s Congress by Russian Ambassador Sergei Koshkin, that said the “illegitimate use of military force against Venezuela by other states that support the opposition will be interpreted … as an act of aggression against a sovereign state.”

Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as his nation descended into political turmoil this year. The United States and dozens of other nations have backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Colombia, which supports Guaido, has repeatedly denied it has any intention of launching a military offensive across its border with Venezuela.

But in his statement on Tuesday, Trujillo said military support for Maduro’s socialist government risked harming the transition to democracy while threatening regional peace and security.

The March touchdown near Caracas of two Russian air force planes carrying some 100 Russian special forces and cyber-security personnel has raised international concerns about Moscow’s backing for Maduro.

Russia, which has supplied fighter jets, tanks, and air defense systems to Venezuela, has dismissed U.S. criticism of its military cooperation with Caracas saying it is not interfering in the Latin American country’s internal affairs and poses no threat to regional stability.

Colombia acted as a staging ground in February as the United States and other countries supported Guaido’s effort to transport hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Maduro, who dismisses Guaido as a U.S. puppet, blocked the aid and Venezuelan troops pushed back protesters with tear gas.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape widespread food and medicine shortages in their chaotic homeland, seeking jobs locally and passage into other Latin American countries.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Tom Brown)

For poor Venezuelans, a box of food may sway vote for Maduro

Osiris (L), daughter of Viviana Colmenares (C), feeds her sister Ornella in a community diner at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 22, 2018. Picture taken February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Ana Isabel Martinez

CARACAS (Reuters) – A bag of rice on a hungry family’s kitchen table could be the key to Nicolas Maduro retaining the support of poor Venezuelans in May’s presidential election.

For millions of Venezuelans suffering an unprecedented economic crisis, a monthly handout of a box of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies by Maduro’s unpopular government has offered a tenuous lifeline in their once-prosperous OPEC nation.

The 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez introduced the so-called CLAP boxes in 2016 in a signature policy of his rule, continuing the socialist government’s strategy of seeking public support with cash bonuses and other giveaways.

Now, running for re-election on May 20, Maduro says the CLAPs are his “most powerful weapon” to combat an “economic war” being waged by Washington, which brands him a “dictator” and has imposed sanctions.

Mariana, a single mother who lives in the poor hillside neighborhood of Petare in the capital Caracas, says the handouts will decide her vote.

“I and other women I know are going to vote for Maduro because he’s promising to keep giving CLAPs, which at least help fix some problems,” said the 30-year-old cook, who asked not to give her surname for fear of losing the benefit.

“When you earn minimum wage, which doesn’t cover exorbitant prices, the box helps.”

Maduro’s rule since 2013 has coincided with a deep recession caused by a plunge in global oil prices and failed state-led economic policies.

Yet the worse the economy gets, the more dependent some poor Venezuelans become on the state.

Life in the South American country’s poor ‘barrios’ revolves around the CLAP boxes. According to the government, six million families receive the benefit, from a population of around 30 million people.

Venezuelans, many of whom are undernourished, anxiously wait for their monthly delivery, and a thriving black market has sprung up to sell CLAP products.

The government sources almost all the CLAP goods from abroad, especially from Mexico, since Venezuela’s food production has shriveled and currency controls restrict private imports.

Critics, including Maduro’s main challenger for the May 20 vote, Henri Falcon, say the CLAPs are a cynical form of political patronage and are rife with corruption.

Erratic supply and control of distribution by government-affiliated groups have sown resentment among others.

“I can’t count on it. Sometimes it comes, sometimes not,” said Viviana Colmenares, 24, an unemployed mother of six struggling to get by in Petare.

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares' house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares’ house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“INSTRUMENT OF THE REVOLUTION”

Stamped with the faces of Maduro and Chavez, the CLAP boxes usually contain rice, pasta, grains, cooking oil, powdered milk, canned tuna and other basic goods. Recipients pay 25,000 bolivars per box, or about $0.12 at the black market rate.

That is a godsend in a country where the minimum monthly wage is less than $2 at that rate – and would be swallowed up by two boxes of eggs or a small tin of powdered milk.

Inflation, at more than 4,000 percent annually according to opposition data, is pulverizing household income.

The administration of the CLAP – the Local Supply and Production Committees – does not hide its political motivation.

“The CLAPs are here to stay. They are an instrument of the revolution,” said Freddy Bernal, CLAP chief administrator.

“It has helped us stop a social explosion and enabled us to win elections and to keep winning them,” he told Reuters, referring to government victories in 2017 local polls.

Sometimes, though, the tactic backfires, as it did when promised free pork failed to arrive over Christmas, prompting street protests.

Maduro’s inability to halt rising hunger has jarred with the experience of many under Chavez, who won the presidency in 1998 and improved Venezuela’s social indicators with oil-fueled welfare policies.

Even though Maduro’s approval rating is only around 26 percent, according to one recent poll, his re-election looks likely as Venezuela’s opposition coalition is boycotting the vote on accusations it is rigged.

His most popular rivals are banned from standing and the election board favors the government.

Former state governor Falcon has broken with the coalition to stand. One survey by pollster Datanalisis in February showed that in a two-way race, he would defeat Maduro by 45.8 percent to 32.2 percent of likely voters.

Falcon’s critics counter that those numbers mean nothing in the face of electoral irregularities that could arbitrarily tip the balance in favor of Maduro.

Several other minor figures have registered for the single-round election, but have little chance of making an impact.

‘CAN’T DEPEND ON THE BOX’

Juan Luis Hernandez, a food specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, estimates the country generates just 44 percent of the basic food supplies it produced in 2008.

Meanwhile, food imports fell 67 percent between the start of 2016 and the end of 2017 as the crisis bit, he said.

Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study published in February said they had lost on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight last year. Eighty-seven percent were assessed to live in poverty.

The same study found that seven out of 10 Venezuelans had received CLAPs.

“They (the government) don’t care about the food issue, just about getting people something to eat while they get through the elections,” said Susana Raffalli, a consultant with charity Caritas.

Some Venezuelans fear they would be found out should they vote against Maduro and be punished by no longer receiving food bags.

Already handouts are far from guaranteed.

A dozen recipients told Reuters that often they arrived half-full and would only come every few months. Outside of the capital Caracas, delivery was even more sporadic.

“I can’t depend on the box, otherwise I would die from hunger,” said Yuni Perez, a 48-year-old rubbish collector and mother of three.

Perez, who lives in a ramshackle house made from breeze blocks and corrugated steel at the top of Petare, said a CLAP box provided her family with food for a week. Often they would receive one every two months.

When her family is short of food, she hunts for leftovers dumped on the side of Petare’s winding streets. She said she had found several newborn babies discarded in the gutter, which she attributed to mothers unable to face providing food for another child.

Another Petare resident, mother-of-three Yaneidy Guzman said she dropped from 68kg to 48kg last year, despite receiving the CLAP.

“At least for 10 days you don’t have to think about finding food,” the 32-year-old said of the handouts, her cheekbones protruding from her face.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Tropical Storm Nate kills 22 in Central America, heads for U.S.

Tropical Storm Nate kills 22 in Central America, heads for U.S.

By Enrique Andres Pretel

SAN JOSE (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Nate killed at least 22 people in Central America on Thursday as it pummeled the region with heavy rain while heading toward Mexico’s Caribbean resorts and the U.S. Gulf Coast, where it could strike as a hurricane this weekend.

In Nicaragua, at least 11 people died, seven others were reported missing and thousands had to evacuate homes because of flooding, said the country’s vice president Rosario Murillo.

Emergency officials in Costa Rica reported that at least eight people were killed due to the lashing rain, including two children. Another 17 people were missing, while more than 7,000 had to take refuge from Nate in shelters, authorities said.

Two youths also drowned in Honduras due to the sudden swell in a river, while a man was killed in a mud slide in El Salvador and another person was missing, emergency services said.

“Sometimes we think we think we can cross a river and the hardest thing to understand is that we must wait,” Nicaragua’s Murillo told state radio, warning people to avoid dangerous waters. “It’s better to be late than not to get there at all.”

Costa Rica’s government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services.

Highways in the country were closed due to mudslides and power outages were also reported in parts of country, where authorities deployed more than 3,500 police.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Nate could produce as much as 15 inches (38 cm) in some areas of Nicaragua, where schools were also closed.

Nate is predicted to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

At about 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT) Nate was some 95 miles (153 km) east-southeast of the Honduran island of Guanaja, moving northwest at 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.

Blowing maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (64 kph), Nate was expected to move across eastern Honduras on Thursday and enter the northwestern Caribbean Sea through the night.

The storm will be near hurricane intensity when it approaches Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula late on Friday, where up to 8 inches (20 cm) of rain were possible, the NHC said.

Nate is expected to produce 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm)of rain in southern Honduras, with up to 15 inches (38 cm) in some areas, the NHC said.

The NHC said a hurricane watch was issued from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including metropolitan New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Maurepas.

U.S. officials from Florida to Texas told residents on Thursday to prepare for the storm. A state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and the city of New Orleans.

“The threat of the impact is increasing, so folks along the northern Gulf Coast should be paying attention to this thing,” the NHC’s Feltgen said.

In Mississippi, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to release as a precautionary measure 40 million gallons (151 million liters) of acidic water from storage ponds at a Pascagoula waste site.

The release to a drainage bayou is intended to prevent a greater spill during the storm, the EPA said, adding there are no anticipated impacts to the environment.

Major Gulf of Mexico offshore oil producers including Chevron <CVX.N>, BP plc <BP.L>, Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> and Statoil <STL.OL> were shutting in production or withdrawing personnel from their offshore Gulf platforms, they said.

About 14.6 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production and 6.4 percent of natural gas production was offline on Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.

(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in San Jose, Oswaldo Rivas in Managua, Elida Moreno in Panama City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Nallur Sethuraman and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Alistair Bell, Sandra Maler and Tom Hogue)

Venezuela’s unrest, food scarcity take psychological toll on children

Venezuela's unrest, food scarcity take psychological toll on children

By Alexandra Ulmer

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan siblings Jeremias, 8, and Victoria, 3, were in their pajamas and preparing to go to bed when a tear gas canister smashed through their family’s kitchen window in early July.

National Guard soldiers were pelting the building in this highland town near Caracas with tear gas canisters as they searched for opposition activists who had been protesting against unpopular President Nicolas Maduro for over three months.

Amid screams and insults from neighbors, soldiers stormed the building and arrested dozens of youths, according to the children’s mother, Gabriela.

Gabriela and her husband Yorth hid the kids in their bedroom closet as the apartment filled with thick gas after seven canisters crashed in. The guards did not enter their apartment, but the family was unable to sleep that night and the apartment reeked for days.

After that, the kids changed.

Jeremias cried and begged to leave Venezuela. His younger sister, previously not even scared of the dark, was terrified every time she heard a loud sound – an object falling, a truck, or thunder.

“She would say: ‘The soldiers are attacking us’ and cry,” said Gabriela, 30, a nurse by training. “That was the trigger for us that we had to get the kids out of here, otherwise it would be even worse for them psychologically.”

A month after the incident, the family sold what it could, packed three suitcases, and left Venezuela by bus with around $250 in their pocket, joining droves fleeing the country.

Out of fear of reprisals, Gabriela asked that their surname and country of residence not be published.

Her children’s case highlights the lasting psychological toll the OPEC nation’s economic and political crisis is having on its youngsters.

Venezuela, home to the world’s largest crude oil reserves, has spiraled deeper into chaos in recent years as Maduro – the narrowly-elected successor of leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez – has cracked down harder on the opposition amid a painful recession blamed by economists on his socialist government’s interventionist policies.

Recently, months of protests demanding early elections interrupted schools, leaving kids holed up at home or exposed to violence. A crippling recession has spawned shortages of products like milk and diapers, while rapid inflation means toys or school uniforms are unaffordable for poor families.

There is no recent data examining the psychological effects of the deprivations on children, but teachers, psychologists, rights activists and two dozen parents interviewed by Reuters suggest it could have a heavy toll.

“From a young age, children are being forced to think about survival,” said psychologist Abel Saraiba at Caracas-based child protection organization Cecodap. He said around half of his 50 patients have symptoms linked to the crisis.

Children are more prone to anxiety, aggression and depression, and could also struggle to relate with peers because they see the outside world as hostile. That could be another hurdle in Venezuela’s eventual reconstruction.

Maduro blames the opposition for traumatizing children and others via protests that often turned violent, with hooded demonstrators throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

He says his government, which did not respond to a request for comment, has done more for children than previous administrations, pointing to youth orchestras, sports programs and vacation camps.

Yennifer Padron kisses her baby in her house at Petare slum in Caracas. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Yennifer Padron kisses her baby in her house at Petare slum in Caracas. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“MOMMY, WHEN IS THE FOOD BOX COMING?”

It is lack of affordable food – a kilo of rice costs around 20 percent of a monthly minimum wage – that is putting the most strain on children from poor families.

Some low-income families have little choice but bring their children to rough food lines at supermarkets or send them to work or beg. Parents say childrens’ games include pretending to find food at the supermarket.

In the most dramatic cases, kids suffer malnutrition and disease.

High up in Caracas’ sprawling Petare slum, waiter Victor Cordova juggles three jobs while his wife Yennifer cares for their three daughters and a baby boy in their tiny home.

The girls sometimes wake their parents in the middle of the night asking for food, and spend much of the day inquiring when government-subsidized food boxes will arrive.

“They’re always asking me: ‘Mommy, when is the food box coming? Will the food box have milk?’ I can’t get it out of their heads,” said Yennifer, 26, rocking little Aaron.

“I tell them they’re too little to worry about that, that they should only worry about studying. But they’re little sponges, they absorb everything.”

A minority of parents, appalled by once-booming Venezuela’s collapse into misery, try to hide the crisis from their kids.

Accountant Suset Gutierrez tells her two sons in the decaying industrial town of Ciudad Guayana that nighttime gunshots are fireworks from parties or exploding car tires.

“I’ve had to vary the stories because they’ve wanted to know about the parties,” said Gutierrez, 47, whose kids also asked why they don’t have more milk or pasta at home.

“I’ve had to invent that it’s because the cows have fallen ill or because heavy rains in other countries mean there’s no wheat.”

Outside Venezuela, Gabriela and her husband, who used to work as a company administrator, have found work selling flowers and at a cafe. They see their children steadily improving.

Once the family gets more economic stability, Gabriela said she will seek psychological help for them.

“They’re happy. The eldest tells me, ‘Look, there’s candy here!'” said Gabriela, laughing. “But if someone even suggests the possibility of going back to Venezuela, he starts to cry.”

(Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Jonathan Oatis)