Anger erupts in Spain as five men acquitted of gang-raping teenager

Anger erupts in Spain as five men acquitted of gang-raping teenager
By Sophie Davies

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Women’s rights campaigners in Spain called for a change in the law on Friday after a court in Barcelona cleared five men of raping a 14-year-old girl and jailed them for the lesser charge of sexual abuse, ruling that they did not use violence.

The men, who denied the charges, took turns to have sex with the teenager after a party in Manresa, a town to the north of Barcelona, in October 2016, the court heard.

On Thursday they were sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in jail for sexual abuse, avoiding more serious charges of rape or sexual assault because the court said the girl was drunk and unconscious, did not fight back and the men were not violent.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, took to social media to express her anger at the verdict, saying it was “outrageous” and the result of a patriarchal judicial system.

“I’m not a judge and I don’t know how many years in prison they deserve, but what I do know is that this is not abuse, it is rape!” she wrote on Twitter.

The verdict has reignited a debate over the Spanish judiciary’s treatment of women, which intensified with the 2016 “Wolf Pack” case, in which an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped during the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona.

The men, who included a former policeman and a former soldier, had shared videos of the incident in a WhatsApp group and joked about it afterwards.

In June, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled the five accused were guilty of rape not the lesser crime of sexual abuse, increasing their sentence to 15 years rather than the nine years they had been given for sexual abuse by a regional court.

Outrage and protests over the initial verdict prompted a government promise to change the law, but critics say the Manresa case shows how the penal code is still outdated.

“It makes no sense that the law continues to distinguish between abuse and sexual assault,” Nuria Gonzalez, a Barcelona-based human rights lawyer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Everything that happens after a woman says no, or says nothing at all, or which happens through violence and intimidation, goes against the will of the victim and is a sexual assault in which there is no room for mitigating or lower grades,” she added.

Spanish law requires that the plaintiff in a rape case must present evidence of intimidation or specific violence.

“Any attack on sexual liberty should be considered violence,” Graciela Atencio, a women’s rights activist and director of the website Feminicidio.net, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It’s important that they introduce the term rape into the penal code for all attacks that involve penetration and that any sexual behaviour without consent be considered sexual violence.”

(Editing by Ros Russell ((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)

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies
By Jon Nazca, Jordi Rubio and Isla Binnie

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid.

The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia. Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running.

The interior ministry has dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

“Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organised … by groups who are a minority but are very organised,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. “Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished.”

Some masked youths hurled stones at police late in the afternoon on one city street, but the vast majority of Friday’s rallies were peaceful, with Barcelona’s broad boulevards packed with people draped in the Catalan independence flag.

“We have always been peaceful people, but you get to a point where you get treated in such a way that people are getting angry,” said Carlota Llacuna, a 19-year old student from the Maresca region near Barcelona. “They put our leaders in prison.”

One of the main ringleaders, Catalonia’s former chief Carles Puigdemont, has so far escaped trial after he fled to Belgium in 2017 when the independence drive was thwarted.

Spain this week renewed its bid to get him extradited and he was briefly detained by Belgian police on Friday before a judge ordered his release pending a decision on the Spanish arrest warrant. A court is meant to hear the case on Oct. 29.

EL CLASICO POSTPONED

Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic because of Friday’s marches, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was closed due to the protests, an official told Reuters.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona’s Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, which is known as “el clasico” and is one of the biggest rivalries in world sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport cancelled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers had been set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).

In an apparent effort to hamper the protesters, a Spanish judge ordered on Friday the closure of web pages linked to a pro-independence group, Democratic Tsunami, which has been deftly directing its followers to various demonstrations.

However, as soon as its site was shuttered, the group migrated its homepage to a new url, sidestepping the ruling.

Democratic Tsunami is a new, secretive group that emerged in September and has drawn thousands of followers on both its website and social media.

Although it says it is committed to non-violent protests, many young demonstrators have battled police over the past three nights in Barcelona in scenes reminiscent of the some of the urban unrest that has rocked France over the past year.

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said 42 people needed medical attention.

(Reporting by Jose Elías Rodríguez, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ashifa Kassam, Emma Pinedo and Paola Luelmo in Madrid, Andrea Ariet Gallego; Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)

More than 130,000 Sephardic Jews apply for Spanish citizenship by deadline

MADRID (Reuters) – More than 130,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled en masse from Spain in 1492 have requested Spanish citizenship in the past four years, the Justice Ministry said on Tuesday, hours after a deadline for applications expired.

About half of the 132,226 applications were submitted in the past month alone as the deadline drew near, it said. The bulk of applications came from Latin American countries, mainly Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

For the past four years, Spain allowed the foreign Sephardim – old Hebrew for Spaniards – to apply to become Spanish nationals without giving up their current citizenship. They had to present proof of their Sephardic background through their surnames, language or ancestry.

The ministry said it would process all applications, including those without the legal certificates attached, which can be submitted later.

Around 300,000 Jews lived in Spain before the so-called Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand – whose reign saw the founding of the Spanish Empire – ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to the Catholic faith or leave the country.

Spain has said it owes their descendants a debt of gratitude for spreading the Spanish language and culture around the world.

Most of the Jews expelled settled elsewhere in the Mediterranean and Middle East. In Israel, the Sephardim make up around a quarter of the population.

The old Jewish quarters in medieval Spanish cities such as Cordoba and Toledo now attract thousands of tourists every year.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, editing by Andrei Khalip and Susan Fenton)

Thousands gather in Madrid to protest violence against women

MADRID (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters gathered in central Madrid on Friday to draw attention to domestic violence in a year when over 40 women have been recorded so far as having been killed by their partner or ex-partners.

Protesters carried banners reading “We don’t want to carry on counting victims” and chanted “We are not alone” as they brandished umbrellas in pouring rain.

The government regularly publishes the number of women killed by partners or ex-partners. The number so far this year is 42, according to government statistics, with more than 1,000 killed since records started in 2003.

Rates of reported partner violence in Spain are amongst the lowest in Europe and Spain ranked as the European Union country with the most visible campaign against domestic violence, according to a 2014 EU survey.

(Reporting by Sonya Dowsett; editing by Grant McCool)

Four people killed, thousands evacuated as floods hit southeast Spain

By Jon Nazca and Marco Trujillo

PILAR DE LA HORADADA/ORIHUELA, Spain (Reuters) – Four people have been killed and over 1,500 evacuated in two days of torrential rains in southeastern Spain, with many roads, train networks and an airport closed on Friday and emergency services rescuing people stuck in flooded highway tunnels.

Floods swept away cars and debris in the regions of Valencia, Murcia and eastern Andalucia. Motorway tunnels in some areas were flooded almost up to the tunnel lighting, with some vehicles partly or fully submerged.

A man was found dead in Granada province on Friday after his car was swept off a motorway and another died in Almeria after trying to drive through a flooded tunnel, rescue services said. Two siblings died on Thursday when torrential rain dragged their car away.

A total of 74 roads were closed, as was the whole Murcia regional railway service, and the Murcia airport. The railway link between Alicante and Spain’s two main cities – Madrid and Barcelona – was shut, acting Interior Minister Fernando Grande Marlaska said.

Some affected areas saw record daily rainfall for the month of September.

“The situation is critical, all the municipality is full of water,” Mario Cervera, mayor of the town of Alcazares, one of the most affected in Murcia, told Spain’s state-run TVE channel.

Rescue workers were using a helicopter and boats in various areas, he said.

“This man was holding onto a traffic sign… the officer and I jumped to take him out,” one emergency worker told Reuters.

In addition to people already evacuated, some 2,000 residents of the town of Santomera in Murcia were being removed from their homes due to a planned controlled release from a local dam to avoid its overflowing, the interior minister said.

“The forecasts do not point to a worsening of the situation, but we have to be cautious,” he told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting before heading to the affected areas.

The rain appeared to be easing but rivers were still at risk of overflowing, including the Segura, which has already flooded the town of Orihuela in Alicante and could flood in the city of Murcia, the local water management authority said.

Authorities have recommended citizens stay at home in the affected areas and avoid using their cars.

Tourists were left stranded in Alicante airport as many flights were delayed or canceled.

“We’ve been in the queue here four or five hours, it’s very difficult to get to the toilet, impossible to get anything to eat,” Haydn Harding, a 78-year old diabetic tourist from Northern Ireland, said at the airport.

(Additional reporting by Jose Rodriguez, Paola Luelmo, Emma Pinedo and Jesus Aguado; Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

   ”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Rescue of Spanish boy trapped in well to take few more days

A man watches a TV screen showing a deep well which Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, at a bar in Totalan, Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

TOTALAN, Spain (Reuters) – Rescue workers will need at least two more days to reach a two-year-old boy who has been trapped in a deep well in southern Spain since Sunday, a mining expert taking part in the effort said on Thursday.

Officials said they were not losing hope to would find the boy alive. Rescuers were now digging tunnels to reach the child who, fell into the well which is just 25 cm (10 inches) wide and 100 meters (328 feet) deep.

Diggers and trucks remove sand at the area where Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into a deep well four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, in Totalan, southern Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Diggers and trucks remove sand at the area where Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into a deep well four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, in Totalan, southern Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

“The most important here is to be able to get close to the boy. Either horizontally or vertically, in order to start the mining work to reach the place where the boy is at the moment,” mining engineer Juan Escobar told reporters at the site in Totalan, Malaga.

“It is very complicated (to complete) in less than two days”, added.

Among debris pulled out of the well, rescuers on Wednesday found hair, which DNA tests confirmed belonged to the child, though no signs of life have been detected.

“We will not stop until we’ve rescued the child. We’re confident that we can rescue him alive,” a government official in Malaga, Maria Gamez, told reporters gathered at the site.

The rescue of Julen, who was seen falling into the well as his family walked through a private estate in Totalan, has drawn huge media attention in Spain and the whole country is holding its breath for the outcome.

According to Spanish media, Julen’s parents lived another family tragedy in 2017 when their three-year-old son died suddenly while walking along a beach not far from Totalan.

Residents nearby gathered on Wednesday for a vigil to support the family, many holding homemade placards reading “All of Spain is with you”.

(Reporting by Miguel Pereira, writing by Jose Elias Rodriguez, editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

Colombian vet charged in U.S. with smuggling heroin in puppies’ bellies

Drug Enforcement Administration photo shows puppies as DEA announces an indictment charging Andres Lopez Elorez with conspiring to import and distribute heroin into the U.S. by surgically implanting these puppies with liquid heroin 12 years ago, in this image released in New York, U.S., on May 1, 2018. DEA/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – A veterinarian from Colombia was charged with illegally smuggling narcotics into the United States by surgically implanting packets of liquid heroin into the bellies of puppies, U.S. prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Andres Lopez Elorez was arraigned in a federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday on an indictment of conspiring to import and distribute heroin into the United States, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said.

Elorez, 38, pleaded not guilty, U.S. news reports said.

His court-appointed lawyer, Mitchell Dinnerstein, said his client “doesn’t have any real connection” to the United States, the New York Times reported. Dinnerstein was not immediately available for comment.

Elorez faces up to life imprisonment if convicted, U.S. prosecutors said.

“Dogs are man’s best friend and, as the defendant is about to learn, we are drug dealers’ worst enemy,” Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.

Elorez is suspected of taking part in a conspiracy to bring drugs into the country more than a decade ago, prosecutors said.

The puppies, mostly purebred dogs including Labrador retrievers, had their bellies cut open and heroin stitched in. They were then exported to the United States with the smugglers hoping the dogs’ pedigrees would help ease their path through customs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said.

A 2005 raid in Colombia found 10 dogs to be used as drug couriers who were rescued, but many puppies died in the operation, it said.

Elorez was arrested in Spain and extradited to the United States, prosecutors said.

“He betrayed a veterinarian’s pledge to prevent animal suffering when he used his surgical skills in a cruel scheme to smuggle heroin in the abdomens of puppies,” Donoghue said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Paul Tait)

Dentists, soldiers mix cocktails to leave crisis-hit Venezuela

Carlos Alzaibar takes documents as he packs his suitcase at his home in Caracas, Venezuela March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – Like many young Venezuelans in recent years, dentist Carlos Alzaibar felt forced to leave the country when he could scrape together only a few dollars equivalent each month doing two jobs.

So on a recent day, just before flying to Madrid, he was sadly packing a red suitcase – while stacking diplomas from a half a dozen trades he picked up in the last year from bakery and bartending to photography and burger-flipping.

Those, he hoped, would help him find work in Spain and fund the medicines his mother needs for a kidney transplant.

“If not, she’s going to die,” Alzaibar, 28, said, folding socks and shirts in his family’s middle-class Caracas apartment.

Droves of Venezuelans, including professionals like Alzaibar and even retired soldiers and prosecutors, have been taking short courses to prepare for life abroad.

Suffering a severe economic crisis that has left many people short of food and basics, nearly a million Venezuelans have departed since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, calls it one of the biggest population flows in its nearly 70-year history.

The OPEC nation sits on the world’s largest oil supplies, but has seen annual production slump to a three-decade low, along with a four-year economic recession.

COCKTAILS AND COFFEE

Valentina Maggi, 22, studied graphic design and dreams of illustrating children’s stories, but has followed in friends’ footsteps to learn how to mix cocktails at the National Bartender Academy.

“I have many friends who have left the country and have told me to do this type of course because when you get there, you have more work options,” she said in a room with a long table where she had just completed her final test: a Gin Fizz made from gin, lemon, sugar and soda water.

At the academy, 6,000 students are expected to graduate this year – up from 4,500 a couple of years ago.

With Maggi were a 60-year-old retired military officer and a 52-year-old former Supreme Court prosecutor, both hoping to land work at bars in the United States and Argentina respectively.

Asking not to disclose his name for fear of reprisal, the former soldier said his monthly pension of some $5 at the black market exchange rate, left nothing for food after paying for his two sons’ schools.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown is one of the worst slumps in modern Latin American history.

Gross domestic product is shrinking on a scale akin to that of the United States during the Great Depression and inflation is the highest in the world, nearly 9,000 percent annually, according to National Assembly data.

A monthly minimum wage is worth less than a carton of eggs.

While critics lambaste President Nicolas Maduro for failed socialist economic policies and corruption, he says a U.S.-led “economic war” including financial sanctions are to blame.

“From six or eight months ago, everyone’s getting ready to go,” said Pietro Carbone, surrounded by the aroma of freshly crushed coffee beans at his barista training center where places are fully booked for the next three months.

(Reporting by Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos; Additional reporting by Efrain Otero; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney; Twitter: @ReutersVzla, @jammastergirish)