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

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

By Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Padrino is hardly alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“REAL POWER”

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

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

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

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

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

Soon, some of the funds began to disappear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also rethought overall strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

Cubans came with military know-how, too.

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

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

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

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

Rivero left Venezuela for the United States in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reuters was unable to reach Campos for comment.

“TRAITORS NEVER!”

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

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

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

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

Near military facilities, new brass abounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Loyal always!” Padrino shouted.

The troops responded in unison: “Traitors never!”

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

Exclusive: Colombian armed groups recruiting desperate Venezuelans, army says

FILE PHOTO: People walk along a pathway near the Colombian-Venezuelan border on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

ARAUCA/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuela’s crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.

Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.

Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.

Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia’s eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.

“Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening,” said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia’s eastern border state of Arauca. “The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It’s a major threat to Colombia.”  

Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.

Reuters was not able to independently verify these figures.

The head of Colombia’s military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.

At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.

Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia’s rugged jungle terrain – spread across a country the size of France and Spain – makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.

The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.

Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.

Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.

“They said I’d get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone,” said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.

“I was tempted, but scared… I’d been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn’t want to join,” said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.

An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.

Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.

“They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them,” said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.

RECRUITING IN VENEZUELA

Colombia’s Defense Minister Guillermo Botero has said the military has more than doubled operations against armed groups since President Ivan Duque took office in August, looking to tackle a rise in illicit drug production and trafficking. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

“The ELN has been retreating – at least its leadership – to Venezuela where it’s recruiting for greater strength, to attack us,” Botero said recently.

A FARC dissident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the group was also present on Venezuelan soil and was recruiting Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the conscription of Venezuelans by Colombia’s armed groups.

Venezuela’s government has acknowledged that the ELN and dissident FARC are present on its territory. It has said it does not support the groups or tolerate their presence, and that its troops pursue them as they would any other illegal group.

Representatives of the ELN did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FARC, which became a political party after the peace deal and kept its former acronym, has publicly expelled the armed dissidents.

Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion but is increasingly making money from illegal migration, the officials said.

Military officials and rights workers say the ELN and colectivos – shadowy irregular armed groups in Venezuela affiliated with President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party – control most of the crossing points into Colombia and demand payment from migrants and traders.

PICKING COCA

Army Colonel Rodolfo Morales, head of the army’s 30th Brigade in the border town of Cucuta, said migrants were also being drafted by drug trafficking groups to pick coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Antonio, another Venezuelan migrant who declined to give his second name, said that after crossing the border he was offered money by unidentified men to go into the jungles around Tibu – a border town around 115 km north of Cucuta in the dangerous Catatumbo region – to pick coca leaves.

“I’d rather go hungry than go with them,” said the 33-year old from the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo.

Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, which battled the ELN and FARC for decades, are also recruiting migrants, the military officials said.

The paramilitaries were behind most of the 260,000 killings that occurred during the nation’s half-century conflict and never fully demobilized under a 2006 peace agreement.

Eddinson, 26, a migrant from Venezuela’s coastal state of Aragua, said he and three other Venezuelans were approached by armed men who identified themselves as paramilitaries as they trekked through the mountains of Santander province near the border.

Eddinson said the leader of the eight armed men – who were dressed in khaki uniforms – tried to recruit them.

“He said that training would last six months. We’d be given salaries according to rank,” said Eddinson, adding that he and the other Venezuelans declined the offer. “He told us that we’d know our start date but not when we could leave.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Special Report: They fled Venezuela crisis by boat – then vanished

Carolina Gil shows a picture of her daughter Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman who, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, at her home in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Angus Berwick

GUIRIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A taxi dropped Maroly Bastardo and her two small children by a cemetery not far from the shore in northeast Venezuela. She still had time to change her mind.

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Eight months pregnant, Bastardo faced forbidding choices in a nation whose economy has collapsed. Give birth in Venezuela, where newborns are dying at alarming rates in shortage-plagued maternity wards. Or board a crowded smuggler’s boat bound for Trinidad, the largest of two islands that make up the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her husband, Kennier Berra, had landed there in February, found work and beckoned her to join him.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, begged her to stay.

Neither Bastardo or her children could swim. Barely three weeks earlier, 27 people had gone missing after a migrant boat went down in the narrow stretch of water separating Venezuela from Trinidad. The 20-kilometer strait, known for its treacherous currents, is nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths.

But the 19-year old hairdresser was determined. On May 16, she and the kids packed into an aging fishing vessel along with 31 other people, including three relatives of her husband. They snapped cellphone photos from the shore near the port town of Guiria, where thousands of Venezuelans have departed in recent years and messaged loved ones goodbye.

The craft, the Ana Maria, never arrived. No migrants or wreckage have been found.

A man believed to be the boat’s pilot, a 25-year-old Venezuelan named Alberto Abreu, was plucked from the sea on May 17 by a fisherman and taken to nearby Grenada. Abreu told his rescuer the Ana Maria had sunk the night before. He fled before police could complete their investigation, Grenadian authorities said, and hasn’t been spotted since.

Bastardo’s anguished mother, Carolina, clings to hope that perhaps a lesser tragedy has befallen her daughter and grandchildren. She prays smugglers are holding them hostage to extract more money, and that any day now she will get the ransom call.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon's Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband’s sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler’s boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES.

“My heart tells me they are alive,” Carolina said. “But it’s a torture.”

The disappearance of Bastardo, five relatives and her unborn child underscores the ever-more perilous lengths Venezuelans are taking to escape a nation in freefall.

Years of economic mismanagement by the socialist government have crippled the oil-rich nation with hyperinflation, shortages and misery. An estimated 4 million people – about 12% of the populace – have fled the South American country in just the last five years.

The vast majority have traveled overland to neighboring Colombia and Brazil. But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.

Prime destinations are the nearby islands of Aruba, Curacao, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Formerly welcoming of Venezuelans, who once brought tourist dollars, all have clamped down hard on these mostly impoverished migrants. Their governments have tightened visa requirements, increased deportations and beefed up coast-guard patrols to intercept smugglers’ vessels.

Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of more than 1.3 million people and among the highest incomes in the region, has been a particular magnet.

Since 2016, almost 25,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Trinidad, according to government figures, many without documentation. The United Nations last year estimated 40,000 Venezuelans were living in Trinidad, straining the government’s ability to assist them.

Traffickers have been known to abandon their human cargo in rough waters and force female and child passengers into prostitution. A shortage of spare parts in Venezuela means boats often take to sea in disrepair. Most migrants leave Guiria in open, low-slung wooden vessels with patched hulls and jury-rigged outboard motors. Smugglers often stuff these boats well beyond their 10-person capacity, locals familiar with the trade told Reuters.

But for Maroly Bastardo, the grinding hardships of life in Venezuela loomed as the greater danger. She was feeling exhausted and increasingly anxious about her health and that of the baby in the event of a difficult labor.

“Things are too rough here girl,” Bastardo texted an aunt in the days leading up to her departure from Venezuela. “I can’t give myself the luxury of staying here all beat down.”

Reuters reconstructed Bastardo’s ill-fated journey in interviews with her family members, friends and the relatives of others missing from the Ana Maria, along with authorities and people involved in the human smuggling trade.

(For a related photo essay, see: https://reut.rs/31w6P17)

A FAMILY’S DESCENT

Bastardo grew up in El Tigre, an interior boomtown in Venezuela’s famed Orinoco Oil Belt, the source of much of the nation’s oil wealth.

Carolina, Bastardo’s mother, worked in the kitchen of a fancy hotel that catered to visiting oil executives. Bastardo attended private school and talked of becoming a doctor. She and her little sister, Aranza, sang songs in the bedroom they shared.

The good times faded with mismanagement of state-run oil company PDVSA by late President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. With government loyalists at the helm of the company, oil revenue-funded social programs while basic maintenance and investment tumbled. Skilled petroleum professionals fled for opportunities abroad. Despite possessing some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has seen oil production slump by about 75% since the turn of the century, when it was producing 3 million barrels a day.

The fallout hit El Tigre hard. The swanky hotel closed its doors and Carolina lost her job. Bastardo quit school at age 16 to earn a few dollars a week cutting hair. She and Berra, a construction worker, had two children, Dylan and Victoria.

With another baby on the way – a little boy they planned to name Isaac Jesus – Berra left in February for Trinidad. He found a job frying chicken and laid plans for his family to follow. Bastardo would require a Cesarean section, her third. The prospect of giving birth in the local hospital terrified her, her mother said.

Venezuela’s national healthcare system, once considered a model for Latin America, is now plagued by shortages of imported drugs, equipment and even basics like rubber gloves. Thousands of doctors and nurses, their salaries ravaged by inflation, no longer show up for work.

At the Luis Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, signs at the maternity ward inform women in need of Cesareans to bring their own antibiotics, needles, surgical sutures and IV drip. Even electricity isn’t a given. Doctors there said the power fails almost daily, forcing them to rely on backup generators.

Infant mortality rose sharply, to 21.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016 from 15 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008, reversing nearly two decades of progress, according to a study published in January in The Lancet medical journal. Mothers, too, are dying at higher rates during childbirth, the study said. Some 11,466 babies died before their first birthday in 2016, up 30% from the year before, according to the most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry.

“Any woman who gives birth in a Venezuelan hospital is running a risk,” said Yindri Marcano, director of the El Tigre hospital.

Trinidad would almost certainly have better medical care, Bastardo and Berra reckoned. An extra incentive: a child born there would be a citizen and could make it easier for them to obtain legal residency someday. Family members would accompany Bastardo to watch out for her and the little ones, 3-year-old Dylan and Victoria, 2.

On April 2, Bastardo, the children, and her sister-in-law Katerin traveled 500 kilometers by taxi to the port of Guiria. Located on Venezuela’s remote and lawless Paria Peninsula, the city is known as a hub of migrant tracking and drug running.

There they joined Berra’s father, Luis, and his Uncle Antonio, who would also make the trip. The six settled into a rundown hotel above a Chinese restaurant to make final preparations. They hung out with a friend of Luis’s, Raymond Acosta, a 37-year-old local mechanic.

Luis took charge of securing their places in a smuggler’s boat. A construction worker, he and his wife had already emigrated to Trinidad and had helped other relatives make the journey in recent years.

Acosta said Luis had negotiated a price of $1,000 for all six members of the party: $400 payable up front, with the balance due in Trinidad, U.S. dollars only.

But as the departure approached, the smuggler jacked up the price. They would need an extra $500 cash up front. Rather than back out, Luis had his wife in Trinidad drain their savings, and he arranged for a contact there to transport the cash to Guiria.

Another setback followed on April 23: A migrant boat heading for Trinidad with 37 passengers overturned in the Dragon’s Mouths. Rescuers found nine survivors and a corpse; the rest remain missing, according to Venezuela’s Civil Protection and Disaster Management Authority.

Smugglers hunkered down for a few weeks, according to people involved in the boat trade in Guiria. The family’s crossing was delayed.

News of the accident unnerved Bastardo’s mother in El Tigre. The night before the scheduled departure, Carolina begged her daughter to reconsider.

Bastardo replied via text: “Mothers have to do what they can to help their children….Don’t worry. Better times are coming.”

PHOTOS, TEXTS, THEN SILENCE

On Thursday, May 16, Acosta took the six voyagers to a taxi stand, where they said their goodbyes around 3 p.m. They were headed to the small fishing village of La Salina, 4 kilometers from Guiria, to meet their boat, and were relieved to be finally getting underway, Acosta said.

He said he felt uneasy that none of the family took a life jacket in case the smugglers didn’t have enough to go around. He also fretted about the possibility of an overloaded boat.

“People are now more desperate,” Acosta said. “I always told Luis that they shouldn’t go if there were too many passengers on board.”

Before they boarded, Bastardo snapped a cellphone photo of Katerin, Dylan and Victoria with their backs to the camera, staring out to sea. She sent it to her family.

The plan was to arrive at the Trinidadian port of Chaguaramas under cover of darkness. The 70-kilometer journey from Guiria typically takes about four hours, putting them in port around 8:30 p.m. at the latest. Luis wanted his son there early.

“At 6.30 in Chaguaramas, be waiting,” he texted Berra at 4:37 p.m. as their voyage got underway.

Those who know the route say pilots headed for Chaguaramas carrying migrants typically navigate along the coastline until reaching the eastern tip of the Paria Peninsula around nightfall. At that point, the lights of Trinidad’s towns are visible as they prepare to enter the final 20-kilometer stretch, the Dragon’s Mouths.

(For a graphic on the sea route, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2X9VqVn)

Evening turned to night. The Ana Maria didn’t show. Berra said he paced anxiously until police arrived at midnight on the Chaguaramas dock and told him to leave. He said he returned early Friday morning and waited all day and deep into the second night. Still nothing. He repeated the vigil on Saturday.

“After the first sinking, Maroly was afraid, but she still wanted to be here with us,” Berra said in a phone interview from Trinidad.

Back in El Tigre, Bastardo’s family was growing uneasy. She and the others were not returning text messages.

On Friday, they heard instead from someone identifying himself only as Ramon. Locals in Guiria said Ramon had helped arrange for their relatives to cross by boat to Trinidad without documents, including on the Ana Maria. The vessel had engine trouble, Ramon wrote, but would soon be on its way.

“We are going to change the motors and continue,” Ramon said in text messages viewed by Reuters.

In a telephone interview, Ramon said he works for an operation that takes people to Trinidad legally, with a limit of 10 passengers per vessel. He said he was simply passing along information given to him by an unidentified smuggler to ease the family’s fears. He declined to give his surname and denied he was involved in any illicit activity.

By Saturday, May 18, reports of the Ana Maria’s disappearance had surfaced in the news and social media.

In an early morning Facebook post, Robert Richards, an American fisherman, said he had found a “young man” on Friday afternoon, floating 50 kilometers offshore of Trinidad, “fighting for his life.” Photos accompanying the post showed a figure in a life jacket bobbing near a piece of floating debris. Richards said the man had “been in the water for 19 hours…on a boat that sunk the night before with 20 other people on board, so far no other survivors.”

Richards, whose Facebook page says he resides in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has not responded to calls and text messages seeking comment.

Abreu was identified as the man in the photos by relatives of people on the Ana Maria who saw the Facebook post. Venezuela’s Civil Protection agency confirmed he had been rescued.

In a May 24 statement, police in Grenada said a man “in need of urgent medical attention” was rescued May 17 by a vessel in waters between Trinidad and Grenada and brought to Grenada for treatment. They said the man, a Venezuelan national, left the hospital without “authorization.” His whereabouts remain unknown.

Venezuelan authorities barely searched for the Ana Maria. The Civil Protection authority, in charge of maritime rescue, had no boats to send. Its half-dozen-or-so vessels are all in disrepair or missing parts, said Luisa Marin, an agency official in Guiria. The Venezuelan military sent out a boat from Guiria on Saturday, May 18, two days after the Ana Maria vanished, but the craft malfunctioned after 20 minutes and had to return to harbor, Marin and other locals said.

Trinidad’s coast guard conducted its own search in Trinidadian waters, but spotted no signs of the Ana Maria or its passengers, National Security Minister Stuart Young said publicly on May 21.

HOPING AGAINST HOPE

With no wreckage or bodies found, some relatives of the missing say they believe the migrants were kidnapped by criminal gangs. But Trinidadian authorities have not presented any evidence that this happened. The National Security Ministry declined to comment.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, 38, says she no longer sleeps. She scours the news and social media for any shred of information. Every time she reads that Trinidadian authorities have apprehended yet another group of undocumented Venezuelan migrants, she wonders if her Maroly might be among them.

“It just causes me more agony: Is it her? Is it not her?” Carolina said from her porch in El Tigre, staring into the distance.

Bastardo’s nine-year-old sibling, Aranza, says she believes her big sister is still alive. The child’s birthday is coming up June 30. She tells her mom the only present she wants is to have Bastardo and the others back.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick in Venezuela; Additional reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

With Venezuela in collapse, towns slip into primitive isolation

A man weighs coffee beans, given as a means of payment, in a hardware store in Guarico, Venezuela April 24, 2019. Picture taken April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

By Corina Pons

PATANEMO, Venezuela (Reuters) – At the once-busy beach resort of Patanemo, tourism has evaporated over the last two years as Venezuela’s economic collapse has deepened and deteriorating cellphone service left visitors too afraid of robbery to brave the isolated roads.

Gone are the vendors who once walked the sands of the crescent-shaped beach hawking bathing suits and empanadas – a traditional savory pastry.

These days, its Caribbean shoreline flanked by forested hills receives a different type of visitor: people who walk 10 minutes from a nearby town carrying rice, plantains or bananas in hopes of exchanging them for the fishermen’s latest catch.

With bank notes made useless by hyperinflation, and no easy access to the debit card terminals widely used to conduct transactions in urban areas, residents of Patanemo rely mainly on barter.

It is just one of a growing number of rural towns slipping into isolation as Venezuela’s economy implodes amid a long-running political crisis.

From the peaks of the Andes to Venezuela’s sweltering southern savannahs, the collapse of basic services including power, telephone and internet has left many towns struggling to survive.

The subsistence economy stands in stark contrast to the oil boom years when abundance seeped into the most remote reaches of what was once Latin America’s richest nation.

“The fish that we catch is to exchange or give away,” said Yofran Arias, one of 15 fishermen who have grown accustomed to a rustic existence even though they live a 15-minute drive from Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello.

“Money doesn’t buy anything so it’s better for people to bring food so we can give them fish,” he said, while cleaning bonefish, known for abundant bones and limited commercial value.

In visits to three villages across Venezuela, Reuters reporters saw residents exchanging fish, coffee beans and hand-picked fruit for essentials to make ends meet in an economy that shrank 48% during the first five years of President Nicolas Maduro’s government, according to recent central bank figures.

Venezuela’s crisis has taken a heavy toll on rural areas, where the number of households in poverty reached 74% in 2017 compared with 34% in the capital of Caracas, according to an annual survey called Encovi carried out by private Venezuelan universities.

Residents rarely travel to nearby cities, due to a lack of public transportation, growing fuel shortages and the prohibitive cost of consumer goods.

In some regions, travel requires negotiating roads barricaded by residents looking to steal from travelers. At one such roadblock in eastern Venezuela, a Reuters witness saw a driver fire gunshots in the air to disperse a crowd

“I haven’t been to the city center in almost two years. What would I do there? I don’t have enough (money) to buy a shirt or a pair of shorts,” said a fisherman in Patanemo who identified himself only as Luis.

“I’m better off here swapping things to survive.”

COFFEE FOR FUEL

Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic collapses in modern history. Inflation has topped 1 million percent, according to figures released by the opposition-run congress. The United Nations says 4 million citizens have fled Venezuela, 3.3 million of them since 2015.

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen's camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen’s camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Maduro blames the situation on an “economic war” waged by his political adversaries as well as U.S. sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.

The central bank in April released economic indicators for the first time in the nearly four years, showing a less severe cataclysm than figures published by Congress. But the bank’s data underscored a dramatic contraction and spiraling consumer prices, nonetheless.

The bolivar has lost 99% of its value since Maduro took office in 2013.

In the mountains of the central state of Lara, residents of the town of Guarico this year found a different way of paying bills – coffee beans.

Residents of the coffee-growing region now exchange roasted beans for anything from haircuts to spare parts for agricultural machinery.

“Based on the cost of the product, we agree with the customer on the kilos or number of bags of coffee that they have to pay,” said hardware store manager Haideliz Linares.

The transactions are based on a reference price for how much coffee fetches on the local market, Linares said. In April, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beans was worth the equivalent of $3.00.

In El Tocuyo, another town in Lara state, three 100 kilo sacks of coffee buy 200 liters (53 gallons) of gasoline, which is in increasingly short supply in the OPEC nation due to chronic operational problems at state oil company PDVSA.

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

In Borburata, another town a few miles from Patanemo, Keila Ovalles harvests eggplant, tomato and passion fruit in the backyard of her modest home. She said it was similar to the way her family lived in the early 20th century.

She stopped drinking coffee after being unable to pay for it, and now makes tea out of lemongrass instead.

“I tell the guys that I’m swapping passion fruit for something else, they spread the word and someone always comes,” said the 55-year-old woman.

(Reporting by Corina Pons; additional reporting by Keren Torres in Guarico, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Angus Berwick in Cumana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Four million Venezuelans have fled crisis: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail into Brazil, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Four million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled an economic and political crisis in their homeland, all but 700,000 of them since the end of 2015, U.N. aid agencies said on Friday.

The “alarming” figure highlights the urgent need to support host countries, mainly in Latin America – led by Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina – the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement issued in Geneva.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. cruise operators stop sailing to Cuba, travelers vent anger online

Tourists enjoy a view of the city in Havana, Cuba, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

(Reuters) – Major U.S. cruise operators said on Wednesday they will no longer sail to Cuba following the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the Caribbean island, angering travelers and prompting worries about trip cancellations and company earnings.

The new restrictions are aimed at pressuring Cuba’s Communist government to reform and stop supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” Carnival Corp said.

A spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd said the company had ceased all calls to Cuba and was modifying previously scheduled sailings.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday the country would no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, as well as private and corporate aircraft.

American Airlines Group Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp and United Airlines, which started flying to Cuba in 2016, said they were reviewing the revised regulations.

Delta Air Lines Inc said it had stopped accepting bookings to Cuba under the so-called people-to-people license as of midnight on June 4. Customers who booked under the exemption before that time will be allowed to travel.

“The reduction in the number of travelers will probably mean the end of U.S. commercial air flights from places outside Florida because there won’t be sufficient demand to fill regular flights,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and a professor of government at American University.

The ban was effective as of Wednesday, the U.S. Commerce Department told Reuters, giving cruise lines no grace period to change destinations and sowing confusion among cruise passengers.

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean said they would stop at different non-Cuban ports and would offer compensation to travelers.

Carnival said the guests currently aboard its Carnival Sensation cruise that set sail on June 3 would now stop in Mexican island Cozumel on Thursday instead of Havana. The company said the guests would receive a $100 onboard credit for the inconvenience.

“We are working as quickly as possible to secure alternative itineraries for the remainder of our Cuba voyages and expect to have information for sailings further out in the next 2-3 days,” Carnival said. It has three cruise lines that sail to Cuba.

Royal Caribbean said all cruises on the ‘Majesty of the Seas’ and ‘Empress of the Seas’ this year will have alternative ports in the Caribbean. It is also working on alternate itineraries for 2020 sailings.

Guests can cancel their current booking for a full refund, or can keep their sailing date with a new itinerary and receive a 50% refund, Royal Caribbean said.

On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean said its ships sailing Wednesday and Thursday would no longer stop in Cuba.

Travelers took to Twitter to vent their anger and frustration over the forced changes in their vacation plans.

“Has anyone’s cruise to Cuba from @CruiseNorwegian been rerouted yet? If so where did they change the port of call to? Im (sic) booked for July and PISSED! Thanks Trump!” tweeted Sabrina Carollo @superbri_22.

Susan Berland, a parenting coach from Huntersville, North Carolina, said she was enraged that a vacation designed around visiting Cuba had been upended by the Trump administration.

“To say I’m angry is an understatement. This whole (sic) cruise was chosen around going to Cuba and now we can’t,” tweeted @SusanBerland.

Neither responded to requests for further comment.

Cuba accounts for a small percent of sailings at about 4% for Norwegian Cruise, about 3% for Royal Caribbean, and about a percent for Carnival, Wolfe Research analyst Jared Shojaian wrote in a note.

Shojaian said that while cruise lines can easily swap a Cuban port for another non-Cuban port, guests may have purchased the itinerary entirely for Cuba.

“That means cruise lines may need to issue refunds or future cruise credits to compensate guests, which makes forecasting the earnings impact to 2019 even harder, and potentially more of a headwind,” he said.

Shares of Norwegian Cruise closed down 3.5%, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival ended about 3% lower.

(Reporting by Uday Sampath and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru, Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Maju Samuel and Tom Brown)

Venezuela healthcare collapse: Four children die in same hospital this month

Relatives carry a coffin containing the body of Erick Altuve, a 11-year-old boy who died from respiratory problems while in care for stomach cancer at the public Jose Manuel de los Rios hospital, at Petare neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Under a wooden arch decorated with white balloons in a small house in Caracas’ largest slum, the body of 11-year-old Erick Altuve lay in a small coffin covered in cuddly toys and cartoon drawings, one of four children who have died this month in Venezuela’s main pediatric hospital.

Altuve died on May 26 from respiratory problems while being treated for stomach cancer at the Jose Manuel de los Rios public hospital, a concrete tower ringed by a white security fence in the center of Caracas.

For the past six months, Altuve had not received his medication, his mother, Jennifer Guerrero, said, because of widespread shortages of drugs and medical equipment that have devastated Venezuela’s health system.

“My son really wanted to live,” said Guerrero, a 30-year-old housewife, during a protest over the deaths of the four children by their relatives and nurses outside the hospital.

Children have paid an especially heavy price from the collapse in Venezuela’s healthcare system as the economy has shrunk by over a half during six years of recession.

The most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry show that infant mortality, covering children age 1 and below, rose 30% to 11,466 cases in 2016 from the year before. There is no official data on children’s’ deaths from cancer.

More broadly, the mortality rate for children under 5 years has risen by 40% since 2000, the humanitarian group Save the Children said in its 2019 report.

Altuve’s death in particular has generated a wave of anger and grief across Venezuela, with outraged newspaper headlines, calls from the opposition for an investigation and an outcry from medical nongovernmental organizations.

Altuve and the three other children who died were part of a group of 30 kids at the hospital, better known as JM, waiting to go to Italy to receive bone marrow transplants under a 2010 agreement financed by the Venezuelan government that was intended to cover the cost of transportation and the operation.

The opposition has blamed their deaths on President Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist administration has presided over the collapse of the once-wealthy nation’s economy and severe reductions in health-care spending.

Maduro’s government, however, says U.S.-imposed sanctions were responsible for the children’s deaths, by freezing funds allocated to buy medicine and send the children to Italy for treatment under the 2010 agreement.

Maduro’s critics noted that his government in 2013 cut the allocation of foreign currency to the health sector by one-fifth.

According to hospital and pharmacy representatives, the supply of medicine and medical equipment has steadily declined since the cuts to dollar funding in 2013, while the U.S. government began to impose sanctions in August 2017.

Virginia Segovia, president of the Foundation to Help Children with Cancer (Fundanica) in Carabobo state west of Caracas, said that in its first 22 years, the charity registered 98 child deaths from the disease in that region.

“In the past two years, we already have 105 dead children … and that is due to the lack of supplies and equipment in hospitals, the extreme emergency we have due to lack of medicines and chemotherapy,” she said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, which handles news media inquiries, and the health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

‘SENTENCED TO DEATH’

Altuve was taken to the JM hospital on Dec. 25, 2018, due to a sharp pain in his stomach, his mother said. The hospital cleared him to go home after a few days but he returned on Jan. 14, 2019 and never left, according to his mother.

“He was saying that he was going to get better and the cancer wouldn’t take him,” his mother said.

On Friday, dozens of mourners carried his coffin through the narrow streets of Caracas’ eastern Petare slum from his grandparents’ house where the wake was held to a cemetery outside the city.

Children from his school clustered around to say goodbye as speakers played Vallenato, accordion-based music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. “Erick, one more angel in heaven,” read a note on the coffin.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Monday that state-run oil firm PDVSA had signed a cooperation agreement in 2010 with Italy’s bone marrow transplant association. State-funded Venezuelan television network Telesur reported on Tuesday that the agreement had funded treatment and transplants for almost 900 patients since then.

Arreaza said on Twitter that U.S. sanctions had frozen 1.6 billion euros ($1.78 billion) of government funds held at Portugal’s Novo Banco, including 5 million euros ($5.57 million) allocated for fund bone marrow transplants for 24 Venezuelan patients.

Novo Banco and the Italian transplant association did not respond to requests for comment.

There are 52,800 new cases of cancer among adults each year in Venezuela, which has a population of 30 million people, according to Juan Saavedra, director of Venezuela’s anti-cancer society. In 2017, 26,510 people died from cancer, 15% more than the year before, Saavedra said.

“When you are born in Venezuela, you are already sentenced to death,” said Mauricio Navas, whose six-year-old daughter Mariana is being treated for leukemia at the JM hospital.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jeffrey Benkoe)

From Colombia, Venezuelan defectors arm themselves to ‘liberate’ their homeland

FILE PHOTO: People protest at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Wearing camouflage shirts and combat boots, a Venezuelan militia group stands in formation in the Colombian city of Cucuta as their commander, a former Venezuelan army sergeant, outlines plans to seize towns across the border before heading to Caracas to help oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Eight men, who said they were defectors from Venezuelan police, army and intelligence services, had gathered near the two nations’ tense frontier, from where they said they will lead an attack aimed at overthrowing Maduro and handing the reins of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Dubbing their planned offensive “Operation Venezuela,” the ex-army sergeant, Eddier Rodriguez, said there were around 150 men ready to take part with his group. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the status of the eight men or the size of the militia.

“Our goal is to liberate the country,” said Rodriguez, 37, who said he is currently working as a security guard in Bogota. “We’re troops willing to give our lives if necessary, all 150 of us.”

The Venezuelan defense ministry and the information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the formation of militias in Colombia.

Victor Bautista, border director for Colombia’s foreign ministry, said any groups who actually took up arms would be considered a paramilitary organization and would be detained by authorities if they were found.

“That would be totally rejected by our government and fully taken up by the appropriate authorities to apply corresponding legal measures,” said Bautista.

A Colombian intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the intelligence service had detected an unspecified number of Venezuelan militia groups in the country but could not act against them because they had not yet committed any crimes. Separately, a high-level Colombian government official who asked not to be named said arrestable offences could include illegal possession of weapons and conspiracy to commit a crime.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

An estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia in recent years, fleeing a painful recession and hyperinflation in their homeland that has left millions of people suffering from hunger and shortages of basic goods. They include increasing numbers of defectors from the armed forces, some of whom are forming militias with the intention of pushing for the overthrow of Maduro.

While such militias are vastly outnumbered in the face of Venezuela’s 150,000-strong military, the men told Reuters they were willing to face any consequence if they can rid their country of Maduro’s government, underscoring the frustration and desperation of many Venezuelan migrants.

Guaido cited the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro rigged last year’s election. He has appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against Maduro.

The United States and most Western nations have recognized Guaido as the South American country’s rightful leader. Maduro accuses him of being a coup-monger and so far has retained the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces.

Rodriguez said his group had been meeting different “resistance” groups in Colombia. He did not provide further details of those groups, or of how they planned to cross the border and launch an attack.

He said they had acquired handguns, easily available along the border, and were seeking to raise funds to buy further weapons, explosives, bullet-proof vests, food and water.

‘MINIMAL BLOODSHED’

Colombian President Ivan Duque has recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful ruler and branded Maduro a dictator. Maduro severed diplomatic relations with Colombia after Duque backed opposition efforts to bring U.S. aid into the country in February, although Duque has ruled out supporting any military intervention.

More than 1,400 members of the national guard and other members of the armed forces have left Venezuela for Colombia since Maduro’s troops violently drove back the aid convoys, according to Colombia’s migration office.

As per an agreement with the Venezuelan opposition, Colombia provides dissident military officials with food and housing, and the right to work.

In an interview in Caracas, Guaido said that if any decided to take up arms that would be due to Maduro’s refusal to agree to free and fair presidential elections.

“This reflects the discontent that there is in the armed forces: soldiers looking for alternatives and solutions because Maduro has shut off the electoral option,” Guaido told Reuters.

He did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Bautista’s assertion that groups who took up arms in Colombia would be detained.

Maduro has said last year’s presidential vote was fair and has branded defecting soldiers as “traitors.”

On April 30, Guaido attempted to rally Venezuela’s armed forces to rise up, but only a few dozen soldiers and one top government official defected. The military top brass reaffirmed their loyalty to Maduro.

Over the years, Maduro – and former President Hugo Chavez – won the loyalty of the armed forces in part by promoting hundreds of officers to the rank of general and rewarding them with lucrative positions in state-run entities, like oil company PDVSA.

Rodriguez’s team said they have made contact with garrisons in Venezuela and many were ready to fight once the operation began. He did not provide details about specific garrisons and Reuters could not independently verify the information.

“They’re waiting for us to enter to make their troops available (to fight),” said Pedro Meneses, an industrial engineer and rights worker who said he managed the militia’s logistics. “We want to do this with minimal bloodshed.”

Former Sergeant Major Efren Fernandez, who deserted to Cucuta in February, told Reuters that he was also ready to fight for Guaido.

“Mr President Guaido, rely on our support,” he said. “Here are your soldiers ready for battle, for combat.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, Additional reporting by Andres Rojas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Shortages plague Cuba as U.S. sanctions sharpen economic woes

FILE PHOTO: People buy chicken in a supermarket in Havana, Cuba May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Marsh

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Israel Hidalgo and his wife left home around 7:30 a.m. to reach a supermarket across Havana, Cuba because they heard it might be selling chicken, a staple of the Cuban diet increasingly scarce on the shortage-plagued island.

After Cuba started limiting sales this month, partly blaming tightened U.S. economic sanctions on the Communist-run island, the couple wanted to buy as much as possible and lined up for three hours under the Caribbean sun to get tickets guaranteeing them their rations.

Inside, they lined up again to collect two bags of chicken thighs each, as fellow shoppers elbowed one another in pursuit of their own rations, and headed for the checkout feeling like they had won the lottery.

“We were born in this revolution and are used to rough times,” said Hidalgo, a 61-year old blacksmith. “We are bracing ourselves for it to get worse.”

Long lines outside shops with mostly bare shelves are increasingly common in Cuba, and the government has indeed signaled that things are going from bad to worse.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a speech last month, accused the Trump administration of engaging in an “asphyxiating financial persecution that makes the import of goods and resources of primary necessity particularly difficult.”

The degree to which new U.S. sanctions, due in part to Cuba’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have compounded its economic woes is open to debate.

The economy had already stagnated in recent years in tandem with the implosion of strategic ally Venezuela, resulting in cuts in fuel and energy use by state entities and this year shortages of basic goods such as bread, chicken and eggs.

But the increase in sanctions, which have hit the key tourism sector and added to investor and bank jitters about dealing with Cuba, has some economists predicting the economy will slip from stagnation into a full-blown recession later this year.

The economy has averaged 1% annual growth over the last three years, compared with the 5% to 7% rate economists say is needed to recover fully from the depression caused by the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

“While the crisis will not be as bad as in the 1990s, it will have a worrying social impact on the most vulnerable households, which are already on subsistence salaries,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana Cali.

Bracing for harder economic times, the government has resorted to what it knows best to manage the crisis and prevent social unrest: more control.

Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz said two weeks ago the government would “temporarily” ration sales of a handful of basic products like eggs on a monthly basis, using ration books distributed after the 1959 Revolution, and limit the sale of others like chicken to ensure everyone gets their fair share.

“A CRITICAL MOMENT”

Some Cuban economists say the developing crisis stems fundamentally from an inefficient centrally-planned economy that imports more than two thirds of its food needs. Calling rationing little more than a short-term solution, they say the government must open up to a series of market-oriented economic reforms before the crisis deepens.

“This could be a critical moment that generates the consensus necessary to apply changes,” said Vidal. “The government needs to give more space to the private sector and investment.”

Cuba has enacted some economic reforms in recent years, including expanding the private sector from 2010 onward and introducing a new foreign investment law that cut taxes by around 50% in 2014.

But local economists like Omar Everleny say the reforms undertaken have been too cautious so far. The government has backtracked on overhauls of areas like agriculture and the dominant public sector remains deeply inefficient.

Cuba was already behind on an estimated $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) in short-term commercial debt and warning of austerity before U.S. President Donald Trump started the latest round of tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Aid from Venezuela, in the form of subsidized oil, had long masked the true extent of Cuba’s economic problems, but it started to fall from 2015 when a drop in oil prices roiled that OPEC nation’s economy.

Venezuela’s crude shipments to Cuba are now about half what they were four years ago, and they could soon fall further. Last month, the United States also began targeting vessels and companies that ship oil to the island from Venezuela for sanctions, threatening the energy grid and transportation.

U.S. sanctions against its old Cold War foe are also hitting the two bright spots in the otherwise glum economy: tourism and foreign investment. Both had boomed briefly after the announcement of a Cuba-U.S. detente in 2014.

Tourism revenues dropped by 4.6% in 2018, according to official data released last month. The announcement in 2017 of tighter travel restrictions on U.S. citizens played a role.

“At one point U.S. visits dropped more than 40 percent,” Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Reuters, adding he still hoped tourism would grow this year.

Meanwhile the Trump administration has activated a long dormant law under which Cuban-Americans can sue foreign companies that profit from their properties nationalized during the first years of the 1959 Revolution.

Western diplomats and businessmen have called the threat of potentially costly U.S. court battles another clear disincentive for banks and outside investors to do business with Cuba.

The United States has also threatened to further tighten restrictions on travel and to impose a cap on cash remittances to Cuba, measures that could hit the economy hard.

SIEGE MENTALITY

Cuba’s government has said it will continue moving down the path toward reform. But it has failed to respond so far to calls from the island’s entrepreneurs for basic changes such as the creation of wholesale markets for the private sector, and the right to import and export.

Instead of opening the economy further, some Western diplomats and analysts say there is risk Cuba’s leadership will adopt a siege mentality in the face of increased U.S. hostility. That could mean turning to allies like Russia, Vietnam and China for help to muddle through while keeping its stranglehold on economic life.

“The U.S. sanctions could be counterproductive,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Cuba has historically closed up at times like these.”

Cubans are not going hungry like they did during the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they are increasingly connected to the rest of the world via the internet and foreign travel, and many have grown weary of government attempts to blame the U.S. embargo for the bulk of their country’s woes.

“We are in total freefall,” said Hidalgo’s wife, Carmen Lozano, 55, clinging to her two bags of rationed chicken. “They should have allowed free production and sales from the beginning of the revolution.”

Inequality has risen in recent years in Cuba and many believe the economic crisis could have a more disproportionate impact now than it might have in the past.

In a country where the government’s claim to legitimacy rests to a large extent on ensuring a certain level of equality, the authorities seem well aware that most people lack the cash to stock up on whatever basics they need on the black market.

“The government’s new rationing program is trying to address that simmering discontent by making the small quantities of goods that are in stock more widely available,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

“The government understands that discontent over the economy is their biggest political vulnerability so they will do everything they can to maintain supplies of basic goods.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)