SPANISH

 

February 28,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP TO SEEK $54 BILLION INCREASE IN MILITARY SPENDING
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C.   -- President Trump will propose raising military spending by $54 billion — a nearly 10 percent increase — and reducing spending by the same amount across much of the rest of the government, White House officials said on Monday. In remarks to the nation’s governors during a White House meeting, the president said he would propose a “public safety and national security” budget for the coming fiscal year that prioritizes the military and other public safety requirements. “This budget follows through on my promise to keep Americans safe,” Mr. Trump said. “It will include an historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States.”

     He added that the budget would send a “message to the world in these dangerous times of American strength, security and resolve.” And he said that the increases in military spending were required to ensure that the United States emerges victorious when it engages in wars with adversaries around the globe. “We have to start winning wars again — when I was young, in high school and college, people used to say we never lost a war,” the president told the governors. “We need to win or don’t fight it all. It’s a mess like you have never seen before.” A senior budget official told reporters that most federal agencies would experience a reduction as a result of the increases in military spending.

     The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said foreign aid would face a significant decrease. The official did not explain why foreign aid, which is a very small fraction of overall government spending and is connected to security concerns abroad, was being targeted for steep reductions. The budget outline is an early effort by the new administration to make good on Mr. Trump’s campaign promises to drastically reduce government spending in Washington while significantly increasing resources for the military. Mr. Trump’s proposals will shield entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security from cuts, according to White House officials.

PRESIDENT MAURICIO MACRI WANTS VENEZUELA OUT OF THE OAS

      BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA   
-- “If the Democratic Charter helps, shall it be welcome, but there is much dependence on Venezuela and its oil.” Mauricio Macri: A democratic process needs to be accomplished urgently in Venezuela Argentinean President Mauricio Macri backs the enforcement of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Venezuela from the regional body. However, he conceded that the initiative could be opposed by some countries in the Western Hemisphere. “If the Democratic Charter helps, shall it be welcome, but there is much dependence on Venezuela and its oil,” Macri said at the beginning of a meeting with investors in Madrid as part of his visit to Spain.

      The enforcement of the OAS Democratic Charter would pave the way for the eviction of a Member State if disruption of the democratic order is proven, a possibility that the Luis Almagro, the OAS’ Secretary has brought forward, AP cited. In this way, Macri voiced support to the OAS’ chief: "Almagro has our support.”It is time that the OAS Secretary Luis Almagro or Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri take a stand in favor of Venezuela and democracy in the region. The Inter-American Democratic Charter (IDC) should have been invoked long ago regarding Venezuela. The two Chavista administrations have violated its mandates for a long time: both the late Venezuelan President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frías and the current one, Nicolás Maduro Moros.

     But through the 17 years of this anti-democratic and militaristic regime there has evidently never been enough political will by the General Secretary and a sufficient number of Member States of the Organization of American States OAS. Hence the few attempts of invocation that have occurred in recent years have not taken hold. The reasons for this lack of political will are too well known. And although there is gradually less economic and political interests of the members of the OAS in Maduro, they still persist. The vast majority of Latin American governments do not want to act together, set a precedent and risk that this action will then somehow comeback . In addition, why act if the invocation of the CDI does not lead to sanctions; and if the maximum possible penalty, which is suspension of Venezuela, does not guarantee a behavioral change? There is the Cuban dictatorship, suspended from the OAS for years and without wanting to return to her bosom even though in 2009 the agency raised (by consensus and without conditions) the penalty that excluded it in 1962.

PERU WARNS AGAINST THE "DANGER" OF VENEZUELAN MASSIVE MIGRATION

       LIMA, PERU   --
Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski commented recently at the United Nations on “red-hot issues,” such as the Venezuelan case. Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski warned on Friday at the United Nations (UN) against the “danger” of emigration “en masse” of Venezuelans to neighboring countries, few hours after his meeting in Washington with US President Donald Trump. Kuczynski, the first Latin American president that has met with the incoming US President Donald Trump at the White House, disclosed on “red-hot issues” that needed to be discussed, such as the Venezuelan case, AFP quoted.

     “Venezuela does not want any meddling and that is natural, but also there is the danger of massive emigration to Colombia, Curacao and other countries in Latin America,” Kuczynski told reporters of international news agencies at the UN headquarters in New York, following a meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Kuczynski has lobbied for the establishment of a global group of countries on behalf of the Venezuelan people, overburdened with shortage of food and medicines and the highest inflation rate in the world, estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at 1660% by 2017.

     In Venezuela "there can be serious health problems, so we have to be willing a group of countries to help. Not to interfere, but to help," Kuczynski said. Venezuela represents a rare common point of understanding between the two leaders of different positions: Kuczynski, a right-wing liberal, and Trump, the real estate tycoon for protectionist policies. Trump, who took office a little over a month ago, has already called for the release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, and the Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accused of drug trafficking. In addition, both Trump and Kuczynski met recently with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López.

February 27,  2017

NATIONAL ASSEMBLY SPECIAL COMMISSION SET UP TO INVESTIGATE VICE PRESIDENT TARECK EL AISSAMI
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA   --  An Special Committee appointed last Wednesday by the National Assembly plenary that will investigate the indictments against the Executive Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, was installed in the vice-presidency of the legislative body. The investigative body will be chaired by the vice-president of the AN, Freddy Guevara and comprised of representatives Ismael León, Carlos Prósperi, Eliécer Sirit and José Luis Pirela among others. The group agreed among its first actions to notify the National Government and all the country's security agencies, Sebin, CICPC and the Public Prosecutor's Office of the special commission that it will investigate Vice-President Aissami, accused by the US government and his alleged front man Samark Lopez, of drug trafficking and money laundering.

     The Aissami was included in the list of the US Department of the Treasury. (Known as the 'Clinton list') for allegedly playing a significant role in international drug trafficking. The sanctions include restrictions on US financial access and the freezing of assets in that country.,The commission that will investigate the case will have a period of 30 days to submit a report to the NA plenary, in accordance with the Internal and Debates Regulations that also provide for extension, if necessary, and could lead to a request for a Motion of censure against the senior official.

    "The US State Department has accused the Vice President of drug trafficking, an offense that it does not prescribe and of serious international repercussions," said Deputy Freddy Guevara during the ceremony setting up the parliamentary commission. Guevara said that the first person interested in clarifying this whole matter is the Vice President himself, who recommended attending that parliamentary instance while pronouncing the immediate separation of the position to facilitate the investigation. He said that first the commission of the AN will go to the US Department of the Treasury to know the origin of the property reported on 13 companies frozen in the United States, several Caribbean countries and the United Kingdom. He commented that El Aissami "can not exercise the functions of Vice President because it has a ban on signing contracts with the United States." He clarified that the commission will act with all "rigor" in the investigation.

IRAN READY TO GIVE  U.S. 'SLAP IN THE FACE': COMMANDER

      tEHRAN, IRAN  
-- The United States should expect a "strong slap in the face" if it underestimates Iran's defensive capabilities, a commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, as Tehran concluded war games. Since taking office last month, U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to get tough with Iran, warning the Islamic Republic after its ballistic missile test on Jan. 29 that it was playing with fire and all U.S. options were on the table. "The enemy should not be mistaken in its assessments, and it will receive a strong slap in the face if it does make such a mistake," said General Mohammad Pakpour, head of the Guards’ ground forces, quoted by the Guards' website Sepahnews.

     On Wednesday, the Revolutionary Guards concluded three days of exercises with rockets, artillery, tanks and helicopters, weeks after Trump warned that he had put Tehran "on notice" over the missile launch. "The message of these exercises ... for world arrogance is not to do anything stupid," said Pakpour, quoted by the semi-official news agency Tasnim. "Everyone could see today what power we have on the ground." The Guards said they test-fired "advanced rockets" and used drones in the three-day exercises which were held in central and eastern Iran.

    As tensions also mounted with Israel, a military analyst at Tasnim said that Iran-allied Hezbollah could use Iranian made Fateh 110 missiles to attack the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona from inside Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said last Thursday that his group, which played a major role in ending Israel's occupation of Lebanon, could strike Dimona. "Since Lebanon's Hezbollah is one of the chief holders of the Fateh 110, this missile is one of main alternatives for targeting the Dimona installations," Hossein Dalirian said in a commentary carried by Tasnim. Iran says its missile program is defensive and not linked to its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. During the U.S. election race, Trump branded the accord "the worst deal ever negotiated", telling voters he would either rip it up or seek a better agreement.

CHINA MILITARY SAYS AWARE OF U.S. CARRIER IN SOUTH CHINA SEA

       BEIJING, CHINA   --
China's defense ministry said on Thursday it was aware of the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea and China respected freedom of navigation for all countries in the waters there. The U.S. navy said the strike group, including the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson, began "routine operations" in the South China Sea on Saturday amid growing tension with China over control of the disputed waterway. Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said China had a "grasp" of the situation regarding the carrier group in the South China Sea.

     "China hopes the U.S. earnestly respects the sovereignty and security concerns of countries in the region, and earnestly respects the efforts of countries in the region to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea," Ren told a regular monthly news briefing. "Of course, we also respect freedom of navigation and overflight for all countries in the South China Sea in accordance with international law," he added. The situation in the South China Sea was generally stable, Ren said. "We hope the actions of the U.S. side can contribute positive energy towards this good situation, and not the opposite."

     Good military relations between the two countries are in interests of both, and well as of the region and the world, and China hoped the United States could meet China half way, strengthen communication and avoid misjudgment, Ren said. Friction between the United States and China over trade and territory under U.S. President Donald Trump have increased concern that the South China Sea could become a flashpoint. China wrapped up its own naval exercises in the South China Sea late last week. War games involving its only aircraft carrier have unnerved neighbors with which it has long had rival claims in the waters. China lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

February 26,  2017

VENEZUELA LOSES RIGHT TO VOTE IN THE UN UNTIL  IT PAYS ALL ITS DEBT
 

      UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK  --  Venezuela’s right to vote has been suspended at the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) after racking up a debt of USD $24 million. This is the second time in three years that the large debts of the government of Nicolás Maduro have gone unpaid to the United Nations. The Caribbean country leads the list of debt defaulters, followed by Libya with USD $6.5 million, Somalia with USD $1.3 million, and Guinea-Bissau with USD $442,552.

     The suspension became effective on January 25 when UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres notified the president of the UN General Assembly that Venezuela and 13 countries would be temporarily losing their right to vote in the forum. The notification states that “the amount owed is equal to or greater than the total of the installments owed for the previous two full years (2015-2016).” Under Article 19 of the Charter of the United Nations, related to the membership requirements that must be honored by member states, Venezuela can not participate in any vote that the General Assembly may make at its seventy-first session until it cancels its debts.

     As of February 21, 2017, the UN Contribution Committee reported that ten member states are in arrears under Article 19, but only six are unable to vote in the General Assembly, most of them countries with high levels of poverty: Cape Verde, Libya, Papua New Guinea, Sudan, Vanuatu, and Venezuela. Article 19 allows a vote in the General Assembly if it can be proven that the country can not pay its dues “for reasons beyond its control” but Venezuela, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis due to falling oil prices, inflation, and an alleged “economic war,” has given no explanation.

VENEZUELA SUPREME COURT (TSJ) ORDERS A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OF NATIONAL  ASSEMBLY DEPUTY FREDDY GUEVARA

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- Venezuela Supreme Court (TSJ) orders the prosecutor's office to assess whether deputy Freddy Guevara should be investigated for alleged "usurpation of duties" when he conducted a corruption investigation against former oil minister Rafael Ramírez, which Guevara described today as " "unusual". The ruling issued by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela (TSJ) asks the Prosecutor's Office and the Comptroller's Office of the Caribbean country to "determine whether or not to order the initiation of the respective investigations, against Deputy Freddy Guevara ", First vice-president of the National Assembly (AN, Parliament).

     This is because, according to the text, it could have been "pretension to act as a representative of the State in foreign territory" when the opposition leader Guevara went to the UN headquarters in New York to "notify" Ramirez about the investigation the Assembly was conducted against him. For the Supreme Court, such action by the parliamentarian "represents a probable usurpation of powers" - which corresponds to the Executive - and therefore, "responsibilities can be generated". As a result, the TSJ asks the Prosecutor's Office and the Comptroller's Office to evaluate whether this investigation "within the scope of their powers and accordingly to the begin the appropriate procedures". On November 16, the Venezuelan Parliament declared the political responsibility of Rafael Ramírez and Javier Alvarado Ochoa (president of a PDVSA subsidiary) for their alleged involvement in corruption cases, after the Parliament's Comptroller's Committee had investigated PDVSA.

     A week later, Guevara, then president of the Assembly commission, asked the Prosecutor's Office to initiate an investigation against Ramírez for acts of corruption that would represent, an embezzlement of more than 11 billion dollars. On that day, Guevara presented a file in which, according to him, there are "more than 3,000 documents with evidences of "administrative irregularities." The sentence issued by the Supreme Court was headed by Gladys Gutiérrez, who until yesterday was the president of the Judiciary, who annulled the parliamentary investigation of the National Assembly against Ramirez. According to the text, the complaint was declared "null" by "unconstitutional." Likewise, the document orders Guevara and the other deputies who make up the Legislative Comptroller's Committee to abide by the decision. Informed of this sentence, Guevara affirmed today that "neither the threats nor the repression" will make him to stop exercising his "work and duty" as deputy, vice president of the AN and as a Venezuelan.

SIX DEAD AND 49 WOUNDED IN RAILWAY ACCIDENT IN CUBA

       HAVANA, CUBAY  --
Six people were killed and 49 wounded after a passenger train struck a locomotive that was carrying sugarcane, about 5 kilometers from the city of Sancti Spiritus, in central Cuba, local media reported.

     Both vehicles collided between Sancti Spiritus and the town of Tuinucu, according to Julio Miguel Vera, who was riding in the passenger rail car, as quoted by the digital newspaper Escambray. “With the impact I flew through the door and saw how the locomotive was dragged several meters to the car,” Vera said about her experience. All the deceased victims were reportedly residents of the province of Sancti Spiritus, located 360 kilometers east of Havana. The wounded are receiving attention in the “Camilo Cienfuegos” General University Hospital, the main hospital institution of the province of Sancti Spiritus.

    Interior Ministry officials are continuing to investigate the causes of the crash but noted that the passenger train crew did not respect the right of way, according to a new state television report. Just one week ago, another accident in central Cuba left 48 people injured when a passenger bus overturned. Traffic accidents are classified as the fifth leading cause of death in Cuba, which has a population of 11.1 million people, according to 2012 statistics, and the death rate for that cause exceeds six deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to official data.

February 25,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP MEETS WITH PERUVIAN PRESIDENT KUCZYNSKI AND SAID US HAS "A BIG PROBLEM" WITH VENEZUELA
 

      Wahington, d.c.   -The first Latin American president to visit Donald Trump at the White House told the U.S. leader Friday he prefers “bridges to walls,” sending him a gentle rebuke of his controversial proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a U.S.-educated former Wall Street banker, has emerged as an unlikely leader in Latin America, taking a strong stand against Trump’s “America First” agenda while many in the region remain silent. Kuczynski, 78, characterized his meeting with Trump as “cordial and constructive” and said he told Trump he was interested in the free movement of people — “legally,” he emphasized —and also spoke about trade and economic development.

     Kuczynski harshly criticized Trump during the U.S. presidential campaign, joking he would cut diplomatic relations with the U.S. “with a saw” if Trump followed through on his pledge to build a wall with Mexico, which he compared to the Berlin Wall. On Friday, he made a point of saying “we prefer bridges to walls.” Leaders in the region, even staunch critics of the U.S. like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have largely avoided rallying to Mexico’s side for fear of jeopardizing their own relations with the Trump administration. Kuczynski, who renounced U.S. citizenship to run for Peru’s presidency, speaks Trump’s language, not just flawless English but that of a successful businessman with deep influence in the power circles of New York, where he lived and worked

     One area where the two men likely see eye-to-eye is Venezuela — though Kuczynski said the topic only came up tangentially in their conversation. Kuczynski has been outspoken criticizing Venezuela’s socialist government, calling for humanitarian aid to the country and giving visas to exiles. Trump said the US has a “big problem” with Venezuela. Within 30 days of taking office, Trump has already slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s vice president for his alleged role in facilitating large cocaine shipments to the United States.

CARDINAL UROSA SAYS THAT NICOLAS MADURO GOVERNMENT HAS MOCKED THE VATICAN IN DIALOGUE

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- The Venezuelan Cardinal and Archbishop of Caracas, Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino, said today that the Catholic Church supports dialogue in Venezuela, but that it "seems" that the government of the Caribbean country "has mocked the Vatican" because, in its judgment, it has taken measures contrary to those agreed during the process. "We believe in a dialogue, but in a dialogue to resolve, and it would seem rather that what has happened is that the Government has made fun of the Vatican and has made fun of the church because they want people to think that they want to go ahead with the dialogue, But then take a series of measures that go against it, "said the cardinal.

     In an interview with private radio station Unión Radio, the Cardinal said that the dialogue process between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition has "reached a near-dead point" in November, when, according to him, the agreements agreed by the parties had not been implemented . In that sense, he stressed that the letter sent in December by Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, indicated that the Holy See was not satisfied with what had been achieved through the talks. "Cardinal Parolin indicated four points that the Government had not fulfilled: the liberation of political prisoners, the resolution of the food and health crisis, the restoration of autonomy and respect for the constitutional powers of the National Assembly (Parliament) and the electoral route, "he said.

     Points to which the Venezuelan opposition has demanded its fulfillment and which, according to the Cardinal, was enough reason to abandon the process of the dialogue. The Cardinal emphasizes that, on the contrary, the government strengthened "the attack" against the Parliament, "attacked the immunity of the parliamentarians", "did not release the political prisoners who have received release documents", and that, in his judgment, the Government "instead of solving problems, what it does is aggravate them". "What it does is to strengthen its hegemony," he added. Regarding the church's position on dialogue, Urosa Savino considered it "extremely important," but stressed that the institution believes that this process must be replaced by a "truly effective" dialogue to solve the problems that the nation is facing.

PARAGUAY CLAIMS THAT VENEZUELA'S SUSPENSION IS "LEGAL"

        ASUNCION, PARAGUAY  -- 
Following a decision made on Monday by the Mercosur Parliament not to accept Venezuela’s suspension in Mercosur, Paraguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Eladio Loizaga termed it “a legal and administrative sanction” Paraguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Eladio Loizaga said on Tuesday that Venezuela’s suspension in the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), is “a legal, administrative sanction.” Reference was made to the decision made on Tuesday by the Mercosur Parliament (Parlasur) to rebut the suspension.

     On Monday, Parlasur vowed to appeal the measure at the Mercosur Standing Review Court, Efe reported. "Parlasur acts in an independent manner, and the determination of the cessation of the said country (Venezuela) was made within the framework of the Mercosur Council of Ministers. It is a legal, administrative sanction,” Loizaga affirmed, according to a press release from the Paraguayan Foreign Office. Loizaga conceded that he had a telephone conversation with his Argentinean counterpart Susana Malcorra about such decision of Parlasur. He did not play down that the Venezuelan case could be addressed “from a humanitarian and political view” in the upcoming meeting of Mercosur Ministers of Foreign Affairs, slated for March 9, in Buenos Aires.    

The Paraguayan foreign minister added that Paraguay "longs to see a democratically strengthened Venezuela." The suspension of Venezuela was decided, according to the founding states of Mercosur -Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay-, because four years after its entry, in 2012, Venezuela had not yet completed the reuirements necessary for its adhesion to be formalized , Something that the government of Nicolás Maduro denied, since in his opinion it has ratified most of the regulations of the block. Regarding the specific content of Mercosur's meeting of foreign ministers on March 9, Loizaga said that this is an initiative of Paraguay to ensure that the countries of the bloc receive information on the progress of negotiations for a trade agreement with the European Union, And the launching of negotiations with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

February 24,  2017

CUBA BLOCKED VISIT BY OAS CHIEF, LUIS ALMAGRO, TO RECEIVE CUBAN DISSIDENT RECOGNITION
 

      HAVANA, CUBA   --Cuban dissident group awarded a prize to the head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, who was denied a visa to accept it in person. The Cuban authorities denied visas to Almagro and other foreign dignitaries invited to witness him receive the Oswaldo Paya prize, named after a dissident who died in 2012 in a car crash under mysterious circumstances. But some 50 people, including opposition activists, journalists and diplomats, crowded into the Havana home of the dissident’s daughter to award Almagro the prize in his absence.

     “We are happy to do this with those who were able to make it,” said 28-year-old Rosa Maria Paya, who leads a group called the Latin American Network of Youths for Democracy. In her living room, decorated with a Cuban flag and a poster of her father, were two empty chairs — one for Almagro and other in honor of the late Chilean president Patricio Aylwin, who was also recognized. Black plaques bearing Oswaldo Paya’s face were placed in each seat.Almagro, Aylwin’s daughter Mariana, and former Mexican president Felipe Calderon all were blocked from traveling to Cuba for the event.

     The Americas’ only Communist government denied them visas for what the Cuban foreign ministry called “an open and grave provocation against the government” of dictator Raul Castro. Given this bid to “create domestic instability… the government decided to deny visas to the foreigners linked to these matters,” the ministry said. Paya’s father Oswaldo was a recipient of the European Union’s Sakharov prize in recognition of his work advocating democracy and political freedoms in Cuba. He was killed when a car he was riding in went off a road and into a tree. The government blamed the driver, saying he was speeding, but the family and another occupant of the vehicle say it was deliberately run off the road.

MEXICO WILL NOT ACCEPT PRESIDENT TRUMP'S IMMIGRATION PLANS, SAYS FOREIGN MINISTER

      MEXICO CTY, MEXICO  
-- Mexico has indicated it will not accept the Trump administration’s new immigration proposals, saying it will go to the United Nations to defend the rights of immigrants in the US. Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister, was responding to Donald Trump’s plans to enforce immigration rules more vigorously against undocumented migrants, which could lead to mass deportations to Mexico, not just of Mexicans but also citizens of other Latin American countries.

     “We are not going to accept it because we don’t have to accept it,” Videgaray said, according to the Reforma newspaper. “I want to make clear, in the most emphatic way, that the government of Mexico and the Mexican people do not have to accept measures that one government wants to unilaterally impose on another.” Mexicans fear Trump deportation plan will lead to refugee camps along border The sweeping measures were announced in Washington on the eve of a visit to Mexico by the US secretaries of state and homeland security that had been aimed at salvaging bilateral relations, currently at their lowest point in at least three decades.

     Rex Tillerson and John Kelly are seeking to soothe Mexican fears in the wake of Trump’s new executive orders, the construction of a border wall that he insists Mexico be made to pay for, and his threat to unpick the 1994 Nafta free trade agreement that underpins the Mexican economy. On Thursday, the two men, a former oil executive and a retired general, will meet the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who abruptly cancelled a trip to Washington at the end of January after Trump sent out a tweet suggesting it was better not to come “if Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall”.

MACRI, RAJOY VOICE "CONCERN" ABOUT VENEZUELA AND DEMAND FOR RESPECT OF HUMAN RIGHTS

        MADRID, SPAIN  -- 
The Head of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, wants for Venezuela “a democratic political system where there is respect for liberties and where people may elect and change governments.” Argentinean President Mauricio Macri highlighted the plight of the Venezuelan people in a country where human rights are not respected President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, and the Head of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, took sides on Thursday to label as “worrisome” the state of affairs in Venezuela and they demanded observance of the rule of law.

     During a joint press conference held in Madrid, as part of Macri’s visit to Spain, both leaders presented their views on political and social matters in Venezuela. For Rajoy, the situation in Venezuela “is worsening.” In his opinion, disrespect of human rights in the 21st century and the fact that “someone goes to prison for voicing an opinion different from the opinion held by decision makers” are “inconceivable.” He said as well that he would like for Venezuela “a democratic political system where there is respect for liberties and where people may elect and change governments.” For his part, Macri elaborated on the same topic and highlighted the “plight” of the Venezuelan people, in a country “where human rights are not respected.

      This is the case of dissenter Leopoldo López, in jail for three years, and other political prisoners.” “Deterioration of the situation in the past months in Venezuela is dramatic, where rights and liberties are curtailed,” the Argentinean president added. For his part, Mariano Rajoy agreed that "it is a very worrying matter, it is increasingly worrying. In fact, things are going to get worse. In the twenty-first century, it is inconceivable that human rights, the freedom of the people and the people who are in jail are not respected simply because they have a different opinion from those who make the decision. "What I want for Venezuela is what I want for Spain: A political system with democracy, with freedom, with human rights in which citizens make the decisions they deem appropriate and convenient; Choose a government, change it. Above all, it is a rule of law in which the law is always observed, "he concluded.

February 23,  2017

OAS SECRETARY GENERAL, LUIS ALMAGRO, DENIED VISA TO VISIT CUBA
 

      Washington, d.c.   --DICTATOR RAUL CASTRO haS denied a visa to the head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, to travel to the communist-ruled island to receive a prize from a dissident organisation, he said Wednesday. Almagro had been invited to receive a prize named for dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in 2012 in a car crash under mysterious circumstances.

      "My request for a visa for the official OAS passport was denied by the Cuban consulate in Washington," Almagro said in a letter to Paya's daughter Rosa Maria, who organized the ceremony to confer the prize. Almagro said he was informed by Cuban consular authorities that he would be denied a visa even if he travelled on his Uruguayan diplomatic passport. The Cubans conveyed to a representative of Almagro that they regarded the motive of his visit an "unacceptable provocation," and expressed "astonishment" at the OAS's involvement in what they deemed anti-Cuban activities, he said.

     Almagro said he asked that the decision be reversed, arguing that his trip to Cuba was no different from events he had participated in other countries of the region. Two other political figures who wanted to travel to Cuba for the award ceremony — Mexico's former president Felipe Calderon and former Chilean education minister Mariana Aylwin — said they also had been denied visas. Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, and has declined to return despite having been readmitted in 2009. Since Cuba's suspension, the only OAS secretary general to visit the island was Jose Miguel Insulza, a Chilean who attended a Latin American summit in Havana in 2014.

CHILE DEMANDS EXPLANATION FROM DICTATOR RAUL CASTRO AFTER EX-MINISTER DENIED ENTRY TO CUBA

       SANTIAGO de chile, CHILE  
-- Chile said Tuesday it was recalling its ambassador to Cuba for consultation and speaking to the Cuban government to establish why a prominent former minister was blocked from entering Cuba on Monday night. Mariana Aylwin, a former education minister and daughter of ex-president Patricio Aylwin, was traveling to the island to receive a prize on behalf of her father. The event, planned for Wednesday, was organized by the Latin American Network of Youth for Democracy, which has been critical of the Cuban government.

     The organization has also invited Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, which suspended Cuba in 1962 for being Communist. While the Washington-based OAS agreed in 2009 to lift the Cold War ruling, Cuba declined to rejoin the group, which it deems an imperialist instrument of its former Cold War foe the United States. Aylwin was prevented from checking in to her flight in Chile's capital, Santiago, apparently at the request of the Cuban authorities, she told journalists on Tuesday. "Exercising the right (to travel between nations) should not be interfered with, especially given that Chile has recognized the feats of various figures in Cuban history and politics," Chile's Foreign Relations Ministry said in a statement.

    Mariana Aylwin served in Congress in the 1990s for Chile's centrist Christian Democratic Party, and later as minister in the 2000s under center-left president Ricardo Lagos, who is running for president in Chile's 2017 elections. She is seen as an ideological leader of the most conservative segment of Chile's center-left ruling coalition. Her father was Chile's first democratically elected president after the 1973 to 1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and is credited with successfully overseeing the nation's fragile political transition.

VENEZUELANS NOW ON A FORCED STARVATION DIET  --  THANKS, SOCIALISM!

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA  -- 
A new study of Venezuela's stunning decline under Hugo Chavez's socialist model, still followed faithfully by his lap dog successor, Nicolas Maduro, reports that the average Venezuelan lost 19 pounds in the last year. Today, the 2016 Living Conditions Survey finds, 32.5% of Venezuelans eat only once or twice a day, up from 11.3% just one year ago. And 93.3% of all people don't earn enough to buy sufficient food. American Thinker blogger Ronald C. Tinnell called it "The Venezuelan Miracle Weight Loss Program." We call it a shocking indictment of socialism, and should be a siren call to people around the world: Bring socialism to your country, and you bring misery.

     It's the one thing that socialism produces an abundance of. It's a sad fact that Venezuela was once one of the wealthiest countries in South America, and even now has the second-largest oil reserves in the world. It should be a rich nation, filled with prosperous people worried about gaining too much weight, not losing it to hunger. But as formerly middle-class Venezuelans scavenge for food — some even stooping to dumpster diving and eating formerly beloved pets just to stay alive — socialists allied with Maduro have changed nothing. Maduro followed Chavez's lead, spending all the money that the state-oil company earned on "social" programs, all the while attacking small businesses and companies and effectively nationalizing the supermarkets.

    Meanwhile, inflation at close to 500% a year is the highest of any country on earth. Looking at the problems with declining food stocks and roaring inflation, Maduro decided to put the military in charge of the country's food distribution network. The result was predictable: Massive food shortages and rampant corruption, as armed military line their pockets by selling food on the black market. "Mismanagement of the economy has created a humanitarian disaster beyond comprehension." It is an economic philosophy of entitlement and grievance, one that always ends in poverty, wanton destruction, the breakdown of civilization and even death — as the Venezuelans, who willingly handed control of their country over to the socialists, are now finding out.

February 22,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP PLANS TO ISSUE A NEW IMMIGRATION EXECUTIVE ORDER THIS WEEK
 

      Washington, d.c.   --U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will issue a new executive order to replace his controversial directive suspending travel to the United States by citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries. At a White House news conference on Thursday, Trump said the new order would seek to address concerns raised by federal appeals court judges, who temporarily blocked his original travel ban. "The new order is going to be very much tailored to what I consider to be a very bad decision," Trump said, adding: "We had a bad court."

      Trump gave no details about the replacement order. Legal experts said a new directive would have a better chance of withstanding courtroom scrutiny if it covered some non-Muslim countries and exempted non-citizen immigrants living in the U.S. legally. The original order, issued on Jan. 27, triggered chaos at some U.S. and overseas airports, led to international protests, complaints from U.S. businesses and drew more than a dozen legal challenges. In a court filing on Thursday, the Justice Department asked for a pause in proceedings before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with a federal court in Washington state to suspend the travel ban, while litigation over its legality according to the U.S. Constitution played out.

     The Justice Department asked the court to vacate that ruling once the administration has rescinded its original order and issued a new one. In an order later on Thursday, the 9th Circuit put proceedings over the ban on hold but did not say whether it would eventually withdraw its previous ruling. The ban has been deeply divisive in the United States, with a Reuters/Ipsos poll indicating about half of Americans supported it shortly after the order took effect. Trump's decision to issue a new directive plunges court proceedings over his earlier order into uncertainty. Litigants around the country said they will carefully examine any new policy to see if it raises similar constitutional issues and will continue to pursue legal action if necessary.

DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: 'WE'RE NOT IN IRAQ TO SEIZE ANYBODY'S OIL'

       BAGHDAD, IRAQ 
-- U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Monday the United States does not intend to seize oil from Iraq, something President Donald Trump has in the past advocated as "spoils" for U.S military activity there and to prevent the Islamic State group from selling it. Mattis spoke to reporters traveling with him to Iraq for an unannounced visit, which came on the second day of a military offensive to push Islamic State from the western part of the city of Mosul. "I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I'm sure that we will continue to do that in the future," Mattis said. "We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil."

     Later in Baghdad, Mattis also vowed to support Iraq through the fight against the Islamic State group. "I assure you we are going to stand by you through this fight. We will stand by you and your army in the future so that your sovereignty is protected by the Iraqi forces and no one else," he said. When asked if the United States would stay in Iraq after the battle for Mosul had ended, he said, "I imagine we'll be in this fight for a while and we'll stand by each other." Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the U.S.-led coalition working to defeat Islamic State, was more explicit. "I don't anticipate that we'll be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul.

      I think the government of Iraq realizes this is a very complex fight and they're going to need the assistance of the coalition even beyond Mosul." On Monday, Iraqi forces advanced into the southern outskirts of Mosul on the second day of a push to drive Islamic State militants from the city's western part. Forces targeted a hill that overlooks the city's airport, entering the village of Abu Saif. Mattis' stop in Iraq includes meetings with Townsend, as well as with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other Iraqi officials. Mattis is working on his own plan to accelerate the fight against Islamic State, which Trump ordered on January 28 be delivered to him within 30 days. As the Mosul offensive began Sunday, Mattis said the U.S. role, which has been to conduct airstrikes and serve as advisers to Iraqi troops, will remain the same.

IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER BACKS 'HOLY INTIFADA' TO DESTROY 'CANCER' ISRAEL

        TeHRan, iran  -- 
Calling Israel a “cancerous tumor,” Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday expressed support for a “holy intifada” to eradicate the Jewish state, arguing that the international community is headed toward confrontation with the “Zionist regime.” In the opening address of the regime’s sixth international conference in support of the Palestinian violent uprising against Israel, Ayatollah Khamenei hailed the “resistance” against the “cruel occupation,” which he described as the worst case of oppression against one particular people recorded in history. He also accused Israel’s founders of being responsible for the current upheaval in the wider Middle East.

    “The people of Palestine have no option other than keeping the flames of fighting alight by relying on Allah the Exalted and by relying on their innate capabilities, as they have genuinely done so until today,” said Khamenei, according to a translation of his speech posted on his website. A wave of terrorism some called a third intifada, which began last year and manifested itself mainly in stabbings and vehicular attacks against Israelis troops and civilians, is “moving forward in a bright and hopeful manner,” the ayatollah declared. “And by Allah’s permission, we will see that this intifada will begin a very important chapter in the history of fighting and that it will inflict another defeat on that usurping regime.”

      “From the beginning, this cancerous tumor has been developing in several phases until it turned into the current disaster,” he went on. “The cure for this tumor should be developed in phases as well.” While the “resistance” so far failed to achieved its ultimate objective — “the complete freedom of Palestine” — it has made important inroads, he said. “The Palestinian intifada continues to gallop forward in a thunderous manner so that it can achieve its other goals until the complete liberation of Palestine.” Addressing some 700 delegates in a Tehran conference center, the supreme leader denounced what he called “compromise strategies” — referring to the Palestinian Authority’s endorsement of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines — and called instead for “all-out resistance.”

February 21,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP NAMES H.R. McMASTER, AN ARMY STRATEGIST, AS HIS NEW NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR
 

      Washington, d.c.   -- President Trump named Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new national security advisor Monday, replacing Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign last week. McMaster, a career Army officer and strategist, is known as one of the military's most prominent intellectuals. "He is highly respected by everyone in the military, and we’re very honored to have him," Trump said of McMaster in making the announcement while seated in the living room of Mar-a-Lago, his estate here, between a uniformed McMaster and Keith Kellogg, who had been interim national security advisor.

      McMaster will take over a National Security Council that is short on staff and the subject of reports of internal turmoil. The president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was given a seat on the council, a highly unusual move for a political appointee. Bannon was an architect of the temporary ban on entry into the U.S. for refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries whose ad hoc rollout sowed chaos at airports around the country before it was stopped by the courts. Trump is expected to order a revised travel ban as soon as this week.

     Flynn's ouster came after reports emerged that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions in December with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about impending sanctions by the Obama administration over its conclusion that Russia had meddled in the election. McMaster has served since July 2014 as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Eustis in Virginia. He is perhaps best known as the author of a 1997 book, "Dereliction of Duty," that explores the military's responsibility for U.S. failure during the Vietnam War. "What a privilege it is to be able to continue serving our nation," McMaster said alongside Trump. "I'm grateful to you for that opportunity, and I look forward to joining the national security team and doing everything that I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people."

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS DIES SUDDENLY

       UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK
-- Vitaly Churkin, the tough-talking Russian ambassador to the United Nations, died suddenly Monday, officials said. Churkin, who was 64, was at his desk at the Russian Consulate in Manhattan when he died, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed. But the ministry gave no details about the circumstances of his passing. Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, speaks with the press following United Nations Security Council discussions at UN Headquarters in New York on Dec. 30, 2016. Albin Lohr-Jones / Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

      "A prominent Russian diplomat has passed away while at work," the Ministry said in a statement on its official website. "We'd like to express our sincere condolences to Vitaly Churkin's family.' The New York City Medical Examiner's Office confirmed it was investigating the death. "I can confirm that the death has been reported to our office for investigation," spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said in a statement. "Once we have had an opportunity to examine the decedent, we will share the cause and manner of death when it is available." Born Feb. 21, 1952 in Moscow, Churkin died a day before his 65th birthday. And he was mourned by diplomats with whom he had sparred.

     UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called Churkin "a gracious colleague." "We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill," Haley said in a statement. "We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to lift up his family and to the Russian people." Churkin was a fierce defender of his country's policies, including Russia's much-criticized bombing last year of the Syrian city of Aleppo last year to oust rebels opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad. During the presidential election, Churkin raised eyebrows by lodging a complaint about a UN official's criticism of then-candidate Donald Trump, the Associated Press reported. It's not clear if Trump was aware that Churkin rose to his defense, but the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are now both investigating possible Russian interference in the presidential election.

EMBATTLED NICOLAS MADURO WARNS PRESIDENT TRUMP TO BACK DOWN FROM VENEZUELA

        CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- 
Nicolás Maduro advised US President Donald Trump to “open his eyes” about the policies he is “imposing” against Venezuela. In a television broadcast, Maduro referred to sanctions the United States issued against Vice President Tareck El Aissami, calling them “revenge” from North American soil. “President Donald Trump, open your eyes,” Maduro said. “Do not let yourself be manipulated and … change policies against Venezuela and Latin America from the old George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.”

      Maduro, who has kept a “low profile” in his discussions about US presidents, and insisted he does not want to “have problems” with Trump, decided to issue a threat this time around. “I do not want to fight with Donald Trump, Venezuela wants respectful relations,” he said, “but if they attack us, we are not going to remain silent.” On Sunday, February 19th, Maduro defended his Vice President against now “infamous” economic sanctions imposed by the US government, which accused him of “playing a significant role in the international trafficking in narcotics.”

      He also claimed that millions of dollar are being paid to and by the White House, the State Department and Treasury Department to allegedly harm Chavismo. He said he hoped the message would reach Trump before he got carried away “by the failed right that fully supported Hillary Clinton.” In referencing the Spanish Government and Mariano Rajoy, as well as Presidents of Argentina and Brazil Mauricio Macri and Michel Temer, Maduro heralded himself as a figure of peace. “I am currently this continent’s guarantee of peace, we are the guarantee of peace, do not mess with us,” he warned.

February 20,  2017

'VENEZUELA IS NOT A DEMOCRACY,'  ARGENTINA'S PRESIDENT MAURICIO MACRI TELLS SPANISH MEDIA
 

      BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA   -- Argentina's President Mauricio Macri used some of his harshest language yet against Venezuela's socialist government in comments to Spanish media published on Saturday ahead of his trip to Madrid.

     "Enough with euphemisms, Venezuela is not a democracy," the center-right Macri said, according to leading newspaper El Pais. "I know what the Venezuelan people are suffering, I think what we have to have is a firm position, without euphemisms, saying that in Venezuela democracy and human rights are not respected," Macri said. He said Argentina would help end "this social, political and economic conflict," where it could, according to the paper.

     The comments came days after Macri, who took office in late 2015 ending a decade of leftist rule, spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump. Both shared their "concern" over Venezuela in a Wednesday phone call, Macri's spokesman told Reuters. Later that day Trump called on Venezuela to release opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced last year to nearly 14 years in prison on charges of inciting anti-government protests in 2014.

VP MIKE PENCE OFFERS 'UNWAVERING' NATO PLEDGE

       MUNICH, GERMANY
-- America's commitment to NATO is "unwavering," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday, reassuring allies about the direction the Trump administrationmight take but leaving open questions about where Washington saw its relationship with the European Union and other international organizations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for strengthening a range of multilateral bodies — the EU, NATO and the United Nations — and lauded the benefits of "a free, independent press." In his first foreign trip as vice president, Pence sought immediately to address concerns raised by President Donald Trump's earlier comments questioning whether NATO was "obsolete."

      Pence told the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of diplomats and defense officials: "I bring you this assurance: The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our trans Atlantic alliance." "Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success," Pence said. "And ultimately, we walk into the future together." Merkel, speaking before Pence, told him and other leaders that "acting together strengthens everyone." Her address came amid concerns among allies about the Trump administration's approach to international affairs and fears that the U.S. may have little interest in working in international forums.

      "Will we be able to continue working well together, or will we all fall back into our individual roles?" Merkel asked. "Let's make the world better together and then things will get better for every single one of us." Trump has praised Britain's decision to leave the 28-nation EU. And a leading contender to be the next U.S. ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, has said Washington is "somewhat critical and suspicious" of the bloc and would prefer to work with countries bilaterally. Pence did not mention the European Union in his speech, something picked up on by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who wrote on Twitter: "In Munich, Vice President Pence renews America's commitment to the Atlantic alliance. But not a word on the EU." Pence did say, however, that the U.S. was on a path of "friendship with Europe and a strong North Atlantic alliance."

EXPLOSION NEAR BOGOTA BULLRING KILLS 1, HURT 30'

        BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- 
An explosion near Bogota's bullring killed one and injured at least 30 people, most of them police officers as they prepared for anti-bullfighting protests in Colombia's capital on Sunday, the police said, but no one was killed. Earlier, the police said one of its officers had been killed in the blast.

    Details of the cause of the blast were not immediately available, but media images showed a police officer in a shredded uniform walking with support from his colleagues, as well as debris in the road, broken glass and damage to apartment buildings close by. "The national police rejects and condemns these acts of barbarism that affect the integrity of our police and other citizens, as well as the tranquility and coexistence of the country's capital," the police said in statement.

     Hundreds of protesters have gathered weekly to demonstrate against bullfighting in Bogota, which resumed last month for the first time in four years. The ban was lifted by the constitutional court which said it was part of the national heritage, prompting weekly clashes with police.

February 29, 2016

JOHN KERRY TO VISIT CUBA FOR HUMAN RIGHTS DIALOGUE

  
   WASHINGTON, D.C.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday he plans to travel to Cuba "in the next week or two" for talks on human rights. Kerry made the statement before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I may be down there in the next week or two to have a human rights dialogue, specifically," he said. Kerry, who went to Cuba last August to raise the U.S. flag over the American Embassy in Havana, told the committee that concerns about the human rights situation in the communist-ruled island still remain.

     U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 23, 2016, during an appearance on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Upcoming Obama visit The secretary's trip comes ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to the nation next month, when he will become the first sitting U.S. leader to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.

      "The president hopes to press forward on the agenda of speaking to the people of Cuba about the future and obviously he is anxious to press on the rights of people to be able to demonstrate, to have democracy, to be free, to be able to speak and hang a sign in their window without being put in jail for several years," Kerry said. In December 2014, Obama announced the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and begin the process of normalizing relations more than 50 years after they severed ties. Diplomatic ties were formally restored on July 20, 2015.

POPE FRANCIS MEETS WITH THE NEW ARGENTINA PRESIDENT, MAURICIO MACRI
      

        THE VATICAN CITY
The first pope from Latin America met at the Vatican on Saturday with the new leader of his homeland Argentina which is struggling with huge debt, poverty and drugs trafficking. The meeting between Pope Francis and President Mauricio Macri marked a new stage in the often tense relations between Argentina and the Holy See, especially over social issues such as gay civil unions. "This was a meeting of old acquaintances," Macri told journalists afterwards, saying they discussed "problems like poverty and drugs tratfficking".

     A statement issued by the Vatican also said the two talked about those issues along with human rights, peace and social justice, and the Church's conribution to Argentinian society, "especially to the younger generations".Francis was the former cardinal of Buenos Aires and he knew the centre-right Macri when he was mayor of the Argentinian capital from 2007 to 2015. His relations with Macri were rather tense, with the future pope seen as more left-leaning.

     Asked about the possibility of the pope visiting Argentina, Macri said that Francis didn't expect tocome this year, but that he would visit "as soon as possible". Macri is also expected to meet during his visit to Italy President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi before returning to Argentina on Sunday. Since taking over in December from his leftist predecessor Cristina Kirchner, pro-business Macri has made it a priority to mend relations with foreign powers and investors, after a dispute erupted over debts dating dating back to Argentina's 2001 default. US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Argentina in March. In a recent interview with AFP, Macri said the visit shows the country is returning to the international fold after years of tension.

VENEZUELAN ARMY CAN SHOOT PROTESTERS, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY

          
The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict recorded an average of 26 protests a day in Venezuela during 2014, adding up to a total of 9,826 across the year. (Libertad Digital). An internal ruling made by the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense, published on Tuesday, in state newsletter Gaceta Oficial, legalizes the use of lethal weapons by the national armed forces (FANB) against protesters.

     Resolution 008610, signed by General-in-Chief and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, establishes the “use of force, with a firearm or any other potentially lethal weapon” as the last resort to “prevent disorder, support the legitimately constituted authority, and counter all aggression, immediately confronting it with the necessary measures.” The Constitution establishes that all human-rights treaties signed and ratified by Venezuela take precedence over any law or resolution issued by the Venezuelan state.

     Article 68 of the Constitution, however, stipulates: “The use of firearms and toxic substances to control peaceful demonstrations is prohibited.” The new measures also specify that a new Public Order Manual for state security services will be created within the next three months to facilitate training and prevent abuses. However, the new rules on the use of force are to be applied “immediately.” Under Venezuelan law, the Defense Ministry does not have the authority to override or ignore the Constitution and the norms contained therein. María Esperanza Hermida, coordinator for enforcement in Venezuelan NGO (Provea) argued that the measure violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as transferring competencies to the military which are the preserve of the civil police.

February 28, 2016

VENEZUELA CENTRAL BANK IN TALKS WITH DEUTSCHE BANK ON GOLD SWAP

  
   CARACAS, VENEZUELA
Venezuela's central bank has begun negotiations with Deutsche Bank AG (DBKGn.DE) to carry out gold swaps to improve the liquidity of its foreign reserves as it faces heavy debt payments this year, according to two sources familiar with the talks. Low oil prices and a decaying state-led economic model have weakened the OPEC nation's currency reserves and spurred concerns that it could default on bonds as it struggles to pay $9.5 billion in debt service costs this year. Around 64 percent of Venezuela's $15.4 billion in foreign reserves are held in gold bars, which limits President Nicolas Maduro's government's ability to quickly mobilize hard currency for imports or debt service.

      In December, Deutsche and Venezuela's central bank agreed to finalize a gold swap this year, the sources said. The sources did not confirm the volume of the operation in discussion. Neither Deutsche nor the central bank responded to requests for comment. Gold swaps allow central banks to receive cash from financial institutions in exchange for lending gold during a specific period of time. They do not tend to affect gold prices because the gold is still owned by Venezuela and does not enter the market. Venezuela is suffering from a severe recession, triple-digit inflation and chronic product shortages. The government's currency control system has slashed approval of dollars for product imports, leading to empty store shelves and snaking supermarket lines.

     The situation helped the opposition win a crushing two-thirds majority in the Congress in December. President Maduro says his socialist government is under "economic war" and dismisses default rumors as a smear campaign by adversaries. Credit default swaps show that traders see a 78 percent chance of default in the next year, according to Thomson Reuters data. The sources said Venezuela in recent years had been carrying out gold swaps with the Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in operations ranging in duration from a week to a year. One source said Venezuela conducted a total of seven such transactions. BIS halted these operations last year, both sources said, as a result of concerns about the associated risks.

ARGENTINA PROSECUTOR SEES HOMICIDE IN NISMAN KILLING
      

        BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
An Argentine prosecutor investigating last year's mysterious killing of the head of a probe into a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center believes it was a homicide, court papers showed Thursday.

      Alberto Nisman, a state prosecutor investigating the attack, was found dead in his bathroom on January 18, 2015, with a bullet wound to the head and a revolver at his side. He had been due to appear before a congressional hearing to deliver a report alleging a government cover-up to shield Iranian officials from prosecution over the bombing, which killed 85 people. Ricardo Saenz, the prosecutor investigating Nisman's death, said based on the evidence he was working on "the hypothesis that Nisman was the victim of a crime of homicide," in a written summary released by judicial officials.

      Four days before his death, Nisman had accused then-president Cristina Kirchner of shielding high-ranking Iranian officials from prosecution over the bombing, the deadliest terror strike in Argentina's history. He had earlier accused Iran of ordering the attack via Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But his efforts to prosecute five Iranian officials, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were cut short when Kirchner's administration signed a deal with Iran to set up a Tehran-based joint commission to investigate the attacks. Nisman accused Kirchner of sealing the deal in exchange for oil and trade benefits, basing his accusations on hundreds of hours of wiretaps.

CUBA SAYS 95% OF ITS TRACTORS ARE MORE THAN 30 YEARS OLD

          
Ninety-five percent of Cuba’s tractors have been in service for more than 30 years, a situation that may change with the arrival of farm-equipment manufacturer Cleber, the first U.S. company authorized to operate in the island since the 1959 revolution.

    The fleet includes 62,668 tractors and harvesters, 70 percent of them belonging to the Agriculture Ministry, Communist Party daily Granma reported Thursday. A lack of spare parts and “the expanded diversity of brands (more than 26)” make it difficult to get the maximum value out of the equipment, the newspaper said. Granma highlighted those numbers just weeks after Alabama-based Cleber received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to install a tractor manufacturing plant in the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone, near the Cuban capital.

      Granma said the plant, with a manufacturing capacity of 1,000 units a year, will give a new impetus to Cuban agriculture, a sector that has yet to experience the impact of reforms launched five years ago by President Raul Castro to “update” Cuba’s socialist model. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food at an annual cost of roughly $2 billion. The Agriculture Ministry says the country has the capacity to replace 60 percent of food imports with domestic production.

February 27, 2016

BOLIVIAN BLUES: MORALES' DEFEAT RESONATES IN REGION

  
    LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
In the decade since he took office, Bolivian President Evo Morales has become one of Latin America’s most recognizable political icons. With his helmet of black hair and colorful Aymara garb, he’s cultivated a reputation as the pragmatic face of South American socialism. He’s also cultivated the aura of being unstoppable. As his ideological allies have stumbled throughout the region, Morales won his third consecutive race in 2014 with more than 60 percent of the vote. And polls continue to rank him as one of Latin America’s most popular presidents. So when he sought to change the constitution, once again, to allow him to throw his hat in the ring for a fourth term (2020-25), many thought the nation would oblige. It didn’t.

     A combination of corruption scandals, a turning economic tide and growing regional discontent with the status quo narrowly doomed his aspirations. Three days after Sunday’s vote, and amid growing protests, Morales conceded defeat. The electoral body reported that the “No” vote won by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. Morales called the loss a victory in the face of what he called an opposition “dirty war.” And he also resorted to an old cliché: “We lost the battle but not the war.” As analysts prowled that battlefield this week, some wondered just how critical the vote was for Latin America’s once-ascendant left. “The referendum marks a before and after for Bolivia but it’s also directly related to what’s happening in the region,” said Jaime Aparicio, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United States from 2002-06. “In the last months we’ve seen what I would have to call an end of a cycle of populism in Latin America.”

      Though the vote was confined to landlocked Bolivia, it nevertheless had particular resonance in Venezuela. Morales has been one of Caracas’ staunchest allies, and when he won in 2014 he dedicated his “anti-capitalist” victory to Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In the wake of Sunday’s vote, Maduro’s foes said the referendum proved that it was the people who determined the duration of their leaders. Maduro “has to feel cornered” by events in Bolivia, Aparicio said. “He’s just seen what has happened to a president who is much more popular and with an economy that is in relatively good shape,” he said. “He must know that he needs to find a solution for his own crisis.”

CASTRO BROTHERS TRY TO EXILE DISSIDENTS FOR OBAMA'S MARCH VISIT
      

        HAVANA, CUBA
The media build-up to President Obama’s March 21 visit to Cuba is well along pumping “historic” significance into the trip. That’s what happened last year when Pope Francis visited Cuba, with “history” served by publicizing photographs of the pontiff with Fidel and Raul Castro. The real story in Cuba, though, is always out of sight, in the cells of its many political prisoners. Human-rights groups recently have noted something odd about Mr. Obama’s historic normalization of relations with Cuba in late 2014. Since then the number of individuals jailed arbitrarily has gone up. This past January, according to the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory on Human Rights, some 1,474 individuals were jailed at the regime’s whim, more than 500 of them women.

     On Monday Cuba’s interior ministry told eight paroled political prisoners that they were being given permission to make a “one-time” trip abroad. Unlike Americans hopping on planes to discover Cuba, the average Cuban can’t leave the island without permission. The response of the dissidents to the get-out-of-Cuba offer speaks volumes about the reality of life there. Felix Navarro called it a “strategy” related to the Obama visit and said he isn’t leaving. “I will always continue to live in Cuba,” Mr. Navarro said. Marta Beatriz Roque, the one woman in the group, said “My perception is that they want us to stay [outside of Cuba], but I’ve been going along like this for 25 years and I’m not going to throw in the towel for a trip.”

      Announcing his March trip Saturday, Mr. Obama said he will “speak candidly” there about “our serious differences” on democracy and human rights. Asked about the President’s intentions last week, Josefina Vidal of Cuba’s foreign ministry said, “Cuba is open to speak to the U.S. government about any topic, including human rights.” But she added: “We have different ideas about human rights.” It’s nice, we guess, that Fidel and Raul are willing to chat about all this with President Obama. More significant will be the day when one of these historic visitors from the free world asks to visit with Cuba’s political prisoners in their cells.
 

EX-VENEZUELA CHIEF RAFAEL ESQUIVEL ACCEPTS U.S. EXTRADITION

          
The former president of Venezuela's football federation has agreed to be extradited from Switzerland to the United States to face corruption charges, a Swiss justice official said on Friday. Rafael Esquivel was arrested in Zurich in May as part of a U.S. investigation into alleged corruption among senior figures in world football and FIFA, the sport's top governing body. A spokesman for the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said it was informed by Esquivel on Friday that the Venezuelan had withdrawn his final appeal against extradition, which was pending before Switzerland's highest court.

     "This enabled the Federal Office of Justice to approve his extradition to the U.S.A. the same day," Folco Galli told The Associated Press "Esquivel must be placed in the custody of a U.S. police escort and taken to the U.S.A. within 10 days," he added. Galli said the precise day and time of his extradition wouldn't be announced for reasons of privacy and security. Esquivel appealed his extradition to the Federal Tribunal in Lausanne on Jan. 27. News of his decision to drop the appeal came as delegates from FIFA's 207 members were voting in Zurich for a new president to replace Sepp Blatter, as well as a package of reforms designed to tackle corruption in the organization.

    U.S. authorities accuse Esquivel of receiving bribes worth millions of dollars in connection with the sale of marketing rights to the Copa America tournaments in 2007, 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2023. Esquivel was among seven officials involved in a mass arrest on a U.S. warrant in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 27. He could follow in the extradited footsteps of other soccer officials. According to the charges against him, Esquivel accepted millions of dollars in bribes when arranging marketing rights for Copa America tournaments scheduled for 2007, 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2023, Reuters says. Esquivel could now face up to 20 years in prison on these charges, the BBC adds. A leading figure in world soccer, Esquivel is the former President of the Venezuelan Football Federation and is an Executive Committee Member of South America’s main soccer body, CONMEBOL.

February 26, 2016

CHAVISTAS FORCED THE SUSPENSION OF THURSDAY'S PARLIAMENT MEETING

  
    CARACAS, VENEZUELA
A group of government supporters started to yell mottos and prevent opposition deputy Julio Borges from continuing delivering his speech. Thursday's meeting of the National Assembly to hold the first discussion of a draft law to boost and strengthen national production had to be suspended.

      At the beginning of the parliament meeting, as opposition Deputy Julio Borges took the floor to present the rationale of the draft he had submitted a few days ago, a group of government supporters started to yell mottos and prevent the deputy from continuing delivering his speech. Hence, Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup warned the government supporters that if they kept on interrupting the meeting, they would be evicted from the Parliament. The disturbance continued inside the Congress, so Allup decided to call off the Congress meeting for next Tuesday.

      On the legislative agenda was also scheduled a presentation by Amazonas Governor Liborio Guarulla. In addition, the National Assembly had included in the agenda the report of the Special Committee on the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court of Justice. The Deputy of the patriotic pole Gran, Francisco Torrealba, accused the President of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup to infiltrate his followers in the official stand to generate sabotage in order to suspend the regular meeting on Thursday. "The only sin we did was to sing the national anthem, against those abuses the people will have to take the streets", the parliamentarian said.

EXCERPTS OF COLUMN "RUNRUNES": GONE WITH THE WIND      
         CARACAS, VENEZUELA
Hugo Chávez in Maturín (east Venezuela), in 2012: "... it does not mind if we are naked; the point is to save the revolution." Evo Morales, to Madrid's daily El País, in February 2016: "... when you fail to ensure food, the ideological issue does not matter for the majority. I told Chávez: ‘Change the economy; you cannot continue with so many subventions.'"

      For his part, Lula Da Silva strongly recommended Chávez making more investments in Venezuela. The Brazilian, nowadays involved in corruption scandals, advised him not to hire only foreign companies for the development of the national infrastructure, but Venezuelan engineering enterprises. He related that the "everlasting caudillo" stopped him by saying: "those businesspersons will have money to finance the foes of my revolution. I will not do it." Lula reiterated that "in order to sustain ideology, there is the need to ensure food; neither water supply nor electricity should be lacking." The remainder is not history, but the sad present that turns worse and worse day by day.

     MORE CLUES. Financial authorities from five Member States of Fincen (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) continue seeking the routes of the Venezuelan money taken with crimes, such as government corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering, among others. The routes of the ill-gotten money of government officials, figureheads, shell companies and drug traffickers is sighted through deposits, investments and other kind of transactions conducted by banks and institutions of Iran and Brazil, as well as some Caricom Member States, but specifically the recipients of the political-economic support of Petrocaribe. Investments and deposits in banks of those islands are sighted by the officials. They have found payments of some Petrocaribe Member States to members of the Venezuelan regime in real estate not declared to state-run oil company Pdvsa. We will see which red, very reds will move to some of the islands where Pdvsa's investments exceeded the local expectations. We can have an idea just by reviewing the contributions plus the number of visits paid by Nicolás Maduro, Jorge Arreaza, Asdrúbal Chávez, Elías Jaua, and Eulogio del Pino,
among others.

VENEZUELA BEGINS PRINTING 500 AND 1000 BOLIVAR BILLS

          
Venezuela’s Central Bank announced that it would begin printing 500 and 1000 Bolivar bills while phasing out bills of smaller denominations. The move comes in response to the country’s soaring inflation– born of an economic crisis triggered by the collapse of global oil prices– which averaged 141% in 2015, according to official figures released last month. In addition to printing larger bills, the Central Bank will gradually ease 2 and 5 Bolivar bills out of circulation in an effort that is expected to improve the efficiency of the monetary system, reducing costs and alleviating long lines to withdraw cash.

      The announcement follows on a series of emergency economic measures unveiled by President Maduro last week that include changes to the country’s currency exchange rate aimed at reining in inflation. Venezuelan Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino announced the signing of a new agreement with Russian state oil company Roseneft to expand its participation in a joint venture with Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA in the Orinoco Belt. According to the minister, the state oil giant “increased its share from 16 to 40% in the PetroMonagas mixed enterprise”, amounting to a further $500 million dollar investment.

     Last May, the two countries signed a deal for $16 billion in Russian investment in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt, which contains some of the largest crude oil reserves on the planet. The move comes on the heels of a new agreement signed by Russia, Venezuela, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia last week which will see the major oil exporters freeze production at January levels in a bid to stabilize tumbling global prices. Negotiations remain ongoing, however, as Russia and Venezuela lobby other OPEC and non-OPEC producers to sign on to the deal.
Brent and West Texas Intermediate oil opened Monday at $34.42 and $32.68, representing an increase of 75 and 65 cents, respectively.

February 25, 2016

HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN SAYS "NO" TO PRESIDENT OBAMA PLANS TO CLOSE THE PRISON AT GUANTANAMO BAY

  
 
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday Republicans are taking legal steps to stop President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a day after the president unveiled his plan to shutter the facility and move the detainees to the United States. Ryan told reporters that lawmakers have the votes to block Obama's plan in Congress and enough votes to override any veto. Separately, the Wisconsin Republican said the GOP is "preparing our legal challenge" to ensure the prison remains open and detainees aren't moved to the U.S.

     Earlier this month, House Republicans awarded the Jones Day law firm a $150,000 contract to perform the legal work in case Obama tries to move Guantanamo detainees to federal prisons. Obama has pushed to fulfill a 2008 campaign promise and close Guantanamo, arguing that the facility is a recruitment tool for terrorism worldwide and opposed by some allies. The president has faced strong opposition in Congress, where Republicans and some Democrats maintain there is no alternative and argue they don't want these detainees transferred to U.S. prisons, even maximum security facilities. Under Obama's plan, roughly 35 of the 91 current prisoners will be transferred to other countries in the coming months, leaving up to 60 detainees who would be relocated to a U.S. facility.

      Ryan said Obama's plan flouts a longstanding ban annually passed by Congress that blocks the president from transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil. "If the president proceeds with knowingly breaking the law ... he will be met with fierce bipartisan opposition here in Congress and we are taking all legal preparations necessary to meet with that resistance," Ryan told reporters. "He can't do it because the law is really clear. I'll just leave it at that." In the Senate, Armed Services Chairman John McCain dismissed the plan as incomplete and said GOP senators would join their House counterparts on any legal challenge. "Absolutely," McCain told reporters at a news conference, adding that Obama has "a proclivity to act by executive order."

PRESIDENT OBAMA SOFTENS BAN ON BOATS GOING TO CUBA     

         WASHINGTON, D.C.
In the latest effort to remove barriers with Cuba, PRESIDENT OBAMA is softening a Clinton-era emergency decree that bans U.S. boats from entering Cuban territorial waters. The order, which will be sent to Congress Wednesday, modifies conditions imposed in 1996 after a Cuban jet shot down a plane affiliated with Brothers to the Rescue, killing four Miami-based anti-Castro activists. That finding was expanded in 2004 when President George W. Bush declared Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of the shootdown.

     The tempered decree is just the latest move by the Obama administration to improve ties with the communist nation since Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that they would take steps to normalize relations. “I would say it was readily apparent to everyone involved that something needed to change here,” said a U.S. Coast Guard official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the new proclamation. In the past year, the United States has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, reestablished diplomatic relations and opened an embassy in Havana.

      Last week, Obama announced he will be the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years as the two sides attempt to end decades of Cold War hostility. As that visit was announced, administration officials told business leaders at a forum in Washington that the embargo against trade with Cuba would likely not be lifted by the end of his term, but that the administration would continue to break down what trade barriers it could so that it would be more difficult for any future administration to reverse the changes. Critics including Presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Forida, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have criticized Obama for giving up to many concessions without getting anything in return from the Cuban government. Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said it was “absolutely shameful” that Obama is rewarding the Castros with a visit to Cuba.

BOLIVIA'S PRESIDENT, EVO MORALES, CONCEDES DEFEAT IN POLL BID FORT 4TH TERM

          
Evo Morales reluctantly conceded defeat Wednesday in a weekend referendum aimed at delivering him a fourth term -- his first direct election loss since taking office a decade ago. "We have lost a democratic battle, but not the war," the indigenous leftwing leader said of the Sunday plebiscite that had proposed a constitutional reform to allow him to run for a new mandate. Morales, 56, had been refusing to accept defeat until the full count was in. But, with 99.72 percent of votes tallied showing 51.3 percent against the reform and 48.7 percent in favor, he finally bowed to the outcome. "We respect the results, it is part of democracy," he told a press conference at the presidential palace, adding: "The struggle goes on."

     The official results were in line with exit polls published by private media since the weekend. Morales is already Bolivia's longest-serving leader since independence from Spain in 1825. Under Bolivia's constitution, the president gets a five-year mandate renewable just once. Morales already had the constitution changed once, three years after taking power in 2006. Under that revised constitution he was again elected president in 2009, then won his one-off renewal in 2014. His current term ends in 2020. He has wide support from indigenous groups and grassroots organizations in one of the Americas' poorest countries. Bolivia's mineral and gas-rich economy has more than tripled in size during his time in office.

      Opposition groups had feared Morales' delay in acknowledging the result might have indicated the government was preparing to manipulate the result. Groups had chanted "Fraud! Fraud! Fraud!" during a sit-in outside the La Paz office where votes were being counted late Monday. However, the general mood across the country of 10 million was calm. Opposition figures celebrated their victory, especially in anti-Morales bastions such as Potosi and Santa Cruz. "We have recovered democracy and the right to choose," said Samuel Doria Medina, whom Morales twice defeated in presidential elections. Despite Morales' declaration that his Socialist "struggle" would continue regardless of the poll loss, the president is on the record as saying he was ready to go quietly into political retirement.

February 24, 2016

GUANTANAMO CLOSURE PLAN REVEALED BY PRESIDENT OBAMA

  
 
The Obama administration delivered its long awaited Guantanamo prison closure plan to Congress Tuesday morning — described by officials as a nine-page document with additional nine-page legal analysis that did not pinpoint a place in the United States to serve as “Guantanamo North.” By the time Obama leaves office, administration officials said in a background briefing Tuesday, the Pentagon should have released and resettled at least 35 more detainees. That would mean moving at most 56 captives to military custody in the United States.

      Those brought to the United States under the plan would include the alleged five 9/11 plotters, who are in pretrial hearings this week at the crude makeshift compound called Camp Justice. Others would include five more captives in military commissions proceedings, some men who might be tried in federal courts and “forever prisoners,” long-held captives a national-security review board considers ineligible for trial but too dangerous to release.

       The document references 13 different potential locations but does not identify six of them. Pentagon officials already disclosed seven: Four in Colorado, two in Kansas and one in South Carolina. Officials disclosed a new total annual cost for current Guantánamo prison and war court operations: $455 million a year — or $4.9 million per detainee for each of the 91 currently held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. The report itself forecasts $140 million to $180 million in annual savings.

NORTH KOREA WARNS OF PREEMPTIVE STRIKES AGAINST US, SOUTH KOREA    

         PYONGYANG, NORTH  KOREA
North Korea on Tuesday lashed out at an upcoming joint US-South Korean military exercise, warning it would attack the South and the US mainland in case of any armed provocation. The South and its close US ally will next month hold their largest-ever annual exercise in response to the North's recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, Seoul's defence ministry has announced.

     The North's military supreme command said the allies planned to practise a "beheading operation" aimed at the North's leadership, and other moves to neutralise its nuclear weapons and missiles. If there were even a "slight sign" of special forces moving to carry out such operations, the military said, "strategic and tactical" preemptive attacks would be launched. The primary target would be the South's presidential Blue House, it said in a statement on the official news agency, condemning it as "the centre for hatching plots for confrontation with the fellow countrymen in the north, and reactionary ruling machines".

     The North also threatened attacks on US bases in the Asia-Pacific and the mainland. It said it has "the most powerful and ultra-modern strike means" in the world capable of "dealing fatal blows at the US mainland any moment and in any place". Such blows would "reduce the cesspool of all evils to ashes, never to rise again on our planet", it added in a reference to the United States. The North habitually claims that the annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise is a rehearsal for invasion while Seoul and Washington say it is purely defensive.

CARICOM BACKED GUYANA IN ITS DISPUTE WITH VENEZUELA ON ESSEQUIBO

          
The leaders of the 15 States members of the community of the Caribbean (Caricom) backed Guyana in its dispute with Venezuela on Essequibo, and reaffirmed its support for the maintenance and preservation of the sovereignty of Guyana and its territorial integrity in the border of that country with Venezuela over the territory of Essequibo dispute.

       CARICOM closing statement of closure of the two day summit of the regional organization held last week in Placencia, shows its confidence in the work of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, as mediator to reach a final solution to the dispute.
      
        “February 17 was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Agreement, and the Secretary General has specific responsibilities under the Geneva Agreement. Guyana has already signaled to him, in no uncertain terms, that we are prepared to go forward to have a juridical settlement and we are calling on him to exercise his mandate in accordance with the Geneva Agreement,” President Granger said ahead of his departure for Belmopan, adding “We emphasized the role that he has to play.”

February 23, 2016

NATIONAL ASSEMBLY RESOLVED TO INVESTIGATE RAFAEL RAMIREZ FOR ALLEGED CORRUPTION IN PDVSA

   
The Comptrollership Committee of the Venezuelan National Assembly (AN) resolved on Wednesday to commence an investigation into the current Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations, Rafael Ramírez, for "alleged administrative irregularities" during his incumbency as president of state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa). "It is presumed that corruption in Pdvsa is around USD 7 billion," said the chair of the Committee, Freddy Guevara, when listing the reasons for the move, Efe reported.

     The inquest takes into account complaints regarding Pdvsa pension fund, halting of works and damages, bribery in contracting linked with Ecopetrol (Colombia) and Petrobras (Brazil), in addition to the deposit of sums of money in Andorra, for being "a triangulation for money laundering," Guevara averred. The inquest takes into account complaints regarding Pdvsa pension fund, halting of works and damages, bribery in contracting linked with Ecopetrol (Colombia) and Petrobras (Brazil), in addition to the deposit of sums of money in Andorra, for being "a triangulation for money laundering," Guevara averred.

     The Comptrollership Committee will request Ramírez's appearance and also documents from the United States and Spain, where inquiries have been carried out to ascertain whether Pdvsa accounts in foreign banks were used presumably for operations in the foreign exchange black market and laundering of money yielded by drug trafficking. Based on the investigation conducted by US authorities, Banca Privada d'Andorra supposedly cooperated with money laundering of over USD 4 billion from the Venezuelan Treasury.

ROY CHADERTON, FORMER VENEZUELAN AMBASSADOR, URGES MADURO TO TACKLE CORRUPTION WITHIN HIS GOVERNMENT    

          
Roy Chaderton former Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) urges the government of Nicolas Maduro to immediately tackle the uncontrolled corruption of high level officials inside his government.

     Former Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Roy Chaderton, asserted that the government needed to tackle strictly the issue of corruption. "We need to be severe with ourselves, because bandits cannot be allowed to infiltrate the Bolivarian process," the diplomatic stressed in an interview with private TV channel Televén.

     Chaderton commented that even though the government of President Nicolás Maduro has launched a police operation in which several high ranking public involved in corruption in government food distribution network Abastos Bicentenarios were arrested, bachaqueros (scalpers of regulated products) also had to be prosecuted. Chaderton criticized the authorities for not confronting the bachaqueros, who through the force "colean" their families no matter that other citizens have made four or five-hour queue to acquire any commodity. " "The day may come when thousands of irritation focus begin to spread across the country like wildfire and the anger overcome the fear. So much abuse can lead to an emocional explosion"."

"NO" VOTE WINS 54% IN REFERENDUM ON MORALES' REELECTION

          
Bolivians voted Sunday in a referendum on whether to modify the Constitution to allow President Evo Morales to run for a third consecutive term, but – according to initial exit polls – the “No” option won with at least 51 percent of the ballots. The exit survey, released four hours after the close of the polls, performed by Equipos Mori revealed that “No” votes outweighed “Yes” votes by 54.5 percent to 43.2 percent while the survey by Ipsos found the “No”-”Yes” breakdown to be 54.5 to 43.2 percent.

    More than 6.5 million Bolivians were called to vote in the referendum on whether to reform the Constitution to allow presidents to serve three consecutive terms, in contrast to the current limit of two consecutive terms. Broadening the number of consecutive terms in office would allow Morales to – once again – run for reelection. Both surveys found that the “Yes” option won only in the provinces of La Paz, Cochabamba and Oruro, while the “No” option won in Santa Cruz, Potosi, Chuquisaca, Tarija, Beni and Pando.

     The “No” option won by more than 60 percent in Tarija, Beni, Potosi and Santa Cruz, according to the surveys. Recent voter surveys – conducted prior to the referendum – had shown that the “Yes” and “No” options were running neck and neck, but they were released before a controversial complaint became public implicating Morales in an alleged case of influence peddling involving a former girlfriend, a charge the president has denied.

February 22, 2016

VIOLENCE RAGES IN SYRIA AS JOHN KERRY AND SERGEI LAVROV REACH PROVISIONAL DEAL

   
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had reached a provisional agreement on terms of a cessation of hostilities in Syria and the sides were closer to a ceasefire than ever before. But he indicated there were still issues to be resolved and he did not expect any immediate change on the ground.

     Violence continued to rage in Syria on Sunday. Multiple bomb blasts in a southern district of Damascus killed at least 62 people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, while twin car bombs killed at least 57 people in Homs, the monitoring group said. Russian air strikes launched in September against rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have exacerbated suffering and destruction in Syria, where a five-year-old civil war has killed more than a quarter of a million people.

      Assad said on Saturday he was ready for a ceasefire on condition "terrorists" did not use a lull in fighting to their advantage and that countries backing insurgents stopped supporting them. "We have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days," Kerry told a news conference in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. "The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed. In fact, we are closer to a ceasefire today than we have been," said Kerry, who was also to meet King Abdullah.
 

COLOMBIAN ARMY KILLS SEVEN ELN GUERRILLAS AMID RISING TENSION    

          
The Colombian military has killed seven leftist guerrillas and captured an eighth in an operation near the Venezuelan border, President Juan Manuel Santos said Saturday amid a sharpening conflict with the country's second-largest guerrilla group. Santos said the guerrillas belonged to the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has been in preliminary discussions for two years with the government about joining formal peace talks.

       Tensions have risen sharply, however, since February 3 when the group captured a Colombian soldier. "If they want to begin some kind of public conversation, they have to free those two kidnapped people they are holding," Santos said, referring to the captured soldier and a civilian who has been in rebel hands since 2014. "There will be no step toward a negotiation if they do not at a minimum fulfill these conditions," he said in a speech to the leadership of the National Police.

        The seven ELN guerrillas were killed Friday night in Arauca, a region that borders Venezuela, Santos said. The operation followed a three-day ELN offensive aimed at disrupting traffic on major roads. Three police were killed and dozens of violent incidents were reported across the country from last Sunday to Tuesday. The army had put itself on "maximum alert" in anticipation of more violence on the 50th anniversary, last Monday, of the death of Camilo Torres, a rebel priest who was an early leader of the ELN.

MOST CARACAS INHABITANTS ARE WITHOUT DRINKING WATER

          
The majority of the approximately 3 million inhabitants of Caracas are without drinking water this weekend, after several weeks of partial suspensions due to the maintenance work currently underway, state-run Hidrocapital said Saturday. “The maintenance work being done on the principal pipelines of the Tuy II drinking water production system” is part of “the action being taken by the government to protect the supply... during this period of drought, which the El Niño phenomenon has intensified,” the state company said in a statement.

     The total suspension of the service in Caracas, and in the neighboring states of Vargas and Miranda, will continue until the early hours Sunday, the time required to repair and substitute valves and other electric and mechanical equipment, which for several weeks have been monitored to make sure no water is being wasted. Venezuela largely depends on hydroelectric power, and the 18 principal dams that provide such energy are practically empty, “very close to the red line,” Water Minister Ernesto Paiva said early this month.

     Electric Power Minister Luis Motta for his part warned this Friday that without enough water savings nationwide “to help minimize the effect (of the El Niño phenomenon), we could have a total collapse of the electricity supply by the first weeks of April.” Guri Dam, the nation’s largest, “is 75 percent empty, we just have 25 percent of the water,” he said. “What are we doing to diminish the effects El Niño has on the generation of hydroelectric power? Right now we’re substituting incandescent light bulbs and air conditioners,” he said.

February 21, 2016

DISSIDENTS HOPE TO MEET WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA DURING HIS TRIP TO CUBA

   
Ostracized by the government and mistrusted by much of the public, Cuba's dissidents are hoping to receive a clear message of support from U.S. President Barack Obama when he visits the island next month. Obama plans to meet dissidents during his March 21-22 visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928. It follows the rapprochement of December 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro ended more than five decades of Cold War-era animosity.

      Cuba's Communist government has long considered the dissidents a tiny and illegitimate minority funded by U.S. interests, while anti-Castro groups hold them up as champions of democracy. Political opponents say a public blessing from Obama might improve their standing and the cause of human rights in Cuba. "It's possible the visit will help raise the hopes of the Cuban people, which is important because Cuba is short on many things, most of all hope," said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors arrests of political opponents.

      Cuban dissidents Elizardo Sanchez said Cuba is holding about 90 political prisoners, including some convicted hijackers and spies and 11 former prisoners out on parole. Cuba says it has no political prisoners. In addition Cuban officials briefly detain an average of more than 700 dissidents a month, the commission says. Obama's Republican critics have called the visit a capitulation, while Cuban dissidents are mostly supportive. "Any gesture of solidarity, any words or gestures, any contact with the peaceful opposition would be well received by the majority of the population," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

FORMER PRESIDENT OF COSTA RICA OSCAR ARIAS: VENEZUELA NEEDS AN EARLY CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT

          
During a special session at the Venezuelan National Assembly, Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Prize laureate, advocated the release of Venezuelan political prisoners via the amnesty law. Arias asserted that Venezuela required an "anticipated" change of government, as he deemed that the current administration cannot continue any longer at the expense of the sacrifice of millions of Venezuelan citizens.

       Arias, also a Nobel Prize laureate, delivered a speech on Thursday in a special parliament session in which former president of Poland and Nobel laureate, Lech Walesa took part, as well as Naomi Tutu, the daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "Venezuela cannot wait for months to correct the distortions in prices that impoverish most of the population even further,"

       Arias asserted. He added that Venezuela also needed to "give judicial security back to the economic sector in order to start creating secure and productive employment." The former president also called for dialogue. "A better future does not lie on political extermination of a party by another party. A better future lies on reconciliation, tolerance, and the will to work together for the future of a people," said Arias. Moreover, he advocated the release of Venezuelan political prisoners via the amnesty law.

FREED GITMO DETAINEE, EX-BIN LADEN AIDE, CEMENTS PLACE AS TOP JIHADIST IN VIDEOS

          
Freed Gitmo detainee, ex-bin Laden aide cements place as top jihadist in videosWhen Ibrahim al Qosi was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2012, a lawyer for the former Usama bin Laden aide said he looked forward to living a life of peace in his native Sudan. Three years later, Qosi has emerged as a prominent voice of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, appearing in a number of AQAP propaganda videos -- including a 50-minute lecture calling for the takeover of Saudi Arabia.

     The 56-year-old Qosi delivered a scathing critique of the Saudi monarchy -- which appeared online on Feb. 6 -- denouncing the Saudi government’s execution of more than 40 "mujahedeen" in January, according to the Long War Journal. In the two-part lecture, titled "A Message to Our People in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques," Qosi says the men were killed because they declared jihad against the "Crusaders" and opposition to American interests abroad.

     Qosi speaks about Al Qaeda's jihad against the Saudi monarchy, claiming Usama bin Laden was motivated by the U.S. government's "occupation" of the country's two holiest sanctuaries, the journal reported. Qosi's call for an end to the Saudi-U.S. alliance came at nearly the same time an Al Qaeda newsletter published a 9/11 "insider account" from a former AQAP leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in June. Nasir al Wuhayshi, who was once one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, claimed he got the idea for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks after watching news coverage of the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, in which a jihadist co-pilot caused the airliner to nosedive into the Atlantic.

 20 de febrero del 2016

 EL PRESIDENTE OBAMA SE REUNIRA CON EL DICTADOR RAUL CASTRO PERO NO PREVE REUNIRSE CON SU HERMANO FIDEL 

   
El asesor adjunto de Seguridad Nacional, Ben Rhodes, dijo a periodistas que Obama tiene previsto reunirse con disidentes, miembros de la sociedad civil y con Raúl Castro. El asesor adjunto de Seguridad Nacional, Ben Rhodes, comenta sobre el viaje a Cuba del presidente Barack Obama, en la Casa Blanca en Washington. La Casa Blanca no prevé un encuentro entre el presidente Barack Obama y  Fidel Castro durante su visita a Cuba en marzo, con la que buscaría ampliar los avances en la normalización de las relaciones y hacer irreversible el proceso.

      El asesor adjunto de Seguridad Nacional, Ben Rhodes, dijo a periodistas que además de mantener una reunión bilateral con el dictador Raúl Castro, Obama se reunirá con "disidentes, miembros de la sociedad civil y aquellos que se oponen a la política de los Castro". "Siempre tendremos diferencias con este Gobierno", dijo Rhodes, que expresó la intención de la Casa Blanca de poner sobre la mesa el tema de los Derechos Humanos, la libertad de reunión, la libertad de expresión y "los patrones de detenciones" contra algunos miembros de la sociedad civil.

      "Queremos hacer este cambio de política irreversible", subrayó Rhodes y reiteró el deseo del Gobierno de levantar el embargo económico. Más temprano el jueves, Obama dijo en su cuenta en Twitter que la visita está prevista para los días 21 y 22 de marzo. "No esperaría un encuentro con Fidel Castro. Raúl Castro es el presidente de Cuba y Obama se verá con el presidente Castro", explicó Rhodes a periodistas. La vista de Obama es la primera de un mandatario estadounidense en activo en 88 años a la isla.

CHINA INSTALA SISTEMA DE MISILES EN UNA ISLA RECLAMADAS COMO SUYA           

          
China ha desplegado un avanzado sistema de misiles tierra-aire en una de las islas que ha reclamado como suya en el Mar de la China Meridional, una medida que seguramente aumentará las tensiones con sus vecinos. El gobierno chino asegura que el reporte de los misiles son invento de la prensa occidental y no reflejan la realidad de las actividades de China en el Mar de la China Meridional. El ministerio de Defensa taiwanés dijo el miércoles que las baterías de misiles han sido instaladas en Woody Island, que es parte del archipiélago Paracel.

     Imágenes de un satélite civil, mostradas en primicia por el canal estadounidense Fox News, muestran dos baterías de ocho lanzamisiles tierra-aire y un sistema de radar colocado sobre una playa. El ministro de Exteriores chino, Wang Yi, dijo en Beijing que el reporte de los misiles son invento de la prensa occidental y no reflejan la realidad de las actividades de China en esa zona. “Espero que la prensa en todas partes, incluyendo en los países occidentales y Australia, se fijen en los faros que hemos construidos en algunas partes de las islas que estamos usando en el Mar de la China Meridional, que ya están en operación y que han sido útiles para asegurar el paso seguro en estas aguas”, dijo Yi.

      El almirante estadounidense Harry Harris, jefe del Comando del Pacífico de Estados Unidos, dijo a los reporteros en Tokio que el despliegue de los misiles representa “una militarización del Mar de la China Meridional”, en una forma que el presidente chino, Xi Jinping, prometió que nunca sucedería. Los reportes fueron divulgados mientras el presidente Barack Obama atendía a los líderes de la Asociación de Naciones del Sudeste Asiático (ASEAN) en California, donde urgió tomar “pasos tangibles” para rebajar las tensiones por las disputas territoriales actuales en la región.

NICOLAS MADURO ANUNCIA UNA SUBIDA DE LA GASOLINA PARA COMBATIR LA CRISIS ECONOMICA QUE CONFRONTA

          
Nicolás Maduroanunció este miércoles la subida de la gasolina, el aumento del salario mínimo, la devaluación del bolívar oficial y la renovación del corrompido sistema distributivo de alimentos para reactivar un modelo enfermo de realidad. El sueldo mínimo aumentará un 20% y el bono de alimentación un 2,5%. El mandatario informó que el salario básico de los venezolanos que se situaba en 9.649 bolívares (1.531,5 dólares a la tasa de cambio oficial más baja o 48,2 a la más alta) pasará a 11.578 bolívares (1.837,7 o 57,8 dólares según la tasa).

      Cuatro horas de preámbulos y justificaciones dieron paso a una nueva huida hacia delante. "Esta lucha es hasta perder y entregar la propia vida", enfatizó en tono apocalíptico. La medida estrella, esperada durante 20 años, fue la subida del precio de la gasolina más barata del planeta. "Hoy por hoy el costo de la gasolina es casi nada, (ahora) vamos a cobrarla porque estábamos pagando por echarla", anunció el presidente. Entre aplausos de ministros, gobernadores y amigos, Maduro utilizó su famoso "¡aprobado!" para imponer nuevos precios: 1 bolívar por litro para el combustible de 91 octanos y 6 bolívares para la de 95.

       Pese a tratarse de una subida sideral de más del 1.000% y 6.000%, respectivamente, el precio todavía sigue siendo el más barato del mundo: un café cuesta más de 100 bolívares. El llamado contrabando de extracción, una de las causas que provocó el cierre de la frontera con Colombia, seguirá siendo un negocio millonario. La subida de la gasolina provocó en 1989 el histórico levantamiento popular conocido como El Caracazo, con cientos de muertos, y desde entonces forma parte del imaginario colectivo. Además, la oposición reprocha y denuncia los "regalos" de millones de barriles de petróleo para Cuba y otros aliados.

 19 de febrero del 2016

LA ASAMBLEA NACIONAL DE VENEZUELA DECIDIO INVESTIGAR AL PRESIDENTE DEL CONSEJO DE SEGURIDAD DE LA ONU, RAFAEL RAMIREZ, POR PRESUNTA CORRUPCION EN  PDVSA

     
El presidente de la Comisión de Contraloría de la Asamblea Nacional (AN), Freddy Guevara, aseguró durante una reunión ordinaria que entre la razones para la indagación al expresidente de la petrolera está que "se presume que la corrupción en Pdvsa ronda los 7.000 millones de dólares". La Comisión de Contraloría de la Asamblea Nacional (AN) decidió abrir hoy una investigación al actual embajador venezolano en la ONU y titular del Consejo de Seguridad, Rafael Ramírez, por "presuntas irregularidades administrativas" cuando estuvo al frente de la petrolera estatal Pdvsa.

      El presidente de la comisión, Freddy Guevara, aseguró durante una reunión ordinaria que entre las razones para indagar al expresidente de la petrolera está que "se presume que la corrupción en Pdvsa ronda los 7.000 millones de dólares", reseñó Efe. La investigación toma en cuenta denuncias sobre el fondo de pensiones de Pdvsa, la paralización de obras y daños, sobornos en contrataciones vinculadas con Ecopetrol (Colombia) y Petrobras (Brasil), además del depósito de dinero en Andorra por ser "una triangulación para el lavado de dinero", aseveró Guevara.

       La Comisión de Contraloría solicitará la comparecencia de Ramírez y además pedirá documentos a Estados Unidos y a España, donde se han hecho pesquisas para determinar si las cuentas de Pdvsa en bancos extranjeros fueron usadas presuntamente para operaciones en el mercado negro de divisas y el lavado de dinero procedente del narcotráfico. La investigación de las autoridades de Estados Unidos afirman que presuntamente la Banca Privada de Andorra ayudó a blanquear más de 4.000 millones de dólares de dinero venezolano.

EEUU ACUSA AL GOBIERNO VENEZOLANO DE CREAR "CLIMA DE INTIMIDACION Y REPRESION"

          
El Departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos acusó hoy al Gobierno de Venezuela de "silenciar" a sus opositores y crear así un "clima de intimidación y represión" en el país, a la vez que instó a la inclusión de todas las partes para "superar los retos" communes. En un comunicado, el portavoz de la diplomacia estadounidense, Mark Toner, aseguró que EE.UU. permanece "preocupado" por las acciones de la Administración venezolana y pidió "respeto" por la voluntad del pueblo, la ley, la separación de poderes y el proceso democrático.

       "Nos preocupan mucho las decisiones de la Corte Suprema venezolana que limitan la autoridad de la recientemente elegida Asamblea Nacional, que han socavado la democracia en Venezuela", apuntó Toner. El Departamento de Estado recordó que "docenas" de líderes civiles venezolanos han sido encarcelados "por sus pensamientos políticos", y puso de ejemplo al opositor Leopoldo López, quien mañana completará su segundo año en prisión. EE.UU. también mencionó los casos del alcalde metropolitano de Caracas, Antonio Ledezma; el exalcalde de San Cristóbal Daniel Ceballos y el asalto este fin de semana de la residencia del alcalde del municipio caraqueño El Hatillo, el dirigente opositor David Smolansky.

       "Nos unimos a otros países en la región y en el mundo en sus llamadas al diálogo entre las ramas del gobierno, para afrontar los retos sociales y económicos que vive el pueblo de Venezuela. La solución requiere la inclusión de todas las partes interesadas", apuntó Toner. El comunicado concluyó con el emplazamiento a los dirigentes venezolanos de "escuchar a las voces diversas de Venezuela y trabajar juntos para encontrar soluciones" en lugar de "suprimir las discrepancias democráticas y pacíficas para silenciar las voces opositoras"

EL PRESIDENTE OBAMS CONFIRMA VISITA A CUBA; ASEGURAN QUE HABLARA DE LIBERTAD POLITICA Y DERECHOS HUMANOS

          
Será la primera vez en casi un siglo que un presidente de EEUU en activo visita la isla. El único precedente es el de Calvin Coolidge en 1928. Jimmy Carter viajó después de dejar la Casa Blanca. Hoy el mismo Barack Obama anunció que su viaje a Cuba avanzará los esfuerzos para restablecer los lazos entre ambos países. Obama realizará su primer viaje a Cuba, el primero que hace un presidente estadounidense a la isla en más de medio siglo. El mandatario dijo en su cuenta de Twitter que ha sido un progreso significativo.

     El consejero de seguridad nacional de la Casa Blanca, Ben Rhodes dijo que Estados Unidos aún tienen diferencias serias con Raúl Castro, presidente de Cuba y señaló que Obama hablará sobre los temas de libertad política y derechos humanos con Castro. Rhodes dijo que EEUU no quiere imponer un cambio pero cree que Cuba se beneficiará con la libre expresión de derechos universales. La corta visita del mandatario estadounidense a la isla está programada para el 21 y 22 de marzo y también visitará Argentina.

     Que Obama deseaba viajar a la isla antes de abandonar la presidencia es algo que el propio mandatario lleva diciendo desde que, el 17 de diciembre de 2014, anunciara junto a su par cubano, Raúl Castro, el inicio de la normalización de relaciones tras más de medio siglo de antagonismo. En julio del año pasado, EE UU y Cuba restablecieron formalmente las relaciones diplomáticas. Un mes más tarde, en agosto, John Kerry se convirtió en el primer secretario de Estado norteamericano en pisar Cuba en más de medio siglo. Lo hizo para reabrir formalmente la embajada estadounidense en La Habana e izar la bandera con las barras y estrellas en pleno Malecón capitalino.

 18 de febrero del 2016

LA ASAMBLEA NACIONAL DE VENEZUELA APROBO EN PRIMERA DISCUSION LEY THE AMNISTIA  

     
La Asamblea Nacional (AN), con los votos de los diputados de la oposición, aprobó en primera discusión el Proyecto de Ley de Amnistía y Reconciliación Nacional, tras un largo debate, unos a favor y otros en contra y con la participación de 17 parlamentarios desde la tribuna de oradores. La sesión se inició a las 3:00 pm con la intervención de la dirigente opositora, Delsa Solórzano, y cerrada a las 6:43 pm por el presidente del parlamento, Henry Ramos Allup.

      El proyecto contiene 45 artículos y procura la liberación de numerosos dirigentes políticos opositores y de una gran cantidad de estudiantes y personas por los hechos ocurridos en 2014, que dejaron más de 43 muertos y cerca de 800 heridos, según datos gubernamentales. El debate fue observado desde el palco de visitantes por representantes de los parlamentos británico y sueco. Delsa Solórzano, diputada de UNT, explicó que "la amnistía incluye la reconciliación laboral para los trabajadores perseguidos de las empresas del Estado, gobernaciones y alcaldías", agregó.

       La parlamentaria fue seguida por su colega de cámara Yajaira Forero, quien calificó la iniciativa "como un día histórico para los venezolanos" y dio la bienvenida al recinto de la AN a "los familiares de las víctimas y de los presos políticos". "Años de injusticia es lo que han vivido los presos y perseguidos políticos", dijo. "El proyecto será aprobado para que en los próximos días se puedan abrir las cárceles y las fronteras del país", dio. El jefe de la bancada oficialista, Héctor Rodríguez, fijó la posición del Gobierno y reiteró su rechazo a la propuesta opositora por considerarlo "una ley de amnesia criminal".

EL PRESIDENTE DE LA ASAMBLEA NACIONAL, RAMOS ALLUP, MIRA CON BUENOS OJOS ACTIVAR LA EMNMIENDA CONSTITUCIONAL

          
La enmienda constitucional es el mejor mecanismo para recortar el mandato del presidente de Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, según opinó el presidente de la Asamblea Nacional (AN), Henry Ramos Allup. Conocedor de las implicaciones que ella conlleva, la primera autoridad del Legislativo venezolano propone acompañar este mecanismo de otras dos: una enmienda para reducir el período del Parlamento y otra para el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia.

     "Para acabar con el argumento de que es discriminatorio acortar sólo el mandato del presidente, yo propondría tres enmiendas: una para recortar el tiempo del Ejecutivo, otra para hacer lo mismo con el del Legislativo y otra para el Tribunal Supremo", dijo Ramos Allup y reseñó la agencia internacional EFE. Considera que la enmienda constitucional es la vía "más expedita, menos complicada" ya que se puede aprobar por mayoría simple de la Cámara y requiere posteriormente sólo la mayoría de los votos en una consulta popular. "De este modo, iríamos todos a consulta de la voluntad popular, a ver quién supera ese escrutinio", destacó y añadió de igual modo enfático "no hay por qué tenerle miedo a la consulta popular".

      El máximo responsable de la primera AN de mayoría opositora reiteró que la alianza decidirá "muy pronto, en breves días" si opta por esta vía o por una de las otras dos constitucionales posibles para alcanzar su propósito de salida del actual titular del Ejecutivo Nacional. Ellas son el referendo revocatorio o la convocatoria de una asamblea constituyente. Explicó el presidente de la AN que se trata de buscar el método "menos obstaculizable" por parte del Gobierno y "su" Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, al que tacha de ser "un apéndice del Ejecutivo" y al que acusa de "dictar sentencias una y otra vez" para impedir el trabajo opositor en el Parlamento. Pero, regresando a su consideración sobre la enmienda constitucional, Ramos Allup comentó también que podría fijarse el mandato presidencial en cuatro años sin reelección. Insistió Henry Ramos Allup en decir que el grupo legislador opositor trabaja en dar con la mejor opción para "tratar de salir de este Gobierno de manera constitucional, pacífica, democrática y electoral".
 

PARLAMENTO VENEZOLANO INVESTIGA LA NACIONALIDAD DE NICOLAS MADURO

          
Parlamento venezolano investiga la nacionalidad de Maduro
La Asamblea Nacional de Venezuela, controlada por la oposición, investigará desde hoy, 11 de enero del 2016,
oficialmente la nacionalidad del presidente venezolano, Nicolás Maduro, a petición de un grupo de opositores, informó el partido Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT). La presidenta de la Comisión de Política Interior de la AN, la diputada Delsa Solórzano, recibió la solicitud suscrita por opositores de diversos sectores sociales que afirman que "existen dudas" sobre la nacionalidad del presidente, aunque este ha asegurado que nació en Caracas.

       Solórzano remitió la investigación a la subcomisión de Asuntos Civiles, que preside la también opositora Denis Fernández. Desde que Maduro asumió como canciller de Venezuela en agosto de 2006, diversos opositores se han hecho eco de denuncias surgidas en el exterior sobre su supuesta nacionalidad colombiana, por presuntamente haber nacido en la localidad de Cúcuta de ese país, fronteriza con la nación caribeña, o ser hijo de madre colombiana. La Registraduría colombiana desmintió hace unos años un supuesto certificado de nacimiento de ese país mostrado por el exembajador panameño ante la OEA Guillermo Cochez y aseguró que lo expuesto por este era un documento falso.

        El 10 de octubre de 2013, seis meses después de que Maduro ganara las elecciones que definieron el período presidencial 2013-2019, la presidenta del Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, mostró una certificación del acta de nacimiento en Caracas del jefe de Estado y aseguró que este había cumplido con todos los requisitos para ser candidato en los comicios del 14 de abril de ese año. La Constitución de Venezuela exige, entre otras, que los candidatos a presidente sean venezolanos por nacimiento y no tengan otra nacionalidad.

 17 de febrero del 2016

LECH WALESA Y EL NIETO DE NELSON MANDELA PIDEN LA LIBERTAD DE LEOPOLDO LOPEZ

     
El próximo jueves 18 de febrero el líder político venezolano y preso de consciencia, Leopoldo López, cumple 2 años de prisión injusta y, en el marco de la fecha, su esposa Lilian Tintori anunció este lunes la visita a Venezuela de los premios nobel de la paz Lech Walesa (Polonia), Oscar Arias (Costa Rica), la hija del Obispo Desmon Tutu, Mpho Tutu (Sudáfrica) y el nieto del expresidente sudafricano Nelson Mandela, Ndaba Mandela. “Estos 4 Premios Nobel de la Paz nos han informado su intención y decisión de venir a Venezuela esta semana con motivo de cumplirse 2 años del injusto encarcelamiento de Leopoldo.

     La visita de estas 4 importantes representantes de la paz y la democracia, sin duda ratifica el mensaje de paz, de esperanza y de reconciliación que Leopoldo, y nosotras en su nombre hemos llevado a cada rincón de Venezuela, pero también al mundo entero que hoy más que nunca tiene su mirada y su atención sobre la crisis que vivimos lo venezolanos”, precisó Tintori en compañía de Antonieta Mendoza, madre de López, y el diputado Freddy Guevara, coordinador nacional encargado de Voluntad Popular. La activista de derechos humanos informó que los premios nobel de la paz llegarán a Venezuela dentro de las próximas 48 horas, bajo el auspicio de la ONG Premio Nobel de la Paz, Amnistía Internacional.

       “El objetivo de la visita es contar sus experiencias de lucha pacífica y democrática para la superación de profundas crisis en Centro América, Polonia y Sudáfrica; todas con un hilo conductor en común: la paz y la reconciliación de los pueblos, algo que sin duda alguna nos va a llenar de fuerza, de fe y de esperanza en esta etapa de cambio que vive nuestra Venezuela”. Agregó que está prevista su participación en una sesión de la Asamblea Nacional el jueves 18 de febrero. Tintori destacó que la visita de los premios nobel ratifica que “Venezuela y el mundo saben que Leopoldo López es un líder pacífico, inocente y encarcelado injustamente por querer una Mejor Venezuela en donde todos los derechos sean para todas las personas, sin exclusión”.

UNA CORTE VENEZOLANA PIDE 16 AÑOS DE PRISION PARA ANTONIO LEDEZMA, EX ALCALDE DE CARACAS

          
Después de diez posposiciones, este martes en la tarde tuvo lugar por fin la primera audiencia del juicio contra el ex alcalde de Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, dirigente del partido opositor Alianza Bravo Pueblo (socialdemócrata), puesto bajo arresto desde febrero de 2015 acusado de participar en una conspiración para derrocar a Nicolás Maduro.

      Los familiares allegados de Ledezma esperaban que en tras la vista de presentación ante el tribunal, el política de 60 años de edad recobrara su libertad por falta de pruebas. No obstante, los representantes de la Fiscalía –que el Gobierno controla- pidieron al juez sexto de Control de Caracas, Manuel Graterol, que se condene a Ledezma a 16 años de cárcel por los delitos de conspiración para la rebelión y asociación para delinquir.  El juez encontró elementos suficientes para proseguir el juicio y mantener a Ledezma en cautiverio. Tras pasar dos meses en una celda de la cárcel militar de Ramo Verde, a las afueras de Caracas, desde el 30 de abril pasado el ex alcalde permanece detenido en su vivienda delsector San Román de la capital venezolana, gracias a una caución otorgada entonces para que se sometiera a una cirugía.

       La decisión judicial se produce la víspera de que otro dirigente opositor encarcelado, Manuel Rosales, ex gobernador del estado de Zulia y ex alcalde de la ciudad de Maracaibo, sea presentado –tras tres suspensiones- en su primera vista ante el tribunal de Caracas que lo procesa por cargos de enriquecimiento ilícito. También este martes la Asamblea Nacional discutirá en primera ronda la Ley de Amnistía y Reconciliación Nacional, con la que la mayoría parlamentaria de oposición se pretende beneficiar a prisioneros que califica como “políticos”, como Ledezma y Rosales.

ARABIA SAUDITA Y RUSIA ACORDARON CONGELAR PRODUCCION PETROLERA

          
Los principales exportadores mundiales de petróleo, Rusia y Arabia Saudita acordaron este martes congelar la producción para hacer frente a un exceso de suministros, aunque dijeron que la medida dependerá de que otros productores se sumen, un punto de fricción con Irán, que planea aumentar los envíos. Los ministros de Petróleo de Rusia, Arabia Saudita, Qatar y Venezuela anunciaron la propuesta tras una reunión no programada en Doha. Podría tratarse del primer acuerdo conjunto entre países miembros y no miembros de la Organización de Países Exportadores de Petróleo (OPEP) en 15 años.

      El ministro del Petróleo saudí, Ali al-Naimi, dijo que congelar la producción en los niveles de enero -cerca de niveles récord- es una decisión adecuada y que espera que otros productores adopten el plan. La razón por la que acordamos congelar la producción es simple, es el inicio de un proceso que evaluaremos en los próximos meses y decidiremos si necesitamos otras medidas para estabilizar y mejorar el mercado", dijo Naimi. "No queremos giros significativos en los precios, no queremos una reducción del suministro, queremos satisfacer la demanda, queremos un precio estable del petróleo.

      Tenemos que dar un paso a la vez", reseñó la agencia Reuters. El ministro de Petróleo de Venezuela, Eulogio Del Pino, dijo que el miércoles se reunirá con funcionarios de Irán e Irak en Teherán: "Mañana nos vamos a reunir con los ministros de Irán e Irak en Teherán y espero que el ministro de Qatar vaya conmigo para discutir con ellos la base de este acuerdo, que es muy importante para estabilizar al mercado". Irán, miembro de la OPEP y archirrival de Arabia Saudita, ha prometido aumentar con fuerza su producción en los próximos meses, buscando recuperar la cuota de mercado perdida tras años de sanciones internacionales, que fueron levantadas en enero.

 16 de febrero del 2016

MEDICOS VENEZOLANOS REITERAN QUE SI EXISTE UNA CRISIS SEVERA DE SALUD EN EL PAIS

     
En Venezuela sí existe una crisis humanitaria en el sector de la salud y quienes pretendan ignorar este hecho no merecen llamarse venezolanos, señaló este domingo una asociación de médicos del país sudamericano, de acuerdo con un reporte de Notimex. "Los hospitales públicos se encuentran en terapia intensiva, pues desde hace tiempo carecen de equipos, medicamentos y personal", precisó Luis Eduardo Sanabria, presidente de la Asociación Civil Médicos por Venezuela (ACMV).

     En diálogo con la agencia mexicana, el galeno destacó que el Gobierno y sus acólitos se han empeñado en desmentir las observaciones hechas por la Red de Sociedades Científicas de Venezuela que dan cuenta del "gravísimo problema" que confronta la salud en el país. "La situación de salud en nuestros hospitales y clínicas se encuentra en franco deterioro, no solo en sus instalaciones y equipamientos por deuda con laboratorios, sino también por falta de médicos, enfermeras y laboratoristas".

     Resaltó que en los últimos cuatro años han tenido más de cinco ministros y la crisis de salud en el país continúa, ya que ninguno de estos ha sido capaz de resolver la problemática porque desconocen el funcionamiento de la red hospitalaria. "Los hospitales están desabastecidos, los Centros de Diagnóstico Integral (CDI) está cerrados, los quirófanos dañados, los equipos no funcionan y por si fuera poco el hampa se apoderó de estos establecimientos y mantiene en jaque a médicos y pacientes".

INGENIEROS DE ALABAMA TRABAJAN PARA PONER ENSAMBLADORA DE TRACTORES EN CUBA

          
Clemmons y Saul Berenthal, dos exingenieros de IBM y socios en la empresa Cleber LLC de Alabama que están intentando poner una pica en Flandes luego de ser aprobados por el Gobierno cubano para establecer en la nueva Zona Especial de Desarrollo de Mariel (ZEDM) una pequeña planta de ensamblaje de tractores para venderlos a agricultores privados de la isla.

     El Post señala que Clemmons y Berenthal, han estado trabajando con funcionarios de Cuba y los reguladores en Washington para convertir su plan de negocios aparentemente inverosímil en un proyecto piloto pionero de una nueva era en las relaciones entre Estados Unidos y Cuba. El Gobierno cubano sólo ha reconocido que ha dado permisos para radicarse en Mariel a una planta empacadora de carnes y una fábrica mexicana de pinturas, pero esta semana los dos socios de Cleber LLC informaron al diario de Alabama The Clarion que habían recibido unacarta desde Cuba para comunicarles la aprobación de su proyecto.

     La misiva, firmada por Idermis González Riera, directora de Coordinación y Trámite de la Oficina de la ZEDM, ratifica "que apoyamos favorablemente el interés preliminar de su empresa para convertirse en usuario de la Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel en la modalidad de cien por ciento de inversión extranjera (…) con el propósito del ensamblaje y manufacturación de tractores para sucomercialización en Cuba, así como su exportación". Aunque nunca antes han ensamblado tractores, el Post apunta que ese podría ser el menor de sus problemas considerando que el embargo económico y comercial de Estados Unidos es una ley que se mantiene firme y que aun las formas más elementales de negocios y comercio bilaterales, como la exportación de pollos congelados o los vuelos chárter, enfrentan un campo minado burocrático en ambos países.

KIM JUNG UN ORDENA CONTINUAR LANZAMIENTOS DE COHETES DE DEFENSA DE MISILES MAS SOFISTICADOS

          
Corea del Norte ha ordenado continuar los lanzamientos de cohete pese a que Estados Unidos y sus vecinos lo consideran como una provocación. De acuerdo a la agencia de noticias oficial de Corea del Norte, el gobernante Kim Jong Un, dijo que el lanzamiento del 7 de febrero fue un “golpe fenomenal a los enemigos que pretenden bloquear el progreso” de su país, e hizo un llamado para que aumenten los lanzamientos de satélites en el futuro.

      Sus palabras fueron parte del discurso pronunciado durante un banquete en honor de los científicos, funcionarios y otras personalidades que contribuyeron al lanzamiento, el cual siguió a la cuarta prueba nuclear de Corea del Norte, registrada el mes pasado. Las acciones norcoreanas han agravado las de por sí tirantes relaciones entre Pyongyang y Seúl.

     La semana pasada, Pyongyang expulsó a todos los trabajadores surcoreanos de un parque industrial de administración conjunta en el norte y puso la zona a cargo de las fuerzas militares en represalia por la decisión de Seúl de suspender las actividades en ese lugar. Seúl acusó el domingo a Corea del Norte de haber canalizado alrededor del 70% de los recursos que recibió por concepto de los trabajadores en el parque fabril Kaesong hacia su programa armamentista y a la compra de artículos de lujo para la reducida elite de la empobrecida nación.

February 15, 2016

POPE FRANCIS VENTURES OUT TO GREET MEXICAN FAITHFUL

     
For a second night, Pope Francis has ventured out of the Vatican ambassador's residence where he is staying in Mexico City to pray with the faithful who have not stopped chanting since his arrival. He asked if they were tired, to which he received a resounding "No!" "We could go until 4 a.m.?" the pope asked. "Yesss," the crowd answered. "Well, but that could be a little long," he responded.

       Francis then led the crowd in prayer. He urged them to think of their friends and their problems. Then he urged them to think about a stranger who must have a big problem. He said each person should ask God through the Virgin to take away those problems and to bless the person, their friends and the stranger. After reminding everyone that they should go to Mass on Sunday, the pope told them to rest and asked them to pray for him, then went back inside the gates. On Friday night, Francis came out of the gate nearly an hour after arriving and spoke to the assembled crowd.

       Vatican officials estimate as many as 1 million people came out to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis during his first full day in Mexico. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi says the figure includes people who lined the motorcade routes Saturday as well as those who attended the pope's Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe and gathered at the capital's main square. Crowds are also expected to be big Sunday when Francis goes to the crime-ridden suburb of Ecatepec for his biggest Mass in Mexico. The site has a capacity for 400,000 people.

RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER MEDVEDEV EQUATES RELATIONS WITH WEST TO A 'NEW COLD WAR'

          
Bringing back the language of the 1950s and '60s, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says the strained relationship between his country and the West could be described as "a new Cold War." Speaking Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Medvedev said he sometimes found himself wondering whether this was 2016 or 1962. "NATO's policy with regard to Russia has remained unfriendly and opaque. One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War," Medvedev said. "Almost on an everyday basis we are called one of the most terrible threats either to NATO as a whole or to Europe, or to the United States."

     Tensions between the West and Russia have increased in recent years, in large part -- at least in the view of the West -- due to Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and its support for separatists elsewhere in eastern Ukraine. More recently, some in the West have questioned whether Russia's intervention in Syria is helpful. Russia says it is attacking terrorists. But some observers contend that Moscow is intent primarily on propping of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging onto power despite a five-year civil war.

     Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander Europe, told CNN that NATO does not agree with Medvedev's assessment. At an earlier briefing at the Munich Security Conference, Breedlove said Russia is not just trying to change the rules but rewrite them. "We at NATO do not want to see a Cold War," he said in an interview. "We do not talk about it. It's not what we want to happen or anticipate to happen... We're a defensive alliance who are arraying ourselves to face a challenge ... [from] a nation that has once again decided it will use force to change internationally recognized borders and so we take those appropriate actions to be able to assure, defend and deter." The back and forth came as Secretary of State John Kerry told the Munich conference that Russia's attacks in Syria have been largely "against legitimate opposition groups" and that must change.

PRESIDENT OBAMA URGES PUTIN TO END AIR STRIKES AGAINST THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION

          
The U.S. and Russian counterparts spoke about the situation in the Civil War-stricken country over the phone on Sunday. The Commander-in-chief stressed the importance of getting humanitarian aid to areas devastated by the conflict and containing the aerial bombing campaign. It came hours after Putin said they would continue their aerial campaign of hitting rebel targets. In a statement, the White House said: 'In particular, President Obama emphasized the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria.'

      The statement added: 'Both sides gave a positive assessment of the results of the meeting of the International Syrian Support Group in Munich on February 11-12, confirmed the principles and provisions of the UN Security Council resolution 2254 both in terms of humanitarian aspects and to develop modalities for the ceasefire, and in promoting the launch of a real political process.' Major powers agreed on Friday to a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria but the deal does not take effect until the end of this week and was not signed by any warring parties - the Damascus government and numerous rebel factions fighting it. Russian bombing raids directed at rebel groups are meanwhile helping the Syrian army to achieve what could be its biggest victory of the war in the battle for Aleppo, the country's largest city and commercial hub before the conflict.

      The situation has been complicated by the involvement of Kurdish-backed combatants in the area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, which has drawn a swift military response from artillery in Turkey. The Kurdish YPG militia, helped by Russian air raids, seized an ex-military air base at Menagh last week, angering Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish group that waged a bloody insurgent campaign on Turkish soil over most of the past three decades. Turkey began shelling while demanding that the YPG militia withdraw from areas it has captured from Syrian rebels in the northern Aleppo region in recent days, including the Menagh air base. The bombardment killed two YPG fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

February 14, 2016

MARIACHIS AND 'CIELITO LINDO' WELCOME POPE FRANCIS TO MEXICO CITY

          
Pope Francis arrived Friday night on his first trip as pontiff to the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country of Mexico, following a historic meeting in Cuba with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and looking ahead to a pointed and problematic mission. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, greeted the pope, surrounded by mariachis and festively dressed dancers singing the Mexican classic "Cielito Lindo." "Queremos su bendicion!" the crowd shouted: "We want your blessing!"

     It is the fourth trip as pope to the Americas for the Argentine native, the first pontiff born in the Americas. Arriving at Benito Juarez International Airport at 7:30 p.m., the pope confronted an extraordinary Mexican spectacle: a full mariachi band, complete with men decked out in charro outfits and women dancers in white blouses and red skirts. Many in the delirious audience of about 5,000 displayed the lights of their cellular phones, while also waving handkerchiefs of green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag. Dancers on hand at the airport moved to a number of well-known Mexican songs, including “Jarabe Tapatio,” a traditional dance tune from the northern state of Jalisco. Enjoying the show from the red carpet, the pope applauded the performers.

      Also greeting him were four children — two boys and two girls — wearing indigenous clothing from various regions of Mexico; one donned a complete mariachi outfit. Francis seemed to enjoy chatting with the children on the red carpet. Later, children dressed in white ran toward the pope and embraced him. Mexico’s first lady lifted a child up to him, and he gave the child a kiss on the cheek. Announcers said the approach of the children was unscripted. Then came the collective shout: “Mexico! Mexico!” and “Bendicion!” Because of the wind, Francis removed the white cap he traditionally wears and held it in his hand. The pope later greeted the mariachis, and put on one of the musicians’ broad-brimmed, gold-trimmed black charro hats, flashing another broad grin.

ROBERTA JACOBSON IS 'DISMAYED' BY DECISION OF THE VENEZUELAN COURT AGAINST A RULING MADE BY THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

     
Undersecretary of State for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, expressed on Friday her dismay over the decision of the highest court of Venezuela to align itself with the Executive Branch’s imposed economic emergency decree that had been rejected by the opposition majority Parliament." "I'm shocked," wrote Jacobson her Twitter. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) of Venezuela "is preventing (the performance of) the Assembly #AN - must respect the separation of powers and democratic process # 6 d", the US added on the same tweet.

     The institutional crisis in Venezuela has deepened by the fight without truce between the Government of President Nicolas Maduro and the National Assembly, controlled by the opposition after the elections of December 6 that ended with three decades of Chavez’s monopoly of public offices. The overwhelming opposition majority in the Parliament rejected an emergency decree enacted on 14 January by Maduro, with which the President intended to face a crisis that worsened by the fall and produced a tailspin of prices of oil, source of 96% of currency in this highly import-dependent country.

     But in the ruling announced Thursday night, the TSJ declared valid the Decree, which allows the Government to dispose of extraordinary resources and some goods from private companies to ensure the supply of products. The decision on the Decree joins others already taken by the TSJ chavism-friendly in recent years, the most recent official challenge against three deputies opponents that were fully elected in the Amazon State. That decision prompted Washington to call for "respect to the will of the people, the separation of powers and the democratic process", said in January a State Department official. The political showdown in Venezuela complicates a crisis that manifests itself in a severe shortage of basic products, an annualized inflation of 141,5 in September 2015%, an economic contraction of 4.5% during the third quarter of last year and a public deficit that private consulting firms estimated at 20%.

US-CUBA TO SIGN AGREEMENT ON RESTARTING COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS

          
The United States and Cuba will sign an agreement next week to resume commercial air traffic for the first time in five decades, starting the clock on dozens of new flights operating daily by next fall, U.S. officials said Friday. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is scheduled to fly to Havana on Tuesday to cement the deal. Barring other major announcements, it would be the most significant development in U.S.-Cuba trade since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced in late 2014 that they would begin normalizing ties after a half-century of Cold War opposition.

       The Obama administration is eager to make rapid progress on building trade and diplomatic ties with Cuba before the president leaves office. The coming weeks are seen as particularly crucial to building momentum ahead of a trip he hopes to make to Havana by the end of March. "This (agreement) provides for a very important, sizeable increase in travel between the two countries, and that reinforces the president's objective" of building ties, said Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs. Under the deal U.S. airlines can start bidding on routes for as many as 110 U.S.-Cuba flights a day — more than five times the current number. All flights operating today are charters.

       Officials hope to parcel the routes out among carriers by this summer, allowing flights to begin by the time Obama leaves office. The agreement allows 20 regular daily U.S. flights to Havana, in addition to the current 10-15 charter flights a day. The rest would be to other Cuban airports, most of which have far less demand than the capital. Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family, mostly on expensive, frequently chaotic charter flights out of Florida. Commercial flights could bring hundreds of thousands more U.S. travelers a year and make the travel process far easier, with features like online booking and 24-hour customer service that are largely absent in the charter industry.

February 13, 2016

CONGRESS SPEAKER, RAMOS ALLUP: TOP COURT DISREGARDS THE CONSTITUTION

          
"The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) believes it can afford the luxury of interpreting the Constitution by disregarding the Constitution itself," asserted on Friday Venezuelan Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup.

      His remarks came in reply to the decision the TSJ rendered on Thursday, under which the decree on economic emergency that had been rejected by the Parliament was in force because the National Assembly (AN) had allegedly used an invalid procedure to reject it. In a press conference, Ramos Allup said that the decision made by the TSJ on Thursday, according to which the AN "had not the authority to reject the decree on economic emergency," worsens the crisis. The Congress Speaker affirmed that the Parliament would continue making decisions based on the people's mandate.

      Moreover, Ramos regretted that President Nicolás Maduro and the President of the TSJ, Gladys Gutiérrez, have not kept their word. He recalled that the day when President Maduro presented the decree to the AN, the parliamentarians asked them in how many days the Parliament had to take a stance regarding the decree, and they answered that the deadline was within eight days. According to the TSJ, the deputies had 48 hours after its publication in the Official Gazette to analyze the decree, as provided in Article 27 of the Law on States of Emergency; instead of eight days provided in Article 339 of the Constitution.

POPE FRANCIS MEETS WITH RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH PATRIARCH KIRILL AT JOSE MARTI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN HAVANA

     
Pope Francis landed in Cuba Friday for the first-ever papal meeting with a head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Gregorio Borgia AP. Patriarch Kirill arrived in Havana on Thursday for the first leg of a 12-day visit that also takes him to Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, and Francis’ plane touched down Friday. After the meeting, he was scheduled to continue on to Mexico where he will be until Thursday. Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the two religious leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration in Russian and Italian at the conclusion of the meeting and to exchange gifts.

     “Today is a day of grace. The meeting with Patriarch Kirill is a gift from God. Pray for us,” the pontiff posted on his Twitter account Friday. Such a meeting, which had been in the works for a couple years, had been a dream of Pope John Paul II and even before that the Roman Catholic Church had made overtures, but Russian Orthodox leaders remained suspicious. The main difference that led to the division with Rome was that the Eastern Churches didn’t accept the pope’s authority. The meeting of the two leaders “signals Pope Francis’ ongoing commitment to ecumenical rapprochement with other Christian Churches,” said Rev. Jean-Pierre Ruiz, an associate professor at St. John’s University.

      In a joint statement issued last week, the Vatican and the Patriarchate of Moscow called the meeting “an important stage in relations between the two churches.” John Paul II had said that the Catholic Church must “breathe with two lungs” — rather than one lung for the Latin Rite and one for the Eastern Churches. Although he very much wanted an invitation to meet with Russian Orthodox Church leaders, he never got it. Relations soured over the Russian Orthodox Church’s contention that Catholic missionaries were proselytizing in the Moscow Patriarchate and conflicts over church policy in the Ukraine where some Russian Orthodox think the Eastern Churches, especially the Greek Catholic Church that follows Eastern rites but answers to the Holy See, is too pro-Western and anti-Russian. Cuba was chosen as neutral ground for the historic meeting.

DEPUTY JOSE GUERRA: TOP TRIBUNAL VIOLATED THE CONSTITUTION

          
Following the decision rendered on Thursday by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) declaring that the decree on economic emergency that was rejected last month by the National Assembly was in force, deputy for opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) José Guerra noted that the Judiciary was not above the Legislative Branch and that the TSJ was "usurping the authority of the Parliament."

      "If this is not a coup against the National Assembly by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, then we will have to find a more precise term, but this is a clear violation of the Constitution by the Judiciary," Guerra asserted on Friday in an interview with private news TV channel Globovisión.He explained that when President Nicolás Maduro handed the decree on economic emergency to Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup, "he (Maduro) told Allup that he had eight days to take a stance regarding the decree (...) When we took a stance, they never told us that the deadline had expired, we acted in compliance with the law. The decree was analyzed, discussed, and it was rejected by virtue of some flaws it had."

      Previously, President Nicolás Maduro said he would implement actions he had not been able to adopt after the Parliament's rejection of the decree. He asserted that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) had rendered a ruling declaring that the decree on economic emergency he had enacted in January, which was rejected by the National Assembly (AN), remains in force. Maduro explained that the decree "is valid for 60 days, which might be extended" and that it gives him the authority to implement actions he had not been able to adopt after the Parliament's rejection of the decree. Moreover, the president noted that private hospitals should have a system to provide free-of-charge care to retired people and pensioners.

February 12, 2016

US ARMY ORDERS HUNDREDS OF SOLDIERS BACK TO SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN

          
For the first time since combat operations were declared over at the end of 2014, a battalion of 500 U.S. Army infantrymen is being sent to southern Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province where the Taliban have made a comeback, Fox News has learned. The decision, confirmed by defense officials, is a sign of military escalation in the country even as the Obama administration tries to draw down. The battalion is meant to relieve a company of 150 soldiers, giving the U.S. Army nearly 350 more soldiers to prevent the Taliban from taking over volatile Helmand province.

      The Army’s 2-87 infantry battalion, part of the 10th Mountain Division based at Ft. Drum, N.Y., was scheduled to deploy to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan this winter -- but instead will be sent to Helmand, according to defense officials familiar with the order. The additional soldiers will provide increased “force protection” for a team of special operations forces training and advising the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps, which has suffered from desertions and poor leadership, according to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The 500 soldiers will not increase the overall number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. That number will remain at 9,800, according to defense officials.

      A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan says the new Army troops will not “participate in combat operations.” The decision follows a series of clashes with Taliban forces. Since leaving Helmand Province, a rich source of revenue for the Taliban from the region’s poppy plants, the Taliban have made a comeback. Last month, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier was killed fighting the Taliban while advising Afghan forces in Helmand and two others were wounded during a firefight that lasted for hours. The 500 soldiers deployed there have to occupy a former U.S. base in Afghanistan turned over to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.

NATO RESPONDS TO MIGRANT CRISIS: SHIPS ON THEIR WAY

     
NATO warships are heading to the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece stop human traffickers, marking the entry of the alliance into efforts to deal with the growing flow of migrants to Europe. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday said three ships under German command were being deployed immediately to help the Turkish and Greek coast guards with reconnaissance and surveillance. For now, the vessels do not have orders to intercept boats carrying migrants.

      The decision to send the ships came at the end of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels and was in response to a request by Germany, Turkey, and Greece. NATO’s action reflects a growing sense of urgency among western governments as officials project four million refugees will seek asylum in Europe this year. Germany has been one of the top destinations for migrants and refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria while Turkey, a NATO member, has borne much of the burden, hosting close to three million refugees. Migrants queue to get free food as they wait to travel to Greek islands by dinghies, near Cesme, Izmir, Turkey, late Thursday Dec. 31, 2015.

      Turkish warning. Turkey has long requested assistance in dealing with the flow, often sparking tension between it and other members of the alliance. On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed threats to release a wave of migrants into Europe. “We can open the doors, and tell them ‘have a good journey,’” Erdogan said Thursday. The Turkish leader confirmed reports of a conversation he had with European Union officials last year in which he said he would send busloads of migrants to Western Europe if he did not reach a deal for assistance to cope with the crisis. The minutes of that meeting were recently leaked to Greek and Turkish media.
 

SWITZERLAND DONATES 150 TONS OF POWDERED MILK TO CUBA

          
Switzerland donated 150 tons of powdered milk for social programs serving children, the elderly and pregnant women in Cuba, state television reported.

      Donations of milk “have been going on for more than 20 years” as part of Switzerland’s humanitarian assistance programs, with most of the donations being made in emergency situations and the aftermath of natural disasters, Swiss Ambassador to Cuba Anne Pascale Krauer Müller said. The powdered milk will be distributed to households, nursing homes, boarding schools and people enrolled in the family assistance programs in five eastern provinces, as well as in Pinar del Rio and Matanzas provinces in the west.

      Laura Melo, the World Food Program’s representative in Cuba, said the UN agency “supports efforts by the Cuban government to provide food security for the most vulnerable people on the island who, many times, are the elderly, children and pregnant women.” The ceremony marking the delivery of the donated Swiss powdered milk was held at the comprehensive day care center for the elderly in Old Havana. In the basic basket of the Cuban people, milk and all dairy products consumed were 98% of national production. Some products are imported because it is cheaper to purchase abroad and bring them into the country that to cultivate them.

February 11, 2016

RUSSIA SAYS IT HAS NO PLANS OF REOPENING MILITARY BASES IN CUBA

          
Russia has no plans to reopen military bases in Cuba, according to a statement from a Russian diplomat Tuesday. The Cold War allies are focusing on strengthening economic and diplomatic relations, Tass Russian state news agency reported. "This issue [of opening bases] is not on the agenda," said Alexander Schetinin, the director of the Latin American department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. "Our cooperation is now developing in other areas - this is first of all our very close friendly foreign policy cooperation. These are issues of advancing our economic and investment cooperation."

      Last year, Russia and Cuba signed major contracts linked to Russia’s participation in implementing a number of significant energy projects and projects in the sphere of developing metallurgy on the Freedom Island, he reminded. "We have projects in the sphere of transport on the agenda," Schetinin said. The Soviet-era spy base in Cuba, the Lourdes SIGINT Station south of Havana, was closed in 2002. Some media reports claimed that Russia could reopen the base but the rumors were officially denied after the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Cuba in July 2014.

        Russian President Vladimir Putin has looked to make increasingly close relations with Cuba a priority, visiting the country shortly after his election as president in 2000. Relations grew frosty between the two countries after Russia closed down its last military base on the island in the early 2000s, and Russian diplomats have sought to re-establish bilateral ties, particularly following an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015 that ended decades of hostilities between the two countries. Russia and Cuba's involvement stretches back to the Cold War in the 1960s when their shared ideology of communism drew them closer together following the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959.

NORTH KOREA REPORTEDLY  EXECUTED ITS ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF

   
North Korea has executed its army chief of staff, Ri Yong Gil, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday, which, if true, would be the latest in a series of executions, purges, and disappearances under the country's young leader. The news comes amid heightened tension surrounding the isolated North Korea after its Sunday launch of a long-range rocket, about a month after it drew international condemnation for conducting its fourth nuclear test.

      Ri, who was chief of the Korean People's Army General Staff, was executed this month for corruption and factional conspiracy, Yonhap and other South Korean media reported. Yonhap did not identify its sources. The source who told Reuters the news declined to comment on how the information about the execution had been obtained. South Korea's National Intelligence Service declined to comment, and it was not possible to independently verify the report. The North rarely issues public announcement related to purges or executions of high-level officials.

      A rare official confirmation of a high-profile execution came after Jang Song Thaek, leader Kim Jong Un's uncle and the man who was once considered the second-most-powerful figure in the country, was executed for corruption in 2013. In May last year, the North executed its defense chief by antiaircraft gun at a firing range, the South's spy agency said in a report to members of parliament. The North's military leadership has been in a state of perpetual reshuffle since Kim took power after the death of his father in 2011. He has changed his armed forces chief several times since then.

BRAZIL'S GOLD AIRLINE SUSPENDS OPERATIONS IN VENEZUELA OVER CURRENCY DISPUTE

          
Brazil’s Gol airline announced on Tuesday that it has temporarily suspended operations in Venezuela because of the difficulties the company encounters when it tries to send money back to its home country. “Gol temporarily suspended its operations in Caracas, Venezuela until the issue of repatriation of company resources in the country is resolved,” the airline said in a statement.

    The Brazilian firm, which had already reduced the weekly frequency of its flights, said that all affected passengers are being rescheduled on other airlines. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, Gol has tried for several months to repatriate 351 million reais ($89.7 million) that are blocked in Venezuela, though the company has not confirmed that amount to EFE.

      Exchange controls have been in effect in Venezuela for more than 10 years, so that payment of debts in a foreign currency depends on the country making it available through various mechanisms. According to the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, the Venezuelan government owes close to $4 billion to airlines providing flights to and from the country. Folha de Sao Paulo noted that Gol has been in constant talks with the Venezuelan government in an attempt to repatriate the money at a favorable exchange rate, but no agreement has yet been reached, despite the mediation of the Brazilian Embassy and IATA.

February 10, 2016

CHINA PROTESTS OVER SOUTH KOREA'S PLANS FOR US MISSILE DEFENSES

          
China has taken the rare step of summoning South Korea’s ambassador to receive an official protest against Seoul requesting the deployment of US missile defences on its territory. South Korea has been considering whether to ask America to install the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. A final decision had previously been delayed by concerns over antagonising China. But North Korea's missile test on Sunday has forced Seoul's hand. Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea, announced on the same day that talks would begin with America on the "earliest possible" deployment of THAAD missile defence batteries.

     China fears that the arrival of an advanced anti-missile system in a regional neighbour would compromise the effectiveness of its own nuclear deterrent. Beijing is also wary of a recovery in US influence in South Korea after a concerted effort by China to woo the country over the last two years. But South Korea has dismissed Beijing's objections, pointing out that THAAD is not an offensive weapon but a defensive system designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Experts believe that North Korea’s regular tests of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have made Seoul’s decision inevitable.

     Kim Jong-un watches missile launch “This nuclear testing coupled with the testing of ballistic missile technology was always likely to strengthen the argument that South Korea needs to bolster its missile defences," said Ben Goodlad, from IHS Aerospace, a defence consultancy, according to Agence France Press news agency. There is additional concern in South Korea after the national intelligence agency warned that the North is preparing to carry out another underground nuclear test. This would be the fifth such detonation since 2006. Last month, North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, which is many times more destructive than a standard nuclear device, although international experts were sceptical. Pyongyang's latest provocations have been unanimously condemned – even by its old allies, China and Russia. A new nuclear test would demonstrate that Kim Jong-un’s regime is indifferent to this criticism.

US SPY CHIEF: NORTH KOREA HAS RESTARTED PLUTONIUM REACTOR

   
North Korea could start gathering plutonium from a restarted reactor “within weeks,” providing Pyongyang with more fuel for nuclear weapons, the top. U.S. intelligence official warned lawmakers. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Tuesday North Korea has made good on earlier threats to expand its Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility as well as its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor.

     “We further assess North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months,” he added in prepared testimony. The facilities had initially been shut down in 2007 but Pyongyang vowed to restart the reactor following its third nuclear test on 2013. And despite doubts North Korea was able to successfully test what it called a miniaturized hydrogen bomb in January, Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee the country's activities remain a concern.

     “Pyongyang continues to produce fissile material and develop a submarine launched ballistic missile,” he said. “It is also committed to developing a long-range nuclear armed missile that’s capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight tested.” The conclusions, part of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” come just two days after North Korea launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space, drawing more condemnation from the world community.

SAUDI ARABIA SAYS WON'T LIMIT OIL PRODUCTION, CAN MEET CUSTOMER DEMAND

          
Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said the kingdom, the world's top crude exporter, does not limit its output and has the capacity to meet additional demand, state television Al Ekhbariya reported on Wednesday. "The increase in production depends on ... the demand of the customers. We meet our customers' demand, there is no longer a limit to production, as long as there is demand, we have the ability to meet demand," Naimi said.

     The Wall Street Journal, which reported the same comments as Al Ekhbariya, also quoted Naimi as saying Saudi Arabia's oil policy was "reliable" and would not change. He has made similar comments in the past when asked about plans to boost production. On Monday, Saudi Arabia, its finances hit by low oil prices, announced plans to shrink a record state budget deficit with spending cuts, reforms to energy subsidies and a drive to raise revenues from taxes and privatization. Saudi Arabia's planned cuts in spending and energy subsidies signal the kingdom is bracing for a prolonged period of low oil prices which this month hit their lowest levels since 2004.

      "We expect - from now on - efficiency of energy consumption to increase, which means the energy consumed will be reduced," Naimi said, in reference to the recent subsidy reforms. On Monday, Saudi Aramco's chairman Khalid al-Falih said his country was better equipped to wait out low oil prices than other producers. The comment by the head of the state oil company was in line with Saudi Arabia's no-cut oil policy on output despite a sharp fall in global oil prices since mid-2014. Saudi Arabia led a shift in OPEC policy last year by rejecting calls to reduce production to support prices, choosing instead to defend market share.

February 9, 2016

'FIRST IN HISTORY'- A POPE TO MEET A RUSSIAN PATRIARCH IN CUBA

          
On Friday the Vatican announced that while on his way to Mexico, Pope Francis will stop in Cuba to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the first-ever meeting between a Pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. “The Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are pleased to announce that, by the grace of God, His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12 next,” a joint Feb. 5 press release from the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church read.

      Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and all Rus' and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, will arrive to Havana Feb. 11 for an official visit to South America. His Feb. 11-22 visit includes stops in Cuba, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. Pope Francis himself will arrive to Havana’s José Martí International Airport the next day while on his way to Mexico, where he will be on an official visit until Feb. 17.

    The Pope will be greeted by both the Patriarch and Cuban president Raul Castro at the airport. From there, they will head to the presidential room of the airport, where Francis and Kirill will have a lengthy private conversation and sign a joint declaration. In the press release, it was noted that the encounter is the fruit of “a long preparation,” and will be “the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches.” The Vatican confirmed that meeting between the two was “not improvised,” but has in fact been in the works “for a long time...a couple of years.”

OIL PRICES DECLINE AFTER VENEZUELA-SAUDI ARABIA MEETING

   
Oil prices dropped on Monday amid a weak operations volume owing to a long holiday in Asia and after a meeting on Sunday between the ministers of petroleum of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, both members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), showed no sign that measures will be adopted to stabilize the market. On Monday morning, oil benchmark Brent lost USD 8 cents, hitting USD 34.98 per barrel. On Friday, February 5, it dropped USD 40 cents, ending at 34.06. US crude futures CLc1 lost USD 23 cents, down to USD 30.66 per barrel, after dropping USD 83 cents, ending at USD 30.89 per barrel.

    Both benchmarks climbed slightly earlier in the session amid volatile operations and low volume of operations owing to the Lunar New Year holiday in Asia, which kept many Asian markets closed. The market is expecting a hearing of the President of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, before legislators on Wednesday, and also data on oil inventories to be disclosed by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The International Energy Agency and the OPEC will also present their monthly reports on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

     Venezuela's oil minister Eulogio Del Pino, who was on a tour of oil producers to lobby for action to prop up prices, said his meeting with Naimi was "productive." "But does 'productive' mean less production? The market thinks not, at least right now," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. France's Total has, meanwhile, agreed to buy 160,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian crude for delivery in Europe, official news agency SHANA quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying, showing Tehran's determination to claw back lost market share after the lifting of nuclear sanctions against the OPEC producer.

YULIESKI GOURRIEL, LOURDES GOURRIEL JR. DEFECT FROM CUBA

          
Yulieski Gourriel and Lourdes Gourriel Jr. have defected from Cuba and will seek major league deals. Yulieski Gourriel Jr., the eldest at 31, would be exempt from international signing guidelines and become a free agent. On the other hand, Lourdes Jr. is only 22 and will not turn 23 until October of this year. He will be subject to international signing guidelines if a team chooses to use some of their budget prior to his 23rd birthday. The international signing period begins on June 15 and goes until July 2.

      Furthermore, a team would have to stay within their MLB-granted international signing budget or pay a penalty that could include fines or the right to sign future international free agents for a season or two. The severity of the penalty is incumbent upon the size of the overage. Yulieski has primarily played third base over the past four seasons with Gallos de Sancti Spiritus of the Cuban National Series, though he played second base for the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japan Central League.

      While his on-base percentage seemed to struggle in Japan, Yulieski played for Industriales de La Habana last season, and worked a .604 OBP in the very small sample size of 106 plate appearances. Lourdes Jr., who is still young, has a career .355 OBP in 1036 plate appearances. He has been playing for the Cuban National Series since he was sixteen and just wrapped up his third season with Industriales de La Habana. In his 183 plate appearances last season, Lourdes Jr. posted an OPS of .924. According to Sanchez, Lourdes Jr. is capable of playing shortstop or the outfield but according to Baseball-Reference he is a first or second baseman. It's unclear what most major league teams would sign him as, but his bat should find a lineup a bit more definitively than his glove.

February 8, 2016

NORTH KOREA ROCKET PUTS OBJECT INTO SPACE, ANGERS NEIGHBORS, U.S.

          
North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday carrying what it called a satellite, but its neighbors and the United States denounced the launch as a missile test, conducted in defiance of U.N. sanctions and just weeks after a nuclear bomb test. The U.S. Strategic Command said it had detected a missile entering space, and South Korea's military said the rocket had put an object into orbit. North Korea said the launch of the satellite Kwangmyongsong-4, named after late leader Kim Jong Il, was a "complete success" and it was making a polar orbit of Earth every 94 minutes.

      The launch prompted South Korea and the United States to announce that they would explore the feasibility of deploying an advanced missile defense system in South Korea, which China and Russia both oppose, "at the earliest possible date." North Korea's state news agency carried a still picture of a white rocket that closely resembled a previously launched rocket, lifting off. Another showed Kim surrounded by cheering military officials at what appeared to be a command center. North Korea's last long-range rocket launch, in 2012, put what it called a communications satellite into orbit, but no signal has ever been detected from it.

      The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the launch, at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea, diplomats said. Isolated North Korea had initially given a Feb. 8-25 time frame for the launch but on Saturday changed that to Feb. 7-14, apparently taking advantage of clear weather on Sunday. North Korea's National Aerospace Development Administration called the launch "an epochal event in developing the country's science, technology, economy and defense capability by legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes."

HAITI LEADER DEPARTS AS HE CAME: AMID UNCERTAINTY, DISORDER, BUT WITH MONEY

     
Michel Martelly came to office promising a stronger Haiti following a messy election that provoked widespread skepticism. He is due to leave power Sunday at the close of his five-year term with few accomplishments and a legacy clouded by a new political crisis. The singer-turned-politician had urged Haitians to set aside deep divisions at his May 2011 inauguration. But his hostile relations with Parliament resulted in gridlock. Many Haitians say Martelly squandered a golden opportunity to turn impoverished Haiti around as international aid poured into the country following a devastating 2010 earthquake that flattened much of the capital and surrounding areas. The disaster killed an estimated 300,000 people.

      "He said he'd help the population and I hoped it was true. But here we are still struggling, same as ever," said fruit vendor Nadine Suzie, selling oranges on a street corner by piles of smoldering garbage. Haiti has long been one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world. Some who worked with him closely see Martelly as a charismatic but flawed leader who doomed his presidency by surrounding himself with an entourage of unsavory cronies, including a number from his previous career as "Sweet Micky," the self-proclaimed "bad boy" of Haitian pop music.

      "It hurts me to say this because I still like him as a person, but the Martelly years were a big zero. There were people around him who were very corrupt and money had a way of disappearing," said Georges Sassine, a prominent industrialist who was tasked with overseeing the country's industrial parks until he was abruptly replaced in 2013. Martelly's former prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, who was forced to resign under pressure in late 2014 after some 2 ½ years in office, is distancing himself from the president during his shambolic last days. He asserts Haiti made clear gains during their partnership but political feuding over the last year has rolled them back.

MEXICO FLIGHTS OFFERED TO US-BOUND CUBANS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

          
Thousands of US-bound Cubans stranded in Costa Rica and Panama will be able to take direct flights to Mexico, if they can afford the cost, the governments of the Central American countries said Friday. The flights are aimed at accelerating a transfer of more than 9,000 Cuban migrants through Central America to Mexico past Nicaragua, a Cuban ally which closed its border to them in November.

      Most of the Cubans are in Costa Rica, which last month began flying them out to El Salvador, where they were put on buses that carried them across Guatemala to the Mexican border. From there they were to make their own way to the border with the United States, which has a longstanding policy dating back to the Cold War of accepting Cubans fleeing their Communist-ruled island. The new direct flights from Costa Rica to northern Mexico cost $790 per adult and can carry 118 passengers each time, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez told reporters.

      The other flights to El Salvador and then the bus trip cost $555 and will continue. The migrants have to bear the cost of the trips themselves. Costa Rica predicts all will have been flown out within five weeks. Panama announced it had struck a similar deal with Mexico for direct flights for the 1,300 Cubans on its territory wanting to head to the US, but gave no details of the ticket prices. Mexico's government said it would give the arriving Cubans a humanitarian entry visa valid for 20 days to give them time to make it to the United States.

February 7, 2016

NORTH KOREA MOVES UP WINDOW OF PLANNED ROCKET LAUNCH TO FEBRUARY 7-14

          
North Korea has moved up the window of its planned long-range rocket launch to Feb. 7-14, South Korea's Defense Ministry said Saturday. The launch, which the North says is an effort to send a satellite into orbit, would be in defiance of repeated warnings by outside governments who suspect it is a banned test of ballistic missile technology. North Korea did not inform international organizations of any other changes in its plan, and the rocket's expected flight path remains the same, said Moon Sang Gyun, Seoul's Defense Ministry spokesman.

      On Tuesday, the North informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunication Union that it would attempt a satellite launch between Feb. 8 and 25. No reason was given Saturday for the change of dates. North Korea's launch declaration came just weeks after it conducted its fourth nuclear test. Outside experts and officials say that each nuclear test and long-range missile launch brings the North closer to creating a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile capable of reaching targets as far as the U.S. West Coast. Recent commercial satellite imagery analyzed by U.S. researchers showed tanker trucks at the launch pad at North Korea's Sohae facility, which likely indicates the filling of fuel and oxidizer tanks in preparation for the launch.

      It is not yet clear if a rocket is on the launch pad yet, according to the North Korea-focused 38 North website. While the timing of the launch will be mainly determined by conditions such as weather, South Korean analysts had speculated that the North might attempt to pull off the launch ahead of Feb. 16, the birthday of late dictator Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. An official from the Korea Meteorological Administration, South Korea's weather agency, said that rain or snow was expected in the North Korean region where the launch pad is located on Monday, Thursday and next Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules.North Korea previously tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and claimed it successfully delivered a satellite into orbit in December 2012, the last time it launched a long-range rocket.

VENEZUELA NEGOTIATES GOLD SWAP WITH GERMAN BANK

     
The President of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV,) Nelson Merentes, is negotiating with German investment bank Deutsche Bank swap operations of monetary gold to lift liquidity in the country on time to comply with heavy international commitments, two sources familiar with the operation told Reuters. Venezuela is using its gold assets, which stand for 64% of its reserves, in order to counter the 70% drop of its foreign currency revenues from oil sales in a year the country must repay some USD 9.5 billion in foreign debt service. "They (the Venezuelan government) are looking for money everywhere," said some of the sources, which requested anonymity as they are not unauthorized to talk about the operation.

       Venezuela's international reserves (USD 15.37 billion) stand at their lowest level in 12 years. According to experts, only some USD 2.4 billion is available in cash, Reuters reported. In December 2015, the BCV and Deutsche Bank signed a framework agreement of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) to set the swap this year. This would help the BCV get cash in return for the commitment that such transaction would be reverted at a specific date and price, another source informed. Neither the BCV nor Deutsche Bank replied to Reuters' requests for information.

       Low oil prices and a decaying state-led economic model have weakened the OPEC nation's currency reserves and spurred concerns that it could default on bonds as it struggles to pay $9.5 billion in debt service costs this year. Around 64 percent of Venezuela's $15.4 billion in foreign reserves are held in gold bars, which limits President Nicolas Maduro's government's ability to quickly mobilize hard currency for imports or debt service. In December, Deutsche and Venezuela's central bank agreed to finalize a gold swap this year, the sources said. The sources did not confirm the volume of the operation in discussion. Neither Deutsche nor the central bank responded to requests for comment. Gold swaps allow central banks to receive cash from financial institutions in exchange for lending gold during a specific period of time.

RUSSIAN PATRIARCH KIRILL, NICOLAS PUTIN'S UNWAVERING BACKER

          
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill has helped to transform the Russian Orthodox Church into a powerful institution of the post-Soviet state. The 69-year-old native of Saint Petersburg will meet Pope Francis next week in Cuba. It will be a historic gathering of the heads of the major western and eastern branches of Christianity after the religion split traumatically in the 11th century -- an event known as "The Great Schism." Kirill, born Vladimir Gundyaev, was chosen to take the helm of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009 after the death of Patriarch Alexy II, a domineering presence who had been in charge since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

      No stranger to controversy, the patriarch has fervently backed Putin's conservative drive in the country and his military action abroad. Last month he declared Russia's military campaign in Syria was a "defensive war" to protect Russia from terrorism and was therefore "just". "When war defends our people's lives and our country we view it as a just action that seeks just goals," he said in an interview with the channel Rossiya. During Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine, the Patriarch's stance mostly consisted of denouncing "anti-Russian" policies of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern rite church that recognises the Pope and is a source of great friction between Moscow and Vatican.

      He stands by defiant pro-Kremlin, anti-Western views although they have turned away many Orthodox Ukrainians against the Moscow Patriarchate, which oversees hundreds of parishes in the country. Inside Russia, Kirill has supported the policies of Putin who, since his 2012 election to the third term, called on Russians to respect "spiritual bonds" and the traditional values of the Orthodox Church, lashing out at "liberal" and Western views. "We are a great and powerful country, we have kept our own way, we have not lost our identity, unlike the great and powerful countries in Europe," Kirill said in November. In some ways, Kirill is closely retracing the steps of Alexy II, whose reign as patriarch stretched over two decades from the late Soviet era until his death.

February 6, 2016

VENEZUELAN PARLIAMENT APPROVED AT FIRST READING THE AMNESTY BILL FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS

          
Venezuelan lawmakers opened debate Thursday on an amnesty bill for political prisoners, a key legislative initiative for the opposition majority that risks unleashing another political crisis with President Nicolas Maduro's administration. The Assembly approved unanimously at first reading, the draft law of Amnesty and National Reconciliation, and agreed to include the list of political prisoners that will benefit the legal measure. Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, imprisoned for two years in the Ramo Verde military criminal, took part in the introduction of the Bill. "After 17 years of hatred and division, we must unite to exit this crisis. We Venezuelans are crying out for unity, peace and national reconciliation, and that is why it is so necessary to pass this amnesty," said opposition lawmaker Delsa Solorzano.

     Some jailed opposition leaders' families were present in the National Assembly, including Lilian Tintori, the wife of protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, who held a sign reading "Amnesty + reconciliation = peace." Lopez was sentenced to 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests that shook the country in 2014 -- a ruling that drew international condemnation. The bill is expected to easily pass the legislature, dominated by the opposition since it won a landslide election victory in December. The bill would grant amnesty to what the opposition says are 75 political prisoners plus all Venezuelans living in self-imposed exile because of differences with Maduro's government and that of his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

     Maduro's administration rejects the bill and says the prisoners in question are legitimately convicted criminals. "We do not support this law because it would create impunity, which the perpetrators are seeking to use to pardon themselves," said minority leader Hector Rodriguez. Venezuela, which is mired in a deep economic crisis, is riven by political turmoil after the opposition won the legislature for the first time since Chavez launched his leftist "revolution" in the South American oil giant in 1999. Maduro is certain to veto the amnesty bill, which could set up a new power struggle between the executive and the legislature, with the Supreme Court as arbitrator -- a body the opposition accuses Maduro of packing with loyalists. As debate opened on the floor of the legislature, thousands of government supporters marched to the presidential palace to commemorate the anniversary of a failed 1992 coup by then paratroop officer Chavez, which launched his political career.

NICOLAS MADURO VOWS TO RESIST HIS OUSTER

     
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro vowed Thursday the opposition's attempts to drive him from power would not prosper "by fair means or foul" in a political crisis gripping the oil-rich nation. Opposition leaders have called for Maduro to be ousted by constitutional means, accusing him of dragging the country close to economic ruin. Despite having lost control of the National Assembly legislature Maduro dug in his heels as he rallied supporters near the Miraflores presidential palace.

     The rally commemorated a failed 1992 coup attempt by his predecessor Hugo Chavez, whom he hails as founder of the government's socialist "revolution." "The people must not allow the oligarchy to cut short this beautiful revolution," he told the crowd of thousands. "We are preparing for that so as not to allow them to do it one way or another, by fair means or foul." On Tuesday a small group of lawmakers presented a proposed constitutional amendment to cut Maduro's mandate short by two years and call a general election by the end of this year. The lawmakers were from the Radical Cause party, a minority member of the opposition MUD coalition. The MUD took control of the legislature last month after voters fed up with economic hardship turned on Maduro in elections.

     The resulting political standoff has raised fears of violence in the South American country, where 43 people died in anti-government riots in 2014. Other top MUD leaders have ramped up their calls in recent weeks to oust Maduro, promising to devise by June a legal means to do so. Given Maduro’s latest comments, “People are naive if they think there is a legislative way out of the current situation,” said Carl Meacham, Director of the Americas program at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s increasingly unlikely that Maduro would leave through an electoral process. This country stopped being a democracy years ago.” “The revolution will not be surrendered ever,” Maduro said. “With the constitution in hand, we will push Venezuela’s independence forward, whatever the costs, in any way.”

US TOP GENERAL IN AFGHANISTAN OPPOSES WITHDRAWAL OF TROOPS

          
Reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan will leave a very limited force to train and assist Afghan forces, the U.S. general at the helm of forces in the war-torn country said Thursday. Army Gen. John Campbell's comments came at a hearing in the Senate where he appeared before lawmakers for the last time before his retirement. “The 5,500 plan was developed primarily around counterterrorism. There is very limited train, advise and assist in those numbers,” said Campbell.

     “Afghanistan is at an inflection point, and I believe if we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015.”   Campbell said 2015 was “fundamentally different than previous years” of the campaign because Afghan security forces undertook the security of the country and the U.S. and NATO’s mission changed from combat to train. Respective to the changes on the ground, according to Campbell, “evolving threats” in the country brought about challenges for Afghan forces’ success. A recent report by the Pentagon also revealed that security is deteriorating in Afghanistan as per the revival of Taliban and the infiltration of Daesh into the war-torn country.

     Campbell said whether adjustments would be made would depend on the progress of Afghan forces throughout the summer. “If the assumptions that we made for the 5,500 plan don't come out true, then of course, we have to make those adjustments,” Campbell said. "I want to keep 9,800 as long as I can before I drop down to 5,500," he added, noting that the administration should reach a decision about whether to adjust the number by early summer so that NATO can discuss the issue throughout the year. Army Lt. Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson has been nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Campbell. The committee approved Nicholson's nomination Thursday by voice vote, sending the nomination to the full Senate.

February 5, 2016

BELIEVE IT OR NOT! --  OIL RICH VENEZUELA IS NOW IMPORTING U.S. OIL

          
A ship carrying half a million barrels of oil that was pumped in the U.S. docked at a terminal owned by Venezuela last week, according to oil data research firm ClipperData. The shipment was sent to a facility located on the Dutch island of Curacao in the Caribbean. The fact that Venezuela is importing American oil is raising eyebrows because Venezuela has 298 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration. That's more than Saudi Arabia, Russia or Iran and eight times the reserves of the United States.

      But the oil extracted in Venezuela is very heavy and hard to refine and then sell to other countries. Venezuela needs to first mix its heavy oil with lighter types of crude to balance out the quality, according to Nilofar Saidi, an oil market analyst at ClipperData. Saidi said Venezuela had already been importing lighter types of crude oil from Russia, Angola and Nigeria. "It's just cheaper to bring a tanker of light crude from the U.S. Gulf than to ship it from West Africa or North Africa," says Nilofar Saidi, an oil market analyst at ClipperData. The U.S. officially lifted its 40-year ban on exporting oil to other countries in December. Despite political tension between the two countries, Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA, was quick to get in line for American oil.

      Friction between the U.S. and Venezuela runs deep. Last March the Obama administration slapped sanctions on several high-ranking members of President Nicolas Maduro's government. U.S. authorities also arrested and indicted two of Maduro's family members for drug trafficking late last year. The political tension may be weighing on economic ties. Venezuela's exports to the U.S. peaked at $48 billion in 2008, according to the IMF. That number has declined dramatically since then, sinking to just $26 million in 2014. Venezuela is getting crushed by low oil prices. Its economy greatly depends on oil exports to drive growth. As oil prices have plunged in the past two years, so has Venezuela's economy, which is now in a severe recession. It's arguably the worst economy in the world. The U.S. now has nearly 503 million barrels of commercial crude oil stockpiled, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday. It's the highest level of supply for this time of the year in at least 80 years.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT! --  U.S. RUNNING OUT OF SPACE TO  STORE OIL 

      
The U.S. now has nearly 503 million barrels of commercial crude oil stockpiled, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday. It's the highest level of supply for this time of the year in at least 80 years. The sky-high inventories are the latest sign that the U.S. oil boom is still alive and kicking. U.S. oil production is near all-time highs despite the epic crash in oil prices from $107 a barrel in June 2014 to just $30 a barrel now. Sure, domestic oil production has slowed -- but just barely. Oil stockpiles are so high that certain key storage locations are now "bumping up against storage and logistical constraints," according to Goldman Sachs analysts. In other words, these facilities are nearly overflowing.

      Cushing, Oklahoma is the delivery point for most of the oil produced in the U.S. This key trading hub is currently swelling with 64 million barrels of oil. That represents a near-record 87% of the facility's total storage capacity as of November, according to the EIA. "There is a fear of tank topping in Cushing. We're seeing it get to its brims," said Matthew Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData. Cushing has had to ramp up its storage capabilities in recent years just to deal with all this oil. If this key hub ran out of room to stockpile oil, that crude would have to be diverted elsewhere -- and that would hurt oil prices. "There would be a ripple effect across the U.S. that would impact prices everywhere," said Smith.

     Global inventories also remain high, with the International Energy Agency recently saying the world is "drowning" in oil. The agency is bracing for oversupply of 1.5 million barrels per day in the first half of 2016. Wall Street is nervously watching supply constraints since they can have dramatic repercussions on prices. More so than other commodities, oil is vulnerable to so-called "operational stress" due to the expensive and sophisticated infrastructure that is needed for storage. "Each time the market brushes up against infrastructure constraints, oil prices will likely spike to the downside to make oil supplies back off," Goldman wrote.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT! --  BLACK-MARKET BOLIVARS CRASH PAST 1,000 PER DOLLAR IN VENEZUELA

          
Venezuela’s bolivar fell past 1,000 per U.S. dollar in the black market as world’s fastest inflation erodes the value of the South American nation’s currency. That means that the country’s largest denomination note of 100 bolivars is now worth less than 10 U.S. cents. The currency has declined 16.9 percent in the past month to 1,003 bolivars per dollar, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks trading in street markets where Venezuelans go to skirt limits on foreign-exchange purchases. The government maintains official rates of 6.3, 13.5 and about 200 bolivars per dollar for authorized purchases of items deemed essential.

     The bolivar is collapsing because the government keeps printing more money and the slump in oil prices means Venezuela is running out of dollars. The amount of cash in circulation or held in bank accounts in Venezuela has doubled from a year earlier, spurring the threat of hyperinflation. The country may face a $38 billion shortfall in its dollar income this year, analysts at Credit Suisse Group AG wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday, meaning a default on government debt is a real possibility this year.

      “It’s not going to improve,” said Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America fixed-income strategy at Nomura Holdings Inc. in New York. “This is just the beginning. The question is will this economic stress cause change.” The currency has lost 81 percent of its value in the last 12 months, according to dolartoday.com. That’s more even than the Azerbaijani Manat, the worst-performing official currency in the world. Last year, Venezuela’s central bank sued to block the popular U.S.-based website from publishing what it says is a misleading black-market exchange rates for dollars, claiming the move is part of a conspiracy to manipulate the South American country’s currency. President Nicolas Maduro said last month that the country’s currency system needed “re-engineering” without offering specifics.

February 4, 2016

VENEZUELA'S NEW CONGRESS PLANS TO LAWFULLY OUST PRESIDENT MADURO

          
The head of Congress, Ramos Allup, announced that the opposition caucus will search for constitutional mechanisms to “achieve the termination of this administration” by changing the board of directors of public institutions, retaking control of the Supreme Court of Justice, and investigating ministers. “We are going to review the Supreme Court of Justice’s functions. It cannot continue to operate freely as it is, made up illegally. We won’t let the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber boast that it is a parallel legislative branch,” he said. Opposition Congressman Omar Barboza of Zulia also said they are “committed to political change and national reconciliation.”

     “We are not only talking about changes of names and faces,” he said, “but rather the change of a model that governs Venezuela today. The vast majority of Venezuelans gave us the responsibility to change a system that represents scarce goods, high costs of living, personal insecurity, and corruption. We are here with the commitment of promoting a different model that doesn’t give people a reason to leave the country, but rather a model for those who left to return and reconstruct the institutions.” Congressmen Pedro Carreño and Héctor Rodríguez took on the role of defending the current administration. The Chavista faction then abandoned the chamber even before Ramos Allup had finished his speech.

     Outside the building, however, former National Assembly president and PSUV strongman Diosdado Cabello lashed out against the opposition’s new bills. “Nowhere in the world do you see assassins passing laws to pardon themselves,” he said in reference to Leopoldo López, the opposition leader sentenced to 14 years in jail after a dubioustrial for calling a protest in 2014 in which 43 people died. Venezuela’s first lady and elected Congresswoman Cilia Flores quickly exited the premises, dodging journalists’ questions about the arrest and trial of her nephews in New York on drug-trafficking charges. Another landmark of the new Congress was the return of independent media outlets. After being barred from entry for six years, they resumed coverage of legislative sessions. The former Chavista majority only allowed Congress’s official television channel and the state media network to broadcast live from sessions.

CEO OF POLAR HIGHLIGHTS IMPORTANCE OF VENEZUELAN FARMERS 

      
"What we actually need is raw material, which is 18 times cheaper than importing finished products as the State and other companies do," stressed Lorenzo Mendoza, the Chief Executive Officer of Venezuela food giant Polar Lorenzo Mendoza, the Chief Executive Officer of Venezuela major food company Polar, stressed that Venezuela's economic issues needed to be tackled in a transparent manner, focusing on plummeting agriculture production, the hurdles to imports, and the search for new funding sources.

     Mendoza highlighted that in Venezuela there are excellent farmers in the states of Portuguesa, Guárico, Aragua, Cojedes, Barinas, and Anzoátegui who used to provide Polar with large amounts of corn, one of the main raw materials the company requires. "All that went downhill and nowadays, almost 40% of the corn consumed has to be imported. We depend on imports carried out by the State," he commented. He added that the foreign currency the State manages is essential to obtain the raw material many companies need for food production.

      "What we actually need is raw material, which is 18 times cheaper than importing finished products as the State and other companies do." Mendoza commented that the Venezuelan State would require USD 93.30 billion to import what Polar produces locally with an investment of USD 5.9 billion. Therefore, he stressed that Polar has been 18 times more efficient in terms of employment generation and tax payment than the government's imports from Brazil and Argentina of same products Polar produces. Finally, Mendoza urged the government to stop political confrontation with the private sector.

U.S., JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA WARN OF 'REAL CONSEQUENCES' AS NORTH KOREA ANNOUNCES ROCKET LAUNCH

          
 
A planned missile launch by North Korea would be "an unmistakable slap in the face" for those arguing against more sanctions in response to its recent nuclear test, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said Tuesday. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel's comments appeared to be directed at China, the North only major ally. He was speaking after North Korea notified international organizations that it plans to launch an observation satellite into space between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25. He said a launch that uses ballistic missile technology would be another violation of a U.N. ban and strengthens the argument for the international community to impose "real consequences" on North Korea for destabilizing behavior.

     The U.S. has been pushing for the imposition of sanctions following its Jan. 6 nuclear test. China, the North's main trading partner and source of economic assistance, has condemned that test, but is more reluctant to impose sanctions. Beijing has traditionally be concerned that putting the squeeze on its unpredictable neighbor could destabilize it. Secretary of State John Kerry sparred with his Chinese counterpart on the issue in Beijing last week, and discussions are continuing among U.N. Security Council members on how to respond to the actions by North Korea, which already faces sanctions under multiple resolutions imposed since 2006 when the North conducted its first nuclear test.

     "We share the view that there needs to be consequences to North Korea for its defiance and for its threatening behaviors. Our diplomats are in deep discussion in New York about how to tighten sanctions, how to respond to violations," Russel told reporters. "But I would say that yet another violation by the DPRK of the U.N. Security Council resolution, coming on the heels of its nuclear test, would be an unmistakable slap in face to those who argue that you just need to show patience and dialogue with the North Koreans but not sanctions," he said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

February 3, 2016

NICOLAS MADURO: "IF PROPERTY LAW FOR MISSION HOUSING IS APPROVED, WE WILL BUILD NO MORE

      Caracas, Venezuela
Deputy for ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) at the National Assembly, Ricardo Molina, said that the dwellings of Great Mission Housing Venezuela "are of their owners and heritable, but they may not be sold at outrageous prices." The Venezuelan National Assembly (AN) recently approved in a first session the Ownership Law that benefits the recipients of the Great Mission Housing Venezuela, upon a proposal made by the deputies of opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD).

     In light of this, Deputy for ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Ricardo Molina, said that if this law turns out to be passed, "the plots of land would be at speculative market prices." For this reason, he promised that the national government would not continue building houses in the context of the welfare program. "Mission Housing is a social project and they (the opposition) intend to turn it into a capitalist project, where the value of the house is more important than family and home security," the congressman commented on Tuesday during a TV talk show aired on private news TV channel Globovisión.

      Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro asserted that the property law aimed at beneficiaries of the Great Mission Housing Venezuela passed on Thursday by the opposition supermajority at the National Assembly was "unconstitutional" and that it sought to "put an end to Great Mission Housing." He added that the opposition sought to privatize low-income housing and to finish the welfare housing mission. Nicolás Maduro warned in a mandatory radio and television broadcast on Thursday that he would "never" allow that law to materialize. "To fight this law that intends to privatize dwellings, the people must rise in rebellion on the streets to defend the right to housing," he noted.

THE GUARDIAN: 'HAVANA NOW IS THE BIG CAKE -- AND EVERYONE IS TRYING TO GET A SLICE' 

      
Three generations of one family are huddled around a phone, the children fighting over who gets to wear the headphones while the granny holds a baby up to the camera – so that relatives in Miami, who they haven’t seen for years, can inspect the family’s new arrival. Nearby, two brothers scroll through Facebook to check the latest enquiries for their bed-and-breakfast business, their laptop balanced on a makeshift desk of crates, while a gaggle of teenage girls stream music and practise dance moves under a tree.

     This lively scene, which looks like an impromptu secondhand technology fair, is the result of a new phenomenon in Cuba: Wi-Fi hotspots. In a country where the internet is still forbidden in private homes and an hour checking emails at an internet cafe can cost nearly a week’s wages, the arrival of five designated Wi-Fi zones in Havana has been nothing short of revolutionary. Walk along La Rampa by night, the long people-watching road that slopes up from the seafront into the neighbourhood of Vedado, and you’ll see huddles of ghostly faces, illuminated only by the glow of screens.

     These sprawling open-air internet lounges have also spawned a new informal economy. Wi-Fi touts wander the streets like drug-pushers, re-selling the state telecom company’s prepaid $2 scratch-off cards for $3 apiece, muttering “cards, cards?” instead of the usual “hashish? girls?”. Snack stalls and drinks stands – private enterprises that would have been forbidden five years ago – have sprung up to fuel the spontaneous street-corner parties, where people gather around to watch the latest Hollywood trailers on YouTube. “We are seeing a whole new quality of public space,” says Miguel Antonio Padrón Lotti, a Cuban professor of urban planning, who worked at the country’s National Physical Planning Institute for 45 years. “Cubans have always socialised on the streets, but now we can interact with the wider the world at the same time.” The wider world is arriving here in ever bigger droves, and not just through the internet.

NASA EXPLORES COOPERATION WITH CUBA ON SCIENCE PROJECTS

          
 
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is currently exploring the possibilities of cooperating with Cuba on science projects, the island’s official media said. NASA researcher Brent Holben, on a visit to Cuba, said the space agency is interested in strengthening cooperation with Cuba in specific areas such as meteorology, oceanography and astronomy, according to state news agency ACN. Holben, a member of NASA’s Biospheric Sciences Laboratory, participated as a guest in a science workshop at the Meteorological Center in the eastern province of Camaguey.

      In his opinion, the current state of political relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments following the renewal of diplomatic ties last year constitutes “an opportunity” to strengthen the exchange of scientific information. The U.S. specialist said that while there are still no official connections with scientific institutions on the island, upon his return to the United States he will make a report to his department about exactly what possibilities exist for launching joint research projects that could benefit both countries.

Holben urged Cuba to join the recently created Caribbean Aerosol Network, a component of Aeronet, which is a network of robotic instruments basically used to study aerosols, tiny particles suspended in the air whose high concentration has a negative impact on human health. The NASA scientist considered the aerosol network to be an “organic and integrating” project in the Caribbean, in which Camaguey could play an important role because it receives dust in abundance from the Sahara Desert, and possesses the country’s only solar photometer for studying these particles. He said that instruments of this kind are very valuable to NASA, because they are capable of checking satellite observations of aerosols by means of measurements taken on the Earth’s surface.

February 2, 2016

FORMER PETROBAS EXECUTIVE, JORGE ZELADA, GETS 12 YEARS FOR CORRUPTION IN BRAZIL

      Sao Paulo, Brazil
The former director of the international division at Brazil's scandal-plagued state oil company, Petrobras, was sentenced Monday to 12 years and two months in prison for corruption and money laundering. Jorge Zelada was convicted of taking bribes in a massive pay-to-play scheme that has upended Brazilian politics and cost the country's largest company more than $2 billion.

     Judge Sergio Moro found Zelada and accomplices took nearly $31 million in bribes to grant a $1.8-billion drillship rental contract to US oil rig company Vantage Drilling Corporation. "The contract was illicitly steered toward Vantage Drilling Corporation in return for the payment (of the bribe)," the judge said in his ruling. Brazil has seized nearly $12 million from bank accounts in Monaco held by companies linked to Zelada, who headed Petrobras's international division from 2008 to 2012. Investigators say he also stashed money in Swiss accounts. Prosecutors say Petrobras, long a pillar of the world's seventh largest economy, was at the center of a sprawling embezzlement, bribes and kickbacks scheme in collusion with construction companies and political parties, including the ruling Workers' Party.

     The chief executives of construction giants Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez are among other high-ranking business figures already snared, along with a former Workers' Party treasurer. Dozens of politicians are under investigation, including lawmakers, governors and cabinet ministers. The sweeping corruption probe, called Operation Carwash, has uncovered a network of at least 16 companies that "bought" lucrative Petrobras contracts with bribes of between one and three percent of the total value, prosecutors say. The scandal and the slide in oil prices have been catastrophic for Petrobras, which was downgraded to junk status by ratings agency Moody's in December and has slashed its planned investments and production targets for 201
 

IRAN AWARDS THE 'VICTORY MEDAL' TO COMMANDERS WHO DETAINED US SAILORS AND WARNED THE COUNTRY TO REMAIN 'WARY' OF AMERICA

      
Five navy commanders who detained ten American sailors earlier this month have been awarded medals by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A diplomatic crisis was narrowly avoided after two US Navy patrol boats crossed into Iran's waters from Kuwait to Bahrain on January 12. The sailors were released a day later after being held on Farsi Island in the Gulf after it was established the trespassing was not 'hostile or for spying purposes'.

     A diplomatic crisis was narrowly avoided last month after ten US sailors (pictured) strayed into Iranian waters, causing them to be detained on Farsi Island in the Gulf for one day But despite it being established that the incident was not 'hostile' and was caused by a faulty GPS, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured) awarded the Victory medal to US sailors captors and said that Iran should remain wary of America Despite this, Mr Kamenei awarded the Fath (Victory) medal to Admiral Ali Fadavi, the head of the Guard's navy, and the four commanders said that Iran should remain wary of America despite their recent nuclear deal, Reuters reported.

       The medal has previously been awarded to war heroes, politicians and military commanders. While Mr Fadavi had initially accused the sailors - nine men and one woman - of spying, an investigation later established that the US personnel were led astray by a 'broken navigation system'. Speaking at the time, Secretary of State John Kerry had said: 'That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.' But relations with Washington were strained last month by claims that Iran fired rockets close to a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf.

EL NIÑO CAUSING HUGE LOSSES IN CUBAN AGRICULTURE

          
 
The El Niño weather phenomenon is causing millions of dollars in losses in Cuban agriculture, affecting the island’s crops of sugar cane, tobacco, rice, coffee and vegetables, local experts are reporting in state-run media.

     El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, which was categorized as “very strong” between November 2015 and January 2016 – a level reached only in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 over the past 50 years – has been adversely affecting the island since last summer with episodes of severe drought and heavy rains at the wrong times, the science supplement for the daily Juventud Rebelde reports. Although no specific value to the agricultural losses has been established, “they could amount to hundreds of millions of pesos,” the article says. As an example, the paper cites losses of almost 90,000 tons of rice in 2015 due to the drought affecting the rice fields, along with ironically heavy losses in vegetable and grain crops due to too much rain in recent months.

      The head of the agrometeorology information service with the island’s Weather Institute, engineer Eduardo Perez Valdes, warned of the “great risk” posed by the weather during the early part of the year. He told Juventud Rebelde that El Niño is at its “most capricious” from January to April, often dumping a huge amount of rain in Cuba that negatively affects the sugar cane and tobacco harvests, along with vegetables such as potatoes. He also said that the island’s agricultural situation will not get back to normal quickly and the spring-summer period this year will, in all likelihood, be very hot with more drought.

February 1st., 2016

AT LEAST 60 PEOPLE KILLED BY A CAR BOMB AND TWO SUICIDE BOMBERS IN DAMASCUS, SYRIA

      
 At least 60 people were killed, including 25 Shi'ite fighters, and dozens wounded on Sunday by a car bomb and two suicide bombers in a district of Damascus where Syria's holiest Shi'ite shrine is located, a monitor said. Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the group. It said two operations "hit the most important stronghold of Shi'ite militias in Damascus". The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties were expected to rise from the suicide attacks in Sayeda Zeinaba, a district of southern Damascus where the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Iranian militias have a strong presence.

     Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Observatory, said the suicide bombers had targeted a military bus carrying Shi'ite militias who were changing guard there. The explosions occurred as representatives of Syria's government and its divided opposition began convening in Geneva for the first U.N.-mediated peace talks in two years. Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, head of the government delegation at Geneva, said the blasts in Damascus just confirmed the link between what the government says are a Saudi-led and funded Islamist "opposition" and terrorismAli Hashisho/ReutersA Lebanon's Hezbollah member reacts as he carries with others the coffin of his comrade,

     Mohamad Sfawi, who was killed fighting alongside Syrian army forces in Syria, during his funeral in Qnarit village, southern Lebanon, December 13, 2015. State television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighborhood. Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting an interior ministry source, said a group of militants had detonated a car bomb near a public transport garage in the neighborhood's Koua Sudan area. Two suicide bombers then blew themselves up nearby as people were being rescued. The authorities put the dead at 45 people. "Bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage," a witness told state news channel Ikhbariyah. The heavily populated area in the south of the city is a site of pilgrimage for Shi'ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.

RAMOS ALLUP: IT WOULD BE IRRESPONSIBLE TO LET NICOLAS MADURO COMPLETE HIS MANDATE

      
Ramos Allup, PRESIDENTE DE LA ASAMBLEA NACIONAL DE VENEZUELA vowed Friday to drive Nicolas Maduro from office this year, raising pressure on the socialist leader as he weathers a political crisis in the oil-rich nation. Having rejected Maduro's bid to seize emergency powers over the crisis-hit economy, the opposition-led legislature revived calls to oust him. "Someone said we should let the government finish its term so it can stew in its own juice. That would be irresponsible," the opposition speaker of congress, Henry Ramos Allup, told a gathering of foreign reporters.

      Maduro's mandate runs until 2019, but the new opposition majority in the National Assembly has raised the prospect of his rivals finding constitutional or legislative means to cut his term short. "I don't want this to last three more years, going from bad to worse," Ramos said. "If you can treat an illness before it kills you, then you obviously apply the treatment." He reiterated the opposition's aim to devise, by June at the latest, a legal way to oust Maduro. "I don't know if it will happen by the end of this year... but the way things are going, I don't see him reaching the end of his constitutional term," Ramos said.

      Amid a worsening recession, political deadlock seized Venezuela when the opposition majority took control of the assembly at the start of the month.
A series of tense institutional maneuvers followed as Maduro chipped away at the opposition's majority, which in turn blocked his plan to decree a state of economic emergency. If Maduro stays in office with a grip on the economy, Ramos said his successor would inherit a "graveyard." He spoke a day after another prominent opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, added his powerful voice to calls to oust Maduro. Until Thursday, ex-presidential candidate Capriles had held a more moderate line, saying the priority should be fixing the economy.
But after weeks of growing turbulence, he hardened his stance, calling for a referendum or constitutional reform to get rid of the president.

US LIEUTENANT GENERAL JOHN "MICK" NICHOLSON SEES AFGHANISTAN 'DETERIORATING'

          
 
Lieutenant-General John "Mick" Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida continue to see Afghanistan as an attractive sanctuary. He warned the U.S. may need to take a more aggressive approach. "We still see attempts by terrorist organizations to get into Afghanistan," Nicholson said. "Do we have the right level of CT [counterterrorism] capability to deal with that?" Of particular concern to U.S. military and intelligence officials is the spread of the Islamic State group, which has sought to establish a sanctuary in Nangarhar province, and a resurgent al-Qaida in Kandahar province.

    The Taliban have also re-emerged as a threat, briefly seizing the northern city of Kunduz last year while also taking key districts in Helmand province. There are concerns, too, that the Taliban have hopes of retaking their spiritual home in Kandahar. Nicholson assured lawmakers he would not let the U.S. sit idly by. "We need to prevent Kandahar from falling into the hands of the Taliban," Nicholson said, adding he would "absolutely" recommend using U.S. military force to prevent the Taliban from retaking the provincial capital. If approved by lawmakers, Nicholson would take over as the commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from Gen. John Campbell, who is expected to retire.

     The U.S. currently has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan for counterterrorism activities and to train and advise Afghan security forces. But that number is expected to drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year, worrying lawmakers. "I believe we are in a crisis situation," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a constant critic of the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy. "It makes no strategic or military sense to continue the withdrawal of American forces." Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte also expressed alarm at the way the administration has telegraphed troop levels in Afghanistan to U.S. enemies. "This has been a constant kabuki dance," Ayotte said. "We cannot afford to take on risks that allow obviously safe havens, again, for al-Qaida and ISIS engagement."



 





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