Venezuelans rush to shop, fill tanks before monetary overhaul

People line up to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine (ATM) outside a Banco Mercantil branch in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Shaylim Castro and Isaac Urrutia

CARACAS/MARACAIBO (Reuters) – Jittery Venezuelans on Friday rushed to shops and lined up at gas stations on concerns that a monetary overhaul to lop off five zeros from prices in response to hyperinflation could wreak financial havoc and make basic commerce impossible.

Shoppers sought to ensure their homes were fully stocked with essentials such as food and dry goods and their tanks full before the measure decreed by President Nicolas Maduro takes effect on Monday.

Inflation hit 82,700 percent in July, according to the opposition-run congress, as the country’s socialist economic model continued to unravel, meaning purchases of basic items such as a bar of soap or a kilo of tomatoes require piles of cash that is often difficult to obtain.

“I came to buy vegetables, but I’m leaving because I’m not going to wait in this line,” said Alicia Ramirez, 38, a business administrator, leaving a supermarket in the western city of Maracaibo. “People are going crazy.”

The change appears unlikely to generate the chaos of December 2016 when Maduro removed the largest note in circulation without providing a replacement for it. That led to protests, lootings and hundreds of arrests as the country was effectively left without legal tender.

Drivers also rushed to fill up on Venezuela’s heavily-subsidized gas, the world’s cheapest at around 2,896 gallons per U.S. penny. Some drivers were worried about paying for gas come Monday as there will be no new legal tender small enough to pay for a full tank.

Maduro also said this month that gas price should be increased, but has not provided a timeframe for the price hike. A half-dozen sources at service stations said they had not been briefed about any changes and were not expecting an imminent rise in prices.

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“It’s better to be safe than to try to go out during the weekend and not to find open gas stations… I think people are more sad than angry about this,” said teacher Ana Perez, 50, as she lined up in a station in the once industry-filled city of Valencia.

Maduro, who has said the country is victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries, said the new monetary measure would bring economic stability to the struggling OPEC nation.

But his critics have said the move is little more than an accounting maneuver that would do nothing to slow soaring prices. They blame inflation on failed socialist policies and indiscriminate money printing.

Because many transactions now happen via debit cards over point-of-sale terminals, many worry that the change – which banking industry leaders have said was carried out too quickly – could collapse financial networks.

Maduro has declared a public holiday for Monday when a new set of bills will be introduced with the lower denominations. Internet banking operations will be halted for several hours starting on Sunday evening.

But the primary difference between the upcoming change and Maduro’s 2016 currency decision is that in this instance, most of the current ones will coexist with the new notes for an undetermined period while the new bills come into circulation.

That will in some circumstances leave consumers in the confusing situation of having to use old bills with face value of 1,000,000 bolivars to make purchases valued at 10 bolivars in the new denomination.

Poor Venezuelans without bank accounts have for months been carrying wads of cash to make basic purchases.

Buying one kilo of cheese, worth the equivalent of $1.14 at the most widely used exchange rate, requires 7,500 notes of 1,000 bolivar denomination – a note that was only brought fully into circulation in 2017.

One bar of soap, which sells for the equivalent of $0.53, requires 3,500 of the same notes.

“This is going to be complete disaster, we don’t have information,” said Yoleima Manrique, 42, assistant manager of a home appliance store in Caracas. “It’s going to be crazy for the clients and for us.”

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Tibisay Romero in Valencia; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Diane Craft)

Hospitals scrap surgeries, Venezuelans forgo showers as taps run dry

A woman carries a container filled with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – At one of Caracas’ biggest public hospitals, most bathrooms are closed. Patients fill jugs from a tiny tap on the ground floor that sometimes has a trickle of water. Operations are postponed or canceled.

The Central Venezuelan University hospital, once a Latin American leader, is reeling as taps run dry.

“I have gone to the operation block and opened the tap to wash my hands, as you must do before a surgery, and nothing comes out,” said gynecologist Lina Figueria.

Containers filled with water are seen next to the bed of a patient at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Containers filled with water are seen next to the bed of a patient at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Water cuts are the latest addition to a long list of woes for Venezuelans hurting from a fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation, and emigration.

Malfunctions in the capital’s water network due to lack of maintenance have taken a turn for the worst in recent months, depriving many in this city of 3 million people of regular running water.

Caracas is nestled in a verdant valley perched at around 900 meters (2,953 feet) and its water is pumped from much lower sources. But the pumps have not been maintained, spare parts are scarce and President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is short of cash.

“For many years this deterioration process was not noticeable. But now the water transport systems are very damaged,” said Jose De Viana, former president of Hidrocapital, the state-run utility in charge of Caracas’ water supply.

Venezuela’s socialist government typically says water cuts are due to sabotage by right-wing “terrorists.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in July announced a “special plan” to fix the issues but did not provide details. The Information Ministry and Hidrocapital did not respond to a request for information.

People fill containers with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bell

People fill containers with water coming from a mountain, in a road at Plan de Manzano slum in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2018. Picture taken July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Lack of water – and taps that sometimes spurt out brown liquid – have triggered health concerns in a country lacking basic antibiotics and vaccines.

About 75 percent of Caracas residents said they do not receive water regularly, according to a survey published by two Venezuelan non-governmental organizations this month. Around 11 percent said they thought dirty water had caused skin and stomach problems. The survey does not have comparative figures.

Medical consequences are hard to gauge as the Health Ministry no longer releases once-weekly data, but doctors say scabies and diarrhea are on the rise.

Water shortages have also made some basic daily activities untenable. Poor residents say they take fewer showers.

In the low-income neighborhood of Catia, university professor Mariangela Gonzalez, 64, has 127 bottles, gas containers and pots clogging the entrance to her house.

“When the water comes on, we have to run,” said Gonzalez.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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)

Weary crowds of Venezuelans rely on ‘dog cart’ transports as buses succumb to crisis

Commuters ride on a cargo truck used as public transportation in Valencia, Venezuela July 11, 2018. Picture taken July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – On a recent afternoon, a crowd of hundreds massed on the sidewalk outside an exit from the subway in the central Venezuelan city of Valencia.

But when a flatbed truck previously used to transport water bottles pulled up nearby, a ruthless scramble kicked off with pregnant women, parents holding toddlers and elderly Venezuelans all jostling to get themselves aboard.

In this once-thriving industrial city as in much of the country, public buses have gradually disappeared due to scarce or prohibitively expensive tires, motor oil, batteries and spare parts.

Cargo trucks of all shapes and sizes have taken their place, but most lack even basic safety protections for human cargo and are increasingly associated with accidents and injuries to passengers – a further sign of the deteriorating quality of life in the crisis-stricken country.

The “dog carts,” as they are informally known in Caracas, tend to squeeze standing passengers – mostly poor Venezuelans – into the backs of the large vehicles.

“It’s tough. I’m tired on the way there, tired on the way back, I feel terrible,” said exhausted homemaker Angelica Gomez, wiping sweat from her brow as she climbed into a flatbed truck with metal railings on the sides.

There are no exact records of how many cargo trucks circulate in different cities. Schedules and rates vary from one place to another as well.

Similar forms of transport have been common in developing countries and struggling economies in recent decades, but are rarely seen in oil-rich countries such as Venezuela. Other countries have also made an effort to provide safer public transit options.

The Information Ministry did not reply to an email seeking comment on this spontaneous mode of public transport.

DWINDLING FLEET

But these cargo trucks are now nearly as common as passenger buses in Venezuela, where transport union leaders say a fleet that two years ago was estimated at of 280,000 vehicles has been whittled to just 30,000.

Similar stories abound in the country of 30 million people which is reeling from a fifth straight year of economic contraction and annual inflation estimated at some 46,305 percent in June.

Opposition lawmaker Nora Bracho estimates 39 people have died and around 275 have been injured so far this year in accidents involving unlicensed modes of public transit.

Accidents are often due to poorly maintained vehicles with bald tires or insufficient oil as well as reckless drivers, according to passengers and union leaders.

In violence-rife Venezuela, the chaos on these trucks can also be targeted by criminals.

Andreina Leal, a 36-year-old hairdresser, was robbed of her cellphone and cash during a recent trip on a truck in the western state of Tachira.

“I run the risk of falling, so I hang on tightly to the truck,” said Leal as she waited for another truck to pick her up. “I was already robbed once because I was so focused on not falling.”

Mechanic Rafael Castillo, 53, decided around a month ago to use his old truck to transport people as he needed cash.

Brushing aside worries about safety, he began picking up passengers in his truck, which has metal bars on the sides behind the cab since it was previously used to transport cattle.

“This is providing relief for people,” said Castillo, as peopled climbed in. “There are no buses, this is a way for them to get home.”

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by G Crosse)

Spain’s population grows for second straight year due to immigration

FILE PHOTO: The border fence separating Spain's northern enclave Ceuta and Morocco is seen from Ceuta, Spain, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina/File Photo

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s population rose for the second straight year in 2017, after having fallen between 2012 and 2015 in the midst of an economic downturn, as an increase in foreigners offset a fall in the number of Spaniards, official data showed on Monday.

The figures come as Europe grapples with a rising influx of migrants, mostly from north Africa and war-torn countries such as Syria, after Mediterranean arrivals spiked in 2015. Sixteen EU leaders met for emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday to find a “European solution” to the issue.

The population of Spain increased to 46.66 million to Jan. 1, 2018, a rise of 132,263 people than a year earlier, the highest since Jan. 1 2013, the National Statistics Institute reported.

Spain saw a net increase of migrants arriving in the country of 146,604 people, after the arrival of almost half a million people last year, the largest migrant influx in 10 years, the data showed.

The total number of deaths in Spain in 2017 outpaced the number of births at the fastest pace since records began in 1941, data showed last week as the number of births dropped 4.5 percent while the number of deaths rose 3.2 percent.

The largest increases in migrants came from Venezuela, Colombia, Italy and Morocco, while the largest decreases were from Romania, Britain and Ecuador, INE said.

(Reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Jesús Aguado, William Maclean)

Vice President Pence to visit Guatemala volcano victims: White House

Rescue workers continue to search for human remains, after the eruption of the Fuego volcano, in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit volcano victims in Guatemala as part of a three-nation trip at the end of the month aimed at building Latin American ties and pressuring Venezuela, a White House official said on Thursday.

Pence is scheduled to head to Brasilia during the last week of June, followed by a stop in the northern Amazonian city of Manaus, which is grappling with refugees who have fled Venezuela’s economic crisis, the official said.

Rescue workers continue to search for human remains, after the eruption of the Fuego volcano, in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Rescue workers continue to search for human remains, after the eruption of the Fuego volcano, in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Pence has led the U.S. diplomatic push to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the socialist leader who the Trump administration blames for the deep recession and hyperinflation that have caused shortages of food and medicine in the once oil-rich

nation.

Washington has stepped up economic sanctions against individuals connected to Maduro and refused to recognize his re-election in a May 20 vote. Both countries have expelled each others’ diplomats.

Trump has considered more sanctions on services related to oil shipments from the OPEC member nation, but so far has not opted to act on those.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks before President Donald Trump during a rally with supporters at North Side middle school in Elkhart, Indiana, U.S., May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks before President Donald Trump during a rally with supporters at North Side middle school in Elkhart, Indiana, U.S., May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

During the past year, Pence has visited leaders in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Panama and Peru. At the end of June, he will also visit Quito, Ecuador, before stopping in Guatemala.

At least 109 people were killed by a massive eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano on June 3 that buried villagers in scalding ash and left nearly 200 missing.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Berkrot)

Venezuelans buy bus tickets out after Maduro wins re-election

People wait in line to buy bus tickets at a bus station in Caracas, Venezuela May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Betsabeth Casique saved for eight months for bus tickets out of Venezuela for herself and her three children. At 1.4 million bolivars each, they are worth what she earns in a month working as a nurse.

It is less than two dollars at the black market exchange rate.

When socialist President Nicolas Maduro won re-election to a six-year term on Sunday in a vote the opposition and foreign governments called illegitimate, Casique decided to leave, first for the western city of San Cristobal and from there to Cucuta, Colombia.

Bags and suitcases are seen at a bus station in Caracas, Venezuela May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Bags and suitcases are seen at a bus station in Caracas, Venezuela May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, what pushed me to do it faster,” Casique, 29, said while charging her cell phone outside the Aeroexpresos Ejecutivos terminal in Caracas, where she was planning to buy tickets for a bus leaving on Tuesday.

Ninety-nine people bought tickets on Monday morning for that trip, said Greberli Rojas, a passenger who displayed a handwritten wait-list she was keeping to avoid disputes between passengers trying to fit on the bus.

Rojas, a 29-year-old accountant who arrived from the town of Barlovento in Miranda state and bought her ticket early Monday, planned to spend the night at the station to avoid losing her spot.

“I’m prepared to sell coffee because us migrants have to be prepared to start from the bottom,” said Rojas, who plans to settle in Lima, Peru.

It appeared the emigration crisis Venezuela had experienced in recent years as its economy collapsed would continue since Maduro’s government was unlikely to change policies that led to hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages and rising crime.

The United Nations has estimated that nearly 1 million Venezuelans the country left between 2015 and 2017.

Over the past weekend, migrants streamed across the border, skeptical that their votes would change anything in an election many thought would be rigged. Mainstream opposition called for a boycott and turnout was 46 percent compared with 80 percent in 2013’s presidential election.

“We expected that the incumbents would win, so we decided to leave,” said Jorge Hernandez, a 23-year-old engineering student who sold his Toyota Avalon to buy tickets for himself and his mother to leave Caracas from the Rutas de America terminal on Monday morning.

He brought bread and crackers for the 36-hour trip to Trujillo, Peru, where his sister has been waiting tables for two-and-a-half months.

“This government has been in power for 18 years and things have gone from bad to worse,” he said.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

After re-election, Venezuela’s Maduro faces overseas condemnation

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a vote foes denounced as a farce that cemented autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil-producing nation.

Maduro, 55, hailed his win in Sunday’s vote as a victory against “imperialism,” but his main rival alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition boycotted the election, given that two of its most popular leaders were barred from running, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties from using their names, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists. Turnout was under 50 percent.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced outside the Miraflores presidential palace, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

“The revolution is here to stay!” a jubilant Maduro told the crowd, promising to prioritize economic recovery after five years of recession in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

“Let’s go, Nico!” his supporters chanted until after midnight during party scenes in downtown Caracas.

“We mustn’t cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did. The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro’s socialist predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Senior U.S. State Department officials declared Sunday’s vote a “sham” and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain, which has led European Union criticism of Maduro, also weighed in. “Venezuela’s electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering,” tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation” behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations. China and Russia, which have both poured money into Venezuela in recent years, were also unlikely to join in the international condemnation.

‘TRAGIC CYCLE’ FOR VENEZUELA

The election board said Maduro won 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his chief challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with the opposition boycott to stand.

Turnout was 46 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 percent at the last presidential vote in 2013. Suggesting turnout was even lower, an electoral board source told Reuters 32.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) as most polls shut.

The government used ample state resources during the campaign and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government’s placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called “red spots” close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued “fatherland cards” at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a “prize” promised by Maduro.

The “fatherland cards” are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the ‘Chavismo’ movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

“I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We’re in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it,” tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

Maduro, who faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela’s moribund economy, has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies. The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela’s multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars’ funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed the Venezuelan government and people could handle their own affairs and that everyone should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would “handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention,” but did not elaborate.

 

 

(Reporting by Aexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Marco Aquino in Lima; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus Berwick and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: In run-up to Venezuelan vote, more soldiers dissent and desertion

Soldiers stand in formation before the start of a ceremony to kick off the distribution of security forcers and voting materials to be used in the upcoming presidential elections, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 15, 2018. Pictures taken on May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Girish Gupta and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Arrests for rebellion and desertion are rising sharply in Venezuela’s armed forces, a mainstay of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, amid discontent within the ranks at food shortages and dwindling salaries, according to documents and interviews with army personnel.

Internal military documents reviewed by Reuters showed that the number of soldiers detained for treason, rebellion and desertion rose to 172 in the first four months of the year, up three-and-a-half times on the same period of 2017.

Former military officials said the figures reflected a dramatic increase in the level of dissent within Venezuela’s once-proud armed forces. In the whole of 2017, a total of 196 soldiers were arrested on similar charges, according to the same documents.

As Venezuela prepares to vote on Sunday in presidential elections, which the opposition says have been rigged to consolidate Maduro’s grip on power, the role of the security forces will be under scrutiny.

More than 300,000 soldiers and police will stand watch at polling stations. But behind what will likely be impassive faces some soldiers are planning how to flee the country or fretting about how to feed their families on a minimum salary of just $2 a day, according to interviews with serving and former soldiers.

“It’s so demoralizing to open the fridge and see it empty of meat, fish, chicken, ham, cheese and other basics,” said a 42-year-old National Guard sergeant major with more than 20 years of service, asking for his name not to be used.

“When I joined, I used to buy furniture for the house and clothes for the family with my Christmas bonus. Now it gets me three cartons of eggs and two kilos of sugar,” he said in the border city of San Cristobal.

The Defense Ministry and government did not respond to a request for comment. They say military dissent is isolated among a few individuals rather than being a systemic problem.

FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE

During months of opposition protests last year, National Guard members were Maduro’s first line of defense against protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as rocks and Molotov cocktails were hurled toward them. At least 125 people, including some soldiers and police, were killed.

But privately, some acknowledged even then being exhausted, impoverished, hungry and even sympathetic towards demonstrators.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis has dramatically worsened – with annual inflation hitting nearly 14,000 percent according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly – soldiers and police have joined the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans pouring into neighboring South American countries.

Gerson Medina, a 36-year-old policeman from the border state of Tachira, said he left for Peru last year after political differences with his superiors.

“Sadly, security forces will continue to leave for Latin America and Europe because these elections are trying to demonstrate a false democracy in Venezuela,” he said in a phone interview.

Maduro’s government has said the elections are transparent and has accused the opposition of not participating solely because it knows it will lose.

While there is no firm data on departures from Venezuela’s 120,000-strong armed forces, interviews with serving and former soldiers, as well as internal military documents indicate hundreds if not more have left in the last year.

Since former soldier Hugo Chavez swept to power in an election in 1998 amid popular anger with Venezuela’s ruling elite, the military has played a leading role in the two-decade-old Socialist Revolution.

Under his successor Maduro, senior military officers have assumed prominent and lucrative roles running several ministries as well as state oil company PDVSA and a state food distribution program.

In public, the military top brass is standing by Maduro and ignoring appeals from the opposition to intervene to prevent what they say is a consolidation of dictatorship.

However, Maduro’s government refers frequently to foiled coup plots against it and it has quelled some small but high-profile rebellions within the security forces.

Last year, rogue police officer Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. Perez was hunted down and killed by Venezuelan forces in January.

A National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, early last year attacked a military base with a group of current and former military officials. He was captured soon after.

“The same thing is happening in the barracks as is happening in the slums: people are going hungry; they are suffering an overwhelming crisis,” said Henri Falcon, a former soldier who has bucked the broad opposition boycott and is Maduro’s primary opponent in the election.

Maduro, expected to win on Sunday, has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth.

MILITARY OUSTER

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened military intervention in Venezuela – a move that would likely prove unpopular with neighboring governments in a region wary of American intervention.

However, in February, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested the Venezuelan military might decide to oust Maduro.

“Whether he meant to or not, Tillerson was signaling U.S. pre-acceptance of a military coup to remove Maduro,” said a former senior CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the biggest ‘U.S.-supported’ actions were not done by people we hired and trained for the task. They were done by fence-sitters who, once they saw we would approve, made their move,” the official said.

Some investors in recent weeks have even bought Venezuela’s defaulted debt on speculation that Maduro’s reelection could prompt the military to intervene to prevent economic collapse.

Venezuela is no stranger to military coups.

Then-paratrooper Chavez attempted to seize power militarily in 1992 though failed. It was soon after that attempt that he and Maduro became close.

A decade later, as president, Chavez was himself ousted from power for a couple of days by military officers and business leaders.

Herbert Garcia, a former senior army general and government minister who split with Maduro and now lives in the United States, said a successful uprising did not look imminent.

“In order for a military coup to succeed, political coordination with a strong, credible and united opposition must exist. It doesn’t,” he told Reuters, referring to the country’s fragmented political opposition.

Meanwhile, some soldiers in Venezuela admit their unhappiness but want to stick around in the military.

“We cannot be happy with this situation, I love my country and I’m not leaving,” said one National Guard soldier, with more than a decade of service, standing at a command post in Tachira. “I’ll be here to turn off the light when everyone has gone.”

See graphics on upcoming elections in Latin America http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION-ABSTENTION/0100700M01D/index.html and in Venezuela http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION/0100703N08H/index.html.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Leon Wiefeld Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Inmates revolt at Venezuela detention center, Utah man pleads for help

Relatives of inmates react outside a detention center of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), where a riot occurred, according to relatives, in Caracas, Venezuela May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Inmates at a crowded Caracas detention center revolted on Wednesday, with jailed opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a Mormon missionary from Utah begging for freedom and medical attention in postings on social media.

There was no official information on the incident, but in videos posted on social media men identifying themselves as prisoners said they had taken over the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, known as the Helicoide, where hundreds of people are held.

“This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily,” a man said in one of the videos. He said tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but they were holding out to demand freedom.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the origin of the videos or circumstances under which they were made.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted, “In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor’s office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests.”

In a midafternoon Facebook post, Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and missionary whose family has said he was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding, said, “Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen the guards are here and people are trying to break in my room and kill me. WHAT DO WE DO?”

In a video seen on Twitter late on Wednesday Holt said, “I’m here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us.” He was flanked by three other men.

He said all four of them were being detained without trial and that some detainees were being denied medical attention.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Holt’s current situation.

Activists said the incident had been precipitated by the beating of activist Gregory Sanabria from the state of Tachira. He appeared with a bruised face in pictures on social media.

Rights groups and Maduro opponents have said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Maduro has said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The U.S. embassy in Caracas said it was “very worried” about the situation at the Helicoide.

“Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold them responsible if anything happens to them,” the embassy tweeted in Spanish.

Todd Robinson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information, the embassy added. “No response from the government.”

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)