Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to gatecrash regional summit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s unpopular socialist president Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday his right-wing Latin American counterparts showed intolerance by trying to exclude him from an upcoming summit in Lima and he vowed to go anyway.

Peru’s center-right government this week said Maduro would not be welcome at the Summit of the Americas in April, reinforcing his growing diplomatic isolation during a crackdown on dissent and a brutal economic crisis in Venezuela.

“Do you fear me? You don’t want to see me in Lima? You’re going to see me. Because come rain or shine, by air, land, or sea, I will attend the Summit of the Americas,” Maduro said during a press conference with foreign journalists.

Maduro also said Argentina’s center-right president Mauricio Macri should call a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) group of Latin American nations with him.

“Call a meeting, dare, don’t be scared of me, President Macri,” said Maduro. “If you want to talk about Venezuela, let’s talk about Venezuela.”

Government critics say Maduro for years has refused to listen to advice that he should reform Venezuela’s crumbling economy that has spawned shortages, hyperinflation, malnutrition, and the return of once-controlled diseases. They also say he refuses to acknowledge the extent of Venezuela’s humanitarian suffering, so it is futile to meet with him.

He says right-wing regional governments are part of U.S.-led international conspiracy to topple him and take control of the OPEC member’s oil resources.

“They’re the most unpopular governments on the planet,” he said, naming Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

U.S. senators want probe of drug trafficking tied to Venezuela government

Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela November 17, 2017.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. senators called on the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday to investigate allegations of drug trafficking by senior officials in the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as the country struggles with economic crisis.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seen by Reuters, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez said they were concerned about possible connections between Maduro’s government and drug trafficking organizations and wanted an investigation “in order to better understand the nexus between criminal actors and members of Maduro’s inner circle.”

Despite being a major oil producing country, Venezuela is undergoing a severe economic and social crisis, with millions suffering food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation and growing insecurity.

Rubio is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s western hemisphere subcommittee, and Menendez is its ranking Democrat. Both lawmakers are vocal critics of the Venezuelan government.

In their letter, they raised concerns that the situation in Venezuela could destabilize the region.

The Venezuelan Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, Maduro has dismissed accusations about drug trafficking links as a smear campaign by Washington, adding that the United States is to blame for the drug trade because it is such a large market for illegal narcotics.

On Aug. 1, 2016, a U.S. District Court announced the indictment of Nestor Reverol, who is now Venezuela’s interior minister, on charges of participating in an international cocaine trafficking conspiracy. In February 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el-Aissami for drug trafficking and other related crimes.

And in December 2017, two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, were convicted in U.S. federal court for drug smuggling.

The European Union announced new sanctions on several senior Venezuelan officials, including Reverol, on Monday, saying this was an expression of the bloc’s concern with the political crisis under Maduro.

Rubio and Menendez also asked Sessions to support efforts by the Organization of American States to address human rights concerns in Venezuela.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, which was sent on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; editing by Susan Thomas)

Wave of looting shutters stores, spreads fear in Venezuela

A worker closes the security shutter of a window display at a shoes store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela January 16, 2018.

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – A wave of looting by hungry mobs across Venezuela has left streets of shuttered shops in provincial towns and pushed some store owners to arm themselves with guns and machetes, stirring fear that the turmoil could spread to the capital Caracas.

Worsening food shortages and runaway inflation have unleashed the spate of pillaging since Christmas in the South American country, in which seven people have reportedly died.

The unrest was sparked by shortages of pork for traditional holiday meals, despite socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s promise of subsidized meat to alleviate shortages.

Looters have ransacked trucks, supermarkets and liquor stores across the nation of 30 million people, which ranks as one of the most violent in the world.

The plunder is heaping more pain on battered businesses, raising questions about how much longer they can survive. Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s richest countries, is suffering a fifth straight year of recession and the world’s highest inflation rate, which the opposition-run Congress says topped 2,600 percent last year.

In the first 11 days of January alone, some 107 lootings or attempted lootings have taken place, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a rights group.

In one of the most dramatic incidents, a mob slaughtered cattle grazing in a field in the mountainous western state of Merida.

Skeptical that authorities can protect them, shopkeepers in the Andean town of Garcia de Hevia in the neighboring state of Tachira have taken matters into their own hands.

“We’re arming ourselves with sticks, knives, machetes, and firearms to defend our assets,” recounted William Roa, the president of the local shopkeepers’ association.

Roa, who owns a restaurant and liquor store, estimated that more than two-thirds of stores in the small town near the Colombian border were shut.

“A person spends the night in each store and we communicate using WhatsApp groups, coordinating by block 24 hours a day,” he said.

In Ciudad Guayana, a former industrial powerhouse on the Orinoco river in eastern Venezuela, many stores remain closed after a wave of nighttime lootings.

Garbage fills the streets and few cars circulate, though buses crammed with people crisscross town looking for places to buy food.

Businessmen in Caracas now fear the lootings, so far concentrated in the poorer and more lawless provinces, will spread to the sprawling capital, with its teeming hillside slums.

The owners of patisserie Arte Paris, in the city’s gritty downtown, reinforced the storefront with metal shutters last month. They now only stock ingredients like sugar for a handful of days and have considered hiring a costly nighttime guard.

“The fear is real,” said Sebastian Fallone, one of the owners, as men and children begged patrons for food. “I leave at night without knowing what I will find the next morning.”

‘NO HOPE’

Government critics say Maduro’s refusal to reform the OPEC nation’s floundering economy is to blame for the chaotic fight for survival in the country home to the world’s largest crude reserves.

With a presidential election looming this year, Maduro retorts that Venezuela’s oil-reliant economy is under attack by U.S.-backed saboteurs seeking to stoke conflict and discredit socialism in Latin America.

While videos of ransacking have gone viral, Maduro’s government has stayed largely mum. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for information on the scale and impact of the looting.

The unrest has also stoked fears Venezuelan society could unravel as chaos sets in, fuelling mass emigration to nearby South American countries or a full-blown social explosion at home.

People line up outside a supermarket with its security shutters partially closed as a precaution against riots or lootings, in San Cristobal, Venezuela January 16, 2018.

People line up outside a supermarket with its security shutters partially closed as a precaution against riots or lootings, in San Cristobal, Venezuela January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“Small-scale protests will be numerous and increasingly violent; any of these protests could contain the spark to serious unrest,” said consultancy Teneo Intelligence in a note to clients about the year ahead in Venezuela.

In an effort to curb voter anger over inflation, the government agency tasked with ensuring “fair prices” ordered some 200 supermarkets to slash their rates this month, triggering frenetic buying.

Roadside lootings have also scared truck drivers, disrupting the food distribution chain that is traditionally slower anyway in January because of holidays.

For Mery Cacua, manager of La Gran Parada, a supermarket chain in Tachira’s state capital San Cristobal, it has become too much to handle.

“We’re closing in two weeks. There’s no hope anymore,” said Cacua, adding she and her siblings had not yet mustered the strength to break the news to their 87-year-old father, who founded the business 60 years ago.

The family does not know what to do but is considering starting from scratch in Colombia.

Venezuelan supermarkets that remain open are often a shadow of what they once were. Many shelves are barren and poor Venezuelans increasingly mass outside stores, imploring entering shoppers to buy them goods.

“What are they going to loot here? There’s nothing. The warehouse is empty,” said an employee at a big supermarket in Caracas, as a colleague behind him filled empty shelves with water bottles to make them look stocked.

(Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Andreina Aponte and Leon Wietfeld in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sandra Maler)

Lootings, scattered protests hit Venezuelan industrial city

A general view of the damage at a mini-market after it was looted in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela January 9, 2018.

By Maria Ramirez

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A second day of lootings and scattered street protests hit the Ciudad Guayana in southeastern Venezuela on Tuesday, as unrest grows in the once-booming industrial city plagued with food shortages and a malaria outbreak.

At least five food stores were looted overnight, with police sources saying some 20 people had been arrested. Angry Venezuelans also blocked three major roads to demand anti-malaria medicine, food, cooking gas and spare parts for trucks.

There has been increasing unrest around the South American OPEC member in the last few weeks as a fourth straight year of painful recession and the world’s highest inflation leaves millions unable to eat enough.

Erika Garcia tearfully recounted how looters ransacked her food shop and home just 10 minutes after National Guard soldiers who had been patrolling the area withdrew late on Monday night.

“They stole everything. They broke off the water pipes, they ripped off the toilet bowl, they took away the windows, the fences, the doors, the beds. Everything. They did not kill us because we ran, but they did beat us up,” said Garcia, 38, who planned to sleep at a relative’s house on Tuesday night

She said there was no way she could reopen her store.

The overnight lootings follow at least four similar in the early hours of Monday. Around 10 liquor stores were also looted on Christmas day in southeastern Bolivar state, according to the local chamber of commerce head Florenzo Schettino.

Critics blame President Nicolas Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party for Venezuela’s economic mess, saying they have persisted with failed statist policies for too long while turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and suffering.

The government says it is the victim of an “economic war” by political opponents and right-wing foreign powers, intent on bringing down Maduro in a coup. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the lootings on Tuesday.

The wave of plunder has spooked many in Ciudad Guyana, leading more people to stay indoors come nightfall and dissuading some stores from opening.

Metal worker Alvaro Becerra lives near a store that was ransacked overnight.

“We lived a night of terror,” said Becerra, 52, adding he heard gunshots and saw people carrying a freezer full of food.

“Today everything is closed. There’s no place to buy. The only people who are working are those who sell vegetables,” he said.

(Reporting by Maria Ramirez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. targets former Venezuela food minister in new sanctions

Rodolfo Marco Torres (C), newly elected governor of Aragua state, is sworn in to the National Constituent Assembly during a ceremony at Palacio Federal Legislativo, in Caracas, Venezuela October 18, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on four current or former Venezuelan government officials, including an ex-food minister who is accused of corruption and mismanagement of the country’s food supply.

The U.S. Treasury said in a statement that it had put the former food minister, Rodolfo Marco, who is also a former finance minister appointed by President Nicolas Maduro, on its Venezuela sanctions list.

It also listed Francisco Rangel, a former governor of Bolivar state; Fabio Zavarse Pabon, a commander in the national armed forces; and Gerardo Izquierdo Torres, a state minister.

The Treasury action freezes any assets the men have under U.S. jurisdiction and bars U.S. citizens from dealing with them.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The move is Washington’s latest action targeting individual politicians and security figures for what U.S. President Donald Trump has called an erosion of democracy. Venezuela is reeling from an economic crisis, with millions struggling with food and medicine shortages.

“President Maduro and his inner circle continue to put their own interests above those of the Venezuelan people,” U.S Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.

“This action underscores the United States’ resolve to hold Maduro and others engaged in corruption in Venezuela accountable.”

Maduro regularly laughs off Washington’s disapproval and blames the U.S. “empire” for Venezuela’s economic woes.

(Reporting by David Alexander and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Lisa Von Ahn)

Lights back on in Venezuela after five-hour blackout

Lights back on in Venezuela after five-hour blackout

By Alexandra Ulmer and Fabian Cambero

CARACAS (Reuters) – A power outage hit parts of the Venezuelan capital Caracas as well as the nearby states of Miranda and Vargas for around five hours on Monday, in what critics said was another sign of the oil-rich nation’s economic meltdown.

Authorities blamed the outage, which began around noon (1600 GMT), on the collapse of an important cable linking a power plant and a transmission tower.

The fault affected some phone lines, parts of the Caracas metro, and the main Maiquetia airport just outside the capital.

Many workers had no choice but to walk home, shops and restaurants closed, and Venezuelans grumbled that another day was disrupted by tumult.

The country is already grappling with the world’s fastest inflation, rising malnutrition, and disease as the state-led economic system grinds to a halt.

“Venezuela has fallen apart,” said David Garcia, 38, as he queued for a hotdog at a stand in the wealthier Chacao neighborhood. He had spent two hours looking for an open restaurant because he could not cook at home.

Venezuela has in recent years suffered frequent blackouts that critics attribute to insufficient investment following the 2007 nationalization of the electricity sector.

“This is a symptom of a country collapsing due to the negligence of those in power,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Tomás Guanipa.

The government has in some cases attributed the blackouts to sabotage or accused critics of exaggerating problems.

Energy minister Luis Motta on Monday tweeted articles on a recent power outage at Atlanta airport in the U.S. state of Georgia, adding: “It happens there too.”

He did not provide details on the magnitude and effects of Monday’s blackout.

Shopkeepers complained that the outage had hurt business.

“It’s a lost day,” said Armindo Gomes, 24, whose Portuguese family runs two bakeries, as he pointed at dough, cheese and meat that should have been refrigerated.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

By Anthony Boadle

BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) – Last August, Victor Rivera, a 36-year-old unemployed baker, left his hometown in northern Venezuela and made the two-day journey by road to the remote Amazonian city of Boa Vista, Brazil.

Although work is scarce in the city of 300,000 people, slim prospects in Boa Vista appeal more to Rivera than life back home, where his six children often go hungry and the shelves of grocery stores and hospitals are increasingly bare.

“I see no future in Venezuela,” said Rivera, who seeks odd jobs at traffic lights in the small state capital just over 200 km (124 miles) from Brazil’s border with the Andean country.

Countries across Latin America and beyond have received a growing number of Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship, crime and what critics call an increasingly authoritarian government.

The once-prosperous country, home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is struggling with a profound recession, widespread unemployment, chronic shortages and inflation that the opposition-led Congress said could soon top 2,000 percent.

At least 125 people died this year amid clashes among government opponents, supporters and police.

As conditions there worsen, nearby cities like Boa Vista are struggling with one of the biggest migrations in recent Latin American history. With limited infrastructure, social services and jobs to offer migrants, Brazilian authorities fear a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

In Roraima, the rural state of which Boa Vista is the capital, the governor last week decreed a “social emergency,” putting local services on alert for mounting health and security demands.

“Shelters are already crowded to their limit,” said George Okoth-Obbo, operations chief for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, after a visit there. “It is a very tough situation.”

He noted the crush of migrants also hitting Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean country to Venezuela’s north, and Colombia, the Andean neighbor to the west, where hundreds of thousands have fled.

Not even Venezuela’s government knows for certain how many of its 30 million people have fled in recent years. Some sociologists have estimated the number to be as high as 2 million, although President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government disputes that figure.

BRAZIL “NOT READY”

Unlike earlier migration, when many Venezuelan professionals left for markets where their services found strong demand, many of those leaving now have few skills or resources. By migrating, then, they export some of the social ills that Venezuela has struggled to cope with.

“They’re leaving because of economic, health and public safety problems, but putting a lot of pressure on countries that have their own difficulties,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

International authorities are likening Venezuela’s exodus to other mass departures in Latin America’s past, like that of refugees who fled Haiti after a 2010 earthquake or, worse, the 1980 flight of 125,000 Cubans by boat for the United States.

In Brazil, Okoth-Obbo said, as many as 40,000 Venezuelans have arrived. Just over half of them have applied for asylum, a bureaucratic process that can take two years.

The request grants them the right to stay in Brazil while their application is reviewed. It also gives them access to health, education and other social services.

Some migrants in Boa Vista are finding ways to get by, finding cheap accommodation or lodging in the few shelters, like a local gym, that authorities have provided. Others wander homeless, some turning to crime, like prostitution, adding law enforcement woes to the social challenges.

“We have a very serious problem that will only get worse.” said Boa Vista Mayor Teresa Surita, adding that the city’s once quiet streets are increasingly filled with poor Venezuelans.

Most migrants in Boa Vista arrive by land, traveling the southward route that is the only road crossing along more than 2,100 kms of border with Brazil.

Arriving by public transport in the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena, they enter Brazil on foot and then take buses or hitch rides further south to Boa Vista.

Staffed only during the day, the border post in essence is open, allowing as many as 400 migrants to enter daily, according to authorities. For a state with the lowest population and smallest economy of any in Brazil, that is no small influx.

“Brazil’s government is not ready for what is coming,” said Jesús López de Bobadilla, a Catholic priest who runs a refugee center on the border. He serves breakfast of fruit, coffee and bread to hundreds of Venezuelans.

Despite a long history of immigration, Latin America’s biggest country has struggled this decade to accommodate asylum seekers from countries including Haiti and Syria. Although Brazil has granted asylum for more than 2,700 Syrians, the refugees have received scant government support even in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest state.

A senior official in Brazil’s foreign ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said the country will not close its borders. Okoth-Obbo said his U.N. agency and Brazil’s government are discussing ways to move refugees to larger cities.

“NOW I CAN SLEEP”

Boa Vista schools have admitted about 1,000 Venezuelan children. The local hospital has no beds because of increased demand for care, including many Venezuelan pregnancies.

In July, a 10-year-old Venezuelan boy died of diphtheria, a disease absent from Roraima for years. Giuliana Castro, the state secretary for public security, said treating ill migrants is difficult because they lack stability, like a fixed address.

“There is a risk of humanitarian crisis here,” she said.

Most migrants in Boa Vista said they do not intend to return to Venezuela unless conditions there improve.

Carolina Coronada, who worked as an accountant in the northern Venezuelan city of Maracay, arrived in Brazil a year ago with her 7-year-old daughter. She has applied for residency and works at a fast-food restaurant.

While she earns less than before, and said she makes lower wages than Brazilians at the restaurant, she is happier.

“There was no milk or vaccines,” she said. “Now I can sleep at night, not worried about getting mugged.”

Others are faring worse, struggling to find work as Brazil recovers from a two-year recession, its worst in over a century.

One recent evening, dozens of young Venezuelan women walked the streets of Caimbé, a neighborhood on Boa Vista’s west side.

Camila, a 23-year-old transsexual, left Venezuela nine months ago. She said she turns tricks for about $100 a night – enough to send food, medicine and even car parts to her family.

“Things are so bad in Venezuela I could barely feed myself,” said Camila, who declined to give her last name.

Rivera, the unemployed baker, one afternoon sheltered from the equatorial sun under a mango tree. He has applied for asylum and said he is willing to miss his family as long as he can wire his earnings from gardening, painting and bricklaying home.

“It’s not enough to live on, but the little money I can send home feeds my family,” he said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle. Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

With opposition split, Venezuela mayoral vote will strengthen Maduro

With opposition split, Venezuela mayoral vote will strengthen Maduro

By Andrew Cawthorne and Leon Wietfeld

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelans vote on Sunday in nationwide mayoral polls boycotted by major opposition parties and likely to help leftist President Nicolas Maduro consolidate power ahead of a probable 2018 re-election bid.

After withstanding massive street protests, international sanctions and dissent within his ruling Socialist Party, the 55-year-old president saw his candidates win a surprise majority in October gubernatorial elections.

Now, with 335 mayorships up for grabs, the socialists seem certain to repeat the feat, helped by opposition abstentionism, which would delight Maduro after the international opprobrium he has faced all year.

The crumbling opposition coalition’s main parties – Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action – have opted out of Sunday’s vote, alleging the election system is biased and designed purely to keep a “dictatorship” in power.

“It is crazy not to participate,” said political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. “The government most likely will have one of the best results in its history … Maduro will be very strong after this election. He has the political momentum.”

The socialists already hold more than 70 percent of Venezuela’s mayorships, and are forecast to increase that share, extending their grip at a grassroots level just as Maduro mulls standing for a second six-year term in the OPEC nation.

Despite presiding over one of the worst economic meltdowns to hit any country in modern history, and with ratings barely half when he was elected, Maduro is enjoying a political upturn after the October gubernatorial vote.

He is the favorite to be the government’s candidate at the 2018 presidential election and could win if the opposition does not re-unite and re-enthuse supporters.

“DON’T THROW IN THE TOWEL”

Despite the boycott by major parties, moderate opposition supporters were still planning to vote on Sunday, arguing that it was the only way to stop the socialists amassing power.

Some of the smaller parties are fielding candidates, fuelling acrimony and in-fighting within the coalition.

“There’s huge frustration at everything that has happened this year … but we cannot throw in the towel,” said one of those candidates, Yon Goicoechea of Progressive Advance party.

Just out of jail for allegedly plotting against Maduro, Goicoechea was running for El Hatillo mayorship outside Caracas. “I can’t say when we will achieve democracy – maybe months, maybe years – but we have to fight with our only weapon: votes.”

The election was taking place at the end of a fourth year of crushing economic recession that has brought hunger, hardship and shortages to Venezuelans. Yet with the opposition in such disarray, Maduro and his allies are buoyant.

“We are going to have a great victory!” said Erika Farias running for a Caracas district mayorship. “We are fulfilling the legacy of our ‘commander’ Hugo Chavez.”

With many Venezuelans angry at both the government and opposition, some independents have registered for Sunday’s mayorship races, though there is still no sign of a third-way presidential candidate.

“The country is demanding an alternative. Mine is a protest campaign,” said Nicmer Evans, running against Farias in the capital’s Libertador district for his recently-founded party, New Vision For My Country.

As well as the mayoral elections, voters in oil-rich western Zulia state were choosing a new governor.

The opposition took that state in the October gubernatorial race but the election was annulled after winning candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa refused to swear loyalty to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.

Results were expected to start coming in on Sunday evening.

(Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal and Efrain Otero; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)

Venezuela’s chronic shortages give rise to ‘medical flea markets’

Venezuela's chronic shortages give rise to 'medical flea markets'

By Anggy Polanco and Isaac Urrutia

SAN CRISTOBAL/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s critical medicine shortage has spurred “medical flea markets,” where peddlers offer everything from antibiotics to contraceptives laid out among the traditional fruits and vegetables.

The crisis-wrought Latin American nation is heaving under worsening scarcity of drugs, as well as basic foods, due to tanking national production and strict currency controls that crimp imports.

The local pharmaceutical association estimates at any given time, there is a shortage of around 85 percent of drugs.

Sick Venezuelans often scour pharmacies and send pleas on social media to find treatment. Increasingly, however, they are turning to a flourishing black market offering medicines surreptitiously bought from Venezuelan hospitals or smuggled in from neighboring Colombia.

“Here I can find the vitamins I need for my memory,” said 56-year-old Marisol Salas, who suffered a stroke, as she bought the pills at a small stand at the main bus terminal in the Andean city of San Cristobal.

Around her, Venezuelans asked sellers for medicine to control blood pressure as well as birth control pills.

“People are looking for anticonvulsants a lot recently,” said Antuam Lopez, 30, who sells medicine alongside vegetables, and said hospital employees usually provide him with the drugs.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro says resellers are in league with a U.S.-led conspiracy to sabotage socialism and are to blame for medicine shortages.

RISKS

In the middle of a market in the humid and sweltering city of Maracaibo, dozens of boxes full of medicines including antibiotics and pain killers are stacked on top of each other. The packaging is visibly deteriorated: The cases are discolored and some are even dirty.

Doctors warn these drugs — usually smuggled in from Colombia, a few hours’ drive from Maracaibo — pose risks.

“We’ve found that a lot of them have not been maintained at proper temperatures,” warned oncologist Jose Oberto, who leads the Zulia state’s doctors association.

Still, some Venezuelans feel they have no choice but to rely on contraband medicine.

“I had to buy medicine from Colombia, and it worried me because the label said ‘hospital use,'” said retiree Esledy Paez, 62.

But they are often prohibitively expensive for Venezuelans, many of whom earn just a handful of dollars a month at the black market rate due to soaring inflation.

Norkis Pabon struggled to find antibiotics for her hospitalized husband to prevent his foot injury from worsening due to diabetes.

“But the treatment costs 900,000 bolivars ($9.43; twice the minimum wage) and I do not know what to do,” said Pabon, who is unemployed.

(Writing by Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)