EU to deploy election observation mission to Venezuela

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will send observers to regional elections in Venezuela scheduled for Nov. 21, on the invitation of the country’s National Electoral Council, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said in a statement on Wednesday.

“An unprecedented electoral process will take place, with the concurrence of the majority of political forces for the first time in recent years, to elect more than 3,000 regional and municipal representatives in Venezuela,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said.

“The EU Election Observation Mission will undertake an independent technical assessment of all aspects of the electoral process and will propose recommendations to improve future elections,” he said.

The vote comes after three years of opposition election boycotts and a failed U.S.-backed effort to force Socialist Party President Nicolas Maduro from power through sanctions and the creation of a parallel opposition-led government.

The regional elections are expected to pose little threat to Maduro’s control of Venezuela. He has hung on to power despite a breathtaking collapse of the country’s economy as well as the broad U.S. sanctions program meant to force him from power.

The EU will send 11 election experts who will arrive in Caracas in October and will be joined by the end of that month by up to 62 long-term observers who will be deployed in the country’s regions.

A further 34 EU short-term observers and 20 locally recruited ones will reinforce the mission on election day. The EU team will stay in Venezuela until the completion of the electoral process, the EU statement said.

The EU observers will issue a preliminary statement and hold a news conference in Caracas after the elections and will also issue a final report with recommendations for future elections after the finalization of the electoral process.

(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Colombia arrests 10 over bombing, shooting of president’s helicopter

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia arrested 10 people accused of involvement in attacks on a helicopter carrying President Ivan Duque and a military base last month that officials said on Thursday were planned by former FARC rebel leaders based in Venezuela.

The car bombing at the base in the northeastern city of Cucuta, home to the army’s 30th brigade, wounded 44 people, including two U.S. military advisers. Later in June, a helicopter approaching city with Duque and other officials aboard was strafed by bullets.

The 10 people captured in Norte de Santander province are former FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa said in a press conference broadcast via social media, and belong to the dissidents’ 33rd front.

Three took part in the planning and execution of both attacks and have been detained and charged, while another is a retired army captain, Barbosa said.

Orders to carry out the attacks came from former FARC leaders who are operating from Venezuela, Defense Minister Diego Molano said during the conference.

He said the incidents demonstrated the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sheltered FARC dissidents, calling them “terrorists”.

“It’s clear that this attack against the president, against the 30th brigade, was planned from Venezuela,” Molano said.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Colombia’s government has long accused Maduro of turning a blind eye to the presence of Colombian rebels on his country’s territory. Maduro, in turn, has said Venezuela is a victim of criminals from Colombia.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin in Bogota; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Joe Bavier)

COVAX aims to resolve Venezuela COVID-19 vaccine roadblocks after Maduro ‘ultimatum’

CARACAS (Reuters) – The COVAX vaccine-sharing facility is aiming to overcome roadblocks to the shipment of coronavirus shots to Venezuela “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the GAVI alliance said on Tuesday.

The comments from GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance which runs COVAX with the World Health Organization, came after President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday said he was giving the COVAX system an “ultimatum” to send doses to the crisis-stricken South American country or return the money Venezuela had already paid.

Officials from the OPEC nation said in June that several payments to cover the $120 million fee have been made, but that the final four payments have been blocked by Swiss bank UBS. Maduro’s allies have attributed that to U.S. sanctions aimed at ousting him from the presidency.

“We are working to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” a GAVI spokesperson said.

Washington in 2019 blacklisted Venezuela’s state oil company, central bank and other government institutions, though it exempts humanitarian transactions from the sanctions.

Still, the measures have left many banks wary of processing even authorized Venezuela-related transactions.

Venezuela’s COVAX payments are not subject to any sanctions, but pose compliance problems for UBS because the government has not satisfactorily spelled out to the bank exactly what the payment is for, a person familiar with the matter said, adding that UBS will execute the transaction as soon as the open questions are clarified.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Several of the payments to COVAX were made by local Venezuelan banks on the government’s behalf, Reuters reported last month.

Venezuela has received 3.5 million vaccine doses from allies Russia and China, and is also conducting trials for Cuba’s Abdala vaccine.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Michael Shields; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Venezuelans seek home care for COVID-19 amid crumbling health system

By Efrain Otero and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan COVID-19 patients are paying doctors to come to their homes due to the high cost of private clinics and hospitals overflowing with patients and often lacking oxygen and medicine, doctors interviewed by Reuters said in recent weeks.

Family members tend to chip in or launch crowdfunding campaigns for infected relatives, said Laura Martinez, a 55-year-old resident of the lower middle-class Las Acacias neighborhood in western Caracas, whose husband and elderly parents were treated at home. Patients who receive home treatment for the coronavirus generally purchase respirators, oxygen tanks and anti-viral drugs.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has said that the country, whose economy is mired in a brutal recession marked by hyperinflation, is experiencing a second wave of the virus. Official data have recorded around 1,000 new cases per day in recent weeks, though many health professionals warn the true toll is likely higher.

As the new wave gathered steam throughout March and April, home care, gained popularity thanks to word of mouth and social media. Such treatment often includes house calls, an option seen as a luxury in many developed countries but rendered cheap in Venezuela by a surfeit of underpaid doctors. Home visits cost $40-$80, depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms, doctors said.

“It is the economic factor – without a doubt it is much cheaper for a doctor to visit one’s home,” Leonardo Acosta, a 25-year-old doctor, told Reuters in mid-April after a home visit in the capital Caracas.

“The cost of just being admitted to a clinic’s emergency ward is very high.”

Venezuela’s public hospitals frequently suffer from blackouts and routinely lack running water, according to medical associations who stage frequent protests over the inadequate conditions of the public health system.

Private clinics are better equipped but charge at least $1,500-$2,500 per night for inpatient care and as much as $5,000 per night for emergency care to treat acute respiratory problems.

That’s out of reach for the vast majority in a country where monthly minimum wage has not topped $5 in several years.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Patients are able to receive treatment at home as long as they do not require intubation, a delicate process that would require them to be transported to an intensive care unit, Acosta said.

For doctors, performing home visits means getting paid in U.S. dollars and making substantially more than they would in the public health system.

“I’m doing this in part for economic reasons,” said Carlos Hernandez, a 25-year-old doctor who like Acosta recently graduated from the Central University of Venezuela. He is also working in the public health system, as the country requires of recent graduates, but said he has not been paid in four months.

Given the country’s economic crisis, Acosta said he will often provide treatment even when the patient cannot pay in full.

“I understand the situation,” he said.

(Reporting by Efrain Otero, Vivian Sequera and Leonardo Fernandez; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S., EU say they do not recognize Venezuela parliamentary vote

By Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) -The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen Latin American countries said on Monday they would not recognize the results of a parliamentary election in Venezuela, which saw allies of President Nicolas Maduro win a majority.

Just 31% of 20 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s election, the electoral council said early on Monday, less than half the turnout rate in the previous congressional elections in 2015. The opposition had boycotted the vote, calling it a farce meant to consolidate a dictatorship.

The results nonetheless return the congress to Maduro’s control, despite an economy in tatters, an aggressive U.S. sanctions program, and a mass migration exodus. An alliance of parties called the Great Patriotic Pole that backs Maduro won 68.9% of the votes cast, according to figures published on Monday.

“The United States, along with numerous other democracies around the world, condemns this charade which failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said the election “failed to comply with the minimum international standards,” while a group of Latin American countries including Brazil and Colombia issued a statement saying the vote “lacks legality and legitimacy.”

Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court had put several opposition parties in the hands of politicians expelled from those same parties for alleged links to Maduro – one of the major reasons the opposition had called the vote a sham.

The elections council was also named without the opposition’s participation, and Maduro refused to allow meaningful electoral observation. Maduro allies have said the electoral conditions were the same as a 2015 parliamentary vote the opposition won, and the government paid no heed to foreign criticism.

“Venezuela already has a new National Assembly,” Maduro said early on Monday, in televised remarks that were muted in comparison with his frequent triumphalism. “A great victory, without a doubt.”

The opposition in 2015 won control of the National Assembly in a landslide, but the pro-Maduro Supreme Court blocked even the most basic legislation. In 2017, Maduro supplanted parliament with the creation of an all-powerful parallel body known as the National Constituent Assembly.

Opposition legislators nonetheless used the platform to denounce Maduro around the world for human rights abuses, corruption, and economic mismanagement, proving a constant thorn in the side of the Socialist Party.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last year also used his role as speaker of the National Assembly to stake a claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate president, on the basis Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rigged, earning the recognition of more than 50 countries including the United States.

Pompeo said on Monday that Washington “will continue to recognize Interim President Guaidó and the legitimate National Assembly.”

Retaking control of the congress will give Maduro few meaningful tools to restart an economy where a monthly salary or pension is often less than the cost of a kilo of meat or a carton of eggs.

It may lend his government more legitimacy to offer oil industry deals to companies willing to risk U.S. sanctions to tap the OPEC nation’s huge oil reserves.

But even traditional allies such as Russia and China, typically the most likely to challenge U.S. sanctions, have shown scant interest in an oil industry hollowed out by years of decay and the emigration of its most talented professionals.

The opposition is calling on sympathizers to participate in a Dec. 12 consultation that will ask citizens whether they reject the results and want a change of government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago, Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese)

U.S. unfreezing Venezualan assets to help opposition fight COVID-19: Guaido

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition said on Thursday the United States has granted it access to millions of dollars of frozen Venezuelan government funds to support efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The U.S. Treasury Department had approved the release of the funds, the opposition said in a statement without specifying the total amount.

The statement said part of the released funds would go to pay some 62,000 health workers $300. During a live appearance on Twitter on Thursday night, opposition leader Juan Guaido said health workers could register accounts to receive payments of $100 a month starting Monday.

Healthcare workers in Venezuela can earn as little as $5 a month.

Guaido first announced the additional support for healthcare workers four months ago, but distribution required a permit from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), as the frozen funds were held by the New York Federal Reserve.

The opposition plans to distribute the funds using AirTM, a digital payment platform, but on Thursday, the website was blocked in Venezuela.

“You have to be very bad to block an account for men and women who are giving everything with conviction to protect our people when they are going to receive a bonus,” said Guaido.

The opposition leader added healthcare workers would be sent a manual with the steps to download a virtual private network (VPN) so they could circumvent the restrictions. AirTM also tweeted instructions how to use a VPN.

Guaido has been recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s rightful president after assuming an interim presidency in 2019 on the grounds that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

In July, the opposition obtained permission to distribute $17 million in funds frozen in the United States that would be channeled through international health organizations to purchase supplies for medical workers.

The license also approves another $4.5 million to support Venezuelans at risk of death, an opposition press release said.

Venezuela is suffering economic collapse and its crumbling health system has so far registered 37,567 cases of COVID-19 and 311 deaths, although experts say the number is likely to be higher due to widespread insufficient testing.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook stepping down as key U.N. arms embargo vote looms

By Humeyra Pamuk and Michelle Nichols

(Reuters) – Top U.S. envoy for Iran Brian Hook is leaving his post and Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, will add Iran to his role “following a transition period” with Hook, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

Hook’s surprise departure comes at a critical time when Washington has been intensely lobbying at the United Nations to extend an arms embargo on Iran and as the U.N. Security Council prepares to hold a vote on the U.S. resolution next week.

“We’re going to continue to make the case for this,” Hook told reporters on Thursday morning, hours before his departure was announced. “We hope that the council can find a way.”

It was not immediately clear when Hook’s tenure would formally end and whether he would see through the vote or not.

Pompeo did not give a reason for Hook’s decision to leave but wrote in a tweet that Hook was moving on to the private sector. He described him as a “trusted adviser and a good friend” who has achieved “historic results” in countering Tehran and secured the release of U.S. citizens detained by Iran.

Hook, 52, was appointed to the top Iran role at the State Department in late 2018 and has been instrumental in Washington’s intensifying pressure campaign on Tehran after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Opponents criticized Hook and the administration for overly harsh and indiscriminate sanctions, which they said were hurting ordinary Iranians and failing to change the behavior of the Iranian government.

The U.S. bid at the Security Council to extend the arms embargo is a key test that some diplomats say will likely fail as it lacks the necessary support and veto powers Russia and China have already signaled their opposition.

If the United States is unsuccessful in its bid, it has threatened to trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions under a process known as snapback. Some diplomats have suggested Washington will likely start the snapback process, which could take up to 30 days, by the end of August.

Abrams, 72, a Republican foreign policy veteran, was named U.S. special representative for Venezuela in January 2019 and has led a hard-line approach aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

U.S. officials have said privately that Trump has been frustrated by the failure to remove Maduro, who retains the support of the Venezuelan military, as well from Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.

Abrams has recently been dealing with U.S. concerns about a growing alliance between Iran and Venezuela, both OPEC members under heavy U.S. sanctions. Iran in recent months has sent fuel tankers to gasoline-short Venezuela, drawing U.S. ire.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; writing by Michelle Nichols; editing by Diane Craft, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. slaps sanctions on Mexican firms, individuals linked to Venezuelan oil trade

By Daphne Psaledakis and Marianna Parraga

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blacklisted Mexico’s Libre Abordo and a related company, accusing them of helping Caracas evade U.S. sanctions in the first formal action by the U.S. Treasury Department against Mexican firms involved in trading Venezuelan oil.

The Treasury said in a statement it imposed sanctions on three individuals, eight entities and two vessels for activities related to a network attempting to skirt U.S. sanctions on Venezuela aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro.

Mexico’s peso slumped 2% after the U.S. action.

Among those blacklisted were Mexico-based Libre Abordo and related Schlager Business Group, as well as their co-owners, Olga Maria Zepeda and Veronica Esparza.

The Treasury also targeted Mexican Joaquin Leal Jimenez, accusing him of having worked with Alex Saab, recently arrested in Cape Verde, Libre Abordo and Schlager for brokering the resale of millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude.

“Leal is the critical conduit between Libre Abordo, Schlager Business Group, and their owners, and PDVSA and Saab. Leal has been coordinating the purchase and sale of Venezuelan-origin crude oil from PDVSA,” Treasury said.

Leal did not reply to a request for comment.

A Maduro ally who has previously helped the government buy food, Saab was sanctioned in 2019 and charged with money laundering and conspiracy in a U.S. court in relation to a food program managed by Maduro’s administration. The government has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the program.

Libre Abordo said its lawyers will evaluate the Treasury’s decision, which it said wrongly linked the firm to unrelated entities.

“Our exchange of humanitarian aid with Venezuela should not be subject of sanctions,” Libre Abordo told Reuters in a statement.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the individuals and entities and generally prohibit Americans from dealing with them.

Libre Abordo and Schlager began receiving Venezuelan oil for resale in Asian markets late last year after signing two contracts with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in mid-2019.

The agreement was framed as an oil-for-food pact exempted from U.S. sanctions as the Mexican firms intended to supply Venezuela with 210,000 tons of corn.

Through May, Libre Abordo and Schlager received some 30 million barrels of Venezuelan oil, according to PDVSA’s documents. Even though they supplied about 500 water trucks in exchange, food was never delivered, as very low oil prices affected a schedule originally planned, Libre Abordo said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the oil-for-food “enterprise skimmed millions from funds that were claimed to have been for humanitarian aid, yet failed to deliver the promised food to the Venezuelan people.”

Reuters reported last month that the FBI was probing several Mexican and European companies allegedly involved in trading Venezuelan oil, gathering information for a Treasury inquiry.

“They want us to be unable to export oil so the Venezuelan people are left without food, medicine or gasoline,” Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Thursday. “Your actions and sanctions are criminal,” he told Pompeo over Twitter.

Washington in January 2019 recognized Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido as the OPEC nation’s rightful leader and has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of Maduro’s 2018 re-election that was widely described as fraudulent.

Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.

“The United States will continue to relentlessly pursue sanctions evaders,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said in the statement.

Washington also targeted on Thursday Marshall Islands-based Delos Voyager Shipping Ltd. and Greece-based Romina Maritime Co Inc. for operating in the Venezuelan oil sector, giving them until July 21 to wind down activities.

The other firms blacklisted are Alel Technologies LLC, Cosmo Resources Pte. Ltd, Luzy Technologies LLC; and Washington Trading Ltd.

The Treasury delisted Marshall Islands-based firm Afranav Maritime Ltd and Greece-based Seacomber Ltd, and two vessels they own, after the companies promised to stop trade with Venezuela while Maduro is in power.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)

Special Report: U.S. takes aim at the power behind Venezuela’s Maduro – his first lady

By Angus Berwick and Matt Spetalnick

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four years ago, a bit player in the Venezuelan leadership was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the United States to face drug charges. He proved to be an important catch.

The man, Yazenky Lamas, worked as a bodyguard for the person widely considered the power behind President Nicolas Maduro’s throne: first lady Cilia Flores.

Now, with help from Lamas’ testimony, the United States is preparing to charge Flores in the coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the investigation of the first lady told Reuters.

If Washington goes ahead with an indictment, these people said, the charges are likely to stem, at least in part, from a thwarted cocaine transaction that has already landed two of Flores’ nephews in a Florida penitentiary.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on any possible charges against Flores. Flores and her office at the National Assembly didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, told Reuters in a text message that its questions about the possible U.S. indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.” He didn’t elaborate.

In a series of interviews with Reuters, the first Lamas has given since his arrest, the former bodyguard said Flores was aware of the coke-trafficking racket for which her two nephews were convicted by a U.S. court. Flores also used her privileged position, he said, to reward family members with prominent and well-paid positions in government, a claim of nepotism backed by others interviewed for this article.

Speaking behind reinforced glass at the prison in Washington, D.C., where he is detained, Lamas told Reuters he is speaking out against Flores because he feels abandoned by the Maduro administration, still ensconced in power even though many of its central figures, including the president, have also been accused of crimes. “I feel betrayed by them,” he told Reuters.

In late March, U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling. Maduro, now in his eighth year as Venezuela’s president, for years sought to flood the U.S. with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken American society and bolster his position and wealth.

Maduro’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. In a televised speech after the indictments, he dismissed the charges against him and his colleagues as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. “You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” he said.

The March indictments and the possible charges against Flores come amid a fresh campaign by Washington to increase pressure on Maduro. His enduring grip on power, some U.S. officials say, is a source of frustration for Trump.

Starting in 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Socialist leader along with his wife and other members of the Maduro “inner circle.” The swipe at Flores enraged Maduro. “If you want to attack me, attack me,” he said in a televised speech at the time. “But don’t mess with Cilia, don’t mess with the family.”

Leveraging the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis in Venezuela, the White House now hopes it can topple a leader who has weathered years of tightening economic sanctions, civil unrest and international isolation.

Washington has accused Maduro and his circle of looting Venezuela of billions of dollars. But it’s unclear how much personal wealth he and Flores possess. Neither the president nor the first lady disclosed income statements, tax returns or other documents pertaining to their personal finances.

After U.S. prosecutors charged Maduro, the Justice Department said it had seized more than $1 billion in assets belonging to dozens of defendants connected to the case. The charges didn’t detail those assets or specify who holds them.

Flores is a longtime strategist and kingmaker in the ruling Socialist party. She first gained prominence as a lawmaker and confidante of the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor. She doesn’t hold an official role in Maduro’s cabinet.

Still, the probe against her underscores the vast influence she wields, particularly in helping Maduro outmaneuver rivals inside and outside Venezuela.

In addition to Lamas, Reuters interviewed more than 20 people close to and familiar with Flores. They portray her as a shrewd and stealthy politician who now brandishes much of the power of her husband’s office, demanding important briefings even before the president and personally negotiating with foreign emissaries, rival lawmakers and others.

When the opposition-led National Assembly tried to oust Maduro last year, Flores ordered security officials to deliver intelligence on the matter directly to her, according to Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the head of the country’s intelligence agency then.

Figuera was one of a handful of senior Venezuelan officials who at the time considered trying to negotiate an exit from power by Maduro with the United States. Figuera fled Venezuela when the effort failed.

“Flores has always been behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” Figuera told Reuters.

Flores has sought personal concessions in recent years in negotiations with the United States.

According to five people familiar with the discussions, Flores instructed intermediaries to ask U.S. envoys for liberty for her jailed nephews. In exchange, these intermediaries said Venezuela would release six imprisoned executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp [PDVSAC.UL], the U.S. refining unit of Venezuela’s state-run oil company.

The executives, arrested by Venezuela in 2017 and charged with embezzlement, are widely considered by human rights activists and many in the business community to be political prisoners.

That overture, reported here for the first time, failed.

But Washington knows Flores’ clout. “She is probably the most influential figure other than Maduro,” Fernando Cutz, a senior White House adviser on Latin America during Trump’s first year in office, told Reuters.

Earlier this year, according to people with knowledge of her efforts, Flores personally pressed crucial opposition lawmakers to support a Maduro ally to head the National Assembly, until then considered the last independent government institution in the country.

As Reuters reported in March, people familiar with lobbying of the lawmakers say ruling party operatives paid bribes to rivals who switched sides. Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores played any role in such payments.

Little is known about the first lady outside Venezuela, particularly the extent of her role in Maduro’s government and her dealings that help it survive.

In their first interrogation of Lamas after his arrest in Colombia, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had one request, he recalled: “Tell us about Cilia Flores,” they said.

Michael D. Miller, a DEA spokesman, referred questions regarding the case to the Justice Department.

Lamas, now 40, spent over a decade guarding Flores – first when she was a lawmaker and headed the National Assembly, later when she became first lady. After his extradition in 2017, Lamas agreed to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, according to a confidential Justice Department document reviewed by Reuters.

The agreement hasn’t been previously reported.

In the plea deal, Lamas admitted to charges of drug trafficking and agreed to cooperate as a witness in investigations related to his case. The Colombian court order that approved his extradition, also reviewed by Reuters, said Lamas conspired to ship cocaine from Venezuela on U.S.-registered aircraft.

Neither the Colombian court order nor the Justice Department document mention Flores, Maduro or others in the family.

Because of the terms of the plea agreement – he said he is still awaiting sentencing and continues to testify in related investigations – Lamas declined to discuss specifics about the case against him. His lawyer in Washington, Carmen Hernandez, also declined to comment.

The information he is providing investigators, including details on Flores’ alleged role in the drug-trafficking plan by her nephews, is deemed credible by U.S. authorities, according to people familiar with the probes. Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, told Reuters the DEA gives “high significance” to Lamas’ testimony.

“REVOLUTIONARY CALLING”

Flores was born October 15, 1956, in Tinaquillo, a small city in northwestern Venezuela. The youngest of six siblings, she lived in a mud-brick shack with a dirt floor, locals recall. Her father was a salesman, traveling to nearby towns to hawk sundry goods. While still a child, she and her family moved to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

A good pupil, Flores enrolled in a private university and studied criminal law. There, she met Maikel Moreno, a lifelong friend and a lawyer she would eventually help become Venezuela’s chief justice. Moreno, a Maduro ally and a controversial figure in his own right, was one of those indicted by Washington last March.

Moreno didn’t respond to requests for comment; in a tweet, he denounced Washington for trying to “hijack Venezuelan justice.”

As a student, Flores showed little interest in politics, according to people who knew her. She worked part-time at a police station, transcribing statements from witnesses, and married a longtime boyfriend, a police detective, with whom she had three boys. Upon earning her law degree, she worked for most of the next decade as a defense attorney for a private firm.

In 1989, a fuel hike sparked riots that shook Caracas and awakened in Flores what she later described to state television as a “revolutionary calling.” Hundreds of protesters, angry with corruption and widening inequality in the oil-producing country, died in clashes with security forces.

The event, known as the Caracazo – roughly, the big Caracas awakening – also inspired Chavez. As inflation, food shortages and other hardships worsened, Chavez, an Army lieutenant colonel, in 1992 staged a failed coup. He was arrested and jailed at a military barracks.

Flores discovered a hero. She took to spraypainting Chavez’s name around Caracas. “I saw him in that moment as I would in the 20 years I spent near him,” she later told state television. “Authentic.”

She sent Chavez a letter offering to aid his defense. He accepted. Soon she was counseling Chavez and helping him answer letters from thousands of supporters.

On one early visit, she met a Caracas union leader who was also advising Chavez: Maduro. In a televised speech years later, Maduro said he was drawn to her “fiery character.” He began to wink at her, he said.

As it happened, both were divorcing their spouses. They began dating and eventually became a couple. “We shared the same dreams,” Flores later told state television.

In 1994, Chavez received a presidential pardon. Flores and other advisors suggested he reinvent himself as a civilian and rally support with promises to empower the poor. By 1997, Flores was part of the campaign committee that would secure Chavez’s election the next year as president. Maduro was elected as a legislator.

Not much of a gladhander herself, Flores nonetheless won a seat in the National Assembly in 2000. “She’s not a leader to hold a political rally,” said Juan Barreto, a former Caracas mayor and media director for Chavez. “But don’t think she doesn’t have a voice behind closed doors.”

In the legislature, Flores earned a combative reputation.

When fellow Chavistas elected her leader of the National Assembly in 2007, she publicly referred to opposition lawmakers as “sinners,” suggesting the government had the moral high ground over its rivals. She switched off their microphones when she felt they grew longwinded.

She also began using her position to help family members.

Flores replaced about 50 support staff employed by the National Assembly with relatives and associates, the legislature’s union said. Four siblings, two cousins and her ex-husband were among the hires, according to a list created by the union at the time of the shakeup and recently reviewed by Reuters.

She named her brother, a policeman, head of assembly security. A nephew – a cousin of her two nephews now jailed in the United States – was appointed as the legislature’s administrative director.

Reuters was unable to reach Flores’ siblings, her ex-husband, or other relatives mentioned in this story, including her children and her nephews.

It’s unclear whether Flores was responsible for all the job changes the union complained about. But she has defiantly defended the appointments. “I feel proud that they are my family,” she told reporters at the time. “I will defend them as workers in the assembly.”

When union leaders complained about nepotism, Flores summoned them to her office, recalls Jose Rivero, who attended some of those meetings and is now the union boss. “Leave this issue alone,” he says she told them. The union complied.

In 2012, Chavez named Flores attorney general. She held the post until March 2013, when Chavez died. Voters elected Maduro, by then vice president, to succeed him. Maduro and Flores, not officially married, tied the knot that July.

As first lady, Flores initially made her presence known in small ways. She ordered new furniture, curtains and a repainting of the Miraflores Palace, former aides said. Soon, she began playing a far more substantial role.

In 2014, oil prices plunged, pulling Venezuela into depression. As discontent grew, Flores began to see threats within the government. In October, Maduro fired Miguel Rodriguez, his interior minister, and replaced him with a Flores ally.

Three people familiar with the decision said that Flores believed Rodriguez, a charismatic general popular with troops, was eclipsing Maduro. People close to Rodriguez said he had indeed aspired to higher office.

After his ouster, Rodriguez formed a rival political party and publicly denounced Maduro. Intelligence agents later arrested Rodriguez on conspiracy charges, which he denied. He remains imprisoned. Juan Luis Sosa, an attorney for Rodriguez, declined to comment.

“Cilia likes or hates you,” one former Maduro aide says. “She’s not a dealmaker, she’s a hardliner.”

“CILIA KNEW EVERYTHING”

Lamas, the bodyguard, began working for Flores in her days as a legislator. From a post in the National Guard, he had been assigned to Chavez’s security detail and later transferred to guard Flores, he said. A photo on Lamas’ Twitter feed shows him, in a revolutionary red baseball cap, with Flores at a Socialist party event in 2010.

With the job came proximity to the Flores family.

The first lady entrusted him with driving her aging mother for medical checkups, Lamas said. He became close to Flores’ sons – Walter, Yoswal and Yosser. “I considered them my brothers,” he said, recalling trips to shoot rifles and to opulent family properties on the Caribbean coast.

The brothers – known as “Los Chamos,” or “the boys” – have attracted media attention in Venezuela for their flashy lifestyles.

Lamas said he saw them use government jets to travel abroad for fun. He also said he saw them several times late at night load military jeeps with boxes of U.S. dollars and transport the cash from their homes in Caracas to other locations for storage.

Reuters couldn’t independently verify that claim.

Flores’ sons haven’t been indicted on any charges in the United States. They are on the U.S. Treasury’s list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption. The sanctions are meant to punish central figures in Maduro’s government and block any assets they may have in the United States or within its jurisdiction.

The family’s reach by this point was manifest at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA [PDVSA.UL], the national oil company and the government’s cash cow. In 2014, PDVSA appointed a new finance director: Carlos Malpica, the third nephew of Flores, who previously managed the support staff at the National Assembly.

Malpica couldn’t be reached for comment.

People close to Flores said Malpica had become the first lady’s most trusted relative, especially when it came to financial matters. Documents compiled by U.S. investigators for their case against the other two Flores nephews provide insight into Malpica’s influence.

In August 2015, according to text messages gathered by the investigators and transcribed in documents used at the trial, Efrain Campo, one of the two nephews, received a text from an acquaintance. The message asked for Campo’s help in recouping money allegedly owed by PDVSA to the acquaintance. The origins of the debt are unclear.

Campo told the acquaintance to call Malpica. At PDVSA, Campo wrote, Malpica was the “maximum authority there, since he’s a Flores.” “He will not do it for free,” Campo added.

PDVSA officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Malpica left his PDVSA post in 2016, giving no explanation for his departure, and has since kept a low profile. The U.S. Treasury Department would later include him on its list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption.

The jailed nephews, Campo and Franqui Flores, were close to the first lady. She helped raise both of them, two people who know the family told Reuters, and both men sometimes referred to her as “mom.”

Their November 2015 arrest, in a DEA sting in Haiti, made international headlines. In Venezuela, it earned the pair the nickname of the “narcosobrinos,” or “narconephews.”

The bust stemmed from a plan to sell $20 million worth of cocaine in the United States. The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. At the time, Flores told reporters that her nephews had been victims of a DEA “kidnapping.” She has since said little publicly about the case.

Among evidence investigators obtained, according to two people familiar with the case, are text messages between the nephews and Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment.

The messages, which haven’t been seen by Reuters, are among documentation compiled by prosecutors from the U.S. investigation of the nephews. The people familiar with the messages said they make clear that Flores helped coordinate logistics of the cocaine shipment with them.

The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the U.S. indictment against Maduro. The people familiar with the text messages said the nephews told Flores in the texts that the cocaine money would be for her campaign.

Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was reelected.

A recording made by a DEA informant captured the two nephews discussing the planned deal, according to a transcript submitted as evidence in their trial.

In the recording, Campo says his “mom” is planning to run again for the assembly. People familiar with the probe believe “mom,” given the context of the discussion, meant Flores.

Because of the burgeoning economic crisis and growing discontent at the time, Campo told the informant, “there is a risk we could lose, so she’s getting in there again.”

“We need the money,” Campo added, in a remark investigators interpreted as an allusion to the impact of economic sanctions on Socialist coffers. “The Americans are hitting us hard, and the opposition is getting a lot of help.”

Before the two nephews were arrested, Lamas said he saw the two men on several occasions send cocaine shipments on planes from the presidential hangar outside Caracas. Reuters couldn’t verify whether Flores knew of the alleged shipments.

At times, Lamas said, Flores would hear relatives discuss illicit activities, including her nephews talking about the drug transaction for which they were convicted. She would shake her head, he added, but not voice disapproval.

“Cilia knew everything,” Lamas says.

A GRAND BARGAIN

In Caracas, where political intrigue abounds, Flores has covered Maduro’s flanks. Early last year, Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud and said he was the rightful president of Venezuela. He urged the military to oust Maduro.

Flores quickly sought out signs of disloyalty within government ranks. Figuera, the former intelligence chief, told Reuters she ordered all documentation his agents collected about any additional dissent, including transcripts of phone taps of opposition politicians, sent directly to her. He complied.

In March 2019, a nationwide electricity blackout darkened Venezuela. As senior officials convened to discuss the problem, one minister showed Twitter posts by Luis Carlos Diaz, a prominent journalist, blaming the government.

Flores said Diaz “should be jailed,” Figuera told Reuters. Maduro afterwards ordered him to arrest the journalist, Figuera added.

As Diaz bicycled home on March 11, Figuera’s agents arrested him, raided his home and seized computers and phones. After an uproar, Figuera said, Maduro called him the following day to order Diaz’s release. Diaz, who was let out, remains free and is working as a journalist. He declined to comment.

By April of last year, as most Western democracies backed Guaidó, Figuera and a handful of other senior officials began considering a negotiated exit for Maduro. They weighed the possibility of arranging safe passage for Maduro to Cuba or another allied country, Figuera said, in exchange for the easing of U.S. sanctions or other compromises by Washington.

Among the officials who discussed the idea was Moreno, the chief justice and longtime Flores friend, according to Figuera and two other people familiar with the talks. As the group prepared to discuss the possibility with U.S. envoys, Moreno told Figuera they should press for further concessions, including the release of Flores’ two nephews.

The suggestion of seeking the nephews’ freedom as part of a grand bargain with Washington followed attempts months earlier by Flores intermediaries to secure their release.

According to the people familiar with those earlier discussions, Flores had intermediaries tell Washington early last year that Caracas, in exchange for the nephews, would free the six Citgo executives. Venezuela had charged the executives, who remain in prison awaiting trial, with embezzlement related to renegotiation of Citgo’s debt with various lenders.

Attorneys for the executives told Reuters the charges are baseless and that they were unaware of any effort to include their clients in any prisoner swap. Jesus Loreto, a Caracas lawyer representing Tomeu Vadell, one of the six, said such an offer “would be yet more evidence of the arbitrary nature” of the arrests.

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters the swap offer was a “non-starter.”

“This isn’t like a spy exchange with Russia,” said another American familiar with the discussions. “The nephews are convicted criminals.”

Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores was aware of Moreno’s attempts to broker a departure for Maduro. Moreno ultimately backed out of the talks, according to Figuera and the two other people. The effort fizzled and Figuera defected. He now lives in Miami. Moreno remains chief justice of Venezuela.

Late last year, Flores spearheaded the effort to swing opposition legislators toward a Maduro ally as assembly head. On December 7, Flores and several Maduro aides met with a group of opposition lawmakers at the Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, people with knowledge of the meeting said. There, Flores urged the lawmakers to back the Maduro candidate.

Several lawmakers, including at least one who attended that meeting, later accepted payments of up to $150,000 to vote for Maduro’s candidate, these people said. Reuters couldn’t determine if Flores or Maduro were aware of the payments or whether they were discussed at the military base.

In January, Luis Parra, the government candidate, won the election for assembly chief. Now, Guaidó and Parra both claim to be running the assembly. Parra’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

From his cell in Washington, Lamas reads about politics back home. He is studying English and working as a prison cook. He showed Reuters a certificate from the prison commending his “outstanding contribution to the culinary department.”

Lamas now seethes against the family he once worked to protect. He is particularly aggrieved by a raid on his house in the days after his arrest, and a long interrogation of his wife, with whom he has two small children. A neighbor confirmed seeing the raid take place.

“I was loyal to them,” Lamas says. “But they weren’t loyal to me.”

(Editing by Paulo Prada)

U.S. imposes new rules on exports to China to keep them from its military

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – The United States said on Monday it will impose new restrictions on exports to China to keep semiconductor production equipment and other technology away from Beijing’s military.

The new rules will require licenses for U.S. companies to sell certain items to companies in China that support the military, even if the products are for civilian use. They also do away with a civilian exception that allows certain U.S. technology to be exported without a license, if the use is not connected to the military.

The rules, which were posted for public inspection and will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, could hurt the semiconductor industry and sales of civil aviation equipment to China, if the U.S. presumes they are for military applications.

The changes, which include requiring licenses for more items, also expand the rules for Russia and Venezuela, but the biggest impact will be on trade with China.

“It is important to consider the ramifications of doing business with countries that have histories of diverting goods purchased from U.S. companies for military applications,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

Washington trade lawyer Kevin Wolf said the rule changes for China are in response to its policy of military-civil fusion: finding military applications for civilian items.

He said the regulatory definitions of military use and user are broad and go beyond purchases by entities such as the People’s Liberation Army.

For example, Wolf said, if a car company in China repairs a military vehicle, that car company may now be a military end user, even if the item being exported is for another part of the business.

“A military end user is not limited to military organizations,” Wolf said. “A military end user is also a civilian company whose actions are intended to support the operation of a military item.”

Another rule change involves eliminating civilian license exceptions for Chinese importers and Chinese nationals for certain integrated circuits. Other telecommunications equipment, radar and high-end computers will be caught as well.

The administration also posted a third proposed rule change that would force foreign companies shipping certain American goods to China to seek approval not only from their own governments but from the United States as well.

The actions come as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)