Latest News
of DECEMBER 2016

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December 22, 2016

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION OCCUPYING THE STREETS TO DEMAND NICOLAS MADURO RESIGNATION
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Opposition party leaders along with scores of ordinary citizens protested Tuesday in Caracas and announced the beginning of “a new stage” of civil disobedience, during which they will occupy the streets to demand the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro. Three political parties – Voluntad Popular (VP), Alianza Bravo Pueblo (ABP) and Vente Venezuela – called for people to come join the protest and invited other parties of the MUD opposition alliance to take part in “the struggle” for a “beautiful Venezuela.”

     “We’re demonstrating across the country... We’re not calling for anything that violates the constitution,” David Smolansky, mayor of the Caracas municipality of El Hatillo, told reporters. Lawmaker Richard Blanco said that both political organizations and civil society “will be present” in the “peaceful and democratic” demonstrations that began this Tuesday. “From now on we won’t stop our struggle... Absolutely no one will take us off the streets. All sectors of a peaceful, organized civil society will be here,” the lawmaker said. Hasler Iglesias of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) added that “where there are situations of crisis, looting, unrest, repression, even deaths, we students stand with those who suffer.”

     Freddy Guevara, head of the VP party founded by jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, said the fact that this is the Christmas season won’t stop them from taking action because “this has nothing to do with political opportunism.” That agenda included the designation of new judges on the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), new officials for the National Electoral Council (CNE), the determination of the Venezuelan president’s responsibility for the crisis in which the country is currently plunged, as well as his possible resignation from office. For her part, Maria Corina Machado, leader of the Vente Venezuela party, called on the legislature, with its opposition majority, to “go on the offensive” and “fulfill its commitment” to continue to determine the true and full responsibility of Maduro for what they consider his unconstitutional actions.

VENEZUELA REOPENS COLOMBIA BORDER  -- JUST AS ABRUPTLY AS IT CLOSED IT

       
CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --   In the latest whiplash policy decision, Venezuela reopened the border with Colombia on Tuesday, just days after it had announced the 1,274-mile frontier would be closed until Jan. 2. The surprise announcement came from Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela’s communications minister, in a series of tweets. Villegas said Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos had spoken late Monday and agreed to “gradually reopen” the border. Colombia’s Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said hundreds of people had gathered on the Simón Bolívar international bridge before dawn to take advantage of the reopening.

     Maduro abruptly closed the busy frontier on Dec. 13 — the same day the nation began recalling its most widely circulated bill, the 100 bolivar note. Citing national intelligence, Maduro said Colombian border towns, particularly Cúcuta, were part of an international scheme to hoard hundreds of millions of the notes in order to destabilize the Venezuelan economy. By closing the borders, Maduro said he was punishing the currency “mafias.” But the move also left thousands stranded with worthless bills and provoked widespread anger in Venezuela when the government failed to provide new, higher-denomination bills.

     For Venezuelans, who have endured months of food shortages, the response spilled into the streets. Over the weekend, looting in Bolivar state left at least three dead and more than 400 detained. The Fedecamaras business chamber said at least 350 stores were sacked. The chaos led Maduro on Saturday to revive the 100 bolivar bill through Jan. 2. But at the same time he said the border with Colombia would remain closed until after the new year, leaving holiday travelers stuck. Amid protests from Colombia — and Monday’s phone call — Venezuela decided to reverse course. In his tweets, Villegas said Santos and Maduro had also agreed to have a conversation about the “attack” on the currency.

VENEZUELAN CHILDREN ACCLIMATING TO THE IDEA OF A MEAGER BANKRUPT SANTA

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA --
 According to several studies, Christmas this year is just a sad marker for a majority of Venezuelans: recent surveys by consultancy Ecoanalitica and Catholic University Andres Bello showed that approximately 38.5 percent of the population think this Christmas will be worse than last year's, and 35 percent think it will be the worst ever. Rosa Emilia Ramos is among them. She said she disclosed the Santa facts of life to her two children (ages 9 and 7) after she lost her job two years ago. "I thought that even though they were very small perhaps it was time to tell them because they would not receive much compared to previous years," Ramos told FoxNews.com.

     She said they still write letters to Santa, but now they ask for things such as good health or a job for their mother, or that their grandmother lives for a lot more years. "This year they will not receive any presents from me, and they know understand that it is more important that there is food on the table. Unfortunately it is a lesson that living in this country taught them,” said Ramos. The oil-rich country is suffering the third year of a recession that has sparked product shortages and galloping inflation. With a recent currency depreciation pumping up prices even higher, some parents are simply canceling Christmas.

     "Last year I bought everything for my daughter," said Dileida Palacios to Reuters. "This year I had to tell her everything is tough and Santa Claus isn't coming. "Meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro's leftist government accuses businessmen and rival politicians of seeking to stoke anger and ruin Christmas. With this premise, a few weeks ago he ordered the seizure of nearly 4 million toys from importer Kreisel – toys that ended up being distributed by Socialist Party committees. The government claimed that the company was hoarding and price gouging, and ordered the arrest of two of its executives.

December 21, 2016

VENEZUELA UNREST CONTINUES AS PROTESTS REACH MIRAFLORES
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- In a east Caracas, a crowd trying to buy price-controlled foodstuffs gets buckshot instead, while a group of opposition lawmakers lead a protest asking for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro right outside the Miraflores Presidential Palace. This is Venezuela, after one week of continuous, deadly protests that have so far left seven dead.

     Protests are nothing new in Venezuela and the country suffered months of unrest in 2014. This latest cycle of protests however began after President Nicolas Maduro announced he was withdrawing the country’s highest denomination banknote “in 72 hours.” The President later recanted, when he realized he had no new bills to replace the money with, promising to let the Bs 100 circulate until atleast January 2nd, but to no avail: savage protests rocked the nation, resulting in 450 businesses looted and 405 arrested, according to figures offered by the Interior Ministry and the Fedecamaras private-sector guild.

     A smaller, but perhaps less routine anti-government demonstration took place right outside the Miraflores Presidential Palace, when a dozen opposition lawmakers, relatives of political prisoners and other opposition figures took the sidewalk to ask for the resignation of Nicolas Maduro, in the first recorded protest of this type. The demonstrators were not harassed by the “colectivos” pro-government biker gangs as of this writing. The Guardia de Honor Presidential security detail monitored the protest but had not intervened so far. Lawmaker Richard Blanco even broadcast part of the protest on the Twitter live-streaming application Periscope. A protest outside the Palace is extremely rare: Maduro has decreed all of the streets and avenues around Miraflores “security areas” and tanks, anti-tank obstacles and sand-bagged machine gun nests are a common feature around it.

DONALD TRUMP NAMES MULTIMILLIONAIRE VINCENT VIOLA AS ARMY SECRETARY

       
WASHINGTON, D.C.  - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has named multimillionaire and philanthropist Vincent Viola as army secretary, his transition team announced on Monday. That office, which reports to the secretary of defense, is a civilian post with legal responsibilities in all matters related to the U.S. Army including personnel, installations, environmental issues, the acquisition of equipment and arms systems, plus other administrative matters.

     Viola thus joins the group of multimillionaires who make up Trump’s government, though this position is not considered part of the presidential Cabinet, despite the fact that it must also be confirmed by the Senate. The son of Italian immigrants, the multimillionaire made his own vast fortune, founded Virtu Financial, one of Wall Street’s largest high-speed trading firms, and has now acquired the Florida Panthers professional hockey team.

    Married with three children, “Vinnie” Viola has maintained strong ties with the army since graduating from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and after launching his Wall Street career funded many beneficent works for the military. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he helped found the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the technology company Rowan Technology Solutions, which aids the education of cadets in military history, military science and leadership. Viola, 60, has also provided support for the Army Cyber Institute, the Modern War Institute, and the army athletics team. He has also funded charitable works of the Catholic Church.

COLOMBIA RECALLS VENEZUELAN AMBASSADOR FOR CONSULTATION

      BOGOTA, COLOMBIA --
 The Colombian Foreign Ministry summoned Venezuelan Ambassador to Bogota in order to voice “discomfort” about allegations made by Nicolás Maduro that in the Colombian city of Cúcuta there are “mafias” threatening the Venezuelan currency, official sources reported this Monday. Early in December, President Maduro stated that Colombian “mafias” from Cúcuta (a bordering city with Venezuela) are behind “an economic coup d’état.”

     In that regard, the Colombian Foreign Ministry said in a communiqué that the “economic situation” in Venezuela “does not stem” from Colombia, Efe informed.  Likewise, the authorities highlighted their willingness to establish a technical mechanism “to guarantee that bolivar holders may deposit VEB 100 banknotes derived from their legal commerce into the Venezuelan financial system.” “Cúcuta is not a city of gangsters,” also affirmed Juan Fernando Cristo, Colombian Interior Minister, in reply to the comments made by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

     Fernando Cristo, rejected the remarks made by Nicolás Maduro, and added that “lies” and “insults” would not solve the current crisis in Venezuela. “Cúcuta is not a city of gangsters. Cúcuta’s people has always been kind and generous with all Venezuelans on the border. The crisis will not be solved with insults and lies,” posted Minister Cristo on his Twitter account, Efe reported. Whenever the border is open, Venezuelans cross the border with Colombia to buy medicines and food that are scarce their country. “Venezuelan banknotes are seen in the streets of Cúcuta, in Cúcuta’s stores. Venezuelan banknotes are being exported from Cúcuta,” President Maduro has claimed.

December 20, 2016

CUBA CRACKS ON DISSIDENTS AFTER CASTRO DEATH
 
    
HAVANA, CUBA -- Authorities across Cuba have cracked down on dissidents, arresting dozens, keeping others from marching in Havana, and detaining an American human rights lawyer, activists said Sunday. In the first such anti-dissident operation since Fidel Castro's death last month, President Raul Castro seemed to indicate the Americas' only one-party communist state was in no mood for dissent. A roundup in the country's east snared dozens and derailed street protests planned to demand that political prisoners be freed.

     "There was a joint operation at 6:00 am in Santiago and Palma Soriano. They searched four homes, and so far we have 42 reported arrests -- 20 in Santiago, 12 in Palma and 10 in Havana," Jose Daniel Ferrer told AFP by phone. The 46-year-old, who heads the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu), had called the demonstrations to demand that political prisoners be set free. Castro insists there are no political prisoners, just lawbreakers. Ferrer said he was detained in Santiago, Cuba's second biggest city, at a police unit known as Micro 9. "They threatened me, and said by calling the demonstration I was facilitating public disorder.... disobedience and espionage," Ferrer said.

     Most arrests of dissidents in roundups are brief. Sometimes, the authorities prevent them from leaving their homes to attend a protest or march. In Havana, the award-winning Ladies in White group, which presses for the release of jailed dissidents who are their relatives, said that at least 20 of its activists were "under siege," kept from attending their weekly march. "At least 20 homes were blocking the residents to keep us from marching today," said group leader Berta Soler. It was a step backward for the Ladies in White. They long have been considered the only dissidents the Cuban government allowed to march regularly; they hold one weekly protest outside a church in Havana.

HUNDREDS ARRESTED IN VENEZUELA CASH CHAOS, VIGILANTES PROTECT SHOPS

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  --  Security forces have arrested more than 300 people during protests and lootings over the elimination of Venezuela's largest currency bill, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday. The socialist leader pulled the 100 bolivar note this week before new bills were in circulation, creating a national cash shortage on top of the brutal economic crisis overshadowing Venezuelans' Christmas and New Year holidays. After two days of unrest over the measure - including one death and dozens of shops ransacked - Maduro on Saturday postponed the measure until Jan. 2.

     That helped stem violence, though there were still reports of more lootings in southern Ciudad Bolivar on Sunday. The detainees include leaders and members of the opposition Popular Will and Justice First parties, Maduro said on state TV, accusing them of following U.S. instructions to incite chaos. "Don't come and tell me they are political prisoners. The worst looting was on Friday and Saturday, especially in El Callao and Ciudad Bolivar in the southern state of Bolivar, and police have used teargas to control crowds in some places.Chinese-run shops have been particularly targeted, witnesses say, and a 14-year-old boy was shot dead in El Callao on Friday.

    The local business group said 350 businesses had been ransacked in Ciudad Bolivar, including 90 percent of food outlets. Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plunge during a three-year recession. He justified the currency measure as a way of suffocating mafia on Venezuela's borders. But opponents say it is further evidence of disastrous economic policy in a nation reeling from runaway prices and shortages of basics. They want him to resign. "The only person guilty of the chaos and violence of recent days is Nicolas Maduro," the Justice First party said, accusing intelligence agents of taking advantage of the situation to frame opposition leaders with false evidence.

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO TURKEY KILLED IN ANKARA SHOOTING

      ANKARA, TURKEY --
  The Russian ambassador to Ankara has been killed in a gun attack at an art gallery in the Turkish capital, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. Reports said Andrei Karlov was attending the opening of an exhibit at a contemporary arts centre when he was attacked. Karlov was several minutes into a speech at the exhibit when a man shouted “Allahu Akbar” and fired at least eight shots, according to an AP photographer who was present. The attacker also smashed some of the photographs, AP reported. A source told RIA that Karlov had died at the scene. Turkey’s NTV reported that the gunman had been killed by police.

     Turkish officials said the gunman had entered the building claiming he was a police officer. Other bystanders alleged he shouted “Aleppo” when he shot Karlov, but the claims could not be immediately confirmed. The Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov speaks at a gallery in Ankara Monday Dec. 19, 2016. A gunman opened fire on Russia's ambassador to Turkey Karlov at a photo exhibition on Monday. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said he was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. The attacker was said to have first shot Karlov in the back, before ordering people to leave the room. He then reportedly fired a second time as Karlov lay on the floor.

     The Russian foreign ministry said it was in contact with Ankara over the events, RIA Novosti reported. President Vladimir Putin called an urgent meeting with the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the heads of the security services. The ambassador had been part of discussions between Turkey that led to an evacuation of east Aleppo getting under way late last week. He had also been a central conduit to the Turkish government’s rapproachment with Moscow in April. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, was due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian and Iranian counterparts. Russia and Turkey have recently gone some way towards mending ties after a freeze in relations after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane in November 2015.

December 19, 2016

DONALD TRUMP THANKS CUBAN AMERICANS AT ORLANDO RALLY
 
    
ORLANDO, FLORIDA -- Donald Trump exulted in his victory before a crowd of more than 11,000 people in Orlando on Friday night, part of the president-elect’s “U.S.A. Thank You Tour” of states he won in November. Speaking on a cool evening on an outdoor stage filled with Christmas trees at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Trump told the story of how he came to defeat Hillary Clinton on Election Night. “I’m here today for one main reason, to say ‘thank you’ to the incredible people of Florida,” Trump told the crowd, who chanted back “Thank you Trump” along with the usual “Lock her up” and “Drain the swamp.”

     He said “America will also stand with the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom. Their support has been unbelievable. The Cuban people. We know what we have to do, and we’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.” Trump spent much of the speech talking about about how the polls and news media did not think he would win, going into detail about how he found out about each of his state victories on Nov. 8. Trump said his voters were "great people, these are smart people, these are hardworking people. These are people who haven’t voted in a long time. But you know what? They saw, they heard … They came out, and [experts] had no clue what the hell happened."

     He also remarked on how the image of his rallies has changed. “You were nasty and mean and vicious, and you wanted to win,” he said. “Now, the same crowd … You’re laid back and mellow and basking in the glory of victory.” Trump also mentioned the attacks on Pulse nightclub in June, saying, "Let me keep this as clearly as I can: I am going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country." Trump pledged once again to suspend immigration from regions where immigrants "cannot be safely processed" through "extreme vetting."

NICOLAS MADURO DEPLOYS NATIONAL GUARD AS VENEZUELANS PROTEST WORTHLESS CASH

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  --  As hyperinflating Venezuela's latest experiment in monetary lunacy continues with president Maduro announcing earlier this week he would remove 75% of the physical cash in circulation by eliminating the highest denomination 100 Bolivar bill, desperate and cashless Venezuelans, angry that the government hasn’t exchanged their voided bank notes as officials had pledged, on Friday rose up in protest and looted stores across parts of Venezuela. Waving the now-worthless 100-bolivar bills, pockets of demonstrators blocked roads, demanded that stores accept the cash, and cursed President Nicolas Maduro in a string of towns and cities around Venezuela, witnesses said.

    A man holds a bone and a placard that reads 'Maduro: communist, unhappy,
damn. Resign, now', in front of a pole covered with 100-bolivar bills during a
protest in El Pinal, Venezuela, December 16, 2016. Waving the now-worthless 100-bolivar bills, pockets of demonstrators blocked roads, demanded that stores accept the cash, and cursed President Nicolas Maduro in a string of towns and cities around Venezuela, witnesses said. Dozens of shops were looted in various places.. An opposition legislator said there were three deaths amid violent scenes in the southern mining town of Calla.

     The riots were quickly put down, however, when National Guard troops were deployed to put down the unrest that broke out as far west as the Colombian border as well as smaller towns in the east. While many have speculated that things couldn't possibly get worse in Venezuela, they did over the past few days as the collapsing, cash-based economy suddenly finds itself without cash, worthless as it may be (one US dollar is worth between 2,500 and 4,500 Bolivars in the black market), and now with only nine days to go before Christmas, Venezuelans grappling with a collapsing economy and hyperinflation are also left without money. Only the Central Bank now accepts the remaining bill, and it will only do so until Tuesday at which point the paper money will be worth less than toilet paper, which Venezuela infamous does not have.

CHINESE NAVAL SHIP SEIZED AN UNMANNED U.S. UNDERWATER VEHICLE IN SOUTH CHINA. TRUMP SAYS THEY CAN KEEP IT

      WASHINGTON, D.C. --
A Chinese naval ship seized an underwater naval drone that was being used by the U.S. Navy to test water conditions in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said Friday. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the incident occurred on Dec. 15 about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, in international waters in the South China Sea. The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey vessel with a mostly civilian crew, was in the process of recovering two unmanned ocean gliders, which are used to collect information about water conditions that can help U.S. vessels operate.

     A Chinese ship, a Dalang-III class submarine rescue vessel, approached the area, coming within about 500 yards of the Bowditch before dropping a small boat in the water. It seized one of the gliders and brought it aboard, Davis said. The Bowditch contacted the Chinese ship and asked for the glider to be returned. Officials aboard the Chinese ship acknowledged the radio communication, Davis said, but said they were returning to normal operations. The ship then left the area. “We would like it back and we would like this not to happen again,” Davis said, referring to the underwater drone.

     President-elect Donald Trump said tonight that China should keep the U.S. Navy underwater drone that had been seized in international waters in the South China Sea. The Pentagon said Saturday that China agreed to return the drone. "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!" Trump tweeted this evening. The incident had sparked a diplomatic protest from the United States demanding the return of the drone, which is used for oceanographic research. Before it was revealed that China would return the drone to the United States, Trump took to Twitter to call the drone seizure an "unprecedented act."

December 18, 2016

AT LEAST FOUR KILLED IN UNREST OVER SCARCE CASH SUPPLY IN VENEZUELA
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Four people died in El Callao, in Venezuela’s southern state of Bolivar, following unrest over glitches in cash supplies, opposition lawmaker in the country’s Parliament Angel Medina said on Friday. “Municipal authorities in El Callao have confirmed three deaths to me: an Asian shopkeeper, a man and a woman. A deplorable toll,” said Medina in a tweet.

     Medina told EFE that over 30 commercial establishments in El Callao were “looted” and “destroyed,” and added unrest was reported from the Roscio municipality, part of the same state. “There was looting and destruction at shops in Roscio and Sifontes municipalities, all three are mining hubs of the state,” he added. Speaking to EFE, he alleged municipal authorities have criticized the “tardy” action by security bodies. On Twitter, he said the cash rationing has added to the gasoline scarcity in the area, and termed it alarming.

     “There is no gasoline, no new currency notes, no food, nothing is cheap, there is no democracy,” he rued. Dozens of Venezuelans protested on Friday in several interior states of the country over problems in cash supply. Last week, President Nicolas Maduro announced the country’s largest banknote, that of 100 bolivars, would be pulled from circulation beginning Dec. 13 and new notes of higher denomination introduced. On Friday, he said a “large quantity” of new notes will arrive “early Sunday” and will be distributed “gradually.”

VENEZUELANS DEFY COLOMBIA BORDER BAN, UNREST CONTINUES

        SAN CRISTOBAL, VENEZUELA
  --  Hundreds of Venezuelans jumped barriers to defy their government's closure of the Colombian border on Saturday while looting and protests continued due to a cash shortage, causing pre-Christmas chaos. The unrest began on Friday following this week's surprise pulling from circulation of Venezuela's largest denomination note, 100 bolivars, before replacement bills were available. The move left Venezuelans flooding banks to deposit or swap their 100-bolivar bills within a short deadline, and many without the means to pay for food, gasoline or Christmas preparations in a country already reeling from a deep economic crisis.

    About 40 percent of Venezuelans do not have bank accounts. In the southern mining town of El Callao, where many shops were looted according to locals, a 14-year-old boy died, authorities confirmed on Saturday. An opposition legislator reported three people had perished in unrest there on Friday. The Democratic Unity opposition coalition said socialist President Nicolas Maduro should resign for incompetence and for inflicting yet more suffering on Venezuelans. Maduro, however, said opponents were stirring violence and justified the 100 bolivar measure as a way of strangling mafia and smugglers on the border with Colombia.

    Near San Cristobal city, about 400 people surged over the border into Colombia in search of food and medicines, which are scarce in Venezuela, witnesses said. "We jumped over the fences," said 41-year-old Claudia Perez. In southern Bolivar state, people broke into dozens of shops and warehouses in various towns, witnesses and business leaders said. Authorities declared a curfew in Ciudad Bolivar and the state governor said 135 people had been arrested. Security forces fired teargas in Venezuela's largest second city, Maracaibo, to stop looters, witnesses said. Addressing thousands of supporters at a rally in Caracas, Maduro said new currency notes should be reaching Venezuela and entering circulation soon, despite what he called an "international sabotage" operation to prevent that.

PHILIPPINES' DUTERTE: 'BYE-BYE AMERICA' AND WE DON'T NEED YOUR MONEY

      MANILA, PHILIPPINES --
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the United States on Saturday to prepare for repeal of an agreement on deployment of troops and equipment for exercises, declaring "bye-bye America", and we don't need your money. But Duterte suggested relations could improve under a President Donald Trump. "I like your mouth, it's like mine, yes Mr President. We are similar and people with the same feathers flock together."

    Returning his focus to the present U.S. administration which has criticised him over reports of extra-judicial killings in his campaign against drugs, he said: "We do not need you," Duterte said in a news conference after arriving from visits to Cambodia and Singapore. "Prepare to leave the Philippines. Prepare for the eventual repeal or abrogation of the VFA." The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), signed in 1998, accorded legal status to thousands of U.S. troops who were rotated in the country for military exercises and humanitarian assistance operations.

    "Bye, bye America and work on the protocols that will eventually move you out of the Philippines," he said, adding his decision would come "any day soon" after reviewing another military deal, Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The firebrand leader was visibly upset and vented his anger on Washington because of a decision by the Millennium Challenge Corp (MCC) board to defer vote on the re-selection of Manila for compact development due to human rights issues. "We do not need the money. China said they will provide so many," he said. "The politics here in Southeast Asia is changing."

December 17, 2016

POPE FRANCIS BROUGHT SANTOS AND URIBE TOGETHER TO DISCUSS THE FARC PEACE DEAL
 
    
THE VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis brought Colombia's president and his main political opponent together to discuss the country's rebel peace deal Friday, making a remarkable personal intervention to try to seal an accord ending Latin America's longest-running conflict. But after the 25-minute meeting, neither President Juan Manuel Santos nor his right-wing predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, showed any sign of putting aside their differences, which have divided Colombians and are unlikely to be settled before 2018 presidential elections. Santos had already been scheduled to meet with Francis on Friday as part of a European tour after picking up this year's Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and the two met as planned.

     The Vatican, though, at the last minute also invited Uribe, who had led the campaign against Santos' deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that resulted in in the accord's shock rejection in an October referendum. Uribe flew overnight from Bogota and met privately with Francis in an unannounced audience. The three men then joined up together in Francis' private study for the three-way huddle. After the referendum's failure, Santos introduced several changes to appease his critics and even sat down for a meeting with Uribe for the first time in six years.

    But he still failed to win his former boss' support when the revised accord was ratified this month by congress. Santos said that during the meeting, he reiterated to Uribe his willingness to maintain an open dialogue with the opposition to ensure the peace deal's effective implementation. "Polarization doesn't benefit anyone," Santos told journalists following the meeting. Uribe, meanwhile, was emphatic that his disagreement with Santos isn't personal but based on convictions shared by millions of Colombians who voted against the peace deal in October. "President Santos presented so

PROTESTS, LOOTING BREAK OUT IN VENEZUELA AMID CASH CHAOS

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  --  Protests and looting broke out in parts of Venezuela on Friday due to a lack of cash after the socialist government suddenly pulled the nation's largest banknote from circulation in the midst of a brutal economic crisis. Waving the now-worthless 100-bolivar bills, pockets of demonstrators blocked roads, demanded that stores accept the cash and cursed President Nicolas Maduro, witnesses said. Last weekend, Maduro gave Venezuelans three days to ditch the 100-bolivar bills, arguing that the measure was needed to combat mafias on the Colombia border despite warnings from some economists that it risked sparking chaos.

    Opposition leaders said the move was further evidence that Maduro is destroying the OPEC nation's economy and must be removed. Authorities have thwarted a referendum sought by the opposition against the leftist leader, however, enabling him to complete a six-year term ending in early 2019 but increasing the prospect of social unrest. With new bills - originally due on Thursday - still nowhere to be seen, many Venezuelans were unable to fill their vehicles' fuel tanks to get to work, buy food or purchase Christmas gifts. Adding to the chaos, many cash machines were broken or empty. And, large lines formed outside the central bank offices in Caracas and Maracaibo where the 100-bolivar bills could still be handed over and deposited for a few days more.

    "This is a mockery," said bus driver Richard Montilva as he and several hundred others blocked a street outside a bank in the town of El Pinal in Tachira state near Colombia. Maduro held up the new bills during a televised broadcast on Thursday night and said they would come into circulation soon. But that did not calm nervousness on the streets. The arrival of the new notes "is a mystery to us too," said a source at the central bank, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Outside the central bank in Caracas, thousands of Venezuelans lined up to swap the 100-bolivar bills before a final Tuesday deadline as National Guard soldiers kept watch.

VENEZUELAN FOREIGN MINISTER BATTLES FOR POSITION AT LATIN AMERICAN MERCOSUR SUMMIT

      MONTEVIDEO, PARAGUAY  -
Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez has tried to gate-crash a Mercosur meeting in Buenos Aires. She had not been invited to the meeting because Venezuela is suspended from the regional trade bloc. She turned up at the Argentine foreign ministry regardless and brushed past security guards only to find the room where it was meant to be held, empty. She accused guards of "attacking" her. Meanwhile, other regional leaders held their talks in a smaller room.

    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said his foreign minister had been "gravely hurt". She had been "thrown to the ground", he said, and had "possibly broken a collar bone". However, a recording shows her arguing with an official at the gate of the foreign ministry and then brushing past security guards. To cover up his lies, Maduro said the incident had happened "when the media was not present". Recordings do however show her walking up the stairs of the ministry while a number of people in her entourage shouted "careful with the foreign minister, she is a lady, let her through, respect a woman's right!".

    She kept walking while a number of Argentine officials could be heard telling her: "You can't enter here!" She finally entered the room where the meeting of the Mercosur minister was due to be held but the room was empty, the Minister left before she arrive to avoid meeting with her. Rodriguez tweeted a picture of herself smiling broadly, sitting next to the foreign minister of Bolivia, a country which is a close ally of Venezuela and an associate member of Mercosur. "We're in the Mercosur meeting waiting for the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay," she wrote. Critics of Rodriguez pointed out that she did not look visibly hurt in the photograph.

December 16, 2016

CUBAN-AMERICANS WANT TO SEE STEPS TOWARD "FREE SOCIETY" IN CUBA
 
    
MIAMI, FLORIDA-- Most Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County oppose the normalization of trade relations with Cuba “until solid steps are taken towards the democratization of the island” by President Raul Castro’s government, a new Inspire America Foundation poll shows.

    Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were re-established in 2015 after a rupture of more than half a century, but 82 percent of respondents said they would link the process to a political opening in the island, while 13 percent favored having full relations. Some 60 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County voted for Republican candidate Donald Trump in the Nov. 8 presidential election, while 31 percent voted for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

     Ninety-two percent of respondents opposed the Cuban government’s policy that withholds wages paid by U.S. companies to workers employed in Cuba. The poll of 600 Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County, conducted in Spanish and English by SurveyUSA between Nov. 29 and Dec. 11, found that 56 percent of respondents did not expect the recent death of Fidel Castro to “accelerate a transition toward democracy” in the country. Eighty percent of the respondents were registered voters in Florida.

VENEZUELA TRIES TO CRASH MERCOSUR TALKS, SAYS MINISTER "THROWN TO GROUND" -- NOT TRUE

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  --  Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said his foreign minister was "thrown to the ground" by Argentine authorities on Wednesday after attempting to crash a Mercosur trade bloc meeting in Buenos Aires, following Venezuela's suspension from the group earlier this month. In dramatic video shot outside Argentina's Foreign Ministry, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez is seen jostling with security to try to get into the meeting, though Maduro presented no evidence she was thrown to the ground.

     "She was gravely hurt and possibly has a fractured collarbone," Maduro said on Wednesday evening during a speech in Cuba. Videos taken during the Rodriguez’s arrival did not show any struggle or she falling to the ground. she was all the time arguing with security personnel. OPEC member Venezuela was expelled from Mercosur this month in part due to concerns about the government's human rights record. Maduro's socialist government, which has lost allies in the region as various countries including Argentina have moved to the right, says its suspension from the bloc is an unjustified and illegal "coup." "If they close the door to us we will, as our President Maduro has said, go through the window," Rodriguez told reporters outside the ministry.

    Critics of the government in Venezuela lambasted Rodriguez as an embarrassment to the country. The pugnacious foreign minister was later allowed into the ministry building to meet with Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra. Rodriguez stayed for about an hour before exiting without gaining access to the Mercosur session. Malcorra later told reporters that she had made it clear to Rodriguez that while she was welcome to meet one-on-one with her at the ministry, Venezuela was not invited to the Mercosur conference. "No one ever gets into a multilateral meeting without authorization. The minister obviously felt she had the right to attend, but she had been told explicitly, verbally and in writing that she was not invited," Malcorra said.

41 CUBANS MADE LANDFALL AT THE MARQUESA S KEYS TUESDAY

       MIAMI, FLORIDA  -
Their arrival signals a resumption of heavy migration from the communist island nation after a brief hiatus following the death of its former leader Fidel Castro on Nov. 25. Nine Cubans arrived on Craig Key Monday morning in a steel-hulled vessel powered by what appeared to be a six-cylinder Ford gasoline engine, said Islamorada resident Carmen Alex. The 30 men and 11 women who landed at the Marquesas, about 20 miles west of Key West, arrived in a single-engine fishing boat, said Supervisory U.S. Border Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner. He said they left the village of Cojimar on Sunday.

      “The vessel was severely overloaded and not equipped with any navigational devices or safety equipment,” Hoffner said. They were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and turned over to the Border Patrol in good health, Hoffner said. Since they touched down on land, the migrants will likely be allowed to stay and apply for permanent U.S. residence in a year. The “wet-foot, dry-foot” stipulation of the Cuban Adjustment Act requires Cubans caught at sea trying to reach the United States be returned. But if they set foot on American soil, they can stay in most cases.

     Following a thaw in diplomatic relations between the Obama administration and the Raul Castro regime in 2015, there has been a surge in migration by Cubans fearing wet-foot, dry foot could soon end. However, after Fidel Castro’s death at the age of 90, there was a lull in maritime migrant activity to South Florida. That ended Tuesday, Dec. 6 with the arrival of 13 Cubans on Big Pine Key. Hoffner said the migrants are not just coming on their own in makeshift vessels. They often are helped by human smugglers who make thousands of dollars per every migrant they deliver to the United States. “We will continue to work with our partner agencies to identify trends and adjust our tactics or operations to counter smuggling networks in the Florida straits,” Hoffner said.

December 15, 2016

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION RELAUNCHED NICOLAS MADURO TRIAL
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA-- Venezuelan opposition lawmakers relaunched efforts to drive President Nicolas Maduro from power on Tuesday after negotiations to ease the country's political and economic crisis stalled. Deputies in the National Assembly made a declaration ruling that the socialist president bore "political responsibility" for the crisis and urged state attorneys to investigate him with a view to prosecution. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has consistently blocked efforts by the legislature to challenge his power since the opposition took over the assembly in January.

     The opposition MUD coalition has been divided over whether to pursue talks with Maduro's government. Maduro has consistently blocked efforts by the legislature to challenge his power since the opposition took over the assembly in January. He retains the support of the military and key state institutions including the Supreme Court, which has frequently overruled the legislative assembly. Maduro's allies in the assembly boycotted Tuesday's session, branding the motion a "coup d'etat."

     Tuesday's move "is a blow from the legislature, but it does not mean the president will be deposed," legal expert Pedro Afonso Del Pino told AFP earlier, anticipating the lawmakers' declaration. An economic crisis fueled by falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports has led to food shortages and riots over recent months. The socialist president says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy. The opposition blames his economic management. "This is going to heat up the political process in Venezuela," said political scientist Carlos Romero of Tuesday's move. "It is going to make the situation worse."

VENEZUELA TOP COURT APPOINTS TWO NEW DIRECTORS OF THE CNE

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  - According to a press release of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) the designation of Socorro Hernández as top representative of the Venezuelan electoral authority “takes place as an indispensable measure after the expiration of the corresponding constitutional term and due to lack of diligence relating relevant procedures” The Constitutional Chamber, Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), appointed Socorro Hernández as first director of the National Electoral Council (CNE) for 2016-2022, and Andrés Eloy Brito Denis and Iván Zerpa Guerrero as alternates, as informed in a press release.

       Similarly, the top court designated Tania D’Amelio as the second CNE director, and Abdón Hernández Rodríguez and Gustavo Guevara Sifontes as alternates. “The appointment takes place as an indispensable measure after the expiration of the corresponding constitutional term and due to lack of diligence relating relevant procedures. Add to this, the fact that the Legislature is in contempt of court, a situation that determines nullity of all its actions,” according to the press release. According to the official note, the decision aims at the preservation of the constitutional supremacy, as well as the stability and peace of the Republic, pursuant to Article 336, item 7 of the Constitutional and to ruling No. 1,865 dated December 26, 2016.

    On Wednesday morning, the new directors and alternates of the National Electoral Council (CNE) were sworn into office by the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) for the 2016-2022 term, after the TSJ ordered their designation in a ruling rendered on Tuesday. The president of the TSJ, Justice Gladys Gutiérrez, headed the swearing-in ceremony. Deputy for opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD), Juan Pablo Guanipa, asserted on Wednesday that it was up to the parliament to designate the directors of the National Electoral Council (CNE), apropos the ruling issued on Tuesday by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) ratifying the incumbencies of two directors whose term in office had expired.

VENEZUELAN CONGRESS BLAMES NICOLAS MADURO FOR CONSTITUTIONAL BREAKDOWN, CRISIS

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --
The Venezuelan National Assembly on Tuesday – with a majority opposition vote and with the absence of government-supporting lawmakers – approved an accord blaming President Nicolas Maduro for rupturing the constitutional order and the ensuing political, social and economic crisis besetting the country. “It is agreed to declare the political responsibility of the president ... for the serious rupture of the constitutional and democratic order, the violation of human rights and the devastation of the nation’s economic and social bases he has brought about,” read the agreement approved by opposition lawmakers.

     The accord was approved after the opposition legislators articulated various arguments against Maduro, although their Chavista colleagues refused to participate in the floor debate. The document also approves ordering the Public Ministry to examine the evidence and issue a ruling on a request for a “pretrial finding against the president.” The pretrial finding would be made, the accord sets forth, due to Maduro’s alleged actions that have “led to the destruction of the republican political framework.” The opposition also agreed to continue the investigation into “the possible existence of evidence” sufficient to declare that Maduro has abandoned his responsibilities as president and “ratify the commitment to the restitution of the constitutional order.”

     Moreover, the lawmakers approved the decision by the opposition to turn to the appropriate international forums “to denounce the violations of human rights ... in which the president ... has had a leading role.” The document also claims that Maduro “has governed since Jan. 14, 2016, thanks to a state of exception declared and prolonged unconstitutionally without the approval of (Congress).” It also accuses Maduro of “systematically” resorting to the Supreme Constitutional Court to “impede by political means the entry into force of laws approved by (Congress) that would have contributed to resolving the country’s problems.” In Venezuela, the National Assembly cannot impeach or remove the president, and – thus – the opposition’s move has no apparent legal ramifications.

December 14, 2016

DONALD TRUMP SELECTS EXXONMOBIL CEO REX TILLERSON AS SECRETARY OF STATE 
 
    
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President-elect Donald Trump has chosen ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state, the transition team announced Tuesday, setting up a heated Senate confirmation battle and signaling a desire to ease Washington's estrangement with Russia. Like Trump, Tillerson, 64, has no formal foreign policy experience, but has built close relationships with many world leaders by closing massive deals across Eurasia and the Middle East on behalf of the world's largest energy company. "His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State," Trump said in the statement.

      Tillerson was originally a dark horse for the secretary of state nomination, but emerged from a lengthy public interview and vetting process that included better-known quantities like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney and Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Trump has called Tillerson a "world-class player" and the transition team is likely to stress that his mastery of complex negotiations and knowledge of geopolitical factors shaping the oil industry are directly relevant to heading US diplomacy and managing the State Department.

      Tillerson was recommended to Trump by former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and James Baker and former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, sources told CNN. Trump and Tillerson possess similar dealmaking business backgrounds and similar views of the world, sources said, and there was a level of comfort that Trump hadn't found with anyone else. Trump's decision to press ahead with the Tillerson nomination could ignite the first big showdown between the new White House and Capitol Hill and set a benchmark for Republicans worried about the direction of the President-elect's own foreign policy. It will also embolden Democrats who see Tillerson as perhaps the most vulnerable Trump Cabinet appointee to a bruising Senate confirmation battle.

PARAGUAY: VENEZUELA IS NOT INVITED TO MERCOSUR MEETING

        MONTEVIDEO, PARAGUAY
  - While the Paraguayan Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga stressed that his Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez may meet “bilaterally” with Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, he added that her participation would not be accepted in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur). The Paraguayan government on Tuesday said that the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodríguez would not take part in the meeting of foreign ministers of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) scheduled for Wednesday in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

      Arguing that Mercosur had suspended Venezuela’s full membership rights, Rodríguez was not invited to attend the event. The Paraguayan Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga added that the suspension decision was adopted on December 2. While Loizaga underscored that Rodríguez may meet “bilaterally” with her Argentine counterpart Susana Malcorra, he said that her participation would not be accepted in the foreign ministers’ meeting. The event will take place next Wednesday, December 14, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

      However, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez last Saturday announced that she would attend the meeting of foreign ministers of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), despite her country’s recent suspension from the regional trading bloc. Rodríguez posted on her Twitter account that she knew about the meeting, adding that “Venezuela, in legitimate defense of its rights and interests, and Mercosur institutionality, will take part in the meeting,” AFP reported. The official stressed she would be in Buenos Aires next Wednesday, December 14, conveying a message of integration and unity from Venezuela to the sister nations of Mercosur. Moreover, she said she would travel to Montevideo on Thursday to participate in Caracas-led “direct negotiations” for dispute settlement, with a view to getting Venezuela’s rotating presidency recognized.

VENEZUELA SHUTS BORDER WITH COLOMBIA AS CASH CRISIS ESCALATES

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --
President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday night that he's closing the country's border with Colombia for 72 hours as Venezuelans rush to exchange bills before they become invalid later this week. He accused "mafias" of moving Venezuelan money into Colombia. It's the latest twist in a crisis that symbolizes Venezuela's severe economic depression, which is having a brutal impact on its citizens' lives. The Venezuelan government said in a statement that shutting the border with Colombia was necessary "to counteract the criminal attacks against our currency."

     Some Venezuelans are going to border towns in Colombia to exchange their currency, the bolivar, for U.S. dollars or to spend their money -- while they still can -- in Colombia where food, toiletries and other basics are plentiful. The biggest bill in Venezuela is the 100 bolivar note. On the official, government rate, it's worth about 15 U.S. cents. On the more popular, unofficial exchange rate, the 100 bolivar bill is worth a mere 2 cents. Venezuelans have been weighing stacks of cash to pay for basic items instead of counting individual bills. To make life a little easier, Maduro's government announced it will start printing six new bills worth between 500 and 20,000 bolivars. Still, the biggest bill on the unofficial rate is still only worth $5.

      On Sunday, Maduro's administration announced it will withdraw all 100 bolivar notes and replace them with coins of the same face value within 72 hours. The new bills and coins are expected to debut Thursday. Maduro says his emergency decree to swap out the bolivar notes for coins on such short notice was aimed at "mafias" he says were smuggling bolivars outside Venezuela. Swapping out the new bills for old ones within days has forced Venezuelans to deposit their bills at local banks or exchange them as quickly as possible so as to not have worthless paper by the end of the week. It's a sign of the times. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that inflation in Venezuela next year will exceed 1600%.

December 13, 2016

ISRAEL GREETS FIRST F-35 FIGHTER JETS FROM US 
 
    
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL -- Jerusalem (CNN)On an early morning in the summer of 1967, Israeli Mirage jets screeched across the desert of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Wave after wave of warplanes destroyed hundreds of Egyptian planes, leaving many of them smoldering on the tarmac. That decisive attack guaranteed Israel's air superiority for the remainder of the Six Day War. And over the past five decades, Israel has sought to maintain its superiority in the skies over the Middle East.Two of Lockheed Martin's F-35s, the most advanced fighter jet in the region, arrived in Israel on Monday.

    Israel has ordered 50 of them from the United States. Each has a price tag of more than $100 million. The jets will be stationed at an air force base in Israel's Negev desert, with Lieutenant Colonel Yotam leading the squadron. Yotam is the first person to fly the plane for Israel, and as squadron leader he'll be writing the book for the Israelis on how they'll fly the plane. "It is a different concept of flying. If we stick to the plan -- to the way we flew the first-generation fighters -- it'll be a mistake," he said. "We have to find the specific advantage out of the fifth-generation aircraft and how to take advantage of it in order to be the best fighter pilots in the world."

    Israel perceives many threats in its neighborhood, including the Syrian conflict, which is on its doorstep. Israel has responded multiple times to artillery and gunfire spilling over from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Israel has previously accused the Assad regime of supplying weapons to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group based in Lebanon. Last week, reports from Damascus suggested Israel had targeted weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah for the second time in two weeks. The militant group has been rearming since the last war with Israel in 2006. Israel claims Hezbollah has stockpiled more than 100,000 missiles. "The F-35 is built to deal with a lot of threats on the ground. It knows how to deal with everything of interest to the Israel Defense Forces outside the borders of Israel," said Yotam.

THE VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT HAS CONFISCATED 5 MILLION TOYS FROM DISTRIBUTOR KREISEL-VENEZUELA

     CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  - Critics say the consumer protection agency, which targeted the toy warehouse this week, has become "the Grinch that stole Christmas" because many families won't be able to buy the confiscated toys for the holiday. Agency head William Contreras disputed that, saying executives at toy distributor Kreisel-Venezuela, the largest of its kind in the country, "don't care about our children's right to have a merry Christmas." Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is being called a Grinch after the government confiscated millions of toys over alleged price gouging.

     He told reporters, "They say we're stealing the toys from this company, but the company committed fraud against our country." The government said the 3.821 million toys will now be made available to families in impoverished neighborhoods at lower-than-market prices. According to authorities, the operation began Thursday, but law enforcement officials were still at the warehouse Saturday. Officials also detained at least two people as part of the operation. The consumer protection agency has asked the Venezuelan attorney general's office to prohibit Kreisel executives from leaving the country as they conduct their investigation.

     Under Venezuela's socialist government, toys are included on the list of regulated products that have to be sold at government-approved prices. Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce President Francisco Martínez told CNN the government is "acting in an irresponsible way," discouraging job creation and endangering private property. "This was plundering of inventory. The government didn't even respect the company's right of due process," Fernández said. Venezuela is experiencing a deep economic crisis that has seen inflation skyrocketing to a whopping 500% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF says it may reach 1,660% in 2017.
In November alone,

PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE SAYS HE'LL ACCEPT CHINA ARMS OFFER

       MANILA, PHILIPPINES  --
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday that he has decided to accept an arms deal being offered by China under concessional terms, in the latest sign of cozying relations between the once-hostile neighbors. Duterte said in a speech before troops that he'll ask his defense secretary to send military officials to China to receive the firearms, which will be payable over 25 years. He did not provide further details. "China is pressing me on the firearms, which are already there. I'll accept them. They're rushing it," Duterte said.

    "We don't need to ask from others because they're willing to give it," he said. "This isn't free, but it's actually a grant payable in 25 years." Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the military is also considering purchasing sniper rifles from Russia, adding that the Philippine army and marines would undertake a study to see whether a deal could be forged. Lorenzana visited Russia last week on Duterte's order to meet defense officials, the first-ever visit by a Philippine defense chief to Moscow since diplomatic ties were established in 1976, officials said. "If their sniper rifles are superior as they claim, we may decide to acquire," Lorenzana told The Associated Press. "The army and marines will conduct tests and determine how many they may require."

     Duterte reached out to China and Russia after taking office in June while taking a hostile stance with the Obama administration after the latter criticized his deadly war on drugs. The Philippines has heavily depended on the U.S., its treaty ally, for weapons, ships and aircraft for years, although it has turned to other countries for defense equipment as it struggled to modernize its underfunded military in recent years. Under Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, relations with China were strained over disputed South China Sea territories, especially after Aquino brought the disputes to international arbitration. China ignored the arbitration case and the eventual ruling handed in July, which invalidated China's sweeping territorial claims.

December 12, 2016

DONALD TRUMP SAYS U.S. NOT NECESSARILY BOUND BY 'ONE CHINA' POLICY 
 
    
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said the United States did not necessarily have to stick to its long-standing position that Taiwan is part of "one China," questioning nearly four decades of policy in a move likely to antagonize Beijing. Trump's comments on Fox News Sunday came after he prompted a diplomatic protest from China over his decision to accept a telephone call on Dec. 2 from Taiwan's president. "I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump told Fox News.

    Trump's call with President Tsai Ing-wen was the first such contact with Taiwan by a U.S. president-elect or president since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, acknowledging Taiwan as part of "one China." Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and the subject is a sensitive one for China. After Trump's phone conversation with Taiwan's president, the Obama administration said senior White House aides had spoken with Chinese officials to insist that Washington’s “one China” policy remained intact. The administration also warned that progress made in the U.S. relationship with China could be undermined by a "flaring up" of the Taiwan issue.

    Following Trump's latest comments, a White House aide said the Obama administration had no reaction beyond its previously stated policy positions. In the Fox interview, Trump criticized China over its currency policies, its activities in the South China Sea and its stance toward North Korea. He said it was not up to Beijing to decide whether he should take a call from Taiwan's leader. "I don't want China dictating to me and this was a call put in to me," Trump said. "It was a very nice call. Short. And why should some other nation be able to say I can't take a call?" "I think it actually would've been very disrespectful, to be honest with you, not taking it," Trump added. Bolton said Washington should consider using a "diplomatic ladder of escalation" that could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department and lead to restoring full diplomatic recognition.

CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY DISCOVERED AT RAUL CASTRO'S  PORT OF MARIEL

     BRASILIA, BRAZIL 
  - The same Brazilian anti-corruption dragnet that hauled Castronoid president Dilma Rousseff out of office has now also caught King Raul’s favorite construction firm, Odebrecht. And it looks as if the king’s pet project at the port of Mariel has been dealt a very serious blow. An investigation into corruption in Brazil has led to the suspension of Brazilian involvement in the construction of King Raul’s new cargo-ship port at Mariel.

    Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht –which had been deeply involved in the construction of this new port — has had its multi-million dollar loans cancelled by Brazil’s National Bank of Economic and Social Development. Widespread patterns of corruption involving Brazilian firms were also discovered in Argentina, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. In the case of the port of Mariel, as in other such projects, Operation “Lava Jato” uncovered a massive bribery scheme in which firms such as Odebrecht paid huge sums of money to government officials in exchange for lucrative contracts and other favors. Never mind those other countries involved in this mess. What about Castrogonia’s role in all this?

    Well… Since the only politicians involved in the construction project at Mariel are all in King Raul’s inner circle, guess who benefited from those bribes? Nothing really new here. This kind of stuff is as old as Latrine America itself. What is sort of new (only 57 years old) is the fact that the regime involved in these old-style Latrine shenanigans usually ends up being praised as “different” because it is on the left side of the political spectrum. At this point, no one seems to know what will happen to King Raul’s Mariel project now that Odebrecht can’t be involved in building it. And.. at this point… there are no details on how many millions of dollars in bribes have gone into the pockets of King Raul and his minions, or how many millions more they stand to lose now that Odebrecht has been removed from the picture.

VENEZUELA STATE BANK TELLS CUSTOMERS IT DOES NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --
The text message arrived Thursday night. “Due to the broadening of the monetary cone, we are presenting cash restrictions in our offices and automated teller machines,” Banco Bicentenario del Pueblo, a bank owned by the embattled administration of President Nicolas Maduro told customers. Bad news delivered, in true “chavista” fashion, with big words and a nonchalant vibe: the message ends by saying “we suggest taking previsions Thank you for your attention!” But the banks message and actions have failed to reassure the citizenry, which is instead reacting with shock that is quickly becoming anger.

     “My mother would take out her whole monthly pension payment, Bs 22,000 (around $50). And now they are only allowing her to withdraw Bs 10,000”, a Caracas woman told the Latin American Herald Tribune. Bicentenario is one of Venezuela’s largest banks and the vast majority of its clients are in Venezuela’s 3 million-strong public sector, which includes the military, and workers in state oil company PDVSA, the fifth largest oil company on the planet. What it means is that, to all their other woes -- such as world-record inflation, food and medicine shortages and one of the highest murder rates in the planet -- Venezuelans now have to add a new one: not enough cash.

    And it isn’t like cash gets you a lot in Venezuela with inflation running at about 650% this year, almost four times the 181% inflation rate recorded in 2015, a record for the country and the world. The government has promised to introduce December 15th a new series of bills and coins, including a bill 200 times higher than the current big bill, one for Bs 20,000. Enough to buy a brassiere nowadays, but that’s what an apartment in Caracas used to cost in 2000. Additionally, bad telecommunications have meant new and increasing problems in debit and credit card payments: cards take several minutes to process. “There’s a scarcity of everything, including cash, due to the inflation rate and also due to successive devaluations.

December 11, 2016

BRAZIL PROSECUTORS SAY LULA DA SILVA ACTED FOR SAAB TO WIN JETS ORDER 
 
    
BRASILIA, BRAZIL   Brazilian federal prosecutors on Friday formally accused former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of having interfered in a government tender to buy new fighter jets in favor of Swedish plane maker Saab AB. Lula, who was no longer in the presidency when the suspected illegal practices happened, was accused of having used its influence over the subsequent Workers Party government to help Saab win the tender for 36 jets worth around $5.6 billion. In exchange for its help, prosecutors said Lula's son Luis Claudio Lula da Silva -- who is also accused in the probe -- was paid 2.5 million reais ($740,000) by Marcondes & Mautoni, a company who assists foreign firms doing business in Brazil and who prosecutors said worked for Saab.

     Brazil's former president is already a defendant in three criminal probes linked to the so called Car Wash investigation into large-scale corruption at state-controlled oil company Petrobras. Lula's lawyers denied any illegal participation of the former president or his son in the process. They said the payment Lula's son received from Marcondes & Mautoni referred to services effectively executed by Luis Claudio Lula da Silva, such as organizing American style football championships in Brazil. They have denied in the past the veracity of all the accusations against the former president, saying he has become a target of political persecution.

     Saab representatives in Brazil said they were in the process of acknowledging the accusation and would eventually comment at a later stage. Marcondes & Mautoni could not be reached. A message on their website says the company is 'undergoing the implementation of a compliance program'. Prosecutors said Lula's acts in favor of Saab took place between 2013 and 2015. He left office in 2010. The Brazilian government announced late in 2013 that it had chosen the Gripen NG fighter jet produced by Saab. The Swedish plane beat Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet and France's Rafale, produced by Dassault Aviation. The contract with Saab was signed in 2014.

AMERICAN AIRLINES TRIMS DAILY FLIGHT SCHEDULE TO CUBA CITING WEAK DEMAND

     WASHINGTON, D.C. 
  - U.S. airlines were ecstatic earlier this year when it was announced that commercial flights would resume to Cuba after more than 50 years, with one executive at a major carrier calling it almost a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Yet as U.S. airlines began flights this week to Havana, the long-awaited travel surge to Cuba is already in doubt. Citing weak demand, American Airlines trimmed plans for almost a quarter of its flights to Cuba early next year. And in a potentially crippling blow, President-elect Donald Trump is threatening to rescind new relaxed policies with the island nation, leaving the future of travel there in limbo.

      Already, Trump’s comments have prompted some travelers to accelerate plans to visit Cuba before his inauguration or to delay them until he makes his policies clear. “People are afraid Trump is going to close the border again, and then it will be impossible to go there,” said Alexandre Chemla, founder of Altour, the largest independently owned U.S. travel agency. “It’s a wait-and-see situation because of Trump and everything he said.” American’s decision isn’t related to Trump’s potential pullback from Cuba, said Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, noting the carrier implemented its cut the weekend before the presidential election.

     On Monday, days after the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Trump reiterated on Twitter a campaign pledge that he will “terminate” Obama’s new trade policies with the island nation unless it agrees to “a better deal.” Some investors speculated that Castro’s death could pave the way for improved relations with the U.S. The $37 million Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, which holds stock in airlines, cruise lines, builders and other companies that could gain if the U.S. lifts trade restrictions, climbed 9.4 percent Monday, the biggest increase in nine months.

CHINA FLIES NUCLEAR-CAPABLE BOMBER IN SOUTH CHINA SEA AFTER TRUMP TRUMP-TAIWAN CALL, US OFFICIALS SAY

       WASHINGTON, D.C.  --
China flew a long-range nuclear-capable bomber outside China for the first time since President-elect Donald Trump spoke with the president of Taiwan, two US officials told Fox News. The dramatic show of force was meant to send a message to the new administration, according to the officials. It marks the second time Beijing flew bombers in the region since Trump was elected. Even more concerning for the Pentagon, China has been seen by American intelligence satellites preparing to ship more advanced surface-to-air missiles to its contested islands in the South China Sea.

     Trump's call with Taiwan's President Tsai ling-wen broke decades- long protocol after American leaders stopped communicating directly with the Taiwan president in 1979, when diplomatic ties were severed and the United States shifted to a new "one-China" policy. China protested Trump's call with President Tsai. The Chinese H-6 bomber flew along the disputed "Nine-Dash line" Thursday, which surrounds the South China Sea and dozens of disputed Chinese islands, many claimed by other countries in the region.

      The Pentagon was alerted to the Chinese flight Friday. It was the first long-range flight of a Chinese bomber along the U-shaped line of demarcation since March 2015, according to the officials. Over the summer, Chinese bombers flew over the South China Sea and the contested islands, but they did not fly nearly as far as this one, the officials said. At various points in recent long-range flights, Chinese fighter jets provided escorts to the single Chinese bomber. In recent days, U.S. intelligence satellites have spotted components for the Chinese version of the SA-21 surface-to-air missile system at the port of Jieyang, in southeast China, where officials say China has made similar military shipments in the past to its islands in the South China Sea.

December 10, 2016

JOHN GLENN, THE 1ST AMERICAN TO ORBIT EARTH, DIES AT AGE 95 
 
    
WASHINGTON, D.C.    John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95. Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalized for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected: flying and politics, and he soared in both.

     Before he gained fame orbiting the world he was a fighter pilot in two wars, and as a test pilot he set a transcontinental speed record. He later served 24 years in the Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. His long political career enabled him to return to space in the shuttle Discovery at age 77 in 1998, a cosmic victory lap that he relished and turned into a teachable moment about growing old. He holds the record for the oldest person in space. More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero: a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years and nerves of steel. Schools, a space center and the Columbus airport were named after him. So were children.

     Glenn said he was often asked if he was afraid, and he replied, "If you are talking about fear that overcomes what you are supposed to do, no. You've trained very hard for those flights." Glenn's ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule had its scary moments, however. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. But the heat shield held. Even before then, Glenn flew in dangerous skies. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea who flew low, got his plane riddled with bullets, flew with baseball great Ted Williams and earned macho nicknames during 149 combat missions. And as a test pilot he broke aviation records.

VENEZUELANS PROTEST OUTSIDE VATICAN OVER POLITICAL PRISONERS

     THE VATICAN CITY
  - Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including the wife and mother of a jailed dissident leader, have begun a sit-in outside the Vatican demanding that the government free political prisoners. Leopoldo Lopez has become a cause celebre among opposition supporters, who accuse Maduro of trampling human rights. The U.S. government, the United Nations and international rights groups have all called for Lopez's release.

     His wife, mother and a few Venezuelan and Italian supporters began their protest in St. Peter's Square on Sunday by putting chains around themselves. They later moved meters away to a covered area across the street from the square where homeless people often sleep, and say they will stay there indefinitely. "We are here for the 108 political prisoners who are being held unjustly in Venezuela. They must be released," Lilian Tintori, Lopez's wife, told Reuters Television. On Tuesday night, the group was huddled on blankets and eating pizza and pasta brought by supporters.

     "We ask the Vatican, as an international representative, to demand that the government of Nicolas Maduro respect international agreements and free my husband," she said. Vatican representatives in Venezuela have been involved in negotiations between the opposition and the government, but the talks have stalled. Lopez was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in anti-government protests two years ago. He was at the forefront of demonstrations demanding Maduro's resignation. Forty-three people died during the protests.Lopez had publicly called for peaceful resistance to the Maduro government and was behind bars during most of the unrest. Critics say his trial was a mockery and Lopez, whom Maduro refers to as a dangerous criminal, was imprisoned to stifle dissent.

CUBA, RUSSIA SIGN PROGRAM ON DEFENSE TECHNOLOGY COOPERATION

       HAVANA, CUBA  --
 Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Cuban Vice President of the Council of Ministers Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz have signed a program of technological cooperation between the two countries in the sphere of defense. The signing took place at the conclusion of a meeting of the Russian-Cuban commission on trade, economic, scientific and technological cooperation in the capital Havana on Thursday.The program will span several years and will last until 2020.

     Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists after the signing that the program does not stipulate deliveries. “Since Russia has long ago arrived at the program-target method in defense issues, we have our own methodology, experts knowing how to ensure short-term and near-term planning. This kind of assistance will be provided. So, this is more of a methodological assistance, which will help shape the long-term capacity planning program aimed at the modernization of armed forces. This will not be supplies, but precisely this kind of methodological assistance,” Rogozin explained.

      He added that a lot of the technology that Cuba has was supplied by the Soviet Union and that currently Russia is working on creating maintenance bases and providing services to help Cuba ensure its own security. The move comes as US President Barack Obama has attempted to revive ties with the island nation, however President-elect Donald Trump could limit the thawing of tensions that have persisted for decades. In May 2016, President Obama visited Cuba, breaking an 88-year drought of US presidents visiting Havana.

December 9, 2016

SENIOR CUBAN DIPLOMAT HOPES DONALD TRUMP WILL IMPROVE US-CUBA TIES 
 
    
HAVANA, CUBA   -- Despite advances in relations between the former Cold War rivals Washington has not lifted the economic embargo imposed on the island in 1962. A senior Cuban diplomat has said that she hopes President-elect Donald Trump will take into account advances in US-Cuban relations and can even improve on them when he takes office. Trump has threatened to end the US thaw with Cuba unless Havana delivers a “better deal” for Washington and makes concessions on human rights and opening up its economy.

    He also described the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as a “brutal dictator” after the revolutionary icon died on November 25. Nevertheless, Cuba “would hope the new government of the United States takes into account the results we have achieved” since diplomatic ties were re-established in 2015, and would be ready to continue improving them “on the basis of respect,” said Josefina Vidal, head of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry. Vidal spoke to reporters after meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mari Carmen Aponte in Havana. Cuba reaffirmed its will “to continue making progress in improving relations and

building ties of peaceful coexistence, beneficial to both sides,” Vidal said. However, this must happen “within respect for the existing differences, and without having to make any type of concession or abandoning the principles in which Cuba firmly believes in,” she said. The United States and Cuba re-established ties in July 2015 after a rupture of more than half a century. Despite advances in relations between the former Cold War rivals — which include a slew of bilateral agreements and more than 208,000 US citizens visiting Cuba this year –Washington has not lifted the economic embargo imposed on the island in 1962

VENEZUELA PARLIAMENT LEADER, HENRY RAMOS ALLUP: I WILL NOT ATTEND 'CLOWN' MADURO'S FARCE MEETING

     CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  - Henry Ramos Allup, leader of Venezuela's National Assembly legislature, on Wednesday rejected attending an emergency government meeting called by President Maduro because he would not be made a "fool." Maduro on Wednesday held a meeting with Venezuelan government institutions, including the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, but Allup -- the parliament's president -- did not attend the "farce" and instead participated in a protest against Maduro's regime. Maduro on Tuesday said he would trigger Venezuela's Council for the Defense of the Nation, or CODENA, which the Venezuelan Constitution dictates should be activated during emergency crises. The meeting began at 11 a.m. on Wednesday in the presidential Miraflores Palace.

     "I will not make a fool of himself in a meeting which aims to make accusations against the National Assembly," Allup said Wednesday. "I will not attend the theater. It is not possible for [CODENA] to be used to form a show the president wants to mount against the National Assembly." Allup said the CODENA meeting would only serve for the interests of Maduro's regime, which has accused the National Assembly of anti-democratic behavior -- an accusation the opposition-controlled unicameral parliament has also levied against Maduro's regime.

     "I will not go because that meeting is to convert me into a kind of criminal to listen to the accusations made by the president or the military," Allup said. "And I will not lend myself to be a clown, because the clown is him, his ministers and all his military." During the meeting, Maduro said he regretted that Allup did not attend -- adding that the National Assembly continues to be "in contempt." "[Allup] knows I'm a man of dialogue," Maduro said. "Our Constitution has proved to be superior to all concepts of democracy." The CODENA meeting was called after National Assembly on Sunday declared Maduro's regime carried out a coup d'etat after the opposition's efforts to recall the embattled leader were postponed. On Tuesday, the parliament voted Maduro to stand trial on accusations that he violated the constitution to remain in power.

ARGENTINA JUSTIFIES VENEZUELA'S SUSPENSION FROM MERCOSUR

       BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA  --
 Argentine government representatives argued that Caracas suspension from the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) was fully justified. The Argentine government on Wednesday justified Venezuela’s suspension from the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), alleging the Caribbean nation failed to “comply with” the rules of the regional economic bloc.

     Argentina’s Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña played down the move by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to appeal against the suspension, claiming the Venezuelan Head of State would face “an overwhelming reality.” Peña further recalled that the other Mercosur four founding Member States (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) fully implemented the bloc’s rules, thus reducing room for a successful appeal.

    Venezuela’s suspension as Member State of Mercosur was announced last Saturday. The “cessation of the exercise of inherent rights” of Venezuela as a Mercosur Member State is based, in words of the bloc’s foreign ministers, on the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, “both as a general principle of the law and as a customary rule,” according to an official communiqué.

December 8, 2016

RETIRED MARINE GENERAL JOHN F. KELLY PICKED TO HEAD DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY 
 
    
WASHINGTON, D.C.   - President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security, turning to a blunt-spoken border security hawk who clashed with the Obama administration over women in combat and plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, according to people familiar with the decision. Kelly, who retired in February as chief of U.S. Southern Command, would inherit a massive and often troubled department responsible for overseeing perhaps the most controversial part of Trump’s agenda: his proposed crackdown on illegal immigration.

     DHS is the third-largest Cabinet department, with more than 240,000 employees who do everything from fight terrorism to protect the president and enforce immigration laws. Kelly, 66, is a widely respected military officer who served for more than 40 years, and he is not expected to face difficulty winning Senate confirmation. Trump’s team was drawn to him because of his Southwest border expertise, people familiar with the transition said.

     Like the president-elect, Kelly has sounded the alarm about drugs, terrorism and other cross-border threats he sees as emanating from Mexico and Central and South America. Yet Kelly’s nomination could raise questions about what critics see as Trump’s tendency to surround himself with too many military figures. Trump has also selected retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis for defense secretary and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser, while retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus is under consideration for secretary of state. Kelly, a Boston native, was chosen over an array of other candidates who also met with Trump after his surprise election victory last month.

OPPOSITION WILL NOT PARTICIPATE IN VENEZUELA DIALOGUE SPOKESMAN SAYS

     CARACAS, VENEZUELA
  - Venezuela's opposition said Tuesday it would skip a meeting with the government, endangering ongoing talks aimed at diffusing the country's political crisis. Opposition spokesman Jesus Torrealba said that the coalition would not attend Tuesday's sit-down because the government has not made any concessions more than a month into the mediation effort. The Vatican-sponsored dialogue is aimed at steering the country away from violence as a majority of voters want socialist President Nicolas Maduro out, and the government refuses to allow a recall referendum to proceed.

     The opposition has demanded that the government release political prisoners and allow a vote. Opposition leaders have made concessions including suspending planned street protests, ending a symbolic impeachment effort in congress and giving up the effort to seat three contested lawmakers. "It would be insincere to keep sitting there as if nothing has happened," Torrealba said. The talks come as the government is under increasing international pressure to show respect for the democratic process. On Friday, South American nations suspended Venezuela from the Mercosur trade group over what they said was its failure to comply with commitments made when it joined the group in 2012.

     That strong rebuke from Venezuela's one-time friends could open the door to stronger action from other regional players. The head of the Organization of American States has for months threatened to move against Venezuela for its increasing authoritarianism and some U.S. Congress members are calling for additional sanctions. The two sides have tried dialogue during previous crises with little effect, and hope is already fading for the current talks. Although Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their economic woes, the ruling party has almost complete control of institutions like the courts and the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.

VENEZUELAN CONGRESS DEPLORES FM'S "ERRATIC PERFORMANCE"

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --
 The Venezuelan opposition parliament group asked the government “to agree, within a reasonable period and the framework of a commitment schedule, on actions helpful to meet all pending business, political and social obligations” with the Common Market of the South (Mercosur)

     With the votes of the Venezuelan opposition parliament group, the National Assembly agreed to “deplore erratic actions by the Venezuelan Foreign Minister” Delcy Rodríguez. In that connection, they asked the government “to agree, within a reasonable period and a framework of commitment schedule, on actions helpful to meet all pending business, political and social obligations” with the Common Market of the South (Mercosur). The deal, which contains two items only, reads that Rodríguez has shown “poor diplomatic performance, (which) has been a disturbing and controversial factor that has blocked the negotiation path and diplomatic relations, and has stirred up Venezuela’s suspension from Mercosur.”

     The pro-government parliament group presented their own 10-item draft agreement, which urges both parties “to normalize” operation of the National Assembly and makes an appeal “not to use Mercosur as a political platform.” The draft was rejected by the opposition lawmakers. The opposition lawmakers claimed they would defend Venezuela’s continuation in the economic regional bloc, arguing that when they become the ruling party, they would capitalize on the advantages of that integration process.

December 7, 2016

TORREALBA, THE LEADER OF VENEZUELA'S OPPOSITION MUD WITHDREW FROM THE DIALOGUE 
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA  - Venezuela's opposition Tuesday withdrew from the latest round of crisis negotiations with authorities, insisting the government first release prisoners and allow a vote on the volatile country's political future. It was the latest clash in a tense standoff between the South American country's socialist government and the center right-dominated opposition. "We are staying in the dialogue system but we are not going to take part in today's meeting," said Jesus Torrealba, leader of the opposition MUD coalition.

     His side insists the government release jailed opposition leaders and agree to hold a vote on whether Socialist President Nicolas Maduro should stay in office. Maduro has refused both demands, despite insisting he is open to dialogue. The center-right opposition blames Maduro's management for a deep economic crisis. Maduro says the crisis is a US-backed capitalist conspiracy. His number two Diosdado Cabello had insisted on Monday: "We will not withdraw from the talks." A recession driven by plunging prices for Venezuela's crucial crude oil exports has led to shortages of food and medicine.

     Citizens face long queues to buy basic supplies and inflation has soared. Deadly riots and looting have broken out over recent months. The dialogue aims to calm tensions as the center-right opposition demands a vote on removing Maduro. The MUD claimed Maduro's side had agreed at the last round of talks to meet some of its demands. "The government is not only failing to fulfill its promises, it is denying all the agreements," Torrealba said on the radio. Maduro insists the issue of prisoners and a vote were never on the table. A group of 14 jailed opposition leaders launched a hunger strike on Monday to demand the government release political prisoners and allow a vote to settle the crisis.

EUROPEAN UNION DROPS HUMAN RIGHTS CONDITION FOR CUBA NORMALIZATION AND WILL SIGN NEW AGREEMENT

     BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
  -- European Union countries cleared the way Tuesday for full normalisation of ties with communist Cuba next week by dropping demands for Havana to first improve its human rights record. Cuban and EU officials signed a normalization deal in March as US President Barack Obama brought Havana back in from the cold after nearly 60 years, but it still needed backing by the 28 EU member states. EU ministers meeting in Brussels agreed on Tuesday to repeal a 1996 policy containing the human rights conditions and to have the normalisation deal signed on December 12.

    "We are truly at a turning point in the relations between the EU and Cuba," EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement. "Through the new agreement, the EU is ready to support Cuba's process of economic and social modernisation," she added. In 2003, the EU imposed sanctions on Cuba and suspended cooperation over a crackdown on journalists and activists and it took until 2008 to get talks going again. Cuba was previously the only Latin American country without an international cooperation deal with the EU. The normalization deal will cover trade and investment, economic development, regional cooperation, environment, human rights, disarmament, migration, drugs and counter-terrorism.

     Havana had rejected the human rights conditions as interference in its domestic affairs and pressed hard for its removal during the normalisation talks launched in April 2014. The 1996 policy -- known as the Common Position -- had included the following demand: "The European Union considers that full cooperation with Cuba will depend upon improvements in human rights and political freedom." But the EU's diplomatic service said the new agreement enshrines a human rights dialogue launched in 2015 that will allow "both sides to exchange views on basic principles of human rights and address concerns." The pact is due to be signed by Mogherini and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. The deal will be submitted to the European Parliament, member state national parliaments and the Cuban National Assembly for ratification.

FIRST CUBAN MIGRANTS LAND IN FLORIDA SINCE FIDEL CASTRO'S DEATH

       MIAMI, FLORIDA  --
 Thirteen Cuban migrants who arrived early Tuesday in the Florida Keys aboard a homemade boat are the first to land on U.S. soil since Fidel Castro died, U.S. authorities said, adding they're on alert amid an ongoing surge in sea crossings. The migrants were all in good health after arriving on Big Pine Key around 4 a.m., Monroe County Sheriff's Office Deputy Becky Herrin said in an email. The 10 men and three women are to be processed and released to an organization that helps refugees resettle in the United States, according to Norma Morfa, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.

     It's "the first known maritime smuggling event" from Cuba since Castro's death on Nov. 25, Morfa said in an email. Under the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cubans reaching U.S. soil generally can remain. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, fears about that policy potentially ending have been driving a surge in the numbers of Cubans attempting to reach U.S. soil since December 2014, when a resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Havana was announced. Castro's death and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's hard-line stance on curbing illegal immigration have added to the uncertainty over that policy, which was enacted by the U.S. government after an exodus of Cuban rafters in 1994.

     Coast Guard officials in Miami say it's too soon to tell whether the longtime Cuban leader's death has triggered an additional increase. Last week, 38 Cubans intercepted at sea by U.S. authorities were returned home. "We're constantly patrolling the seas," said Chief Nick Cangemi of the Coast Guard's 7th District.
As of Dec. 1, 827 Cubans have attempted to reach U.S. soil by sea since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, according to Coast Guard statistics. Over 7,400 Cubans were intercepted in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — a 60 percent increase from 4,473 tallied the previous year.

December 6, 2016

A CONFIDENTIAL VATICAN LETTER ON DIALOGUE SPARKED MADURO'S ANGER 
 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --  This Friday Nicolás Maduro said that the Venezuelan opposition, which is in a process of "dialogue" with the Government today, is trying to "implode" the table, through one of the international mediators. He said this through a live and direct broadcast by Venezolana de Televisión (VTV): "There are maneuvers to implode the dialogue table with the complicity of one of the accompanying factors that we invite to dialogue. They are trying to implode the table. The right (...) I have the proofs. "

     On the other hand, he said that "participants in the dialogue are invited from the Government, as participants and companions." Maduro refers to the Vatican when it speaks of a "facilitator" who would be "sabotaging" the dialogue. Maduro's furious reaction is the government's response to a confidential letter sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin to Maduro on 12/12/2016, with a copy to Jorge Rodríguez, Samper, the 3 former presidents and the MUD.

     In the letter the Holy See expressly demands (that is the word used: "DEMAND") that before 6D four events must take place: 1) That measures be taken for the entry of food and medicines into the country to alleviate the humanitarian crisis; 2) That the parties agree on an electoral timetable; 3) That the powers conferred by the Constitution and 4) Release of political prisoners ( "detained"). The letter ends with the warning that "the Holy See reserves the right to make this communication public when it deems necessary". The content and tone of the letter may imply a substantial shift in the dynamics of "dialogue". Vatican letter reveals government's lack of will to dialogue.

PENCE: OBAMA CAN REACH OUT TO CUBAN DICTATOR, BUT TRUMP CAN'T TAKE CALL FROM TAIWAN'S LEADER?

     WASHINGTON, D.C.
  -- The American people are "encouraged" to see President-elect Trump "taking calls from the world, speaking to the world," including the democratically elected leader of Taiwan, Vice President-elect Mike Pence told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "But I think it all begins with relationships, and...that was nothing more than taking a courtesy call of congratulations from the democratically elected leader of Taiwan." China, which claims Taiwan as its own, has complained about Trump's contact on Friday with the leader of Taiwan, a breach of longstanding diplomatic protocol.

     The United States, under President Jimmy Carter, broke off formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, in deference to communist China, but the U.S. maintains unofficial ties with Taiwan to this day. Pence told "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos, "It's a little mystifying to me that President Obama can -- can reach out to a murdering dictator in -- in Cuba in the last year and be hailed as a hero for doing it and President-elect Donald Trump takes a courtesy call from a democratically elected leader in Taiwan and it's become -- it's become something of a controversy, because I think the American people appreciate the fact that -- that our president-elect is taking calls from and reaching out to the world and preparing on day one to lead America on the world stage."

     Stephanopoulos asked Pence if Trump is signaling changes in U.S. policy toward China. Pence said the Trump administration will deal with China policy after inauguration day. "On day one, will he label China a currency manipulator?" Stephanopoulos asked. "Well, he said that over the course of the campaign. And the truth of the matter is a lot is going to change in America's economic policies -- not just with regard to China, but with regard to the North American Free Trade Agreement, with regard to -- look, we -- we've been -- America has been losing too much in jobs and economic growth on the world stage.

VENEZUELA IS PRINTING A 20,000 BOLIVAR NOTE TO FIGHT HYPERINFLATION

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --
 Venezuela will print a 20,000 bolivar note after hyperinflation turned its currency into worthless pieces of paper. The central bank said Sunday it will issue six new bills starting Dec. 15 worth between 500 and 20,000 bolivars. That's 200 times the biggest note currently in circulation -- the 100 bolivar. Hyperinflation means very little can be bought with 100 bolivars, which is officially worth 15 U.S. cents, or just 2 cents based on widely-used unofficial exchange rates. The currency collapse means people are having to carry their money around in bags, rather than wallets.

     "For example, a pair of pants is about 40,000 bolivars, which means you currently need to carry 400 bills of 100 bolivars each to be able to buy them," said Luis Oliveros, an economic professor at the Caracas Metropolitan University. He said the central bank move was long overdue. "People have used credit cards so much that electronic payment systems have recently collapsed. This is a very serious problem." Inflation in Venezuela is expected to rise to nearly 500% this year and to a whopping 1,660% in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund. In November alone, the bolivar lost more than half of its value. One U.S. dollar buys 4,400 bolivars on Monday, according to Dolartoday.com.

     Venezuela is in the grip of a deep economic crisis that has led to serious food and medicine shortages for everyday people. The country is heavily dependent on oil for revenue, but this stream of income is drying up. The country could officially default on its debt in mid-December. Venezuela eliminated three zeroes from its currency in 2008 and the government promised to take steps to rein in inflation, but those efforts have failed. Meanwhile, economists don't expect the new bills to make life easier for most Venezuelans any time soon. Oliveros expects 500 and 1,000 bolivar bills will be distributed in the main cities at first, with the larger denominations appearing gradually over the next several months.

December 5, 2016

ASHES OF FIDEL CASTRO ARRIVE IN SANTIAGO DE CUBA FOR FINAL CEREMONIES 
 
    
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA  --  The mortal remains of Fidel Castro arrived on Saturday in the city of Santiago de Cuba, where he will be laid to rest this Sunday, and where the Cuban people can bid the former leader their final farewell at a massive ceremony this afternoon. The funeral cortege, which took the same route but in the opposite direction as that taken by the 1959 “Freedom Caravan,” entered the eastern capital through the town of El Cobre, site of the image of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patroness, considered the protector of the island’s fighters for independence.

    Lining both sides of the Central Highway, thousands of Santiago residents greeted the funeral procession with cheers while waving the Cuban flag and portraits of the ex-president, a scene constantly repeated during the four days it took the caravan to cross the island almost from end to end. The crowds waved multiple red-and-black banners of the July 26 Movement, the rebel group commanded by Fidel, which had a strong presence in Santiago during the three years the Cuban Revolution was fought, and which ended in victory in 1959.

     Named the “Hero City” by the Cuban government, the city was the scene of bloody battles between the underground fighting Fulgencio Batista, and was one of the most important bastions of Fidel’s “Rebel Army” because of its proximity to the guerrilla stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The city is also very connected to Castro’s early days, because located there are the Moncada barracks, where his failed attack marked the beginning of the Castro insurgency.
From there it will be taken in the afternoon to the Antonio Maceo Plaza for the final massive farewell ceremony, attended by international delegations and which will end with an address by the leader’s younger brother and current president of Cuba, Raul Castro.

THE RUSSIAN JEEP CARRYING THE ASHES OF FIDEL CASTRO BROKE DOWN AND HAD TO BE PUSHED

     SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA
  -- The Russian jeep carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro broke down and had to be pushed for a period on Saturday. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's ashes were interred in a private ceremony Sunday morning, ending nine days of official mourning. The Russian-made jeep ferrying Castro's ashes broke down and needed to be pushed on Saturday en route to the late leader's final resting place. The breakdown of the jeep in the midst of adoring crowds chanting "Long live Fidel!" was symbolic of the dual nature of Castro's Cuba.

     While Fidel’s legacy inspires fierce adulation by many of the nation's citizens, others continue to grumble about Cuba's autocratic government, inefficient bureaucracy and stagnant economy. Castro's tomb stands to the side of a memorial to the rebel soldiers killed during a 1953 Castro-led attack on Santiago's Moncada barracks. Castro's final resting spot is in front of the mausoleum of Cuban national hero Jose Marti. The Cuban military fired a 21-gun salute and crowds at the entrance to the cemetery sang the national anthem as the ashes entered about 40 minutes later. The ceremony lasted more than an hour and took place out of the public eye after Cuban officials made a last-minute cancellation of plans to broadcast the events live on national and international television. International media were also barred from the ceremony.

     The decision to hold a private ceremony came the morning after Castro's brother, President Raul Castro, announced that Cuba would prohibit the naming of streets and monuments after the former leader, and bar the construction of statues of the former leader and revolutionary icon, in keeping with his desire to avoid a cult of personality. "The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality and was consistent in that through the last hours of his life, insisting that, once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statues or other forms of tribute would never be erected," Raul Castro told a massive crowd gathered in the eastern city of Santiago.

AMERICAN AIRLINES TO TRIM CUBA FLIGHTS SCHEDULES

       NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK --
 Airlines Group Inc will cut nearly 25 percent of its flights to Cuba in 2017, a company spokesman said on Thursday, attributing the move to travel demand rather than the election of Republican Donald Trump as U.S. president. Starting in mid-February, American, the world's largest airline, will offer one trip a day instead of two from Miami to Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero, reducing its daily service to 10 round-trip flights from the current 13, spokesman Matt Miller said in a telephone interview.

     Airlines are generally expected to perform poorly when entering a previously restricted market, but American's decision to prune its Cuban itinerary two months after starting service may come as a surprise in light of the industry's enthusiasm to fly to the Communist-run island. Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, threatened on Monday to end the recent rapprochement between the United States and its former Cold War foe unless Havana was willing to "make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole.".

     The United States and Cuba began normalizing relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks and have since restored full diplomatic ties. They reached a memorandum of understanding that allowed U.S. airlines to start scheduled flights to Cuba after a half-century hiatus. President Barack Obama's administration has eased travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, although general tourism remains illegal. Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress oppose ending the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba. U.S. airlines launched the first regular flights to Havana in more than five decades on Monday. American started five daily Havana flights this week.
 

December 4, 2016

CUBANS 'FEAR REPRISALS' IF THEY DON'T SHOW GRIEF OVER CASTRO'S DEATH, DISSIDENTS SAY 
 
    
HAVANA, CUBA --  Immediately after President Raúl Castro announced the death of his older brother, Fidel, last Friday evening, the music in Havana stopped playing. Discos and movie theaters emptied out and closed temporarily. Bars and restaurants were told to severely restrict the sale of alcohol. Hundreds of thousands of Fidelistas braved the Caribbean sun to pay homage in Revolution Square. On Sunday, stone-faced students stood on the steps leading to the University of Havana, acting as a silent honor guard for the former dictator, carrying banners with slogans and guarding a temporary monument at his alma mater.

    But in a country with a regime with a history of rounding up crowds for rallies by knocking on people's doors, things are rarely what they seem. Many Cubans, especially those old enough to remember the Revolution and the early years of communist nation building on the island, are genuine in their grief over the death of the man they saw as a national icon who defied the United States for more than half a century. But the state-imposed nine-day period of mourning also left little room for Cubans with a more dissenting view of the deceased leader. “You need to be very careful about what you say”, one artist in Havana, who asked not to be named out of fear for reprisals, told FNL. “Any opinion that isn’t in line with the national mourning can have consequences."

     Prominent Cuban dissidents show restraint in their reaction to Castro’s death, with many choosing to stay home and stage no protests or show any sign of relief or happiness over the passing of the comandante en jefe, in sharp contrast to jubilant scenes in Florida. “People are terrified to say something that isn’t in line with the national mourning”, said Berta Soler. She heads the Ladies in White, a group of women staging protesting political imprisonment. The group, which is often the target of government action due to their persistent opposition to the regime, chose not to stage its weekly silent protest march last Sunday, which was instead held by their counterparts in Miami. “The harassment and the repression continue,” she told FNL. “I’ve heard that people who don’t abide by the rules of not playing music received fines and have music equipment confiscated.”

BOLIVIA MINISTER: COUNTRY COULD FACE US AVIATION DOWNGRADE

      LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
  --  The U.S. could downgrade the country's aviation safety rating because of irregularities that may have contributed to this week's crash of a chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team, Bolivia's Defense Minister said Saturday. As investigators probe what caused the crash that killed all but six of the 77 people on board, a string of human mistakes and irregularities have emerged, leading experts to conclude that one of the worst disasters in sports history could have been prevented.

     Attention has focused on why the British-built regional jet was allowed to attempt the flight between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Colombian city of Medellin with barely enough fuel to cover the route. According to a flight plan obtained by Bolivian media, the total flying time was set at 4 hours and 22 minutes — the same amount of time of fuel the aircraft had on board.

     "I've never seen a flight plan like this. The fuel on board should never, never match the estimated flight time," said John Cox, a retired airline pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Operating Systems, who reviewed the internationally standardized flight plan. "In a lot of countries this flight plan would not have been accepted." Questions have also been raised about how the charter airline LaMia, which was licensed earlier this year, was able to quickly amass an impressive list of clients from South America's top soccer clubs as well as the national teams of Argentina and Brazil. One of the airline's owners died in the crash while another, Gustavo Vargas, is a retired air force general who once served as Bolivian President Evo Morales' pilot.

VENEZUELA SAYS TO ISSUE BIGGER NOTES 'VERY SOON' AS INFLATION SURGES

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA --
 President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday Venezuela would issue higher denomination bills “very soon” as soaring inflation and a crumbling currency leave the crisis-stricken country’s largest note worth just 2 U.S. cents on the black market. Still, the long-awaited entry of 500 and 5,000 bolivar notes will only bring a brief respite amid rapid money printing and a weakening currency. Today 5,000 bolivars buy just over $1 on the black market, which exists because Venezuela introduced currency controls in 2003 but does not offer enough dollars to meet demand. Money supply rose 12 percent in the last two weeks while the bolivar weakened 65 percent in the last month.

     As a result, Venezuelans often carry backpacks full of bills and cash machines frequently run dry due to long queues. “Several million bills of 500 bolivars and then several million bills of 5,000 bolivars will enter circulation very soon,” Maduro said in a televised address, noting that the central bank would provide details on Sunday and Monday. Adding to the currency chaos, Venezuela’s credit card readers, already shaky, suffered chronic malfunctions on Friday. Unable to process transactions, stores had to ask clients to use cash, transfers, or pay later. Maduro blamed a “cyber attack” and said he was sending the Sebin intelligence service to Credicard, a payment processor, to take “all legal actions.”

     “Today we suffered an international cyber attack on our base platform, the internet’s technological platform,” Maduro said at an event with community groups in charge of food distribution. “We’ve already detected where the attack came from. It affected the entire capacity for internet exchanges to… provoke a state of collapse and desperation.” Maduro’s critics say he is seeking scapegoats for 17 years of inept Socialist rule and a corrupt, inefficient state-led economy. Lack of investment, price-fixing that hurts companies, and theft at installations have led to a sharp deterioration of the telecommunications industry. “It’s not the fault of cash machines or the internet, it’s this model that has brought us to misery,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Armando Armas.

December 3, 2016

VENEZUELA IS SUSPENDED FROM MERCOSUR 
    
CARACAS, VENEZUELA --  Venezuela will be suspended from the Mercosur regional trade bloc as early as Friday for failing to meet membership requirements, a Brazilian official said, in the latest blow to the oil-producing country during a deep political and economic crisis. According to the official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, Mercosur understands that Venezuela failed to meet economic, human rights and immigration accords governing the group. Mercosur's other members are Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and regional diplomatic heavyweight Brazil.Earlier on Thursday, Reuters reported that three unidentified Brazilian officials expected Venezuela to be suspended from the bloc.

    "Venezuela has not adopted all the membership rules and treaties it had promised," one of those officials said. "Everything indicates that Venezuela will be suspended starting in December."An Argentine government source said later on Thursday that the decision would not happen until a Dec. 14 meeting of Mercosur foreign ministers. Socialist-led Venezuela has said it will not leave Mercosur and has denounced what it calls a campaign by right-leaning Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to expel it from the group. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez on Thursday said via Twitter that Venezuela had called on member countries to activate a mechanism for "resolutions of conflicts," tweeting a complaint letter sent to Mercosur foreign ministers. "Venezuela must be respected!" Rodriguez said on Twitter. "Officials who adhere to imperialist mandates will not win against our fatherland."

     The suspension would not carry any sanctions against Venezuela, but would sideline its government from bloc meetings and trade negotiations, the Brazilian officials said. A suspension would also further isolate Venezuela as it struggles with food shortages and social unrest as its oil-dependent economy crumbles. Brazil's Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment. Tensions within Mercosur reflect the changing political landscape of a region that has turned to conservative governments after years of domination by leftist leaders buoyed by a commodities boom. Some Brazilian officials had considered delaying the suspension to avoid hampering Vatican-led negotiations to ease the political crisis in Venezuela, but they later dropped those plans, said another official.

FIDEL CASTRO'S FAMILY EXPECTED TO SECURE ESTIMATED $900 MILLION ESTATE

      LONDON, ENGLAND
  --  Cuban dictator Fidel Castro reportedly left behind millions in private mansions, yachts, private islands, and even a personal cheese factory. While the Castro family has imposed a mandatory nine-day mourning period over Cuba, questions remain as to who will inherit the head of state’s fortune. While fellow communists and assorted global leftist elites are using the occasion of his death to praise Fidel Castro as a hero of the poor, reports from both defectors within Castro’s world and journalists using publicly available information have estimated the Castro family fortune to be in the millions.

    The closest realistic number estimating Castro’s net worth appeared in the magazine Forbes in 2006, whose research found that Castro was hiding a $900 million fortune from his starving people. To be conservative, we don’t try to estimate any past profits he may have pocketed, though we have heard rumors of large stashes in Swiss bank accounts,” Forbes wrote at the time. “Castro, for the record disagrees, insisting his personal net worth is zero.” In addition to government sources of revenue, many have speculated that his close ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist terrorist group that funds its activities with cocaine trafficking, has paid its tributes to Havana in order to continue to receive safe haven there.

     Castro responded to that accusation with his own version of Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech, in which he “usurped regular TV programming for four hours” to claim that he has no real net worth and Forbes has no proof that he does. “If they can prove that I have a bank account abroad, with $900 million, with $1 million, $500,000, $100,000 or $1 in it, I will resign,” he railed. Castro stepped down from power in 2008. While Forbes‘s account never provided any details, a tell-all book by a former Castro bodyguard shed light on some of the most eccentric aspects of the Castro fortune.

VENEZUELA LAWMAKERS CONDEMN MASSACRE IN RARE SHOW OF UNITY

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA --
Condeming a massacre by soldiers was only the second time the coalition of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, seen November 4, 2016, and the opposition. Venezuelan lawmakers voted unanimously Tuesday to issue a declaration condemning the massacre of 12 civilians by soldiers, a rare display of unity in a country torn by a political crisis. President Nicolas Maduro's allies and the opposition majority came together to "condemn the forced disappearance and killing of a number of citizens... by members of the military," they said.

     The resolution refers to a bloody security operation in October that left 12 farmers missing. Their bodies were later found rotting in mass graves in the mountains outside the town of Barlovento, in the central state of Miranda. Eleven soldiers were arrested for the killings. Tuesday's vote was just the second time Maduro's coalition and the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) have unanimously adopted a piece of legislation since the latter won control of the National Assembly last year. The other was an endorsement of Pope Francis's call for dialogue on the country's raging crisis.

     Oil giant Venezuela has veered toward economic collapse as crude prices have plunged since 2014, fueling an opposition drive to oust Maduro. The leftist leader, who accuses his opponents of conspiring with the United States to oust him, has vowed to hold onto power at least until his term ends in 2019. Shortages of food, medicine and basic goods in Venezuela have led to riots, looting and a rise in violent crime. Seeking to bolster security, the military launched a crime crackdown in July 2015 called People's Liberation Operations, or OPLs. Activists have voiced concern about rights abuses committed under the program, including the Barlovento massacre. The military has said it “categorically rejects” the actions of the 11 soldiers arrested over the killings.

December 2, 2016

MORE THAN 1,000 CUBAN AMERICANS IN MIAMI RALLY FOR REFORM IN CUBA AFTER FIDEL CASTRO'S DEATH

    
MIAMI, FLORIDA --  Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday along the famous Calle Echo of Little Havana and are demonstrating in Miami to demand liberation and democracy on the socialist island following the death of the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. As Cubans on the island mourned the death of Fidel Castro, the exile community in Miami continued to celebrate 288 miles and a political universe away from Havana. Instead of the usual-rush hour crush Wednesday afternoon, Calle Ocho was the stage for a jubilant rally where people optimistically called for reform on the island.

     Young and old, some who fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion, some who dream of one day seeing the home of their parents and grandparents, danced and sang to salsa music amid a flurry of flags, Cuban cigar smoke and signs cheering Castro’s death. Around 4:30 p.m., the crowd began to swell and fill the street between 12th and 13th avenues as the party atmosphere took hold. Before speakers took the stage, Willy Chirino’s “Nuestro Dia” blasted from loudspeakers and sent the crowd into sing-along.

     The rally capped days of cathartic celebration since Castro’s death late Friday. Organized by 2506 Assault Brigade as an event to unite exiles, the event began with a moment of silence to honor those who fell in the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, and the many dissidents who have been killed and imprisoned under Castro’s rule. In Miami, a series of speakers roused the crowd with indictments of Castro’s legacy and President Barack Obama’s policy to re-establish relations with the Cuban government. Tinges of U.S. politics colored the crowd as some people yelled "Viva Trump," donned "Make American Great Again" hats and hoisted campaign signs in support of President-elect Donald Trump.

COLOMBIA'S CONGRESS PASSES HISTORIC PEACE DEAL WITH GUERRILLAS, BUT BATTLES REMAIN

      BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
  --  cOLOMBIA’s long and grinding conflict with its largest guerrilla group inched toward an anticlimactic conclusion after the House and Senate ratified a hard-fought peace agreement, even with an opposition walkout. But as President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated the legislative triumph late Wednesday, a battle loomed over implementing the 310-page accord. The next hurdle for the agreement could be resolved this week when the Constitutional Court is expected to decide whether the raft of laws and amendments needed to make peace a reality can move quickly through the legislature or face weeks of bruising debates.

     Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo on Thursday refused to speculate about the fate of the deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, if the courts don’t grant the “fast track” option. “The Constitutional Court is studying the issue at this moment,” he said in a press conference, “and we have to wait, with all due respect, until they make an announcement. Among the priorities is blanket immunity for FARC members not accused of serious crimes. Congress also needs to pass legislation creating the new FARC political party and a commission to help find the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during the half-century conflict.

     The wait for the court ruling comes amid other signs of friction. The administration maintains that the clock has started for the guerrillas to begin moving toward pre-established concentration zones, where they will hand over their weapons and receive training. But on Thursday, FARC Commander Pastor Alape told Caracol radio that it’s premature to make that move. He said the guerrillas need more legislative and judicial guarantees, including the amnesty and the court’s “fast track” approval, before they will begin complying with the peace agreement. However, he said, there was no turning back on the deal. “We’re happy that the agreement was passed,” he said. “Spring is here and hope has arrived.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA PRESSING CUBA TO SECURE DEALS WITH GE, GOOGLE

       Washington, d.c.  --
General Electric and Google are among firms U.S. officials believe will secure agreements to operate in Cuba as the Obama administration presses Havana to complete pending deals before Donald Trump takes office, according to people familiar with the discussions. In addition, three American cruise lines are expected to announce deals to start service to Cuba, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean and Pearl Seas Cruises.

     Mexican movie star Gael García Bernal stops by the WSJ Cafe to talk about his new movie "Neruda" and what it was like to discuss Donald Trump with his children after election night. The new business agreements are expected to be announced over the next few weeks, those familiar with the discussions said. For the White House, which ramped up an effort before the election to prod Havana, the deals are aimed at cementing President Barack Obama’s policy of advancing U.S.-Cuba relations. White House officials are unsure how Trump, the president-elect, will approach Obama’s Cuba policy.

      He has said he would reverse the effort to build relations, and this week wrote on Twitter that “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal.” While there is no formal deal between the U.S. and Cuba that can be undone, there has been a broad effort to expand economic, trade and cultural ties between the two countries since Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December 2014 that they would re-establish diplomatic relations. Asked about the possible agreement, a GE spokesman said: “We continue to talk to Cuba and we’re in the middle of negotiations.”

December 01, 2016

OPEC CONFOUNDS SKEPTICS, AGREEING TO FIRST OIL CUTS IN 8 YEARS

    
VIENNA, AUSTRIA --  OPEC confounded its doubters and sent crude oil prices soaring by agreeing to its first production cuts in eight years. The deal, designed to drain record global oil inventories, overcame disagreements between the group’s three largest producers -- Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq -- and ended a flirtation with free markets that started in 2014. It was also broader than many had expected, extending beyond OPEC. Most strikingly, Russia agreed to unprecedented cuts to its own output. The impact on the energy world was immediate: benchmark oil prices gained as much as 10 percent in New York and the share prices of energy companies around the globe jumped alongside the currencies of large exporters.

    Whether that’s sustained will depend on how strictly members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries stick to the agreement, something they haven’t always done in the past. “This should be a wake-up call for skeptics who have argued the death of OPEC,” said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd. “The group wants to push inventories down.” After weeks of often tense negotiations, the eventual alignment of OPEC’s biggest producers points to the increasing dominance of Iran among the group’s top ranks. It’s allowed to raise output to about 3.8 million barrels a day, a victory for a country that’s long sought special treatment as it recovers from sanctions. Saudi Arabia previously proposed that its regional rival limit output to 3.707 million barrels a day, delegates said.

     The economics of the deal are “incredibly appealing,” Jeff Currie, global head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. The main aim of the cuts is “inventory normalization,” he said. Across the U.S. shale path, the OPEC cut trigger a huge equity rally. Whiting Petroleum Corp. rose as much as 32 percent -- its biggest one-day jump in 13 years -- while Continental Resources Inc., the company founded by Donald Trump’s adviser Harold Hamm, gained as much as 25 percent, the most since 2008. Saudi Arabia, which raised oil production to a record this year, will reduce output by 486,000 barrels a day to 10.058 million a day, an OPEC document shows. Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer, agreed to cut by 210,000 barrels a day from October levels.

MANHATTAN U.S. ATTORNEY PREET BAHARARA WILL STAY IN ROLE AFTER PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP ASKS HIM TO

      WASHINGTON, D.C.
  --  Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Wednesday that he'd agreed to stay on in his role as Manhattan U.S. Attorney at President-elect Donald Trump's request. Following a meeting with Trump inside Trump Tower, Bharara explained that he had been summoned by the President-elect to discuss remaining in his position and had made up his mind "to stay on." "The President-elect asked, presumably because he's a New Yorker and is aware of the great work that our office has done over the past seven years ... whether or not I'd be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work as we have done it, independently, without fear or favor for the last seven years," Bharara told reporters inside the lobby of the mogul's Midtown abode.

     "We had a good meeting. I said I would absolutely consider staying on. I agreed to stay on," Bharara said, adding that he'd already notified Trump's pick for U.S. Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), of his choice. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a reputed deal-maker, said he played a key role in arranging the sit down. “President-elect Trump called me last week and asked me what I thought about Preet Bharara continuing his role as U.S. Attorney. I told him I thought Preet was great, and I would be all for keeping him on the job and fully support it,” Schumer said in a statement. “I am glad they met and am glad Preet is staying on. He’s been one of the best U.S Attorneys New York has ever seen.” Schumer even provided Trump with Bharara’s cell phone number, a source familiar with the conversation said.

     The Daily News reported earlier this month that Trump would likely ask Bharara to stay on in his role, despite the fact that incoming Presidents typically bring in their own people to replace the current crop of U.S. attorneys across the country. "He has a very high regard for him," a campaign official told The News shortly before the election about Trump's fondness for Bharara's tenacity. "Obviously it's caught his attention what (Bharara's) done in New York. It's the same approach Mr. Trump would like to bring to Washington." Bharara, since he was appointed by President Obama in 2009, has made public corruption a key focus, bringing down elected officials from both parties, including former state Assembly Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-state Senate GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos. His decision to stay on could spell bad news for Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, whose administrations are both the subjects of ongoing investigations by Bharara's office.

CHINA HAS GRANTED $50 BILLION TO VENEZUELA

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA --
South America’s most economically troubled country, facing fears of a debt default amid tumbling oil prices and a cash crunch, has been thrown a lifeline by its largest lender, China. The Asian giant loosened repayment terms on the nearly $50 billion in loans it has granted Venezuela since 2007, according to Venezuela’s Official Gazette. And President Nicolás Maduro said in a speech last week that his finance minister, Rodolfo Marco, would soon travel to China to try to secure new loans.

     Maduro’s popularity has plummeted to 30%, polls show, as Venezuela’s currency collapses and the government struggles with the world’s highest inflation rate and widespread scarcity of basic goods. The country’s woes threaten the future of what Maduro’s predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, called 21st Century Socialism. Last week the president used a $4 billion Chinese credit, traditionally earmarked by the Chinese government for infrastructure projects and held in off-budget funds, to increase reserves to $23.2 billion. China also recently lent $1.3 billion to help Argentina buoy falling reserves, giving President Cristina Kirchner, a close ally of Mr. Maduro, a cushion to help alleviate that country’s cash crunch.

     Beijing’s largess may appear irrational given economic policies in Venezuela and Argentina that do not appear sustainable, said Barbara Kotschwar, a scholar who tracks Chinese investment in Latin America at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “On the other hand,” Ms. Kotschwar said, “they are so invested in Venezuela’s oil industry that they may have calculated that a political crisis would have a negative impact on their return on investment or on Venezuela’s repayment of loans.” Venezuela’s oil revenues, which account for 96% of the country’s dollar income, are down by 35% in the past month, Mr. Maduro said in a speech last week in which he tried to assure his countrymen that the government was taking steps to safeguard against the consequences of the drop in oil prices.

 

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