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January  31, 2016

CUBAN DICTATOR RAUL CASTRO ARRIVES IN PARIS

      PARIS, FRANCE
Cuban DICTATOR Raul Castro arrived in Paris on Saturday as part of his OFFICIAL visit to France. His stay in France begins with a private visit before being officially received by French President Francois Hollande under the iconic landmark of Arc de Triomphe in the French capital on Monday. Castro will hold talks with Hollande at the Elysee presidential palace and attend a state dinner. He will meet various French officials on Tuesday.

      The visit, which was announced on January 19, marks the dawn of a new era of economic and diplomatic ties for the island nation. Cuban deputy foreign minister Rogelia Sierra said Cuba wishes to expand and further diversify its relations with France in the fields of economy, commerce, finance, investment, and culture. According to French officials, the two countries are expected to sign an economic roadmap to develop ties. They will also sign deals on transport, tourism and fair trade. This is Castro’s first state visit to Europe since he took over from his elder brother Fidel as leader in 2006.

      Fidel Castro had visited France in 1995 and met with its then president Francois Mitterrand. Last May, Hollande became the first Western head of state to visit Cuba in over 50 years. His visit took place following the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States at the end of 2014. Hollande called for the lifting of the US economic embargo trade embargo which has been in place since 1962. Paris is also taking a leading role in strengthening Cuba's political ties with Europe overall. It hopes for a new cooperation deal after years of tension over the sensitive issue of human rights in Cuba.

BRAZILIAN PROSECUTOR SUBPOENAS FORMER PRESIDENT LULA DA SILVA

      
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been subpoenaed as part of an investigation into a suspected money laundering scheme involving an apartment he once thought of buying, the Sao Paulo state prosecutor's office said Friday.

     The office of prosecutor Cassio Conserino said Silva and his wife, Marisa Leticia, would be questioned Feb.17. Earlier this week, prosecutors said they were investigating whether some of the money from the big corruption scandal buffeting state owned-oil company Petrobras was laundered through illegal real estate transactions involving the OAS construction company.

      OAS constructed the building where Silva considered buying the apartment. Conserino's office said there were "indications that there was an attempt to hide the identity of the apartment's owner, which if proven would mean the crime of money laundering had been committed." Silva has said that he and his wife had an option to buy the apartment in the coastal city of Guaruja but they never purchased it. The Sao Paulo-based Lula Institute said on its website that the prosecutor's suspicions of alleged concealment of assets by Silva were unfounded and frivolous. Prosecutors have alleged that over $2 billion was paid in bribes by businessmen to obtain Petrobras contracts for projects that subsequently ballooned in costs

NICOLAS MADURO'S CRITICS WANT TO KNOW: IS HE ACTUALLY COLOMBIAN

          
 
A VERY high-profile group of Venezuelans has called on the opposition-controlled National Assembly to investigate persistent rumors that President Nicolas Maduro is in fact Colombian, disqualifying him from holding the office. A letter addressed to assembly president Henry Ramos Allup and reproduced in local news outlets refers to "the reasonable doubts existing around the true origins of Maduro, who has so far refused to produce his birth certificate."

      The letter -- with echoes of the challenges to the citizenship of US President Barack Obama -- carries 62 signatures, including those of a former ambassador, a leading businessman and some former military leaders opposed to Chavism, the leftist ideology associated with Maduro's predecessor, the late president Hugo Chavez. The letter asserts that Maduro, as the "son of a Colombian mother" and having lived in that neighboring country as a youth, is "Colombian by birth" under the Colombian Constitution.

      If Maduro should be found to hold both Colombian and Venezuelan citizenship, the letter asserts, it would "prevent him from exercising the functions of the president of the republic." Maduro, a socialist, has denied the rumors as the "crazed inventions" of right-wing politicians eager for his ouster. He says that he was born in Caracas on November 23, 1962. The opposition, which scored a historic victory in the December 6 legislative elections, has made no secret of its intention to push the president out before his term ends in 2019. On Friday, Ramos Allup said the opposition would decide by June on a legal means to proceed in that direction.

January  30, 2016

VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION LEADER HENRIQUE CAPRILES IN FRESH CALL TO OUST NICOLAS MADURO

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA
A prominent Venezuelan opposition leader called Thursday for a referendum or constitutional reform to oust President Nicolas Maduro, hardening the anti-government camp's stance in the oil-rich country's political crisis. Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said the opposition should use its legislative majority to hold a recall referendum or propose a constitutional reform to shorten Maduro's term.
 
     "Either a solution is found here or Venezuelans must consider the way to achieve change," said Capriles, who is leader of the moderate Justice First party, one of the main forces in the opposition coalition. "The time has come for a recall referendum or a constitutional amendment." Voters fed up of economic hardship in the recession-stricken country punished Maduro in elections last month, handing the opposition control of the legislature for the first time in 17 years. Opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly vowed to find a way to kick out Maduro, though it is unclear exactly how.

     Maduro's allies managed to deprive the opposition for the time being of the two-thirds legislative supermajority it would need to mount a constitutional reform. A referendum can legally be called to remove the president once he is halfway through his term, from April. Maduro's current mandate is supposed to run until 2019. Capriles has warned of the risk of violence due to the standoff in Venezuela, where 43 people were killed during anti-government riots in 2014. "The only outcome must be constitutional, peaceful and democratic," he said.

GOVERNMENT DECLARES 22 HILLARY CLINTON EMAILS 'TOP SECRET'

      
The Obama administration confirmed for the first time Friday that Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets, censoring 22 emails with material demanding one of the highest levels of classification. The revelation comes just three days before the Iowa presidential nominating caucuses in which Clinton is a candidate. The State Department will release its next batch of emails from Clinton's time as secretary of state later Friday.

     But The Associated Press has learned seven email chains are being withheld in full because they contain information deemed to be "top secret." The 37 pages include messages recently described by a key intelligence official as concerning so-called "special access programs" — a highly restricted subset of classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs like drone strikes or government eavesdropping. Department officials wouldn't describe the substance of the emails, or say if Clinton sent any herself. They also wouldn't disclose if any of the documents reflected information that was classified at the time of transmission, but indicated that the agency's Diplomatic Security and Intelligence and Research bureaus have begun looking into that question.

       The FBI also is looking into Clinton's email setup, but has said nothing about the nature of its probe. Independent experts say it is highly unlikely that Clinton will be charged with wrongdoing, based on the limited details that have surfaced up to now and the lack of indications that she intended to break any laws. "What I would hope comes out of all of this is a bit of humility" and an acknowledgement from Clinton that "I made some serious mistakes," said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer who regularly handles security clearance matters. Legal questions aside, it's the potential political costs that are probably of more immediate concern for Clinton. She has struggled in surveys measuring her perceived trustworthiness and an active federal investigation, especially one buoyed by evidence that top secret material coursed through her account, could negate one of her main selling points for becoming commander in chief: Her national security resume

THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT ATTACKS CHRISTIAN AS PRESIDENT OBAMA LIBERALIZES ECONOMIC TIES

          
 
The Obama administration has continued its effort to expand contact between the U.S. and Cuba by easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.” However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Although Raul Castro’s government has continued economic reforms, it has maintained the Communist Party’s political stranglehold. Indeed, despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

     In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.” In contrast, there were only 40 cases in 2011. Even in the best of times the Castros have never been friends of faith in anything other than themselves. The State Department’s 2014 report on religious liberty reported that it was easier for Cubans to engage in some charitable and educational projects and import Bibles.

     However, “the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions, and restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government tightened controls on financial resources.” Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was similarly critical. The number of believers is growing, but the regime attempts to closely control religious practices. The Commission explained: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.” Never mind the papal visit, “the government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights

January  29, 2016

IRAN SAYS IT HAS ORDERED US WARSHIP TO LEAVE DRILL AREA

      TEHRAN, IRAN
Iran's navy ORDERED a U.S. warship to leave an area where Iran has been conducting a naval drill near the narrow Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Wednesday. The U.S. Navy denied that its operations in the region were affected. The Iranian navy chief, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, was quoted as saying that the U.S. warship received two warnings before leaving the region. "They were warned once by maritime patrol aircraft and once again by the Alborz destroyer," he said. "The U.S. warship left the region immediately after receiving the warning," he added, saying he believed that the Americans had approached the area to "learn our tactics."

     Iran said the naval drill got underway Wednesday over an area of 3 million square kilometers, including part of the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world oil supply passes, as well as the Gulf of Oman and neighboring parts of the Indian Ocean. It is the first Iranian naval exercise since 10 U.S. sailors were briefly captured by Iran earlier this month after drifting into Iranian territorial waters. Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, offered a different version of events. Stephens said the U.S. is aware of the Iranian exercise and that it has not altered U.S. naval operations in any way. Iran had announced plans to close off certain areas for the drill, but he said this is "common practice for any navy conducting such training at sea," he said. "Our forces similarly announce closure areas for our training events. We do not consider such announcements to be 'orders,'" Stephens said.

     Iran conducts similar exercises annually and the U.S. does not see this year's as a change in Iranian behavior, Stephens added. He said the exercise may increase the chances of U.S. forces interacting with Iranian warships, but added that U.S. Navy vessels are routinely approached by Iranian warships as they operate in the region. Most of those encounters are conducted "in a safe and professional manner, recent events notwithstanding," he said. The 5th Fleet is the U.S. Navy's regional counterweight to Iran and is based across the Gulf from Iran in the island kingdom of Bahrain. On Tuesday, Sayyari said many types of missiles and torpedoes will be launched during the maneuvers. Iran occasionally holds military maneuvers to ensure the preparedness of its forces and to demonstrate its military capabilities in the region. The county has more than 2,000 kilometers of shoreline facing the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman.

NORTH KOREA REPORTEDLY READYING TO LAUNCH LONG-RANGE MISSILE

      
North Korea is preparing a long-range missile launch and it could happen as early as next week, according to a published report. Sky News, citing Japan’s Kyodo news agency, reported that an unnamed Japanese government official claims there are signs North Korea is readying a missile launch. The official made the assumptions based on the latest satellite images of North Korea's Tongchang-ri missile test site. The official told Kyodo a launch could happen next week, but didn’t elaborate more on the images seen at the test site.

      South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to comment on the report, citing a government policy of not discussing intelligence matters, according to Reuters. However, Kim said North Korea had not issued any international warnings, as hit has done ahead of previous rocket launches. A South Korean government official told the Yonhap news agency that steady activity has been observed at the missile site, with rails set up to quickly move parts for rocket assembly and eventual launch. North Korea said Jan. 6 that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. However, the U.S. and other countries have expressed doubt that North Korea has made strides in its nuclear weapons program.

     The North’s last test of a long-range rocket was in 2012, when Pyongyang launched an object into orbit which experts believe is part of an effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea is also thought to be working to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile, according to Sky News. Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and agreed on the need for a fresh resolution on the North Korea situation, but both parties couldn’t come to a solid agreement on what the new measures would be. According to Reuters, U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he supported the conversion of an Aegis missile defense test site in Hawaii into a facility ready to bolster U.S. defense against a ballistic missile attack.  Harris also supported putting a mobile missile defense system in place in South Korea, but warned that both the U.S. and South Korea must come to an agreement on that together.

JOHN KERRY TO CHINA: US 'WILL PROTECT ALLIES' IN FACE OF NORTH KOREAN THREATS

          
 The United States and China agreed Wednesday to work together to ensure that North Korea ends its nuclear-weapons program, but high-level talks in Beijing indicated the two sides disagree on whether and what sort of sanctions to use against Pyongyang following its underground nuclear test three weeks ago. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting with China's foreign minister in Beijing, stressed the North Korean issue is a high priority for Washington. “The United States will take all necessary steps to protect our people and allies,” Kerry said at a news conference after his talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

     Kerry and Wang Yi met for more than five hours Wednesday - much longer than scheduled. Wang said China supports a new U.N. resolution opposing Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and will discuss possible sanctions. However, he added, any international action against the North should not provoke new tensions. Kerry called for strong and united U.N. action against North Korea's nuclear tests, and noted, "this is a threat the United States must take extremely seriously." He noted that Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, has been the target of more sanctions than North Korea has been, despite its defiance of international condemnation of its nuclear activities.

    “We don’t want to heighten security tensions,” Kerry said, "but we won't talk away from any options." He apparently was referring to possible deployment of a missile-defense system in South Korea. The South's president, Park Geun-hye, said after North Korea's nuclear test three weeks ago that she would consider accepting the U.S. defense system. After his firm talk about North Korea and sanctions, Kerry met later Wednesday with President Xi Jinping, who spoke warmly about his visit to the United States last year. Speaking through an interpreter in the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese president said: "Generally speaking, when China and the United States work together we can make good things happen ... for both sides, and that contributes to peace, prosperity and stability in the world."

January  28, 2016

ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES: LUIS ALMAGRO, A REVITALIZED VOICE FOR THE AMERICAS

      WASHINGTON, D.C.
For years Venezuela’s authoritarian populist government grossly manipulated elections and got away with it. So imagine the surprise in Caracas in November when, just a few weeks ahead of a vote for the National Assembly, an 18-page open letter arrived from one of the hemisphere’s senior diplomats that, in painstaking and scathing detail, denounced the regime’s attempt to maintain its legislative majority by crook.

     No, the author was not Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has assiduously courted Cuba’s Castros while ignoring the regime founded by the late Hugo Chávez. It was Luis Almagro, a formerly little-known leftist foreign minister from the tiny South American country of Uruguay. Since May, Almagro has been secretary general of an institution generally regarded as moribund: the Organization of American States. Thanks to him, it is rapidly becoming relevant again. Almagro’s simple strategy has been to do what no other senior figure in the Western hemisphere — Americans included — has done in the past two decades: publicly call out and denounce violations of human rights and democratic practice whenever and wherever they occur in the hemisphere, in detail and without regard for diplomatic nicety.

       It’s a shrewd approach for reviving the OAS, a 35-member group that was founded in 1948 for the purpose of defending democracy against communism. Half a century later, the alliance seemed poised to gain a second wind when, on Sept. 11, 2001, it adopted a treaty obligating its members to maintain democratic institutions and providing for collective action against violators. But as the United States, which had been a moving force behind the group, turned its attention to wars in the Middle East, Chávez and other autocratic populists blocked the OAS from acting while setting up new regional groupings that excluded Washington.

CELAC SUMMIT 2016 INAUGURATED IN QUITO, ECUADOR. CORREA INSISTS IT SHOULD REPLACE THE OAS

      
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa – pro tempore president of CELAC – inaugurated on Tuesday the 4th Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Quito, capital of Ecuador. During his speech, Correa reiterated his proposal to replace with the “anachronic” and U.S.-backed Organization of American States or OAS with CELAC.

     “The CELAC should replace the OAS, we have no need to discuss our issues in Washington,” said Correa and added that his country is not afraid to ''think, propose, dream and even get it wrong in this proposal because the OAS is now more “anachronic” than ever. During this summit, Correa will transfer the pro tempore chairmanship of the bloc to his Dominican counterpart Danilo Medina. The Ecuadorean head of state said his country is delivering a bloc that has all the ability to address conflicts like the one in Colombia. “CELAC has the ability to support the verification of cease-fire and surrender of weapons in Colombia," he said and recalled that the region was declared a “peace zone” in 2014.

      Created in 2010 under the leadership of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, CELAC gathers 33 countries that represent 17 percent of the United Nations member states. The regional bloc was also created to resolve the differences regarding ideological conflicts in the area. CELAC is comprised by Antigua y Barbuda; Argentina; Bahamas; Barbados; Belice; Bolivia; Brazil; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; Cuba; Dominican Republic; Dominica; Ecuador; El Salvador; Grenada; Guatemala; Guyana; Haití; Honduras; Jamaica; México; Nicaragua; Panamá; Paraguay; Perú; Santa Lucía; San Cristóbal y Nieves; San Vicente y las Granadinas; Surinam; Trinidad and Tobago; Uruguay and Venezuela.

PRESIDENT OBAMA AUTHORIZES DEPORTATION OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

          
 President Obama is feeling heat from Latinos and pro-immigration groups over deportation raids directed at recently arrived undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America. He’s in a difficult position. He wants to prevent a recurrence of 2014, when more than 51,000 children from Guatemala, Honduras and other nations arrived at the U.S. border. What Obama is not feeling much heat over is the more than 47,000 undocumented Cubans who came to the USA last year, or the equal or larger numbers likely to come this year. That’s because U.S. law treats Cubans differently from immigrants of any other nationality.

     Thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, first enacted in 1966 and amended in 1996, any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil is put on a fast track to permanent legal status, benefits and, ultimately, citizenship. The law, which never made much sense, should be repealed. To call U.S. policy toward Cubans bizarre is an understatement. Cubans have a special status presumably because they are fleeing from persecution. Yet, under the act, Cubans, unlike asylum seekers from other countries, can — and often do — make trips back and forth to their homeland without jeopardizing their applications for permanent status. Surely, those who faced a serious threat of persecution wouldn’t want to return to Cuba.

      This policy holds that anyone apprehended at sea will be sent back to Cuba, while those who reach U.S. shores are home free. Rather than risk being caught at sea, the vast majority of Cubans these days fly to Mexico and travel over land to the U.S. border. U.S. immigration policies on Cuba also provide reason for cynicism in politics. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the two Cuban-American Republican senators running for president, both portray themselves as tough on illegal immigration and border enforcement. But neither can bring himself to advocate repealing the Cuban Adjustment Act. The United States needs laws that will deter illegal immigration, not encourage it. Enforcing these laws would be easier if they were at least consistent, fair and defensible. The Cuban Adjustment Act is none of the above.

January  27, 2016

RAMOS ALLUP: "THE CRISIS IS SWALLOWING NICOLAS MADURO UP

       
Last year, during the election campaign for the parliamentary elections of December 6, thirty opposition parties grouped under the umbrella of the Table of Democratic Unity (MUD) and signed an agreement that states tha, in case of success, we will search for the best way to get to replace Maduro in the first half of 2016. The MUD members thought that it could take six months to change the Government. The MUD won and Ramos assures that they are already working on their goal. "We proposed ourselves a six-month period to search how the government could be changed constitutionally, he said, adding that they will not expect an aggravation of the crisis by considering their action an irresponsible political calculation.

     Do anyone thinks that Venezuela could continue confronting this crisis during the next three years, a crisis that is worsening day by day? " Ramos Allup rhetorically asked. Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro will probably not finish his six-year presidential term amid the serious economic crisis the country is suffering, said on Tuesday Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup. He added that President Maduro could even be removed from office this year. "In this situation I don't think he'll finish (his term)," Henry Ramos, told Reuters in an interview. "The crisis is swallowing him up." Speaking in a side room of his office, the 72-year-old lawyer and career politician said that in order to overcome steepest inflation, an economic recession, and shortages of basic goods, Maduro and his cabinet need to step aside.

     The Secretary General of opposition party Acción Democrática (AD), one of the oldest Venezuelan political parties, stressed that the real culprit of the crisis is the state-led system championed by late president Hugo Chavez. Maduro and his cabinet, however, blame the recession on a so-called "economic war" they say is being waged against them by unscrupulous businessmen and the opposition, hit more than 30 million Venezuelans. "If they insist, as they are, in holding on to a model that has failed in all senses, then the response is obvious: the ones causing a crisis have to leave; otherwise we will never overcome it," said Ramos.

PRESIDENT OBAMA ADMINISTRATION OPENS DOORS TO TRADE WITH CUBA

      
The rapidly improving relationship between the United States and Cuba will take a giant step on Wednesday, with the publication of new rules from the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department meant to increase the flow of goods and services between the two countries, facilitate air travel, and loosen restrictions on U.S. financial institutions that want to provide credit and other services related to trade with Cuba. “Today’s amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations build on successive actions over the last year and send a clear message to the world: the United States is committed to empowering and enabling economic advancements for the Cuban people,”

     Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a prepared statement. “We have been working to enable the free flow of information between Cubans and Americans and will continue to take the steps necessary to help the Cuban people achieve the political and economic freedom that they deserve.” Since late 2014, the Obama administration has been working to build a new relationship with the island, which has been ruled for more than a generation by Communist strongman Fidel Castro and, in recent years, his brother Raul. Over the space of 50 years, the U.S. built up a web of sanctions around Cuba, including a trade and travel embargo that severely strained U.S. ties with the island nation.

      The new rules, which will take effect when they are published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, will allow U.S. banks to fund the export of a much wider range of goods, to Cuba. A notable exception is agricultural commodities and other agriculture related items. Lifting that particular ban would require Congressional action. (The actual export of agricultural commodities and other commodities will be allowed – U.S. banks just won’t be able to participate in the transaction.) Among the items that U.S. individuals and companies will be allowed to export to Cuba are the equipment U.S.-based news organizations would need to establish bureaus there, software and other commodities for human rights and civil society organizations.

COSTA RICA SETS DATE FOR SECOND AIRLIFT OF STRANDED CUBANS

          
 Costa Rica has set a Feb. 4 date for a second airlift of Cuban migrants who have been stranded for over two months at the country's northern border with Nicaragua, officials said Monday. Costa Rica's immigration agency announced the next flight will ferry 184 Cubans to El Salvador, from where they will continue by land north toward the United States. Costa Rican authorities were contacting those on the list to let them know what documents they will need to present.

     The migrants are responsible for the cost of the air bridge: $555 per adult, plus $75 total for Salvadoran and Guatemalan visas. The travel cost is $350 for children between 2 and 12 years old, and $150 for those under the age of 2. After the flight is filled up, "we will immediately begin to prepare the next one," immigration agency director Kathya Rodriguez said. Thousands of Cuban migrants have been stuck in Costa Rica since Nicaragua closed its southern border to them Nov. 14.

     The Cubans say their goal is to reach the United States, where favorable immigration policies allow them to remain and apply for residency. The U.S. rules irk Havana, which says they foment brain drain and encourage islanders to attempt risky migration routes. Backers of the policies say they offer refuge to people fleeing Cuba's communist system. The first airlift took place Jan. 12 from Costa Rica to El Salvador, leapfrogging Nicaragua. The migrants then traveled by bus through Guatemala and into southern Mexico, where authorities issued them 20-day transit visas to reach the United States.

January  26, 2016

JOSE BIDEN SAYS U.S. IS PREPARED FOR MILITARY SOLUTION AGAINST ISIS IN SYRIA

       
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement. The latest round of Syria peace talks are planned to begin on Monday in Geneva but were at risk of being delayed partly because of a dispute over who will comprise the opposition delegation. Syrian armed rebel groups said on Saturday they held the Syrian government and Russia responsible for any failure of peace talks to end the country's civil war, even before negotiations were due to start.

       "We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared ..., if that's not possible, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh," Biden said at a news conference after a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Daesh is the pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State insurgents who hold parts of Syria. A U.S. official later clarified that Biden was talking about a military solution to Islamic State, not Syria as a whole. The Saudi-backed Syrian opposition ruled out even indirect negotiations unless Damascus took steps including a halt to Russian air strikes. Biden said he and Davutoglu also discussed how the two NATO allies could further support Sunni Arab rebel forces fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

      The United States has sent dozens of special forces soldiers to help rebels fighting Islamic State in Syria although the troops are not intended for front line combat. Along with its allies Washington is also conducting air strikes against Islamic State militants who hold large chunks of Syria and Iraq and support opposition fighters battling the group. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday he was confident Syria peace talks would proceed, after he held talks with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in Saudi Arabia. Kerry also met in Riyadh with Riad Hijab, chair of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee and other HNC delegates representing the Syrian opposition. "They discussed the upcoming U.N.-sponsored negotiations regarding a political transition in Syria and all agreed on the urgent need to end the violence afflicting the Syrian people," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

FEARS OF VENEZUELA DEBT  DEFAULT RISE AS BOND PRICES PLUNGE

      
Economists reportedly warn that a debt default by Venezuela is “practically inevitable” as prices for oil and the nation’s bonds continue to plunge. “Venezuela is running out of runway and falling oil prices are quickly shortening the tarmac,” Russ Dallen, who heads investment bank, Latinvest, told the Financial Times. An economic crisis sparked by the falling oil price has led to a political crisis in Venezuela. Socialist leader Nicolas Maduro is in a standoff with the center-right opposition, which has won control of the legislature. Venezuela has the world's biggest known crude reserves but the price of oil has slumped over the past year and a half, slashing its revenues. On Friday, Venezuela's oil price fell to $21.50 a barrel. In mid-2014 in contrast, world prices were over $100 a barrel.

     Venezuela has called on fellow members of the OPEC major oil producers' group to hold an extraordinary meeting in February to discuss reining in prices. "Crude oil accounts for 96 percent of export revenues and falling prices, coupled with years of mismanagement, have crushed the country’s economy," the FT explained. "A sell-off in sovereign bonds has pushed the price on benchmark 2026 debt to 37 cents in the dollar, a level considered a precursor to default. The cost of insuring Venezuelan bonds has tripled in the past 12 months," the FT explained. With about $10 billion in foreign debt due during 2016, markets are jittery about a possible default, particularly at the back end of the year when the heaviest payments are due, Reuters reported.

     Underlining the grave situation in Venezuela, where a plunge in oil prices has compounded dysfunctional policies, the International Monetary Fund forecast an 8 percent drop in gross domestic product and 720 percent inflation this year. The IMF said "policy distortions" have combined with the oil price drop to create an expected 18 percent economic contraction over 2015 and 2016, the third-sharpest in the world. Prices rose 275 percent in 2015, the highest rate in the world, it added. If the country does default, there are fears that it may face an Argentina-style fight with holdout investors due to the structure of its debt. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimate that the recovery value on Venezuela’s $123 billion of external debt could be as low as 21 percent if current low oil prices persist.

MEDICINES SHORTAGE IN VENEZUELA AT 80%, PHARMACIST ALERTS 

          
On Monday, the President of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation (Fefarven), Freddy Ceballos, alerted that Venezuela "is suffering a humanitarian crisis" due to shortages of medicines in the market. "In Venezuela, shortages of medicines stand at 80%. Medicines for several treatments cannot be found. This is an unprecedented situation, because in the past, when shortages hit 15%, the pharmaceutical sector was on the alert, but today's situation is very serious, even worse if the government does not take action," Ceballos stressed during an interview with private TV channel Televen.

     He remarked that domestic production of medicines had to be reactivated, because, in his view, "it is more cost-effective and will allow settling the debt of USD 4 billion the government accrues."
"We are in a humanitarian crisis. Regretfully, patients are dying because of lack of medicines. There are no supplies for surgeries because the refuses to accept what is happening in the country. Clearly, we have to speak up and denounce what is happening. These problems can be solved with international bodies," he added. The president wants to crack down on those buying up scarce goods to resell on the black market but critics say the government’s currency controls are to blame. A major pharmacy chain has started fingerprinting customers in Caracas, as Venezuela’s socialist government tries to halt smugglers and resellers from stocking up on scarce goods from toilet paper to medicines.

     Analysis Street protests loom as shortages, inflation and oil slump hit Venezuela. Venezuelans often spend hours in lines at stores and are furious at shoppers who scoop up items to resell on the thriving black market or in neighbouring Colombia for a hefty profit. President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to crack down on the “bachaqueros” – a word derived from an ant that stings people and moves around leaves – and he argues fingerprinting will curb purchasing beyond permitted limits. “All the initiatives and efforts to supply Venezuelans are valid,” Luis Manuel de Llano, Farmatodo’s vice-president for corporate relations, said. He did not say whether the chain adopted the pilot programme voluntarily or at the request of the government. Maduro has cranked up the pressure on Farmatodo and fellow private retailers to stock their stands, reduce lines and fight smuggling in what he calls an “economic war” against him by unscrupulous businessmen.

January  25, 2016

RAMOS ALLUP: CONGRESS MAY NULLIFY JUSTICES' APPOINTMENT IF ILLEGAL

       
The speaker of the National Assembly (AN) said, "There is evidence that the résumés (of the candidates for the posts of justices) were incomplete." The head of Venezuela's new opposition-led Congress says lawmakers will carry out an in-depth review of the Supreme Court, setting up a clash of powers in the bitterly divided country. National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup referred to the court as "that execution squad" in his announcement on Saturday. Opponents accuse the socialist government of packing the court with supporters who always side with the administration.

     The court recently disqualified three newly elected opposition legislators, stripping their bloc of the two-thirds majority needed for some major decisions. Speaker of the National Assembly (AN) Henry Ramos Allup said the Congress may reverse any decision should any illegal action be found during an investigation being carried out by the commission in charge of assessing the recent appointment of the new justices of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ). "All the AN decisions may be changed in whole or in part a posteriori. They claim those justices were elected by the previous Legislature. If it was an illegal designation, the Congress may overturn a previous decision," Allup explained during an interview with radio station Circuito Éxitos.

In reference to an action to contest three opposition deputies, and which was admitted by the TSJ Electoral Court, Ramos Allup contended that the AN cannot remain static before the meddling of other power in the Congress functions. "There is evidence that the résumés (of the candidates for the posts of justices) were incomplete; their designation came in violation of the law,

VENEZUELA OIL BARREL TO 14 YEAR LOW

      
 The price Venezuela receives for its mix of heavy oil continued tumbling this week, hitting a 14 year low as oil prices around the world continued falling on slowing demand and plentiful supply. According to figures released by the Venezuela Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, the average price of Venezuelan crude sold by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) during the week ending January 22 was $21.63, down $2.75 from the previous week's $24.38. WTI in New York averaged $29.04 -- down $2.30 -- for the week, while Brent crude traded in London averaged $28.68 -- down $2.78 from the previous week.

    According to Venezuelan government figures, the average price in 2016 for Venezuela's mix of heavy and medium crude is now $24.40 for the year to date. Historically, Venezuela's basket set its highest weekly average ever on July 18, 2008, when it hit $130.00 before economies around the world began crashing under the weight of expensive oil. Venezuela sends a large share of its oil exports to the United States because of the proximity and the operation of sophisticated U.S. Gulf Coast refineries specifically designed to handle heavy Venezuelan crude.

     While U.S. imports of primarily crude oil from Venezuela have been on the decline, U.S. exports of petroleum products to Venezuela have increased largely because of Venezuela’s tight finances that leave it unable to invest and maintain its own domestic refineries. Oil is the main export of Venezuela and provides most of the country's foreign currency. As of 2015, Venezuela had nearly 298 billion barrels of proved oil reserves -- the largest in the world. The next largest proved oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia with 268 billion barrels and Canada with 173 billion barrels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in 2013 net exports from Venezuela totaled just under 1.7 million barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum product.

HAITI POSTPONES PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AS VIOLENCE ERUPTS 

          
Haiti called off Sunday's presidential election after violent protests erupted on Friday and the opposition candidate vowed to boycott the vote over alleged fraud. Pierre Louis Opont, president of Haiti's electoral council, said the runoff vote was being pushed back for security reasons. He did not say when the election, which the U.S. government is helping to fund, would be rescheduled.

     The announcement first sparked jubilation among the demonstrators on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, but the mood quickly darkened. Gunshots were fired as protesters clashed with police. The postponement is nevertheless expected to ease unrest after days of protests in the deeply impoverished country of about 10 million people, at pains to rebuild from a devastating earthquake six years ago and to emerge from decades of political dysfunction. Opposition candidate Jude Celestin said last week he would not take part in the election, alleging a first round vote in October was rigged to favor the ruling party candidate.

     Hamstrung with weak institutions, Haiti has struggled to build a stable democracy since the overthrow of the 1957-1986 dictatorship of the Duvalier family and ensuing military coups and election fraud. Protesters have burnt vehicles and windows in recent days in Port-au-Prince. On Friday, police fired at a group of people who were attacking a man who appeared to have fired shots at them. The man lay on the ground bleeding profusely, but it was unclear how he was injured. Protesters set fire to at least one car. Burning tires peppered the streets with one billowing black smoke directly below a giant poster of ruling party candidate Jovenel Moise. Another group stabbed a poster of Moise with a metal pole. "The direction (outgoing President Michel) Martelly has taken the country is no good," said Rolando Joilcoeui, a community worker standing among thousands of people in the streets.

January  24, 2016

SPAIN SUMMONS VENEZUELAN AMBASSADOR IN PROTEST OVER MADURO'S REMARKS

       
Spanish Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned Venezuelan Ambassador to Madrid Mario Ricardo Isea to voice rejection over President Nicolás Maduro's remarks on Wednesday describing his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy as "interventionist, racist, and colonialist." This was explained by Spanish Vice-President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría during a press conference after being questioned about a trip involving members of Spanish Podemos party.

     A ministry statement Friday said the government expressed to Ambassador Mario Isea Bohorquez its rejection of remarks by President Nicolas Maduro on Jan. 20 that Rajoy was a racist and a colonialist who interfered in other countries' affairs.
The ministry said Spain was surprised, especially given new Spanish media reports that representatives of two radical Spanish parties and relatives of prisoners from the outlawed armed Basque group ETA were flown on an official Venezuelan plane to Venezuela in 2014 to take part in a conference about regional self-determination movements in Spain.

    "Organizing travels like this means a significant meddling in the Spanish State issues for it was intended to discuss a peace plan in the Basque Country and the right to self-determination of the Spanish people," Sáenz stressed. In this regard, Sáenz said it was "compulsory and necessary" to summon Isea, and she added: "What we the Spanish people are is decided by the Spanish people, jointly." Maduro's remarks came after Rajoy on Tuesday said the political and economic situation in Venezuela "is not good," and requested Venezuelan leaders to turn their country into a free and democratic nation. Spain summoned the Venezuelan ambassador twice last year for similar reasons.

VENEZUELA FOREIGN MINISTER: GARCIA-MARGALLO HAS NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT OUR COUNTRY

      
 Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez rejected on Monday the statements made by Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo, and added that his words demonstrated "historic ignorance and imperial tutelage of its former colonies." "You need to abide by public international law, Foreign Minister García-Margallo, before even thinking about giving orders here," Minister Rodríguez asserted in reply to the remarks made by her Spanish counterpart, who said on Monday that he would voice at the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union (EU) Spain's concern over the situation in Venezuela.

     Rodríguez said García-Margallo was "poorly informed about Venezuela," state-run news agency AVN reported. The Venezuelan minister of foreign affairs urged her Spanish counterpart to address "the governance crisis in his country and the social disaster that has dragged Spain into precariousness before opining about what he does not know." Meantime, Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday termed his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy an "interventionist, racist, and colonialist" person. As a resuilt, Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned Venezuelan Ambassador to Madrid Mario Ricardo Isea to voice rejection over President Nicolás Maduro's remarks on Wednesday describing his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy as "interventionist, racist, and colonialist."

    This was explained by Spanish Vice-President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría during a press conference after being questioned about a trip involving members of Spanish opposition who traveled to Caracas on a plane of the Venezuelan Air Forces, Efe reported. "Organizing travels like this means a significant meddling in the Spanish State issues for it was intended to discuss a peace plan in the Basque Country and the right to self-determination of the Spanish people," Sáenz stressed. In this regard, Sáenz said it was "compulsory and necessary" to summon Isea, and she added: "What we the Spanish people are is decided by the Spanish people, jointly." Maduro's remarks came after Rajoy on Tuesday said the political and economic situation in Venezuela "is not good," and requested Venezuelan leaders to turn their country into a free and democratic nation.

NORTH KOREA ARRESTS US STUDENT FOR 'HOSTILE ACT' 

          
North Korea said Friday it had arrested a US student who, under orders from Washington, had engaged in an unspecified "hostile act" after entering the country on a tourist visa. The detention comes at a sensitive time, with the United States taking a leading role in efforts to secure tough international sanctions on North Korea over its latest nuclear test. Pyongyang has a history of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips to extract concessions and high-profile visits to secure their release.

     The student, identified as Otto Frederick Warmbier from the University of Virginia, had entered North Korea as a tourist "for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation," the North's official KCNA news agency said. He was detained "while perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK", it added, using the official acronym for North Korea. China-based Young Pioneer Tours, which organises regular trips to North Korea, said Warmbier had been a member of a New Year tour and was arrested when the group was set to return to Beijing on January 2. "We hope his release can be secured as soon as possible," the tour group said, adding that it was assisting the US State Department in the affair.

     State Department spokesman John Kirby, citing "privacy considerations," declined to comment beyond acknowledging the reports of Warmbier's arrest and The United States has no diplomatic or consular relations with the North, and the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides limited consular services to US citizens detained there. Warmbier becomes the third North American detained in North Korea, which last month sentenced a 60-year-old Canadian pastor to life imprisonment with hard labour on sedition charges. During a recent interview that the pastor, Hyeon Soo Lim, gave to CNN in Pyongyang, the North presented another ethnic Korean prisoner, whom they said was a US citizen arrested for spying in October.

January  23, 2016

RAMOS ALLUP: MADURO'S ECONOMIC EMERGENCY DECREE WILL NOT BE APPROVED

       
Speaker of the National Assembly (AN) Henry Ramos said the deadline for the Legislature to assess an economic emergency decree proposed by President Nicolás Maduro expires on Friday at midday, and anticipated that the instrument will be rejected by the opposition majority in Congress.

   Ramos regretted the non-appearance at the Federal Legislative Palace of a number of ministers and officials of President Maduro's economic cabinet, scheduled for Thursday, to explain the grounds for the emergency decree. Therefore, he said, the approval by the AN is now unviable. "Accepting such a far-reaching ranging decree blindly would be an irresponsible move," Ramos said in an interview with CNN.

     "The most serious thing is that President (Maduro) had promised the ministers would attend (the parliamentary questioning), but two hours before the meeting, (Executive) Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz announced that they would not appear, arguing that there are matters that cannot be elucidated publicly." Ramos said that, having analyzed the decree thoroughly, another reason for rejecting the decree is that the instrument is plagued with measures that are "more of the same" and promotes "more controls, more interventions and encourages inefficiency in the ministries."

VENEZUELA MINISTERS SHUN HEARING ON ECONOMIC CRISIS

      
 Venezuelan government ministers refused Thursday to go before their opposition rivals for a key legislative hearing on economic emergency measures in the crisis-hit nation, officials said. The opposition-controlled National Assembly is due by Friday to vote on a bid by President Nicolas Maduro to decree a state of economic emergency in the oil-rich South American state. His economic ministers were set to defend the measures in the assembly, but pulled out in the last minute saying they would only participate if it was closed to the media, said the opposition speaker of the congress, Henry Ramos Allup.

     He said that Vice-President Aristobulo Isturiz told him "they would not come to this afternoon's session where they were to answer written questions from members of a special commission, if the session was public with media present." The leader of the pro-government bloc in the assembly, Hector Rodriguez, earlier said members of Maduro's economic cabinet "will not take part" in the session. He accused the center-right opposition, which this month took control of the assembly for the first time in 17 years, of trying to turn the session into a "show." "Now is not the time for political calculations, it not the time for a show, but to face up responsibly to the historic moment we are living through and move forward alongside the president," Rodriguez said.

      Ramos said the opposition lawmakers in the congress refused to hold the session without the media, and the assembly would make a decision on the decree on Friday. The decree, issued last Friday, would give Maduro 60 days of extraordinary powers to combat a deep recession and triple-digit inflation. It allows for the administration to commandeer private companies' resources, impose currency controls and take "other social, economic or political measures deemed fitting." With Venezuela in a spiraling economic crisis, the opposition has vowed to force changes to Maduro's economic policies, but nevertheless promised to study the decree.

THE "NEW CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS" MYSTERY DEEPENS 

          
A U.S. Hellfire anti-tank missile -- a weapon launched from Predator drones in anti-terrorism operations, among other uses -- found its way into the hands of Cuba’s government in 2014. But the route it took, twice crossing the Atlantic, was less mysterious than the U.S. government’s public response to the discovery that front-line American military equipment made it to Havana -- or beyond. The Wall Street Journal reported that a missile shipped by Lockheed Martin to Spain for a NATO exercise was supposed to be put on a flight from Madrid to Frankfurt and then back to the United States. Wrote the Journal:

     The cargo] was clearly marked as containing material subject to rigorous export controls, and that shipping information would have made clear to anyone handling it that it wasn’t regular cargo. U.S. regulations require that such cargo be loaded by DOD personnel onto U.S. carriers. Yet there were apparently commercial shipping companies involved: [One] operated by Air France, which took the missile to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris … and headed to Havana. At some point, officials [U.S. military personnel] loading the first flight [in Frankfurt] realized the missile it expected to be loading onto the aircraft wasn’t among the cargo, the government official said.

     “The missile was packaged in Rota, Spain, a U.S. official said, where it was put into the truck belonging to another freight-shipping firm, known by officials who track such cargo as a ‘freight forwarder.’ That trucking company released the missile to yet another shipping firm.” Conspiratorial explanations suddenly appear more rational than the official story. Did someone bribe someone to gain control of this cargo? Maybe Lockheed Martin was set up to make the delivery to Cuba look like a mistake instead of a decision? Did the U.S. government sell the missile to Cuba during the prelude to the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban relations? At that time, Cuba was still on the State Department list of terror sponsoring countries.

January  22, 2016

VENEZUELAN ASSEMBLY SET TO VOTE ON MADURO'S ECONOMIC EMERGENCY DECREE THIS FRIDAY

       
Venezuela’s National Assembly is expected to vote on Friday whether to approve or reject President Nicolás Maduro’s decree for an Economic State of Emergency. On Wednesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court gave Maduro the go-ahead with his plans to decree emergency measures that he said are necessary to help citizens deal with grueling financial and social crises. The constitutional panel at the Supreme Court – which is dominated by the president’s supporters – ruled that Maduro’s announced measures are legal under the Constitution.

      During his speech before the assembly last Friday, the president said that his goal was “to protect the social rights of education, health, housing and sport for all Venezuelans.” It was Maduro’s first address to the assembly since the opposition took control of the legislative body after it won a majority of seats in the December 6 parliamentary race. Venezuela has been struggling with severe food shortages, power blackouts and high inflation for several years. The country, which is dependent on revenue from its petroleum industry, has also been hit hard by falling prices on the global oil market. On Tuesday, a special committee appointed by the National Assembly to study Maduro’s decree began calling in economic experts and government officials with knowledge in the area to give their opinions before Friday’s vote.

      Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Maduro’s decree will become void if the opposition assembly members reject it. Maduro on Tuesday warned of a “confrontation” if the assembly votes against his state of emergency, as is expected to happen. He said that the opposition was being pressured by a variety of powerful forces to reject the decree, and thus eliminate the possibility of any kind of agreement between the two sides. Secretary-General of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, Jesus Torrealba said that Maduro signed a decree on a state of economic emergency without holding consultations with Venezuela’s sectorial authorities. Earlier this week, Venezuela’s oil price dropped to $24 a barrel, the lowest mark in 12 years. Up to 96 percent of Venezuela’s budget depends on oil revenues, which has a negative impact on the socio-economic situation in the country.

DEPUTY JOSE GUERRA DENIES THAT VENEZUELAN ECONOMIC CRISIS IS DUE TO OIL PRICE

      
  Opposition Deputy José Guerra, the president of a commission to assess an economic emergency decree enacted by President Nicolás Maduro, on Wednesday stated that the Venezuelan economic crisis is not attributable to the fall in oil prices. "This crisis, which began in 2013, is not a consequence of the drop in oil prices, for prices back then stood at USD 110 per barrel and ended at a high price that year. In January-June 2014, prices hit USD 101 (per barrel), and the economy tumbled. Plummeting oil prices did not spark off the crisis we are facing today," Guerra remarked during the installation on Wednesday of the commission he will head.

     The deputy further explained that the causes of such crisis are rather linked to the US fracking operations, which added more daily barrels of oil to supply, for they are exporting crude oil; the shrinkage of the Chinese economy, which therefore has demanded less oil; and the USD dollar appreciation. Meantime, Venezuela has requested the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) an emergency meeting to discuss steps to prop up oil prices, which have hit their lowest levels since 2003, two OPEC sources said on Wednesday. "Venezuela has requested an extraordinary meeting," said an OPEC delegate from a Middle East member-country. Another OPEC source confirmed the petition, Reuters reported. However, four other delegates from countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said that the event is unlikely to happen.

     High-ranking government officials will appear on Thursday at the Parliament, as they were summoned by the opposition supermajority to explain the scope of the decree on economic emergency. The decree requires approval by the Congress, and the opposition group has already conveyed some objections to it. The President of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), Nelson Merentes, and the President of state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa), Eulogio del Pino, will meet with the special committee that will evaluate the economic emergency decree enacted by President Nicolás Maduro, said Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup, AFP reported. Minister of Finances, Rodolfo Medina, Food Minister, Rodolfo Marco Torres, and the head of the National Customs and Tax Administration Service (Seniat), José David Cabello, among others, are also expected to appear at Congress. The presence of the Vice-President of the Economic Area, Minister Luis Salas, has not been confirmed yet. Henry Ramos Allup explained that the official would answer questions made by legislators, although it will not be considered a formal interpellation.

U.S. RENEWS TRAVEL WARNING TO MEXICO AS KILLINGS OF AMERICANS CLIMB 

          
The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning to all Americans planning on going to Mexico – renewing an expired travel ban issued in May of last year – as the latest figures show the number of murdered U.S. citizens south of the border has gone up. The number of American citizens murdered in Mexico rose from 81 in 2013 to 100 in 2014, according to the U.S. government. Citing threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups, the State Department says U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes such as kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in certain parts of Mexico. Mexico's government continues their drug war against cartels, as evidenced by the recent headlines over Mexico's top drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, and his recent escape and recapture.

     "The location and timing of future armed engagements is unpredictable," the warning says about gun battles between criminal organizations with Mexico authorities. The warning implores U.S. citizens to lower their personal profiles and avoid wearing jewelry or clothing that indicate wealth. Despite the travel warnings, however, Mexico's tourism industry is booming. Mexico ranked No. 9 among the world's top 10 most visited countries in 2015. More than 32 million tourists visited Mexico last year, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2014, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization. Millions of Americans visit Mexico each year – including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day, the State Department says. The Mexican government has dedicated substantial resources to protecting major tourist destinations, the State Department says, and generally these areas do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime seen along the border or major drug trafficking routes.

      This latest travel warning comes as Mexico’s homicide rates continued to fall for the third year in a row. There were 27,213 murders in 2011 and 20,670 in 2014, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Still, violence has increased in 2015 and it appears that the number of drug-related homicides will be higher than in 2014. May 2015 was the worst month of violence since October 2013. Experts and authorities say since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, the cartels have fragmented, creating weaker cells but more chaos on the streets as they resort to kidnappings, extortion, and murder of innocent people in an attempt to gain power. Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas .

January  21, 2016

URUGUAYAN FARMERS PROTEST OVER CARACAS PRODUCE DEBT 

          
Milk producers across Uruguay announced they would block traffic in several national roads on Tuesday, as a way to demand answers over the Venezuelan government's non-payment to dairy companies that sold it their products to Caracas. Venezuela has failed to pay Uruguayan dairy producers and farmers that sold products to Venezuela against the backdrop of a bilateral agreement signed by the government of Tabaré Vázquez and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro, which has proven hard to meet. Hundreds of Uruguayan farmers took to the roads yesterday to demand that Venezuela pay US$100 million owed to the local dairy industry and that the government lowers energy and fuel prices.

     “The situation for the producers is becoming difficult,” said one of the protest organizers, Marcos Algorta. “Uruguay has a trade agreement with Venezuela under which Uruguay agreed to send certain amounts of foods, including dairy products, and it has not been paid. I have nothing against the government of Venezuela, what I want is that my government takes responsibility for an agreement that they announced.” The protesters, waving Uruguayan flags, gathered at the side of the roads and distributed leaflets to drivers of vehicles passing by. The flyers, among other messages, complained of “the Venezuelan government's debts” and that in Uruguay they pay for “the most expensive fuel in the region.”

      According to energy issues consultant SEG Engineering, a litre of diesel in Uruguay cost US$1.30 in December and was the most expensive in the region, while in Argentina the cost was US$1.08, in Brazil US$0.77, in Chile US$0.70 and in Venezuela around US$0.01. In July 2015 President Tabaré Vázquez announced a trade agreement with Venezuela, which he painted as very beneficial, saying that Venezuela had committed to buy 265,000 tonnes of Uruguayan foods — milk powder, cheese, soy and rice for US$300 million. In return Uruguay cancelled an existing debt with Venezuela. However, according to reports from the farmers, after an initial payment, Venezuela stopped paying for shipments of Uruguayan food and the amount of the debt has already reached US$100 million.

VENEZUELAN ASSEMBLY PLANS TO INVESTIGATE PDVSA, CHINA LOAN

       
Venezuela's new opposition-led Congress plans to investigate state-run oil company PDVSA's [PDVSA.UL] financial health and hefty Chinese loans, a lawmaker said on Tuesday. The OPEC member country depends on oil for nearly all of its export revenue. With the political opposition in control of the National Assembly since this month, rivals of leftist President Nicolas Maduro want to use their new perch to push for greater transparency and accountability at PDVSA. "We want to know the real state of PDVSA's books," Elias Matta, an opposition lawmaker and vice president of the energy and oil commission, told Reuters on the sidelines of the National Assembly.

      "The country wants to know how the money from the Chinese funds were spent. We also want to investigate what the real cost of production is. And why haven't they done the output increases they talked about so much? We're going to have a lot of work in this commission," he added with a smile. Venezuela has received some $50 billion in financing from China through an arrangement under which it repays loans in shipments of crude and fuel. The financing, whose fine print is not disclosed, has been a crucial boost to the South American country, especially as the price of its heavy-oil crude slumps, aggravating a cash crunch and potentially grazing a break-even point in production. That comes on top of what the U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show is falling or stagnating output in Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves, for around a decade.

      Disputing these figures, Venezuela says it is shoring up production thanks to the heavy-crude-rich Orinoco region, countering natural declines in its mature fields. Since September 2014, PDVSA has been led by Eulogio del Pino, a Stanford-educated engineer perceived to be trying to reform the Caracas-based company critics say has become bloated. "I think at some point the president of PDVSA will have to come to the Assembly and the commission so we can resolve some important issues," added Matta, who hails from the traditional oil-producing state of Zulia, on the border with Colombia. Congress may also seek to call in Rafael Ramirez, who presided over PDVSA for a decade and is now Venezuela's envoy to the United Nations in New York, according to Matta. "We want a healthy oil industry, an oil industry that can generate the income we so badly need right now," he added before slipping into the legislative session.

SAUDI ARABIA WARNS AGAINST 'NEFARIOUS ACTIVITIES' BY IRAN

      
  The lifting of sanctions on Iran as a result of its nuclear deal with world powers will be a harmful development if it uses the extra money to fund "nefarious activities", Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters on Tuesday. Asked in an exclusive interview if Saudi Arabia had discussed seeking a nuclear bomb in the event Iran managed to obtain one despite its atomic deal, he said Saudi Arabia would do "whatever we need to do in order to protect our people". "I don't think it would be logical to expect us to discuss any such issue in public and I don't think it would be reasonable to expect me to answer this question one way or another," he said.

       Jubeir's comments were the first to directly address the lifting of sanctions on Iran, Riyadh's bitterest regional rival, although Saudi Arabia has previously welcomed Iran's nuclear deal so long as it included a tough inspections regime. But in private, officials have voiced concern that the deal would allow Iran greater scope to back militias and other allies across the region thanks to the extra funds it can access after sanctions are lifted and because of the reduced diplomatic pressure. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a joint news conference with French. "It depends on where these funds go. If they go to support the nefarious activities of the Iranian regime, this will be a negative and it will generate a pushback. If they go towards improving the living standards of the Iranian people then it will be something that would be welcome," Jubeir said.

        Saudi officials have also in recent years voiced fears that their most powerful ally, the United States, is disengaging with the Middle East, something some of them have said may have contributed to Syria's descent into civil war. Jubeir said he did not believe Washington was retreating from the region, but emphasized that the world looked to it as the sole superpower to provide stability. "If an American decline were to happen or an American withdrawal were to happen, the concern that everybody has is that it would leave a void, and whenever you have a void, or a vacuum, evil forces flow," Jubeir said. Riyadh accuses Tehran of fomenting instability across the region and the two back opposing sides in wars in Syria and Yemen and political tussles in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahra

January  20, 2016
 

GARCIA-MARGALLO TO VOICE SPAIN'S "CONCERNS" ABOUT VENEZUELA AT THE EUROPEAN UNION
 
       
Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo said on Monday that he would express to the Council for Foreign Affairs of the European Union (EU) the "concerns" of Spain over the situation facing Venezuela. At the request of the Spanish minister, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, has agreed to make reference to the situation in Venezuela at the Council on Monday, and then García-Margallo is expected to take the floor.

     The minister termed "good news" and a "sign of wisdom from the opposition" in Venezuela the fact that dissenters complied with a ruling ordering the removal of three opposition deputies for Amazonas state, whose legitimacy was questioned by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), reported agency EFE. "The government and the National Assembly should respect their respective roles as set out in the Constitution because that is the first step, respect for the rule of law, separation of powers, for achieving genuine national reconciliation (...) This is necessary to get Venezuela out of an economic situation that is truly catastrophic right now," he said. According to García-Margallo, the Venezuelan government "has made some moves that at least raise concerns."

     He referred specifically to the appointment of justices by the outgoing National Assembly, a designation that should have been made by the incoming National Assembly, the "resurrection of a communal parliament that was virtually non-existent, the restriction of the control mechanisms of the Legislature and even the disqualification of the three deputies." "These are not good signals," he said, adding that, on the contrary, "the opposition has actually sent a good signal, as it complied with the Supreme Court decision. I hope the two parties, the forces loyal to (late President Hugo) Chávez and the (opposition) Unified Democratic Panel (MUD), which has won elections by an overwhelming majority, are able to understand each other," he said.

MEXICO SAYS "EL CHAPO" GUZMAN WILL BE EXTRADITED TO U.S.

      
Mexico will begin proceedings for the extradition of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the United States, the office of Mexico's attorney general said Saturday. It's a process that could take months. The attorney general's office said two prior requests from jurisdictions in the United States had been approved in the past, but "El Chapo's" lawyers have the right to introduce in district court arguments against them and 20 days to provide evidence.

      If a district court rules in favor of extradition, the case would go to the foreign ministry, which will have 20 days to decide on the matter. The defendant would have the right to appeal if the ministry rules in favor of extradition. On Saturday, "El Chapo's" lawyers began the process of fighting the extradition requests, filing an injunction. "Mr. Guzman Loera should not be extradited to the United States or any other country," attorney Juan Pablo Badillo said. "Mexico has just laws that are detailed in the General Constitution of the Republic." In September, Mexico extradited 13 suspects long sought by the United States. One of them was Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as "La Barbie," a dual Mexican and American citizen who rose a top position in the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

     An initial extradition request from the United States in January 2015 was denied. A second one was sent in June, and was approved. Three months later he was extradited. Guzman is included in at least seven indictments in various U.S. jurisdictions. Mexico said Saturday that it received extradition requests on June 16 and August 31. Those requests resulted in courts in Mexico's 3rd and 8th districts issuing arrest warrants with the purpose of international extradition. At the time the arrest warrants were issued, Guzman was on the lam after escaping prison for a second time.  A new extradition request is being prepared in the United States, an official said. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York is writing a formal extradition request to the Mexican government, Nellin McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the office said Saturday. The request will ask for Guzman to be extradited to Brooklyn to face charges..

DEPUTY JOSE GUERRA: ECONOMIC EMERGENCY DECREE CUTS OFF CONGRESS' POWERS

          
Deputy José Guerra noted that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) has to determine whether the decree on economic emergency abides by the Constitution. Then, the Parliament will rule on the convenience of the decree for the country. Moreover, Deputy Guerra noted that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) had to determine whether the decree abides by the Constitution. Then, the Parliament will rule on the convenience of the decree for the country.

     Deputy for opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) José Guerra explained that the decree on economic emergency recently enacted by the Executive Office was issued in the context of a state of emergency; hence, it involves certain aspects that would not contribute to overcoming Venezuela's economic problems. Guerra also commented that article 2, section 1 of the decree virtually eliminates the authority of the National Assembly to control the national budget.

    Moreover, Guerra also warned against the articles that provide for inspections and seizures of companies if they do not comply with requests to increase production. For Guerra, article 4 of the decree is "a real danger," as it rules that both the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) and the Ministry of Finance shall coordinate all cash flows in the banking system. "Can you imagine that the government decides whether you can withdraw your money from the bank and the amount you can withdraw, or how much money a company can transfer from one bank account to another? The government should not have included that in the decree," Guerra remarked.

January  19, 2016

CUBAN MIGRANTS ARRIVED IN MIAMI FROM COSTA RICA UNDER PILOT PROJECT
 
       
A wave of Cuban migrants streamed over weekend into Miami, where they were greeted by relatives who expressed gratitude for the pilot program launched in Central America to assist the nearly 8,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica since November last year. Scores of Cubans arrived in the southeastern Florida city by bus and plane after crossing the Mexican border on Friday for Laredo, southern Texas, with the support of the nonprofit organization the Cuban Liberty Council. This first group of 180 Cubans to land in the U.S. is part of the pilot plan under the Costa Rican government to resolve a crisis that has almost 8,000 marooned in the Central American country after Nicaragua on Nov. 15 banned their entry, effectively blocking the migrants' route to Mexico and the United States, their final intended destination.

     A bus volunteered by local television station America Tevé on Sunday brought some forty Cubans from Mexico to the U.S. border, from where they departed for different cities countrywide. The same day, a total of 22 migrants arrived in Miami, the last destination of the route, where they were greeted by overjoyed family and friends. Speaking to EFE, Cuban cartoonist Aristide Pumariega, 80, known as "Aristide", celebrated the arrival of his grandson, a refugee who had been stranded in Costa Rica. "He is already here on this side," Pumariega said, once René Concepcion Pumariega had passed through the Mexican border with Texas on Saturday.

     Though Pumariega said he was overjoyed at the arrival of his grandson to the U.S., he said he still feels deeply bitter about the disappearance of his son, who went missing after attempting to reach the United States through the Straits of Florida in 1994. "That tragedy will always stay with me, the memory that I lost a son a son who was cheerful, kind and friendly. He was one of a kind," said the wellknown political cartoonist. But for now Pumariega is excited for the arrival of his grandson, who was accompanied by his girlfriend, Yadira Zaldivar, and he had only words of appreciation for Costa Rica's hospitality towards the stranded Cubans, some of whom had been forced to stay in the Central American nation for over two months. Since midNovember last year, Costa Rica has received a wave of 7,802 Cuban migrants, most of whom transited through Ecuador, the only country in the region which Cubans could enter without a visa, a benefit which was revoked in December.

ISRAEL CONDEMNS LIFTING OF SANCTIONS ON IRAN

      
Israel's prime minister has condemned the lifting of crippling international sanctions on Iran following the U.N. nuclear agency's certification that Tehran is curbing its nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that despite the agreement with the world powers, Iran has not given up its quest for nuclear weapons.

      Netanyahu told his Cabinet lifting sanctions would provide Iran with more resources to undermine stability in the Middle East and spread terrorism around the world. He called on the international community to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and reimpose sanctions if there were any violations. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but its leaders have also threatened to wipe Israel “off the map.”

     Since most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains intact, Netanyahu feared the Islamic Republic could secretly build an atomic bomb that could threaten Israel's existence. His skepticism about the nuclear deal is shared by many Israelis, like this man on the street. “We are at the same level of concern as before.I think my biggest concern is that the leadership in the West does not really care that much about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu, who has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the past, said Israel would do everything necessary to defend itself.

NICOLAS MADURO DECLARES ECONOMIC EMERGENCY IN VENEZUELA

          
The Venezuelan government has announced a 60-day economic emergency to deal with the country's worsening crisis. President Nicolas Maduro will govern by decree for two months. The edict includes tax increases and puts emergency measures in place to pay for welfare services and food imports. The government's move came as official figures released by the central bank showed that the Venezuelan economy had contracted by 4.5% in the first nine months of 2015.

      The emergency was declared hours before President Maduro delivers a State of the Nation address to Congress for the first time since his centre-right opponents took control of the legislature. The decree also instilled more state controls on businesses, industrial productivity and on electronic currency transactions. Venezuela has the world's biggest known oil reserves but the huge fall in oil prices in the past 18 months has slashed its revenues by 60%.

     The country has been suffering from food and basic goods shortages Annual inflation up to September 2014 is said by the Venezuelan Central Bank to have reached 141%.
President Maduro and new Economy Minister Luis Salas have argued for the need to protect social programmes established by his predecessor, former President Hugo Chavez, from the global drop in oil prices. Oil exports account for as much as 95% of Venezuela's revenue. The government says the country's soaring inflation and basic goods shortages have been induced by political opponents. Correspondents say Venezuelans will be watching carefully to see if the opposition-dominated Congress will support President Maduro. If it does not, the Maduro administration could appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice.
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January  18, 2016

U.S. IMPOSES NEW IRAN SANCTIONS FOR BALLISTIC MISSILE TESTING
 
       
The United States on Sunday imposed sanctions against 11 individuals and entities involved in Iran's ballistic missile program as a result of Tehran's firing of a medium-range ballistic missile, a new punishment one day after the Obama administration lifted economic penalties against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

      The missile program "poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions," said Adam J. Szubin, the Treasury's acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in a statement. He said the U.S. has made it clear that it will "vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities" outside the terms of the nuclear agreement. Szubin cited Iran's "support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program."

       Also Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that the U.S. and Iran had settled a dispute over $400 million in Iranian money dating back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and end of diplomatic ties. The Iranians also get $1.3 billion in interest. At issue was money used by Iran to buy military equipment from the U.S. before the break in ties between the countries. U.N. experts said in a report in December that the missile test in October violated sanctions banning Iran from launches capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The U.S. also believes there was a November missile test. U.S. officials have said the Treasury planned to announce the penalties in late December, but held off after Iran's foreign minister said they could have derailed the prisoner exchange that took place this weekend.

NUCLEAR SANCTIONS LIFTED AS IRAN, U.S. AGREE ON PRISONER SWAP

      
Iran emerged from years of economic isolation on Saturday when world powers began to lift crippling sanctions against the Islamic Republic in return for Tehran complying with a deal to curb its nuclear ambitions. In a dramatic move scheduled to coincide with the scrapping of the sanctions, Tehran also announced the release of five Americans including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian as part of a prisoner swap with the United States. Together, the lifting of sanctions and the prisoner deal considerably reduce the hostility between Tehran and Washington that has shaped the Middle East since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979.

     The U.N. nuclear watchdog ruled on Saturday that Iran had abided by an agreement last year with six world powers to curtail its nuclear program, triggering the end of sanctions. "Iran has carried out all measures required under the (July deal) to enable Implementation Day (of the deal) to occur," the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano addresses the media at the U … Within minutes, the United States formally lifted banking, steel, shipping and other sanctions on Iran, a major oil producer. Other countries are likely to follow.

     Tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets will now be unfrozen and global companies that have been barred from doing business there will be able to exploit a market hungry for everything from automobiles to airplane parts. The end of sanctions means more money and prestige for Shi'ite Muslim Iran as it becomes deeply embroiled in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East, notably in the Syrian civil war where its allies are facing Sunni Muslim rebels. The sanctions deal is viewed with deep suspicion by U.S. Republicans as well as American allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. U.S.-Iranian suspicion still remains deeply entrenched. Washington maintains separate, less comprehensive sanctions on Iran over its missile program and a week ago Iran detained 10 U.S. Navy sailors on two boats in the Gulf, although they were released the next day.

U.S. REPATRIATED 169 CUBANS INTERCEPTED AT SEA

          
The United States Thursday repatriated 169 Cubans who tried to enter the country by the sea route in makeshift vessels but were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Atlantic Ocean. The immigrants, intercepted in nine different operations before they touched American soil, were sent back to Bahia de Cabañas in northern Cuba, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

     According to the Coast Guard, 1,942 Cubans have been intercepted in the Florida Straits since Oct. 1, among them 396 in January alone. According to the so-called "dry foot-wet foot" policy followed by Cuba and the United States, Cubans who try to reach the United States illegally and are intercepted at sea are repatriated, while those who touch U.S. soil may remain and apply for permanent residency a year later.

     In the last fiscal year, between Oct.1, 2014 to Sept.30, 2015, over 43,000 Cubans arrived in the United States, a 77 percent jump from the previous fiscal year. The Coast Guard said Thursday the immigration policies of the United States remained unchanged and urged Cubans not to travel in boats unsuitable for navigation in the sea. It added uncertainty regarding a possible change in U.S. immigration policy towards Cuba has led to a sharp increase in the number of Cuban immigrants since the beginning of the normalization process between the two countries in December 2014.

January  17, 2016

RAMOS ALLUP: REPEATED MISTAKES MAY LEAD TO BIGGER MISTAKES
 
       
Speaker of the National Assembly (AN) Henry Ramos Allup described President Nicolás Maduro's speech on Friday at the Legislature, where he presented his Report and Accounts, as an important step for the country. He said, however, the Venezuelan Parliament would perform its duties unflinchingly.

    Ramos Allup told President Maduro this is the first time in 17 years a call for dialogue has been made. In his view, the current economic model should have been corrected earlier. "The economic consequences have worsened because the model is wrong (...) If there was rectification and a call for sincere dialogue, of course we are willing (to take part in dialogue). Who can possibly want lines (to buy staples) and shortages to continue?" "If we repeat a mistake, the subsequent mistakes can be worse," Ramos Allup remarked.

     He replied to the issue of the portraits of independence hero Simón Bolívar and late President Hugo Chávez that were removed from Parliament. "I ordered the removal of the images because they are not the Liberator's images." Regarding the violent street protests early in 2014 that left 43 people dead across Venezuela, Ramos Allup wondered, "Who cracked down on the demonstrations? People died while the military repressed the demonstrations." The Speaker of the National Assembly insisted that the economic consequences for "a country that has to import 70% of what it consumes" are quite serious. "When oil prices plummet, the economy collapses."

IRAN, US SWAP PRISONERS AS NUCLEAR DEAL IS FINALIZED

      
Iran and the United States each released prisoners Saturday in a complex swap agreed upon just before diplomats in Vienna were set to declare implementation of the major world powers' nuclear pact with Iran. The Americans being freed include Washington Postcorrespondent Jason Rezaian, held more than 500 days on espionage charges that have been refuted repeatedly by the U.S. government, his employer, family and friends.

     A Christian pastor and an Iranian-American who was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps also were being freed. In all, Iran was to release five Americans, U.S. officials said. In Vienna, where diplomats gathered to await an announcement that the nuclear deal with Iran was being implemented, U.S. officials said the agreement on releasing prisoners was the outcome of 14 months of negotiations, concluded in the past 24 hours. They avoided describing the arrangement as a "swap" of prisoners, calling it instead a "humanitarian gesture." The U.S. is releasing seven Iranians who were either were already in prison or were facing criminal charges for violating economic sanctions.

      A brief official statement in Washington said the United States was "offering clemency" to the seven, and also dropping charges against 14 other Iranians outside the country. U.S. officials said they were dropping "red notice" arrest warrants filed with Interpol for the 14 Iranians, after "it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful” — apparently because they are in Iran. In another major development related to the unfolding story of the nuclear agreement's implementation and the prisoners' release, reports in the Middle East late Saturday said Iran was about to announce a deal with the European consortium Airbus to buy 114 passenger aircraft — a mammoth purchase that cash-starved Iran presumably could only afford once it is free from economic sanctions and resumes selling its extensive oil production on open markets.

VENEZUELA'S PDVSA REMOVES FIRST LADY CILIA FLORES' NEPHEWS FROM BOARD

          
Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] has removed a nephew of first lady Cilia Flores from its board, according to the government's official gazette on Thursday. The replacement of Carlos Malpica as PDVSA's finance director came after the arrest and indictment in the United States last year of two other nephews of Flores on drug charges.

      Malpica had simultaneously served as the national treasurer but was also removed from that post last week. A PDVSA official said no one was available to comment on why he was removed. Reuters was unable to contact Malpica. The first lady's nephews Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores were arrested in November by U.S. authorities. They have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to import cocaine to the United States.

    Their case has renewed public scrutiny of the first lady's extensive network of family members in powerful positions throughout public administration. President Nicolas Maduro's wife has described criticism of her family as a smear campaign by opposition critics. In her first public comments on the U.S. case, she accused the United States earlier this week of "kidnapping" the pair.

January  16, 2016

ERNESTO SAMPER: THE PATH OF DEMOCRACY IS THE BEST TO SOLVE CONFLICTS
 
       
Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), Ernesto Samper, stated that the democratic path was the only way to ensure the functioning of State institutions, referring to the decision of the board of directors of the National Assembly (AN) to comply with the ruling issued by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) ordering the removal of three opposition deputies for Amazonas state whose election was contested for alleged irregularities during the vote.

     "The peaceful solution of differences between the National Assembly and the TSJ (Supreme Tribunal of Justice) of Venezuela shows that the path of democracy is the best to prevent and settle institutional conflicts," asserted Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), Ernesto Samper

     The TSJ had declared that the board of directors of the Parliament was in contempt after the swearing in of three deputies for opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) on January 6, despite a decision rendered by the Judiciary to provisionally suspend their inauguration as parliamentarians, state-run news agency AVN reported. On Wednesday, during a regular parliament meeting, Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup announced the Congress would abide by the TSJ ruling.

ADMIRAL TIDD TAKES CONTROL OF SOUTHCOM

      
Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd took over the U.S. Southern Command on Thursday morning, as its outgoing leader Marine Gen. John F. Kelly prepares to retire following more than four decades in uniform. Tidd, a 1978 Naval Academy Graduate who has most recently worked alongside Secretary of State John Kerry as the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assumed control of the combatant command that oversees U.S. military operations in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

     SOUTHCOM largely faces issues such as drug trafficking, narcoterrorism and providing humanitarian and disaster relief. It also oversees the United States’ controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Described by Defense Secretary Ash Carter as “a principled leader” who is “never afraid to roll up his sleeves and get grease under his nails,” Tidd, 59, has extensive service in the Southern Command region where he previously commanded the Navy’s 4th Fleet/Naval Forces Southern Command. That experience, along with his recent work as the military’s link to the State Department, will serve Tidd well in continuing Kelly’s successes of promoting “peace and rising prosperity” throughout the region, Carter said.

     “We take great confidence in this hemisphere’s future, even as we remain focused on what further progress requires,” Carter said Thursday. “We simply cannot tolerate the activities of criminal organizations who poison so many communities across the Americas… I know Adm. Tidd shares this steadfast commitment and he will carry it forward with characteristic excellence and resolve.” Kelly, 65, has led SOUTHCOM since November 2012 and will retire at the end of the month. The infantry officer, who commanded troops through some of the toughest stretches of fighting in Iraq and later served as the senior military adviser to former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, is the longest-serving general officer in the United States military.

PRESIDENT OBAMA  SENDS 10 GUANTANAMO PRISONERS TO OMAN

          
The U.S. military on Thursday disclosed that it delivered 10 Yemeni captives to the Arabian Sea nation of Oman in the largest Guantánamo release to a single country by the Obama administration. The military operation — which leaked earlier in the week without disclosure of the destination — left 93 captives at the remote prison, 34 of them cleared for transfer with security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. For his part, Cartervowed to work with Congress “as we diligently work to close this chapter in our history.” None of the 10 released this week were ever charged with a crime in more than a decade of U.S. military custody.

     Rather, they were held as war-on-terror detainees at the remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba from the earliest days of the prison camps in 2002. Most arrived when they were in their early 20s, according to their leaked 2008 prison profiles, which portrayed them as recruits to the jihad who got to Afghanistan in the weeks or months before Sept. 11, 2001, too late to have had a role in the terror attacks. Among those released was Samir al Hassan Moqbel, 38, who got there the day the prison opened 14 years ago this week, and briefly captured attention with his April 2013 New York Times op-ed column about his hunger strike and forced feedings, “Gitmo Is Killing Me.”

    Lee Wolosky, the State Department special envoy for the closure of the prison, credited “sustained diplomatic engagement” for what he called “this important milestone.” “We are very grateful to our friends and partners in the Gulf and elsewhere who have resettled Yemeni detainees,” he said in a statement that predicted the U.S. would be poised “to empty Guantánamo” of the 34 currently approved detainees “by this summer.” At Congress’ House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican chairman Ed Royce of California issued a news release criticizing what he called Obama’s “mad rush to push detainees on allies and partners.” He said: “Releasing them — or bringing them to U.S. soil — simply to fulfill a political promise will not make America safer.” In general the Obama administration had preferred smaller, more tailored transfers, and in fact sent two earlier groups of four and then six Yemenis to Oman last year, six months apart.

January  15, 2016

FIRST GROUP OF CUBAN MIGRANTS ENTERED MEXICO
 
       
 Some 180 of the nearly 8,000 Cuban migrants who were stranded in Costa Rica for months entered Mexico by bus under a deal to help them reach the United States. Four buses carrying the Cubans crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, many looking exhausted as they lugged backpacks and suitcases to an immigration office. Migration agents gave them 20-day visas to make their way to the border with the United States, which has a policy dating to the Cold War allowing entry to Cubans fleeing their Communist-ruled island. "We didn't agree with communism, with the Castros, and we felt oppressed," said Yumiley Diaz Riva, 21, who worked at a school in central Cuba until she left in October with her husband, leaving their one-year-old son behind.

     "We didn't want to bring him on this difficult journey," she said, adding that she planned to be reunited with her son once she reaches Tampa, Florida. The Cubans arrived in Mexico under a pilot program between Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala that could be expanded to the 7,600 other islanders still stuck in Costa Rica due to neighboring Nicaragua's refusal to let them in. Salvadoran police officers guard a bus that transported Cuban migrants in San Luis Talpa, 44 km sout … The path involved an overnight flight from Costa Rica to El Salvador, thus skipping over Nicaragua, a Cuban ally that has closed its border to Cubans since mid-November. The 109 men and 71 women were put on four buses bound for Guatemala and then on to the Mexican border, on a 13-hour journey organized by the regional governments and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

     Costa Rica's migration director, Kathya Rodriguez, concluded that the pilot program was an "absolute success" and provided a "great opportunity" to coordinate the departure of the others. Yet Costa Rica and the other governments involved insist that each migrant pay the trip's $555 cost, leaving open the question of what will happen to those without funds. And 2,000 other migrants remain stranded in Panama by Costa Rica's own mid-December decision to close its border to any more Cubans. They will have no access the air bridge. Thousands of Cubans have left the island in recent months over concerns that the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw will prompt Washington to drop its policy of giving them automatic residence when they set foot in the United States.

VLADIMIR PUTIN ACKNOWLEDGES WESTERN ECONOMIC SANCTIONS OVER UKRAINE ARE 'SEVERELY HURTING RUSSIA'

      
President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Monday in an interview with German daily Bild that Western economic sanctions over the Ukraine crisis are affecting Russia. “Concerning our possibilities on the international financial markets, the sanctions are severely harming Russia,” he said in a long interview, calling the EU sanctions “a theatre of the absurd”. Moscow has been hit by US and European sanctions over the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces which has claimed more than 9,000 lives since April 2014. In late December, the EU extended its sanctions by six months, arguing that the Minsk peace agreement signed by Moscow has not been fully implemented. Putin said, however, that “the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices for energy,” according to an English-language transcript published by Bild online.

     “We suffer dangerous revenue losses in our export of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere,” he said. “But the whole thing also has a positive side: if you earn so many petrodollars – as we once did – that you can buy anything abroad, this slows down developments in your own country.” Putin said Russia was now “gradually stabilizing our economy”. “Last year, the gross domestic product had dropped by 3.8 per cent,” he said. “Inflation is approximately 12.7 per cent. The trade balance, however, is still positive. For the first time in many years, we are exporting significantly more goods with a high added value, and we have more than US$300 billion in gold reserves.” While Russia has since September 30 launched air strikes in Syria, Putin called on Western countries to collaborate more closely with Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State group. “Yes, we should cooperate much more closely in fighting terrorism, which is a great challenge,” he said.

     According to Moscow, the Russian strikes target only jihadist groups, including IS, while the West has accused Russia of also hitting other rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Asked about the crisis in Ukraine, caused by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin said that “for me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes”. “Of course one always has to follow international law. This was also the case in Crimea. “The Russian population is absolutely clear about the situation. Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth. I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just,” Putin continued, describing the sanctions against Russia as “foolish”. Ukraine is not the first former Soviet-era satellite to be involved in a conflict with Moscow. In August 2008, Georgia fought a brief border war with Russia, losing control of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions as a result.

CUBA TO ATTEND SECURITY CONFERENCE FOR CARIBBEAN, U.S. SAYS. NO WORD ON THE US HELLFIRE MISSILE ILLEGALLY KEPT IN CUBA BY RAUL CASTRO

          
A delegation from Cuba will take part for the first time in an annual Caribbean regional security conference co-sponsored by the U.S. military's Southern Command, a senior official said Tuesday, portraying the participation as a significant step in the ongoing thaw between the long-hostile neighbors. The Cuban government's decision to accept an invitation to the Caribbean Nations Security Conference in Jamaica this month follows other relatively small but symbolic forms of military engagement between countries that normalized relations in December 2015, said Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of Southern Command. "We've normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges," Kelly said in an interview two days before he ends his tenure as commander of U.S. military operations in the Southern Hemisphere.

     The conference takes place over three days starting Jan. 27 in Kingston, Jamaica. Senior military and other security officials are expected from 16 Caribbean countries as well as the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands and United Kingdom. During the conference, the Cubans may try to obtain information about the technology of the Hellfire missile they have kept for over a year, after it was "mistakenly" shipped from Europe to Cuba in 2014. Despite official requests, Raul Castro has adamantly refused to return the missile. There are concerns that Cuba could share the technology with potential U.S. adversaries like North Korea or Russia. Cuba has not yet said who it will send and its government had no immediate response to a request for comment by The Associated Press. Venezuela, which has a chilly relationship with Washington, won't be there, Kelly said. In the past, the conference has focused on cooperative efforts to combat drug trafficking as well as the smuggling of people and weapons. It is not clear if Cuba would take the opportunity to again raise its vehement objection to the presence of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

      The administration of President Barack Obama has said it wants to close the Guantanamo detention center, where it holds 103 men, but has said discussion of the future of the base, which occupies 45 square miles on the southeastern corner of the island, is not on the table. Kelly said he believes the facility remains strategically valuable, a deep-water port in the Caribbean, and he would like to see it remain open even if the detention center closes. He suggested it could be run jointly with the Cubans, offering employment to the local population as it once did. But the general says he hasn't discussed it with anyone in the Castro government. "It wouldn't be appropriate," he said. Working with the State Department, the military in September hosted a delegation of Cuban doctors on board the USS Comfort hospital ship during a humanitarian visit to in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which Kelly pointed to as evidence of improved relations. Cuban military officials and the Navy commander of the base at Guantanamo have long held regular private meetings to discuss issues such as fire protection in the arid no-man's land around the base.

January  14, 2016

VENEZUELAN ASSEMBLY REMOVES THREE DEPUTIES UNTIL RACE DISPUTE IS RESOLVED
 
       
 The head of Venezuela’s National Assembly has said that three lawmakers whose elections last month are being challenged at the Supreme Court will abandon their seats until the controversy is resolved. The announcement by assembly speaker Henry Ramos Allup to CNN en Español came a day after the top court held the opposition-controlled legislative body in contempt for allowing the lawmakers from Amazonas state to be sworn in. The controversy has threatened to ignite a constitutional crisis between the judiciary, controlled by Maduro’s allies, and the opposition-run assembly

    Justices warned that any decisions made by the National Assembly would be considered invalid if the three deputies were sitting in session. Supporters of President Nicolás Maduro had filed challenges against the election of the three lawmakers alleging voting irregularities that took place during the December 6 legislative ballot. The controversy has threatened to ignite a constitutional crisis between the judiciary, which is controlled by Maduro’s allies, and the opposition-run assembly. Deputies from the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) – the coalition that unites all opposition parties – and the government’s minority bloc were expected to vote on Wednesday whether to temporarily dismiss the lawmakers until the top court can make its final ruling on the election challenges.

    On Tuesday, Venezuela’s attorney general questioned how the Supreme Court’s contempt ruling against the National Assembly would still affect the work and procedures undertaken by lawmakers. The opposition’s u-turn looks like it could nullify the possibility of exempting Maduro from having to present his annual message to the nation from the assembly, as the Venezuelan constitution stipulates. “We need to know when and where the president will make his state-of-the-nation address,” said Vice President Aristóbolo Istúriz. But Ramos Allup said the president “must deliver his report here [at the National Assembly] and not on some street corner.” The opposition has accused government-backed lawmakers of wanting to curtail its legislative powers by reducing its absolute majority in the assembly by filing challenges against the winners of last month’s elections. MUD won 112 seats while the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies garnered 55 seats.

OAS SECRETARY GENERAL CONDEMNS MADURO'S EROSION OF DEMOCRACY" IN VENEZUELA

      
The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, called Tuesday's ruling of the Supreme Court of Venezuela against three opposition deputies a "direct blow to the will" of the voters. "The attempts to harass the opposition, rape the separation of powers and interfere with the powers of the state constitute an erosion of democracy" in Venezuela, Almagro said in an extensive open letter to President Nicolas Maduro. "I am sure you will keep your word and respect the electorate's will."

    Almagro argues that the decision of the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court to find the National Assembly in contempt and disregard any of the parliament's actions sets the country back to the nineteenth century. "The InterAmerican Democratic Charter forces me to act when institutional political process is altered," said Almagro. "When a power is conferred on a body able to control, influence, decide, render inoperative or or rule on the competence or powers of the state, the situation is beyond worrying, threatening the balance of power of the state," wrote Almagro.

    "The rule of law loses credibility with a justice system perceived as partial." "Appointing members of the judiciary with political bias violates the essence of the separation of powers," writes Almagro. He added that the Supreme Court intended to undermine the will of the voters when the Electoral Chamber tries to ignore the already accomplished legal effects of the proclamation of the winners of the election. "Altering representation after the pronouncement of voters disrespects people's will," Almagro said. "The action of altering the political representation after such a clear pronouncement of the electoral body constitutes an attack especially when the guarantees of justice seem to vanish."
 

PRESIDENT OBAMA TO CONGRESS:  "LIFT THE EMBARGO" 

          
In his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama asked Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba to “consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.” Obama defended his decision in July to restore bilateral relations with Cuba, after half a century of rupture and ideological confrontation between Washington and Havana. The President recalled that the policy of isolation of the island, carried out by his ten predecessors in the White House, not only failed to promote democracy on the island, but hindered Washington’s relations with Latin America.

     “Do you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere?” Obama asked lawmakers. “Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo,” Obama told the Republican-dominated Congress. Experts on both sides of the Florida Straits say there can be no real normalization of relations between Washington and Havana until the United States lifts the embargo. Although Obama has taken several steps to relax some restrictions, he cannot lift the embargo by executive order. Only Congress, where the Republicans have a sizeable majority, can lift the ban entirely. Obama also used his State of the Union address to call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention camp. “It is expensive, unnecessary and only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” he stressed.

    The president has repeatedly promised to close the infamous prison before leaving the White House in January 2017. The off-shore facility was created by President George W. Bush to hold war prisoners detained in the war in Afghanistan and suspected members of Al Qaeda. The Republican Congress has thus far resisted the closure. Despite the demands of Havana, Washington has no intention of returning the land occupied by the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, even if Obama manages to finally close the prison. Obama speech today to both houses of Congress was his last State of the Union. He called on Americans to embrace change and not fear the future, in an optimistic speech contrasting with the apocalyptic messages of some Republican candidates on the country’s future.

January  13, 2016

CUBAN MIGRANTS WAITING FOR US TO FLY OUT OF COSTA RICA
 
       
 A group of 180 Cuban migrants is to fly from Costa Rica to El Salvador on Tuesday, blazing a trail thousands of their compatriots stranded in Central America hope will see all of them securing new lives in the United States. The "pilot" scheme worked out between the governments of several countries in the region will see the 180 arriving in El Salvador to be put on buses to cross neighboring Guatemala to the Mexican border. They will then have a 20-day Mexican visa to find their own way to the border with America.

     They are allowed to cross that frontier under a US law passed nearly 50 years ago, during the Cold War, that specifically welcomes refugees fleeing Communist-ruled Cuba. If no problems arise, a second flight with a similar number will leave Costa Rica a week later. "We are doing this in stages. We need to create experience, to build confidence. We need to guarantee that all goes well," said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez. The hope for nearly 8,000 other Cubans stranded in Costa Rica is that the air bridge will continue afterwards.

     The main condition to get a place on the flights is that the migrants pay for plane-and-bus trip themselves: $535 each. That is a fortune for Cubans coming from a homeland where the monthly state wage is a meager $20. Most of the migrants sold everything they had to pay for flights to Ecuador and for "coyotes" -- slang for people smugglers -- to get them across Colombia and into Central America. That clandestine path got blocked in November, when Costa Rica busted a people-smuggling ring they had been depending on, then Nicaragua -- a Cuban ally -- steadfastly refused to let any of them cross its border. That bottleneck on the narrow Central American isthmus saw the thousands of Cubans pile into Costa Rica with no route north. A frustrated Costa Rica itself blocked the entry into its territory of any more Cubans from December 19, leading to Panama finding itself caring for 2,000 Cuban migrants unable to cross the border.

THE PENTAGON: GUANTANAMO BAY DETAINEE REPATRIATED TO SAUDI ARABIA

      
A Guantanamo Bay inmate has been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon announced Monday, bringing the remote military prison's remaining population down to 103. Muhammed Abd Al Rahman Awn Al-Shamrani had spent 14 years in Guantanamo, where he was held without trial and was suspected of being an Al-Qaeda member who "possibly" worked as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, according to his leaked prisoner file. Al-Shamrani, 40, will participate in Saudi Arabia's reintegration and rehabilitation program, which includes support from family members. "The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Pentagon said in a statement.

     Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross said Al-Shamrani had arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier Monday. Of the 103 remaining inmates, 44 have been approved for transfer, and the Pentagon is trying to find countries to take them as it struggles to honor President Barack Obama's 2009 order to close the prison. Many are from Yemen and cannot go back, given its collapse into civil war. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in December signed off on 17 of the 44 to be transferred as soon as this month, and three were released last week: two to Ghana and one to Kuwait. Officials say additional releases is expected soon. Even if all 44 are released, the remaining inmates are expected to stay in indefinite detention.

     Al-Shamrani had on previous occasions been deemed a potential ongoing threat to the United States. "If released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen, it is assessed detainee would immediately seek out prior associates and reengage in hostilities and extremist support activities at home and abroad," his October 2008 prisoner file states. In July last year, his lawyer Martha Rayner told a military hearing that Al-Shamrani's family had pledged to give him broad support. "They will provide him with a home, support in establishing employment and beginning a family of his own," she wrote. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the military was confident measures were in place to stop Al-Shamrani re-joining Al-Qaeda. "Re-engagement is one of the things we look at very carefully to ensure we are mitigating the risk of that," Davis said. Opponents of closing Guantanamo have pounced on cases in which ex-detainees returned to the fight as evidence the detention center should remain open.

MIAMI MEDICARE FRAUD FUGITIVE RETURNS FROM CUBA -- VOLUNTARILY  

          
When federal agents came knocking, Sandy De La Fe was not at home. The Miami pharmacy owner had already fled to Cuba with his loot from ripping off Medicare, they say. But De La Fe apparently didn't like life on the lam under the Castro brothers. He paid for his own ticket to fly back on a commercial airline to Miami International Airport, where he surrendered around midnight Friday to U.S. Marshals and agents with Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General. For Daniel Suarez, Medicare fraud was a family affair. Suarez ran a ring of relatives who robbed $21 million from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program by using a network of Miami-Dade pharmacies to submit phony claims for costly prescription drugs. When Guillermo and Gabriel Delgado were charged with selling Medicare patients' names to a crooked pharmacist, more than 100 relatives and friends showed up to back the brothers' bid for bail in Miami federal court.

      In the annals of Medicare fraud and fugitives -- an estimated 150 South Florida defendants are at large in Cuba, Mexico and other countries at any given time -- De La Fe's voluntary surrender is a first. Normally, fugitives get stopped on federal arrest warrants at foreign airports or upon entering the United States. On Monday, the 31-year-old De La Fe finally had his first appearance in Miami federal court on 2013 charges that he illegally pocketed $2.8 million in taxpayer-funded Medicare payments through his former business, Goldenway Pharmacy Discount. His bond hearing and arraignment was scheduled for Friday. Prosecutor Roger Cruz plans to recommend no bail, arguing the defendant is a flight risk. De La Fe is charged with conspiring with associates Jose Teijeiro and Michael Gonzalez Cabral to pay off recruiters to reel in Medicare beneficiaries so they could bilk the federal health insurance program. Both associates already pleaded guilty to fraud charges and are serving nine-year and five-year prison sentences, respectively.

     According to an indictment, De La Fe submitted false claims for prescription drugs -- some for more than $1,000 -- by using Medicare beneficiaries' ID numbers and forged doctors' signatures for medication that was either unnecessary or not provided. The alleged racket, run between 2011 and 2013, was hardly unique. The U.S. attorney's office has increasingly made cases against South Florida pharmacy offenders who steal from the so-called Part D prescription drug program under Medicare. What sets De La Fe apart is his voluntary return after hiding for more than two years in Cuba. According to sources familiar with his case, the defendant's relatives in Miami had been in touch with federal authorities about coordinating his surrender. At first, he wanted them to pay for his return flight. But the feds refused. Said one source: "The fugitive paid for his own ticket from Havana to Miami."

January  12, 2016

VENEZUELA'S SUPREME COURT DECLARED THAT ANY ACTION THE LEGISLATURE TAKES IS NULL
 
       
 Venezuela's Supreme Court on Monday declared that the new opposition-dominated congress' decisions are void until it unseats three barred lawmakers, bringing the country closer to a showdown over power in the legislature. Opponents of the socialist revolution launched by Hugo Chavez took control of congress for the first time in 17 years last week. The high court barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats to give officials time to look into allegations of electoral fraud. That ruling angered members of the opposition, who called it an attempt to undermine their historic victory in legislative elections in December, and they swore the lawmakers in anyway. They accuse the Supreme Court of being an arm of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government and of seeking to steal away its two-thirds majority in congress with the ruling.

     On Monday, the court upped the ante in the confrontation by ordering congress to unseat the three deputies from the remote state of Amazonas. It ruled that all its actions are null in the meantime. The decision, which applies to "all acts that have been taken or will be taken" by the new congress, seems to render the body powerless for now. The congress has not yet passed any legislation. Some in the opposition denounced it as a coup and vowed to continue defying the court. "We will not cede one iota of the power that the people of Venezuela gave us," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said. Diosdado Cabello, who had been head of congress until last week and remains one of the most powerful figures in the socialist party, said the ruling was legitimate given that it came from the land's highest court, and opposition leaders should immediately hold a session to remove the three lawmakers.

    "I doubt that they actually will, because we know how enormously arrogant the new leaders of the National Assembly are; they are full of hate, bitterness and a desire for revenge," he said. While it has not yet passed any legislation, early Monday lawmakers began the process of debating a law that would give amnesty to jailed opposition leaders who human rights groups consider to be political prisoners. They also formed a congressional committee to look into irregularities in the rush appointment of 13 Supreme Court judges just after the socialist party lost Dec. 6 legislative elections. They say the appointments are proof the court is rigged. The court decision was both shocking and expected for many here. When Venezuela celebrated its version of April Fools Day at the end of December, a popular blog posted a joke article under the headline, "Supreme Court pre-overturns all incoming National Assembly acts as unconstitutional."

VENEZUELAN NATIONAL GUARD RETREATS ON A PEOPLE'S TUNNEL

      
It is almost 10:30 in the morning. The huge white, armored truck of the Venezuelan National Guard (GN) moves forward, across Universidad Avenue, westwards, followed by eight motorcycles, each with two National Guards. Faces and body language of the officials are severe, as usual under such circumstances. However, between the corners of Chorro and Coliseo, the crowd feels like the majority and there is no more free passage. For minutes, the situation becomes strained. Some military men glance down, other are sort of frozen, looking at the front. Little by little, they are surrounded by the followers of the opposition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD). The mass swallows up the GN vehicles. "It is provocation," some comment from the crowd. Actually, it looks like a mistake. Seemingly, the men in uniform were not properly informed of the thick barrier alongside the street. Moving forward is impossible.

    While they decide on what to do, a couple shakes their arms as a sign of reprimand and yells at the military motorcyclists. They remind them of past and third-party attacks. "Get out, get out!," they shout. From the same crowd, others call the attention of the angry ones: "We are not here for that." And they make them retreat. Certainly, the crowd was there, at Universidad Avenue, to escort, as five years ago, the parliament group of the Unified Democratic Panel to the sworn-in ceremony of the new National Assembly. This time, though, not as a parliament minority, but in possession of the supermajority of 112 deputies. Aided by the very demonstrators, who instruct them how to leave the bottleneck, one by one, the motorcycles try to move away from the thickest area of the crowd. However, almost at the end of the block, the truck, in reverse, hits a motorcycle and its occupants fall down.

    Next, the gesture comes, perhaps emblematic of the political period that has begun in the country: the secretary general of opposition Acción Democrática party for central Miranda state, Gustavo Ruiz, offers his hand to the man in uniform. "I cannot stand up, it hurts," the National Guard officer says. "I know, I can help you," the political leader replies. Unlike the rally five years ago, the demonstrators who answered to the call of the Unified Democratic Panel had no screens available to follow up the events inside the chamber. Perhaps, because of that, they had no reason to stay there for that long, until the end of the event. And the presence of demonstrators was movable, yet sufficient. Furthermore, the siege prevailing in the adjacencies of the historical downtown and the suspension of the subway service in four stations nearby discouraged the rally. Nevertheless, the multiple colors of the opposition coalition were visible in the clothes and symbols of the people gathered, and the three-color cap gleamed again downtown Caracas. "We came back, we can back!," some cried out. "Freedom, freedom!," some others chanted.

VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION INTENDS TO DEFY SUPREME COURT RULING 

          
The Venezuela opposition said Monday they intend to defy the Supreme Court ruling that suspended the four newly elected parliamentarians who took office on Jan. 5. The electoral chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a request Friday to challenge the legitimacy of the results in three states. The court further accepted a petition for an emergency precautionary measure in the state of Amazonas, that temporarily prevents the swearing in of three opposition candidates and one socialist candidate elected Dec. 6, 2015.

    In a press release, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, known as the MUD, criticized the court's ruling using unambiguous and severely critical language. "The unusual decision of the Supreme Court, which leaves no parliamentary representation for all Amazonas state, is a declaration of rebellion of the defeated bureaucracy in the face of the legitimate decision of the people," read a MUD press release. The MUD statement said the coalition intends to keep all of their winning candidates Jan. 5 for the performance of their mandated duties, a move that could prompt a conflict between the judicial and legislative branch of government. The MUD, however, denied that their defiance of the Supreme Court constituted a clash between powers. In the statement, the right-wing coalition called on Venezuelans to join them as they attempt to flout the ruling and have the temporarily suspended candidates assume office.

    Meantime, Venezuelan Minister of Defense, Major General Vladimir Padrino López, on Sunday called upon all sectors in the country to act with caution and respect. "We do not want war. Who would be interested in a civil war?" he wondered. He referred again to the removal of the pictures of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and of Liberator Simón Bolívar from the headquarters of the National Assembly. "With these actions of a fascist nature, the military honor has been offended and some people have no idea of what military honor means. It is a suprarational concept that is in the soul and spirit of soldiers. That honor has been sullied, it has been disrespected and us military do defend our military honor," he said. "Let us advocate peace. We ask for caution and respect for people thinking differently and for the Constitution and the laws of the Republic." Additionally, the minister referred to the statements made by the outgoing chief of the United States Southern Command, John Kelly. "He (Kelly) said he spends 40 seconds a day to pray for Venezuela. Praying for Venezuela, that is good... But I would ask all Venezuelans to pray for the US imperial policy to eliminate its militaristic practices, which have caused so much damage to the world," said Padrino López.

January  11, 2016

MEXICO MOVES TO EXTRADITE DRUG LORD 'CHAPO' GUZMAN TO US
 
       
President Enrique Pena Nieto's government had balked at extraditing Guzman prior to his prison break in July but the administration has changed tack after recapturing him on Friday. The attorney general's office said it received two US extradition requests last year on a slew of charges, including drug trafficking and murder, and that it later obtained arrest warrants to ship him across the border. "With Guzman Loera's recapture, the respective extradition proceedings will have to start," the office said in a statement, though it did not indicate when the hearings would start. Lawyers for Guzman will have three days to file objections and 20 more days to prove them, though that timeframe can be extended, prosecutors said, vowing to fight any appeals. Once a judge rules on the extradition, the decision is sent to the foreign ministry, which will have 20 days to validate it. Guzman would have another chance after that to legally challenge the decision.

      One of Guzman's attorneys, Juan Pablo Badillo, vowed to take the case up to the Supreme Court if necessary. "A legal battle has begun in the constitutional framework that will be very serious, very tough," Badillo told reporters outside the Altiplano prison near Mexico City, where Guzman was sent following his arrest on Friday. "He shouldn't be extradited because Mexico has a fair Constitution," he said. US President Barack Obama's administration congratulated Mexico following the arrest but did not publicly indicate whether it would press Pena Nieto to extradite Guzman. US politicians called for his immediate extradition as he faces charges in a half-dozen states. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (C) congratulates Defense Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos …

     Some questioned Mexico's ability to hold on to a man who fled prison through a tunnel under his cell's shower in July and fled from another penitentiary in a laundry cart in 2001. "Given that 'El Chapo' has already escaped from Mexican prison twice, this third opportunity to bring him to justice cannot be squandered," said US senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. A Mexican federal official defended the decision to send Guzman back to Altiplano, saying measures were taken to improve security, including the installation of metal rods under the floor of prison cells. The world's most wanted drug baron was arrested after a deadly military raid early Friday in Los Mochis, a coastal city in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa.

TENSIONS HIGH ON KOREAN BORDER AS NORTH RAISES AGAIN THREAT OF WAR

      
Tensions remained high on the fortified border dividing North and South Korea as the resumption of propaganda broadcasts prompted Pyongyang to raise the risk of war, overshadowing diplomatic efforts to respond to North Korea’s surprise nuclear test. South Korea turned on the powerful loudspeakers on Friday in retaliation for the nuclear test conducted on Wednesday. The South Korean military also fortified its positions near the huge banks of loudspeakers that can broadcast miles into North Korea. The broadcasts risk pushing the two sides “toward the brink of war,” Yonhap News cited North Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Kim Ki Nam as saying at a rally in Pyongyang.

     Threats of war are routinely issued by North Korea. Still, the Kim Jong Un regime has become particularly belligerent over the broadcasts that offer troops and civilians near the border a rare glimpse of the contrasting realities between the two Koreas. Tensions are spiking as South Korea and the U.S. seek to build international support to punish Pyongyang for the test. The success of that effort may hinge on how willing China is to try to bring its unruly ally to heel. “North Korea’s fourth nuclear test could become a true test of the collective will of the global community to deal with a common security challenge,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a report. “Escalation of a crisis with North Korea would likely open a Pandora’s box of difficult geopolitical, humanitarian and potentially military challenges.”

     Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung Se by phone on Friday that efforts should be made to pave the way for negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear arm program, according to a text message from South Korea’s foreign ministry on Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China on Thursday to support a more aggressive approach with Pyongyang. A powerful U.S. B-52 bomber flew low over South Korea on Sunday, a clear show of force from the United States as a Cold War-style standoff deepened between its ally Seoul and North Korea following Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test. North Korea will read the fly-over of a bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons — seen by an Associated Press photographer at Osan Air Base near Seoul — as a threat. Any hint of America's nuclear power enrages Pyongyang, which links its own pursuit of atomic weapons to what it sees as past nuclear-backed moves by the United States to topple its authoritarian government. The B-52 was joined by South Korean F-15 and U.S. F-16 fighters and returned to its base in Guam after the flight, the U.S. military said.

MIAMI SAYS IT LACKS FUNDS TO ASSIST NEW WAIVE OF CUBAN REFUGEES 

          
Mayor Tomas Regalado warned Friday that Miami does not have the necessary funds to provide accommodation and assistance for all the Cuban refugees expected to arrive in South Florida from Central America over the coming weeks. The municipal administration up to now has not been notified by the federal government about any plans to provide shelter for the Cubans stranded since November in Costa Rica, Regalado told EFE.

     Since Nov. 15, when Nicaragua closed its border to the Cubans on grounds of risks to its security and sovereignty, 7,802 migrants from Cuba have been stuck in Costa Rica looking for a way to get to the United States. Faced with the likelihood that many will end up in Miami, the mayor said that at present the municipal shelters “are full to capacity,” and asserted that the city simply does not have “the infrastructure to assimilate 20 or 30 more people a day.” More than 43,000 Cubans entered the United States during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, an increase of more than 77 percent over the previous fiscal year. “We can’t predict how many will come this time, but we know the enormous cost their arrival will entail,” Regalado said.

     A possible solution to the situation would be for the federal government to establish its own shelters in the area, given that Miami has neither the resources nor the capability to build them, the mayor said. Regalado believed it unlikely that President Barack Obama will seek changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil to obtain legal residence in the country after just one year. “In Cuba they keep persecuting Cuban citizens, they keep harassing Cuban citizens and locking up members of the opposition or expelling them from the country,” said Regalado, who sees no reason to change the law. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the United States government has no plans at the moment to change that law, which, according to Havana, sparked the current migration crisis in Central America.

January  10, 2016

CHAVISTA PARLIAMENT GROUP REQUESTS JUDICIAL MEASURES AGAINST NEW CONGRESS
 
       
Pro-government deputy for ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Pedro Carreño, along with all the members of the pro-government parliament group, went to the headquarters of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) to file three actions against "violations, illegalities, and unconstitutional actions" allegedly perpetrated by the newly appointed board of directors of the National Assembly. In that regard, Carreño explained that the designation of a special committee in charge of revising the appointment of the justices of the TSJ was illegal. "In the Organic Law of the TSJ, no reference is made to such revision, but to removal; and even though the Assembly has the authority to remove justices, there are 17 possible causes of gross misconduct, and the power to decide on that lies in the Moral Power; hence, (the National Assembly) is usurping its authority too."

     The deputy pointed out that the first complaint was filed with the Political-Administrative Court of the TSJ, and comprises a petition of interpretation of article 94 of the AN Internal and Debate Rules. A second complaint was filed with the Political-Administrative Court as well against the AN, as it allegedly usurped the authority of the Citizen's Power by appointing a committee to revise the designation of TSJ magistrates. The third document filed by chavista deputies is a request of seven items with respect to the AN contempt of the TSJ ruling. In relation to the remarks made by Deputy Diosdado Cabello, who threatened to propose that if the National Assembly (AN) insists on contempt, enacted laws will not be released in the Official Gazette, Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup said that the laws have the same effect, regardless of being published or not

    "We do not fall in contempt," said the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly (AN), Henry Ramos Allup, in reference to the three deputies for the Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) who were sworn in on Wednesday at the parliament, despite being challenged by the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ). He ratified that the opposition parliament group will "perform the functions as set forth in the Constitution." In relation to the remarks made by Deputy Diosdado Cabello, who threatened to propose that if the National Assembly (AN) insists on contempt, enacted laws will not be released in the Official Gazette, Ramos Allup said that the laws have the same effect, regardless of being published or not.

INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY IN GUYANA FEARS VENEZUELAN INCURSIONS

      
Residents of an indigenous community in western Guyana have asked the government for protection against possible military incursions from neighboring Venezuela, a government official confirmed to EFE on Thursday via telephone. The Kaikan settlement is located in the Essequibo region, which is claimed by Venezuela. Residents approached the government weeks after a Venezuelan military helicopter landed on the airstrip at Kaikan with troops aboard. Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge, Indigenous Affairs Minister Sydney Allicock and Guyana Defense Force Chief of Staff Mark Phillips visited Kaikan recently to listen to residents’ concerns and assure them that the government is committed to ensuring their safety.

     Kaikan needs a military presence, Greenidge said, though adding that the government’s ultimate aim is to resolve the century-old territorial dispute with Venezuela so “we as a community are safe and we do not have to spend so much time and resources to have soldiers on the ground at the borders.” The foreign minister urged the Guyana Defense Force to strive for a balance to ensure that their operations and presence do not disrupt the lives of community residents. At the same time, the President of US oil and gas company ExxonMobile Stephen Greenlee said: "Last year, we made a discovery offshore Guyana and it is very promising, so we want to follow up with data collection, to understand the size and the commerciality of the discovery."

     Guyanese Head of State David Granger and President of US oil and gas company ExxonMobile Stephen Greenlee met to assess the expansion of oil drilling operations in waters off the Essequibo region, an area claimed by Venezuela. A spokesperson from the Guyanese government told Efe on Thursday that Granger met with Greenlee and an Exxon Mobile board to know of the progress this company has achieved over the South American territory. "I have talked to the (Guyanese) president about our progress on the Stabroek bloc, as we are preparing for a second drilling campaign," Greenlee said, according to a communiqué issued by the Guyanese government, Efe reported. "Last year, we made a discovery offshore Guyana and it is very promising, so we want to follow up with data collection, to understand the size and the commerciality of the discovery," Greenlee added. Venezuela and Guyana are in dispute over the Essequibo, an area of about 160,000 square kilometers which covers two thirds of the Guyanese territory.

SOUTH KOREA TO RESUME BROADCASTING PRPAGANDA TO THE NORTH OVER LOUDSPEAKERS 

    
South Korea announced plans to restart propaganda broadcasts over its border with North Korea, a day after Pyongyang claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb. The U.S. is doubtful that the test was actually a hydrogen bomb. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said "The initial analysis is not consistent with North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb." As we reported, South Korea also questioned the claim. There are still many unanswered questions about the nuclear test.

     The propaganda broadcasts "are certain to infuriate authoritarian Pyongyang because they are meant to raise questions in North Korean minds about the infallibility of the ruling Kim family," The Associated Press reports. "The broadcasts typically include news updates, weather updates, anti-North Korean propaganda messages" and even local pop music, NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu says. North Korea views them as an act of war, though as Elise notes, "they're still technically at war anyway." "The broadcasts last resumed following an 11 year break in August 2015. South Korea stopped them in August following days of talks that resulted in a deal to defuse tensions. It's safe to say those tensions have returned."

     BBC reports that the broadcasts are set to start again on Friday, which happens to be the 33rd birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke to Morning Edition on Thursday about North Korea's claim and the message it sends: "People are basing their assessments on the seismic readings which seem to suggest it was not a hydrogen bomb. It's not - the readings are not large enough for it to be a hydrogen bomb. Nevertheless, this is the fourth nuclear test by North Korea. It was more powerful than the three previous tests, and they're clearly advancing their program with each test that they do."

January  9, 2016

MEXICAN PRESIDENT: DRUG LORD CHAPO GUZMAN CAPTURED
 
       
The world's most-wanted drug lord was captured for a third time in a daring raid Friday by Mexican marines, six months after he tunneled out of a maximum security prison in a made-for-Hollywood escape that deeply embarrassed the government and strained ties with the United States. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced the capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, writing in his Twitter account: "mission accomplished: we have him." Few had thought Guzman would be taken alive, and few now believe Mexico will want to try to hold him a third time in Mexican prisons. He escaped from maximum-security facilities in 2001 and on July 11, 2015, the second breakout especially humiliating for the Pena Nieto administration, which only held him for less than 18 months. The U.S. has sought his extradition, though Mexico in the past has said he would serve sentences here first.

     But Pena Nieto gave a brief live message Friday afternoon that focused heavily on touting the competency of his administration, which has suffered a series of embarrassments and scandals in the first half of his presidency. "The arrest of today is very important for the government of Mexico. It shows that the public can have confidence in its institutions," Pena Nieto said. "Mexicans can count on a government decided and determined to build a better country." Guzman was apprehended after a shootout with Mexican marines in Los Mochis, a seaside city in Guzman's home state of Sinaloa, said a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name. He said Guzman was taken alive and was not wounded.

     Five people were killed and one Mexican marine wounded in the clash at a house. It was unclear if Guzman was there or nearby when the raid was under way. Another law enforcement official said Guzman was captured at a motel on the outskirts of Los Mochis. Given Guzman's penchant for escaping through tunnels, the details of his capture, once they are released by Mexican officials, are sure to be startling. In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration hailed the capture as proof of the close relationship between the two countries. "The arrest is a significant achievement in our shared fight against transnational organized crime, violence, and drug trafficking," a DEA statement said. The U.S. Justice Department commended the working relationship as well. I salute the Mexican law enforcement and military personnel who have worked tirelessly in recent months to bring Guzman to justice," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

U.S. HAS NO PLANS TO CHANGE ITS DRY-FOOT/WET-FOOT CUBAN IMMIGRATION POLICY

      
The United States has encouraged Central American governments to solve a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Cubans are stranded in Costa Rica on their journey to the U.S. border, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana said on Monday. But the diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, said Washington has no plans to intervene or change its immigration policies, which grant Cubans special treatment that welcomes them into the United States and offers residency with relative ease. "The bottom line is that we don't have at this time plans to change any aspect of our migration policy," DeLaurentis told Reuters in an interview.

      A Cold War-era law known as the Cuban Adjustment Act and a 1995 policy known as "wet foot/dry foot" allow Cubans who reach U.S. soil to enter without a visa. Those picked up at sea are returned to Cuba. Concerned that the practice might change as a result of improved U.S.-Cuban relations, thousands more Cubans have been attempting the journey. Some 5,000 are stranded at Costa Rica's northern border, barred from entering Nicaragua, with a further 1,300 to 1,500 stuck one country further south, in Panama, and unable to enter Costa Rica. "We're encouraging the countries involved to seek solutions. We're very concerned about the human rights of the migrants," said DeLaurentis, who has the rank of ambassador but has not been given the title to avoid a contentious confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate.

      Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis, who is in Cuba to discuss the situation, has warned Cuba and its Central American neighbors that his country cannot maintain the Cubans indefinitely. Cuban migration to the United States has experienced a number of waves since Fidel Castro's rebels overthrew a pro-American government in 1959 and later aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union. The latest surge, an increase of nearly 80 percent this year, has taken place since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shocked the world a year ago by announcing they had agreed to normalize relations. Many of the stranded Cubans started by flying from their Caribbean island to Ecuador, where until recently they could enter without a visa. From Ecuador they begin long trek with eight illegal border crossings reach the U.S. frontier.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT!  DUMMY HELLFIRE MISSILE "MISTAKENLY" SHIPPED TO CUBA 

    
A dummy U.S. Hellfire missile was "mistakenly" shipped from Europe to Cuba in 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. The inert missile did not contain any explosives, the Journal reported, but there are concerns that Cuba could share the technology with potential U.S. adversaries like North Korea or Russia. The Journal report was attributed to anonymous "people familiar with the matter." A U.S. official with knowledge of the situation, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, confirmed its veracity to The Associated Press.

     According to the Defense Department, the Hellfire is a laser-guided, air-to-surface missile that weighs about 100 pounds. It can be deployed from an attack helicopter like the Apache or an unmanned drone like the Predator. It is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The Hellfire training missile contains an incomplete guidance section and has no operational seeker head, warhead, fusing system or rocket motor. The U.S. official told the AP that Lockheed was authorized to export the dummy missile for a NATO training exercise. The official attributed the shipping error to Lockheed's freight forwarders, and said the U.S. was working with Lockheed to get the device back.

      The official said the U.S. doesn't want any defense technology to remain in a proscribed country, whether that country can use it or not. The official said there is greater concern that Cuba could give more technically advanced countries access to the dummy. According to the Journal report, the missile was properly shipped to Spain, where it was used in the training exercise. It was then taken on a somewhat roundabout journey through Spain, Germany and France before winding up at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. From there, it was supposed to have been shipped back to Florida; instead, it was loaded onto an Air France flight to Havana. U.S. officials have been urging the Cuban government to return the missile, the Journal's sources said. The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July 2015 after more than 50 years of hostility. The Journal reported that the U.S. is also investigating whether the missile's disappearance was a deliberate act of espionage.

January  8, 2016

HENRY RAMOS ALLUP: WE WANT PEACE, BUT NOT THE PEACE OF TOMBS
 
       
Congress Speaker Henry Ramos Allup said that the parliament will "control and investigate the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the Attorney General Office, and the Comptroller General's Office."

     Newly sworn-in Speaker of the National Assembly (AN) Henry Ramos Allup stated on Tuesday at the opening of the 2016-2021 parliament term that in order to meet Venezuelans' needs, "dialogue is necessary; and understanding is needed for that. Dialogue does not entail surrender, an enlightened transaction or cowardice." "We seek peace, but not the peace of tombs, not the peace of our youth living abroad and seeking the wellbeing that was taken away from them by an unfair system and a government that is even worse. We want all the opposite," Ramon Allup stressed. He added that the new AN will "control and investigate the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the Attorney General Office, and the Comptroller General's Office. Public incumbencies will have to be accountable.

     Those authorities cannot act as they please; neither will they become a counterbalance to this Assembly chosen by the people's vote." Moreover, Ramos Allup announced than the opposition will propose within six months a method to change the government through constitutional mechanisms. "Mistaking change for face is a shallow analysis," Allup highlighted, "change is not a matter of calendar; it is a matter of changing the attitude, changing what is very wrong and can be worse. Positive things have to be used and negative things have to be discarded. The future cannot be changed, what can be changed is the present. We want to change this reality that has been on for 17 years and has deeply harmed Venezuela."

US SENATOR MARCO RUBIO CALLS FOR SANCTIONS ON VENEZUELA'S MADURO FOR "FLAGRANT SUBVERSION OF DEMOCRACY"

      
Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, on Wednesday noted that the Maduro regime in Venezuela was continuing to undermine the results of its stinging defeat in December's parliamentary elections where the opposition won two-thirds of the unicameral National Assembly.

    The Senator called for sanctions on Venezuela as a result. “There’s mounting evidence that the Maduro regime in Venezuela has no intention of accepting the results of last month’s legislative elections. By first manipulating the judicial system to block some parliamentarians from being sworn in and then intimidating others by blocking their entry into the National Assembly‎, Maduro’s puppets seem intent on sabotaging the will of the Venezuelan people," said Rubio.

    “The Maduro regime must stop threatening and intimidating the duly elected representatives of the Venezuelan people. The Obama Administration and other democratically elected governments of the Western Hemisphere have a duty to not only speak out against this flagrant subversion of democracy but also to take action to ensure that this democratic opportunity in Venezuela does not slip away right before our eyes." "This should include applying sanctions on individuals planning, ordering or carrying out these efforts that violate human rights by further suffocating democracy in Venezuela,” Rubio concluded.

YOUNG SOCIALIST HARDLINER WILL LEAD VENEZUELA'S ECONOMY 

    
President Nicolas Maduro is doubling down on his existing economic policies with the appointment of a young leftist hardliner to head the country's cratering economy, setting up a potential confrontation between the ruling socialist party and the newly powerful opposition. Luis Salas, the new 39-year-old vice president for the economy, has scant administrative experience, but champions the same theories of price and currency controls that have defined Venezuela's leftist economic policy for 17 years. Like Maduro, Salas says the country is suffering from the world's worst recession and triple-digit inflation because business interests are colluding with the U.S. to sabotage the economy. He even goes further than Maduro in arguing that many of the country's problems are the result of being too capitalist.

     A professor at the Bolivarian University, an institution created by the late president Hugo Chavez, Salas was relatively unknown before this week. But he has outlined his economic philosophy in a large collection of open letters and pamphlets. "Inflation doesn't exist in real life," he wrote last year. He added that prices go up not because of scarcity, but because of "capitalist economies that are driven by the desire for personal gain through the exploitation of others; by selfishness." Along with shortages, inflation has become the No. 1 concern among Venezuelan voters, many of whom spend hours each week waiting in line for goods that are increasingly impossible to afford. After the opposition swept Dec. 6 legislative elections, Salas wrote an open letter in which he attacked as "pragmatists" those people within the socialist camp who were floating the possibility of devaluation, a move that outside economists agree is a necessary first step for righting the economy.

     Disbelief at the president's choice for a new economic czar echoed in opposition circles Wednesday night, with some speculating Maduro might be trying to drive the economy into the ground. Since its landmark victory, the opposition coalition has been split between those who favor negotiation with the government and those who want to start to remove Maduro from office. The new appointment and the socialists' combative rhetoric since the new congress was seated Tuesday could silence opposition voices favoring dialogue. Socialist supporters have supported appointment of the new economic czar. Some pro-government people rallied in downtown Thursday morning to protest the opposition leadership's removal of portraits of Chavez from the gold-domed capitol building. Maduro named other hardliners to top spots Wednesday as part of a larger cabinet reshuffle he says is intended to protect the revolution during a new political era. He also created a new urban agriculture ministry and announced that he and first lady Cilia Flores had taken up urban farming themselves. "Cilia and I keep 50 chickens at our home. It's time to start building a new culture of production," he said.

January  7, 2016

NEW VENEZUELAN PARLIAMENT SEEKS TO PUT AN EARLY END TO MADURO MANDATE

       
The new Venezuelan Parliament, or the National Assembly with opposition majority, plans to put an end to the mandate of President Nicolas Maduro before 2019, said Assembly president Henry Ramos Allup during the first parliamentary session Tuesday. In an inflamed and noisy session, which opened at a time of complicated political cohabitation in the country, Allup swore himself in as the new National Assembly president before stating that in six months the new assembly will decide on the "constitutional, democratic, pacific and electoral exit" of the current government. The options include the official announcement of a presidential recall referendum, which can be brought into effect in July when Maduro completes half his term, constitutional amendment, voluntary resignation of the government and the establishment of a new Constituent Assembly.

    Allup, one of Maduro's staunchest opponents said the legislators do not yet have the power to approve the annual assessment of the presidential administration but warned they can censor ministers and urged its legislators to hold them accountable whenever necessary. He added the approval of an amnesty law for imprisoned opposition members will be a "non-tradable" commitment of the new Assembly. The new parliament began its session with the question whether the opposition will ultimately control two-thirds of the assembly (112 legislators) allowing it to undertake with greater ease these and other significant changes in Venezuela. Although the opposition won 112 seats (after the Dec. 6 elections win), the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice, or TSJ, ordered on Dec. 30 to provisionally suspend four legislators (three opposition and one Chavist) elected from the Amazonas state after the ruling party claimed alleged fraud in voting.

     In Tuesday's session, the opposition desisted from making a "casus belli" of TSJ's decision but did not rule out doing so in the near future, or even Wednesday, when Allup will hold an extraordinary parliamentary session. The assembly, at the moment, with 109 opposition members and 54 Chavistas, is awaiting TSJ's final decision on the challenges. The session was also attended by Lillian Tintori, Mitzy Capriles and Patricia Gutierrez, wives of political prisoners Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and Daniel Ceballos respectively. Venezuelan First Lady and elected member Cilia Flores came accompanied by outgoing Assembly president Diosdado Cabello who said the Chavist bench is prepared to "strictly" comply with the Constitution and the rules of procedure and debate in Parliament.

NICOLAS MADURO TO APPOINT THE MEMBERS OF THE CENTRAL BANK BOARD

      
Based on the reform of the Law of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), via enabling law, the BCV may defer the release of the country financial information From now on, the Venezuelan president will appoint the board of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV). According to the Special Edition of the Official Gazette N 6,211 of December 30, 2015, which states the reform of the Law of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), the power for such appointment has been removed from the National Assembly (AN). Through the enabling law, which expired last December 31, 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro decreed the amendment to 18 articles of the BCV law.

     Upon the new reform, the BCV "may provisionally stay the release of information for the term during which internal or external situations represent a threat to national security and the economic stability of the nation," reads the amended article 40. Note that article 31 of the Venezuelan Constitution establishes that the BCV is accountable to the National Assembly (AN). Moreover, based on the reform, the BCV may grant loans to the National Government and public and private entities on an exceptional basis. For more than one year, the BCV has not released the country financial statements, including the inflation index and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In accordance with the law, economic indicators should be disclosed the first 15 days of each month.

     Under the enabling law that expired last December 31, 2015, President Maduro decreed the amendment to 18 articles of the BCV law. Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the new Venezuelan National Assembly (AN), termed "throwback" Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's decision to amend the Law of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV). From now on, under the latest reform, the Venezuelan president, instead of the National Assembly (AN), is empowered to appoint the BCV board. Under the enabling law which expired last December 31, 2015, President Maduro decreed the amendment to 18 articles of the BCV law, as per the Official Gazette, Special Edition, N 6,211 of December 30, 2015. Allup maintained that the BCV should be an autonomous institute. Therefore, its board should be a "heterogeneous" representation instead of an appendix of the Executive Office.

NORTH KOREA'S "SUCCESFUL" HYDROGEN BOMB TEST MET WITH SKEPTICISM 

    
North Korea said it conducted a "successful" hydrogen bomb test Wednesday, but Pyongyang's claim was met with widespread skepticism even as world powers denounced its latest nuclear test. "We've now become a nuclear state that also holds a hydrogen bomb,” an announcer declared on state television. The statement called the test a matter of self-defense to protect the country's sovereignty and made several critical references to the United States. The U.S. Geological Survey reported a 5.1 magnitude earthquake near Punggye-ri, where North Korea conducted three previous nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim last month that his country possesses a hydrogen bomb was widely discounted as unsubstantiated and Wednesday's test drew the same reaction, given the size of the blast. Rand Corporation nuclear analyst Bruce Bennett told VOA he is doubtful it was a hydrogen bomb test.

     The United Nations Security Council, which has imposed a series of sanctions against North Korea for its previous tests, immediately set an emergency meeting for Wednesday to consider how to react to Pyongyang's latest claim. "This act is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of the North Korean test. "I condemn it unequivocally." Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the test a "clear violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions and said it is "deeply regrettable." The United States, NATO, China and Russia all quickly condemned the test. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the test "undermines regional and international security." Moscow described the test as a "flagrant violation of international law," but its UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, later called for a "proportionate response."

     National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the U.S. has consistently made clear it will not accept a nuclear North Korea. "We will continue to protect and defend our allies in the region, including the Republic of Korea, and will respond appropriately to any and all North Korean provocations," Price said. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions banning Pyongyang from conducting further nuclear and offensive weapons tests and imposed harsh economic sanctions against the Kim Jong Un regime. North Korea analyst Shin In-kyun with the Korea Defense Network said Wednesday’s nuclear blast was more powerful than its past nuclear tests. Based on the seismic activity generated he estimated the bomb produced 40 kilotons of power, significantly more than the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. “The Hiroshima atomic bomb produced 16 kilotons, so North Korea’s nuclear test could have been 2.5 times more powerful than Hiroshima.” Shin In-kyun said. But South Korean intelligence officials and other nuclear experts said the size of the blast was much smaller, making them seriously doubt the test involved a true hydrogen bomb. Two South Korean lawmakers said the bomb's yield was about six kilotons.

January  6, 2016

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION CONTROLS CONGRESS AFTER 17 YEARS

       
Venezuela's opposition took majority control of the National Assembly on Tuesday after years in the political wilderness, setting the stage for a potential power struggle with embattled President Nicolas Maduro. Lawmakers were sworn in during a heated parliamentary session that saw pro-government representatives walk out in protest after pushing their way onto the dais as the new leadership tried to lay out its legislative agenda. It's the first time in 17 years that opponents of the socialist revolution begun by the late President Hugo Chavez have controlled the legislature, and many leaders seemed rapt in disbelief.

     The opposition won a two-thirds majority in a landslide election victory last month, giving it unprecedented strength to challenge Maduro's rule. But that key super-majority is now in doubt after a government-stacked Supreme Court barred four lawmakers from taking their seats at the last minute while it considers allegations of electoral fraud. As a result, only 163 of 167 lawmakers were sworn in during Tuesday's ceremony. Earlier in the day, hundreds of opposition supporters accompanied the incoming lawmakers past a heavy military barricade to the neoclassical legislature downtown. A few blocks away, a much larger crowd of government supporters gathered outside the presidential palace to lament the inauguration of what they call a "bourgeois parliament" intent on "legislating slavery."

    Reflecting the changing political winds, journalists were granted access to the legislature for the first time in years and state TV broadcast interviews with opposition leaders. Conspicuously absent inside the domed building were the oversize portraits of Chavez giving a salute and independence hero Simon Bolivar that had been a fixture for years. Instead, from the public gallery, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez held up a sign reading "Amnesty Now," referring to what's likely to be the legislature's first order of business: a law freeing dozens of activists jailed during anti-government protests in 2014 that resulted in dozens of deaths. Opposition lawmakers promise sweeping changes, while the socialists have been equally adamant that the legislature not erode social gains of Chavez's revolution. The 72-year-old Ramos, a sharp-tongued, pre-Chavez-era politician who beat out moderates in the opposition coalition to take the president's gavel, reiterated in his inaugural remarks his commitment to six-month deadline to remove Maduro by constitutional means, echoing demands made by hard-liners during the 2014 protests.

UNITED STATES: VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT INTERFERES IN NEW NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

      
Last Sunday, the opposition coalition elected Henry Ramos Allup, 72, secretary general of opposition AD party, as the Speaker of the new Venezuelan National Assembly. The US government voiced concern over the presumed meddling of the Venezuelan government in the National Assembly, to gather on Tuesday for its first session with an opposition majority after more than 16 years.

    "We are concerned about the intents of the Venezuelan government to interfere in the performance of the functions by constitutional mandate of the recently elected National Assembly," John Kirby, spokesman of the US Department of State, told reporters, Reuters cited. Last Sunday, the opposition coalition elected Henry Ramos Allup, 72, secretary general of opposition AD party, as the Speaker of the new Venezuelan National Assembly. Meanwhile, the European Union says that a new Congress in Venezuela will be key for democracy in the country.

    In reference to members of the new Venezuelan National Assembly (AN), the European Union stressed that they "now may constructively interrelate debate, dialogue and, when necessary, consensus over proposals to face the economic, social, and security challenges" of the country In a communiqué, the European Union (EU) said the new Venezuelan Parliament, where the majority is held by the opposition, which puts an end to 17 years of Chávezist hegemony, "will be key for democracy" in the country. Similarly, the European bloc deemed "important" the fact that the new National Assembly (AN) "may comply with all its constitutional prerogatives, that is, observing the people's vote," AFP reported. "The new (AN) members now may constructively interrelate debate, dialogue and, when necessary, consensus over proposals to face the economic, social, and security challenges of Venezuela," the EU added.
 

CUBAN OPPOSITION GROUPS SLAM "SUSTAINED" INCREASE IN REPRESSION 

    
The dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Monday that political repression increased in Cuba in a sustained manner throughout 2015, and that in December there were 930 arrests for political reasons, the third highest number of the year. The commission’s latest monthly report on repression in Cuba, published Monday, recalls that in January 2015 it reported 178 cases of political arrests.

    The dissident group cites the case of five former political prisoners included on a list of 53 prisoners freed as part of the accord reestablishing Cuban-U.S. diplomatic relations, but who were again locked up in the second half of 2015 in maximum security prisons. The five activists were sent back to jail by means of procedures that were “contrived and without due process of law.” The commission considers particularly “worrying” the plight of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, who has been on a hunger strike since Oct. 9, and demands his release.

    The report says that despite the “well-known expectations created” when the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the U.S. was announced, political repression has increased. It reports that, apart from physical violence, repressive actions included “acts of vandalism and the extrajudicial confiscation of toys for distribution to poor children, plus the seizing of cash, computers, cell phones and other legally acquired work devices from detained opposition members.” It also estimates that conditions of “poverty and despair” have increased, as well as the number of people trying to escape from Cuba any way they can, including illegal emigration at the cost of great human suffering. The Cuban government has long considered most dissidents as counterrevolutionaries and U.S.-funded “mercenaries.”

January  5, 2016

SENATOR BOB MENENDEZ URGES MORE SANCTIONS AGAINST THE VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT

       
The United States expressed concern on Monday that the Venezuelan government is trying to obstruct the actions of the country's National Assembly, which convenes on Tuesday for its first session with an opposition majority in more than 16 years. "We are concerned by the Venezuelan government's efforts to interfere with the newly elected National Assembly exercising its constitutionally mandated duties," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters, without giving details.

      President Nicolas Maduro responded saying that Venezuela would "not accept imperialism." "Why does the State Department and the U.S. government care about the installation of the National Assembly?" Maduro said during a television address on Monday evening. In a letter to President Barack Obama on Monday, Senator Robert Menendez, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was deeply troubled by attempts by Maduro's government to "reverse the results" of the National Assembly elections. Menendez, who sponsored a bill that imposed sanctions against Venezuela in 2014 after a crackdown on political opponents, urged the White House to take further measures to stop Maduro's government from trying to undermine a meaningful political transition in Venezuela.

      "I write to urge you and your administration to take immediate steps to ensure that Mr. Maduro's regime is denied the space to obstruct Venezuela's path to democratic order," Menendez wrote. "I believe you can accomplish this with a combination of close monitoring of key international organizations and meaningful, internationally imposed penalties." Venezuela's opposition coalition on Sunday chose Henry Ramos, 72, who is secretary of the Democratic Action party, to lead the new National Assembly. The new Congress is likely to get off to a conflictive start on Tuesday when it formally chooses the body's president.

US DETAINS 121 ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS FOR DEPORTATION

      
U.S. officials say immigration authorities have taken 121 people into custody since Friday, in the first raids targeting the deportation of families who have entered the United States illegally since May 2014. Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson said the detainees were taken into custody in the states of Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. He described them as members of Central American families who crossed into U.S. territory from Mexico.

     Authorities said the detainees already had been ordered removed by an immigration court, after they had exhausted legal means to avoid being sent to their homelands. Johnson said most were placed in family detention centers in Texas to await deportation. The White House did not comment on specifics of the apprehensions, which have divided U.S. political leaders and stoked controversy with the American public. But spokesman Josh Earnest said immigration enforcement priorities are focused on deporting felons as opposed to families, while targeting recent border-crossers.

     The latest detentions impact only a small fraction of some 100,000 Central Americans — most of them mothers or unaccompanied children — who began crossing the U.S. border in waves nearly 20 months ago. Analysts have linked the surge to sharp rises in gang-related violence in Central America, as well as to efforts by people seeking to reunite with family members already in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned the deportations, which were first publicized in late December. An ACLU statement accuses federal officials of targeting families, and using the detentions as a "scare tactic to deter other families fleeing violence in Central America from coming to the United States."

CUBA'S SANTERIA PRIESTS PREDICT EXPLOSIVE MIGRATION,  SOCIAL UNREST IN 2016 

    
Priests offering New Year's prophecies from Cuba's Afro-Cuban religion forecast an explosion in migration and social unrest worldwide in 2016. Many on the Caribbean island eagerly wait for guidance from the Santeria religion's annual forecast. Santeria, with roots in West African tradition brought to Cuba by slaves, is practiced by millions of Cubans. This year, the island's official association of priests, known as babalawos, predicted an "explosion" of migration and "social unrest provoked by desperation."

     The yearly reading is for Cuba and the world at large, but the babalawos did not state which predictions, if any, apply to Cuba specifically. "The predictions of Ifa (divination system) warn world leaders that if no action is taken, we may lead our people to a massive migration provoked by different things, desperation among them," priest Lazaro Cuesta told a news conference in Havana.The flow of migrants from the Communist-ruled island jumped by about 80 percent last year as the process of detente between Washington and Havana, announced in December 2014, stirred fears that preferential U.S. asylum rights for Cubans may soon end.

     Cuesta said war, economic hardship, political conflict and terrorism are sparking worldwide migration. He did not give specifics about the priests' social unrest prediction, but offered a metaphor: "When you are in your room and it's really hot, desperation makes you run out of the room. If we give you an air conditioner, you stay put." "I can be living in a hot room and I don't leave running because it's my room," Cuesta said. "I'm living alongside everyone else in Cuba, and I'm not leaving." Based on this year's forecast, the babalawos recommend "establishing favorable accords with respect to migration policy," and "reaching a balance between salaries and the high cost of basic necessities."

January  4, 2016

SAUDI ARABIA BREAKS DIPLOMATIC TIES WITH IRAN

       
Saudi Arabia severed relations with Iran on Sunday amid the furor that erupted over the execution by the Saudi authorities of a prominent Shiite cleric. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair told reporters in Riyadh that the Iranian ambassador in Tehran had been given 48 hours to leave the country, citing concerns that Tehran's Shiite government was undermining the security of the Sunni kingdom. Saudi Arabian diplomats had already departed Iran after angry mobs trashed and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran overnight Saturday, in response to the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr earlier in the day.

     Iran's supreme leader warned on Sunday that there would be divine retribution for Saudi Arabia's rulers after the execution of a renowned Shiite cleric, sustaining the soaring regional tensions that erupted in the wake of the killing. The warning came hours after crowds of protesters stormed and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran to vent their anger at the execution of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was among 47 people put to death in the kingdom on Saturday. In a posting on his website, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the execution "will cause serious troubles for the politicians of this [Saudi] regime in a very short time.The hands of divine vengeance will surely snatch - by their necks - those cruel individuals who took his life."

     The execution of Nimr, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, has ignited sectarian tensions across the already inflamed region and jeopardized U.S. diplomacy aimed at tamping down conflicts in the Middle East. Most of the 47 executed on Saturday were Sunnis accused of participating in al-Qaida attacks. According to Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry, some were beheaded and others were shot by firing squad in 12 different locations around the kingdom. Nimr, however, was one of four Shiites put to death for political activism and the leading figure in the anti-government demonstrations that swept the mostly Shiite east of the country in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring protests elsewhere in the region.

VLADIMIR PUTIN NAMES UNITED STATES AMONG THREATS IN NEW RUSSIAN SECURITY STRATEGY

      
A new appraisal names the United States as one of the threats to Russia's national security for the first time, a sign of how relations with the west have deteriorated in recent years. The document, "About the Strategy of National Security of Russian Federation", was signed by President Vladimir Putin on New Year's Eve. It replaces a 2009 version, endorsed by then- President Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister, which mentioned neither the United States not NATO. It says Russia has managed to heighten its role in solving global problems and international conflicts. That heightened role has caused a reaction by the West, it says. "The strengthening of Russia happens against the background of new threats to the national security, which has complex and interrelated nature," the document says.

     Conducting an independent policy, "both international and domestic" has caused "counteraction from the USA and its allies, which are striving to retain their dominance in global affairs." That in turn is likely to lead to "political, economical, military and informational pressure" on Russia, the document says. Relations between Russia and the West reached a low after Russian forces annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, after protests in Ukraine forced its pro-Moscow president to flee to Russia. Since then, the West has accused Russia of aiding insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies actively assisting the rebels.

     The United States and the European Union have since imposed wide-ranging sanctions against Russian individuals and companies. Moscow has reacted by restricting food and other goods from the EU. The document says that the United States and the EU have supported an "anti-constitutional coup d'etat in Ukraine", which led to a deep divide in Ukrainian society and a military conflict. It also names the expansion of NATO as a threat to Russia's national security and said that the United States has expanded its network of military-biological laboratories in neighboring to Russia countries. The document, which serves as a basis for planning strategy related to national security by different state bodies, does not mention Syria. On Sept. 30, Russia began air strikes against anti-government rebels opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally.

A MEXICAN MAYOR SLAIN A DAY AFTER TAKING OFFICE

    
The mayor of a city south of Mexico's capital was shot to death on Saturday, less than a day after taking office, officials said. Gunmen opened fire on Mayor Gisela Mota at her house in the city of Temixco, said the government of Morelos state, where Temixco is located. Two presumed assailants were killed and three others detained following a pursuit, said Morelos security commissioner Jesus Alberto Capella. He said the suspects fired on federal police and soldiers from a vehicle. On his Twitter account, Morelos Gov. Graco Ramirez attributed Mota's killing to organized crime, without citing a particular drug cartel or gang. Cartels seeking to control communities and towns have often targeted local officials and mayors in Mexico.

     Mota's leftist Democratic Revolution Party released a statement describing her as "a strong and brave woman who on taking office as mayor, declared that her fight against crime would be frontal and direct." Temixco is a city of about 100,000 people neighboring Cuernavaca, a resort and industrial city which has been suffering kidnappings and extortion linked to organized crime groups. Though Cuernavaca is the capital of Morelos, Temixco is the seat of several state institutions including the Public Security Commission, which coordinates state and local police forces. Morelos also neighbors drug cartel-plagued Guerrero state. Mota, who had been a federal congresswoman, was sworn into office on New Year's Day. She was killed the following day.

      Morelos Gov. Ramirez vowed there "would be no impunity" in her killing and promised that state officials would not cede to what he described as a "challenge from criminals." Federal and state forces are deployed in Cuernavaca and municipalities near the Guerrero state border in what is called operation "Delta." Capella did not provide more details about the attack on Mota, but said that when the suspects were detained, authorities found a 9-millimeter gun, an Uzi, ski masks and an SUV with Mexico State license plates. Morelos Attorney General Javier Perez Duron said the detained suspects have been tied to other crimes, but declined to provide more details.

January  3, 2016

VENEZUELA IS PERCEIVED AS THE MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRY IN THE WORLD

       
Venezuela ranked the lowest in the world for perceptions of security in a recent Gallup poll, while citizens in Ecuador reported feeling considerably safer than four years ago, illustrating changing security perceptions amid constant shifts in the region's criminal landscape.   According to the results of Gallup's 2013 Law and Order Index -- which is based on a poll measuring self-reported theft, confidence in local police, and perceptions of personal safety -- fewer citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean reported feeling safe in their communities than residents of any other region in the world.  

     Venezuelans reported feeling the least secure of any country worldwide, with fewer than 20 percent of respondents saying they felt safe walking alone at night in their community. Additionally, 22 percent of respondents said they or someone in their household had been a victim of theft in the past 12 months. Venezuela, Honduras and El Salvador all saw four-point drops in their index ratings compared to 2009 (see Gallup chart). Bolivia and Peru saw improvements in their scores, but both countries still ranked near the bottom of the regional list. On the other end of the spectrum, Ecuador's index rating shot up 14 points compared to 2009, and Nicaragua, Panama, and Chile also improved their scores considerably, coming in at the top of the list.

     Venezuela's ranking as one of the countries perceived as most dangerous according to both polls is unsurprising. It has
one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with 79 murders per 100,000 people in 2013, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. Feelings of insecurity have also likely been fueled by an ongoing political and economic crisis as opposition groups seek to oust the current administration. The five countries with the best security perceptions in the Gallup poll are also those with the lowest murder rates in the region. However, even here the correlation is not always straightforward, as seen with the conflicting results for Ecuador in the Gallup and LAPOP polls.

VENEZUELA CUTS GAS EXPORT TO NEIGHBORING COLOMBIA

      
Venezuela's state oil company is temporarily halting gas exports across the border to Colombia, citing climate factors and the need to generate electricity, the Colombian Mining Ministry reported Friday.

     he ministry said that PDVSA notified it that supplies would be suspended as of Friday because of "the behavior of electrical energy generation due to climatic variability.")  A drought has been affecting the region, though it did not specifically mention that.  An agreement between the two countries calls for Venezuela to send 39 million cubic feet of gas per day to Colombia, about 3 percent of Colombia's supply.

     The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that while Venezuela has enormous natural gas reserves, second only to those of the United States in the Americas, it's been consuming more than it produces in recent years and has been trying to upgrade its infrastructure. The EIA said part of the gas is used to generate power and 35 percent is used by the petroleum industry, much of it to help production from mature fields. Colombia in recent years has been a key supplier of gas to Venezuela.

PRESIDENT ROUHANI EXPANDS IRAN'S MISSILE PROGRAM DESPITE U.S. SANCTIONS THREAT

    
President Hassan Rouhani ordered his defense minister on Thursday to expand Iran's missile program, in defiance of a U.S. threat to impose sanctions over a ballistic missile test Iran carried out in October. Under a landmark agreement it clinched with world powers in July, Iran is scaling back a nuclear program that the West feared was aimed at acquiring atomic weapons, in return for an easing of international sanctions. It hopes to see these lifted early in the new year. But sources familiar with the situation said on Wednesday that Washington is preparing new sanctions against international companies and individuals over Iran's testing of a medium-range Emad rocket on Oct. 10.

    The escalating dispute centers on the types of missile that the Islamic Republic is allowed to develop and whether they are capable of, or designed to, carry nuclear warheads. "As the U.S. government is clearly still pursuing its hostile policies and illegal meddling ... the armed forces need to quickly and significantly increase their missile capability," Rouhani wrote in a letter to Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, published by the state news agency, IRNA. "The defense ministry, with the support of the armed forces, is tasked with putting in place new programs by all available means to increase the country's missile capability," he added.

     U.S. officials have said the Treasury Department retains a right under the nuclear deal to blacklist Iranian entities suspected of involvement in missile development. Iranian officials have said the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would view such penalties as violating the nuclear accord. Earlier on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari condemned the U.S. plans to impose additional sanctions as "arbitrary and illegal". A team of U.N. sanctions monitors said in a confidential report seen by Reuters on Dec. 15 that the Emad rocket tested by Iran was a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, making it a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Ballistic missiles follow a high, arching trajectory before falling under gravity to their target, unlike low-flying cruise missiles. Ballistic tests by Iran are banned under Security Council resolution 1929, which dates from 2010 and remains valid until the July nuclear deal between Iran and world powers goes into effect.

January  2, 2016

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ: "THE DOORS TO CHANGE ARE OPEN"

       
On his website, LEOPOLDO LOPEZ stressed that "in 2016, a change will come and nothing and nobody can stop it." "Redefining the composition of public authorities, their independence and autonomy" is of the essence, he said. Leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular Leopoldo López on

     December 31 sent a message to all Venezuelans noting that "in 2015, thanks to the vote of the majority of Venezuelans, the doors to change were opened." On his website, he stressed that "in 2016, such a change will come and nothing and nobody can stop it." In his view, the victory of the opposition coalition in December 6 parliament vote "was the fruit of long days of struggle and sacrifice of us Venezuelans who have showed a strong commitment to the rescue of freedom, peace and democracy."

     He said that on January 5, the new National Assembly will be installed, "and I am fully confident that all the deputies of the Unified Democratic Panel (...) will know how to answer to the Venezuelan people for their trust in them and shall comply fully with the historic role they have in their hands today." "Redefining the composition of public authorities, their independence and autonomy" is of the essence, he remarked. In López's words, the reconstruction of the Venezuelan economy is a pressing task. He said changes in the economic model should be defined, with a view to overcome shortage, inflation and unemployment. López added that strengthening the domestic production capacity should be prioritized.

VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION URGES THE MILITARY TO ENSURE RESPECT FOR PEOPLES' MANDATE

      
The Venezuelan opposition appealed to the army Thursday to ensure that results of the Dec. 6 legislative elections are respected, after reasserting its refusal to submit to a Supreme Court decision ordering the "preventive and immediate" suspension of three of its 112 elected representatives. Justice First, or PJ, the party of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, urged the country's armed forces to neutralize government-sympathizer groups, who are looking to take control of the unicameral National Assembly and block the formation of the new Parliament, "in open rebellion" against the electoral outcome.

    The military should defend the electoral results as it represents "a clear and legal order that the branches of public power, the citizens and the Armed Forces must respect and defend," said PJ leader Julio Borges. The opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD, an alliance of parties opposed to the government led by President Nicolas Maduro, has charged the Supreme Court of bias towards the ruling party, and expressed defiance against its ruling that suspends its three representatives. Four other appeals challenging the election results are also pending with the court.

    Branding the appeals as ridiculous, MUD confirmed its 112 elected representatives, accounting for two-thirds of the parliament, will assume office on Jan. 5 as scheduled, alongside the 55 Chavista lawmakers. Meanwhile, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, in a message through his wife Lilian Tintori, said Maduro and his corrupt, undemocratic elite would have to be done away with, especially if they did not make way for change by recognizing the election results. In an interview last week, Lopez disclosed opposition leaders had agreed to look for a constitutional way to bring about an early end to Maduro's government.

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION: COURT BLOCKING OF 4 LAWMAKERS A 'COUP'

    Venezuela's opposition is calling a Supreme Court decision that bars four recently-elected lawmakers from taking their seats in the National Assembly part of a "judicial coup" and has vowed to uphold the voters' will when a new session starts next week. The high court released a decision late Wednesday suspending the inauguration of four of the lawmakers declared winners after the opposition swept Dec. 6 legislative elections. Three are anti-government and one is a member of the ruling socialist party. The ruling comes in response to a challenge filed by supporters of the socialist party. The court did not explain the legal justification behind its decision. The ruling could undermine the opposition's newly won two-thirds legislative "super-majority" and limit its power.

     Opposition leaders are pledging that the barred lawmakers will attend the first session of the new congress on Jan. 5. Lawmaker Julio Borges, one of two favorites to be the next assembly president, said President Nicolas Maduro could not be allowed to overturn the will of the people. "The National Assembly represents the sovereignty of the people, and the president is trying to violate that using a biased court," he wrote on Twitter. "On Jan. 5, we will swear in the National Assembly and preserve that sovereignty as the Venezuelan people and international observers look on." The opposition won a landslide victory earlier this month, taking control of congress for the first time in more than a decade. The coalition captured 112 of 167 seats, giving it a crucial two-thirds majority by one seat. That super-majority would allow government critics to censure top officials and could open the door to recalling Maduro or even rewriting the constitution.

    Opposition coalition spokesman Jesus Torrealba released an open letter Wednesday asking international bodies including the United Nations and the European Union to help stop the government from stealing back control of the legislature. "The country, the region and the world face a judicial coup d'état attempt against the decision the Venezuelan people made at the ballot box," he wrote. The ruling has not provoked popular unrest in the middle of weeks-long winter vacations. In Caracas, the streets were unusually empty, save for groups of people launching fireworks and drinking rum in anticipation of the new year. But Tuesday's swearing in ceremony could be a tinderbox. Government supporters have promised to rally outside the National Assembly, and the opposition is calling for government critics to join all 112 elected deputies in a march to the building. The hardline members of the opposition who led a wave of bloody 2014 street protests are calling for a show of force. "The best response to this moribund regime is to show in the streets how many of us there are on Jan. 5," opposition leader Freddy Guevara said.

January 1st., 2016

RAUL CASTRO WARNED CUBANS TO PREPARE FOR TOUGH ECONOMIC CONDITIONS IN 2016

       
Raul Castro warned Cubans to prepare for tough economic conditions in 2016 despite warmer relations with the United States. Castro said that while tourism is booming, low oil prices have damaged the outlook of an economy that depends on billions of dollars of subsidized oil and cash from Venezuela. According to state-controlled media, Cuba’s president told the National Assembly to expect 2 percent growth in gross domestic product next year, half the rate his government reported in 2015. Foreign media are barred from the twice-annual meetings of the National Assembly. Despite the government’s assertion that the GDP grew 4 percent this year, there is widespread dissatisfaction among Cubans over the widening gap between low salaries and the high price of essential goods, most particularly food.

     Castro appeared to be preparing Cubans for harder times ahead, saying that “we must cut any unnecessary spending and make use of the resources that we have with more rationality and with the goal of developing the country.” He dedicated a lengthy section of his speech to Venezuela, where the opposition to Cuba-backed socialist President Nicolas Maduro recently took control of parliament amid widespread shortages and spiraling violence. Cheap oil “has affected our relationship of mutual aid with various countries, particularly the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the target of an economic war aimed at undermining popular support for its revolution,” Castro said. He urged Cubans to avoid what he labeled “defeatism” in the face of a drop in Venezuelan aid, saying “the history of our revolution is full of glorious pages despite difficulties, risks and threats.”

     Falling oil prices have lowered the cost of the imported goods that Cuba depends on but have hurt the island’s economic relationship with Venezuela in 2015, Castro said. Cuba has sent thousands of doctors to Venezuela in recent years in exchange for oil and cash payments at highly beneficial rates.Cuba does not regularly release reliable economic statistics that conform to international standard but its top earners of hard currency in recent years have been tourism, nickel mining and the export of government-employed professionals like the doctors sent to Venezuela and other allied countries. Castro said lower nickel prices also hurt the country’s 2016 outlook.

COSTA RICA WARNED IT SHOULD NOT BE SEEN AS AN "OPEN BRIDGE" TO AMERICA

      
Costa Rica warned it should not be seen as an "open bridge" to America after striking a deal to start shipping out stranded Cuban migrants to other Central American countries. "We do not have the resources" to take in any more Cuban migrants, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez told reporters. The message to Cubans aiming to get to the US was "not to keep coming to Costa Rica," he said. Helping out the Cubans now "does not mean... we have opened the gates to everyone to flow to the United States and we are going to serve as an open bridge for them to travel to the United States."

     Gonzalez's words came a day after Costa Rica announced it would fly out an initial group of the up to 8,000 Cuban migrants currently stuck on its territory to El Salvador, where they would be put on a bus to Guatemala then taken into Mexico for entry at the US border. The hard-won agreement was a breakthrough after weeks of Central American nations snubbing Costa Rica's pleas to allow the Cubans to move on. The other countries involved are tight-lipped about the exercise, with Gonzalez saying they wanted "discretion". Gonzalez was speaking at the airport in Liberia, a city in northern Costa Rica near the border with Nicaragua, after he and President Luis Guillermo Solis met with the US ambassador, Fitzgerald Haney, and a visiting US congresswoman Kay Granger, on the issues of the Cubans and immigration policy generally.

     The Costa Rican foreign minister said the logistics of the "pilot plan" to fly out the Cubans were still being worked out, including how many would be in the initial group. "It could be 50, 100, 200 -- it depends on the size of the aircraft," he said, adding priority would be given to "family groups." Gonzalez noted it was tourist high season in Central America so available plane seats for the operation were scarce, and the Cubans themselves would have to bear the cost. The migrants became stranded when Nicaragua, a Cuban ally, in mid-November closed its border to them. After a month of fruitless diplomacy with the other member nations of the Central American Integration System (SICA) to let them pass, Costa Rica suspended its political participation in the body, meant to promote regional cooperation.

CENTRAL AMERICAN NATIONS ANNOUNCE DEAL ON CUBAN MIGRANTS

    
Central American nations have reached a deal to let the first of thousands of stranded Cuban migrants continue their journey north toward the United States next month, officials said Monday. The humanitarian transfer will airlift an unspecified number of Cubans the first week of January from Costa Rica to El Salvador, from where they will continue by bus toward Mexico, Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The Guatemalan government, which hosted a diplomatic meeting earlier in the day to consider the issue, described it as a "pilot" program and said a work group has been tasked with coordinating logistics.

     The two governments did not immediately release further details, citing some nations' desire for discretion on what has become a diplomatic flashpoint between Costa Rica and neighboring Nicaragua. On Sunday, Pope Francis called for their plight to be resolved. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said the measure will be available only to Cubans who are already in Costa Rica. Ministry spokeswoman Melissa Duran told The Associated Press it will be up to the migrants to pay the costs of their travel, but did not give more specifics.

     On Dec. 18, Costa Rica stopped issuing transit visas for Cuban migrants and announced that any who arrived after that without a visa would be deported. Cuba has seen a spike in outward migration in the year since it and Washington announced they would re-establish diplomatic ties after more than five decades of open hostility. Many Cuban migrants say they chose now to emigrate out of fear that detente could bring about an end to the U.S. policies that benefit them — although U.S. officials say no change is in the works. Cuba and its close ally Nicaragua argue that the U.S. policies toward Cubans encourage them to attempt dangerous migratory routes and cause a brain drain on the island.

 





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