Latest News
of MARCH  2017

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March 31,  2017

VENEZUELA'S DICTATOR NICOLAS MADURO DISSOLVES NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA--  In a surprising move the Venezuelan opposition is calling a coup, the Venezuelan Supreme Court has stripped the country's National Assembly of its powers. The court ruled that all powers vested under the legislative body will be transferred to the Supreme Court, which is stacked with government loyalists. The ruling effectively means the three branches of the Venezuelan government will be controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party. The opposition has been taken out of the picture. Prominent opposition leaders are already calling the government of President Nicolás Maduro "a dictatorship."

    "Nicolás Maduro has staged a coup d'état," National Assembly President Julio Borges said Thursday. "What this ruling means is that, for the first time, Nicolás Maduro has all the power to enact laws, assign contracts, incur foreign debt and persecute fellow Venezuelans." Maduro spoke about the ruling in a message broadcast live Thursday on thegovernment's TV network. "They're giving me and authorizing me, enabling special powers that stem out of the state of emergency clauses in our constitution. This is an order by the Supreme Court. It's a historic ruling," Maduro said. The ruling sent shock waves across the region.

    The Supreme Court ruling says the judicial branch will execute all legislative powers that normally belong to the National Assembly, which has had an opposition majority since January 2016. "Let it be known that, as long as the contempt situation persists and the National Assembly actions are invalidated, this constitutional court will guarantee that all parliamentary functions will be exercised by this court, or an institution designed by it, in order to safeguard the rule of law," the court wrote. The court declared the National Assembly in contempt last year for swearing in three legislators from Amazonas state. Their elections were deemed invalid by the cour

U.S.: VENEZUELAN SUPREME COURT DECISION GREATLY UNDERMINES DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS

     WASHINGTON, D.C.     --
The United States condemns the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s March 29 decision to usurp the powers of the democratically elected National Assembly. This rupture of democratic and constitutional norms greatly damages Venezuela’s democratic institutions and denies the Venezuelan people the right to shape their country’s future through their elected representatives.

    We consider it a serious setback for democracy in Venezuela, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. The democracies of the Western Hemisphere, meeting this week in the Permanent Council of the Organization of the American States, called on Venezuela to respect its democratic institutions while it seeks a negotiated resolution to its political, economic, and humanitarian crises.

    We call for the government of Venezuela to permit the democratically-elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, hold elections as soon as possible, and immediately release all political prisoners. Rather than discarding Venezuela’s institutions of democratic decision-making, the Venezuelan government should live up to the commitments it made during the 2016 dialogue process, its obligations to its own people, and its undertakings under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The democracies of the Western Hemisphere, meeting this week in the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, called on Venezuela to respect its democratic institutions while seeking a negotiated solution to its political, economic and humanitarian crises.

JULIO BORGES CALLS FOR MILTARY INTERVENTION AFTER SUPREME COURT COUP D'ETAT

         CARACAS, VENEZUELA   --
 Julio Borges, President of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), spoke during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela March 30, 2017. He firmly stated that the Supreme Court ruling is taking control over legislative powers for being “in contempt” is a coup d’etat and openly called on the military to take action. "We have to call on the National Armed Forces (FAN), they cannot remain silent, they cannot remain silent in the face of the violation of the Constitution," said Congress President Julio Borges as quoted by El Nacional, an independent daily newspaper in Venezuela.

     "We know that FAN officers are also going through drama caused by the high cost of life. We want to make a call on them to be the first guardians of democracy and the Venezuelan Constitution and that they become part of the solution," Borges said in a press conference. In what is being called a point of no return, Wednesday night’s ruling effectively shuts down the opposition-controlled Congress or National Assembly, as it is called in the South American country. Borges also announced a national protest this weekend and urged Venezuelans to raise their voice.

     The government-stacked Supreme Court argues that the Congress is in contempt of court for swearing in three – opposition – lawmakers from the state of Amazonas who have been accused of electoral fraud. The court said it will take over all “parliamentary capacities” until the conflict is resolved. Borges also called on the international community to “sound the alarms” and help pressure the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro to respect the Constitution and call for elections. "This is a dictatorship and the world has to help Venezuelans to sound all the alarms,” Borges said. “We need the solidarity of all countries to continue the pressure (…) to carry out this year, as it is mandated by law and by the Constitution, elections for governors, mayors and also a general election," he said. Borges announced a national protest this weekend and urged Venezuelans to raise their voice. "We know there is fear, there is repression, but it is time to stand up," he said at a press conference.

March 30,  2017

THE STATE DEPARTMENT CELEBRATES THE RESULTS OF THE OAS PERMANENT COUNCIL SESSION ON VENEZUELA
 

      Washington, d.c.   A senior State Department official outlined the outcome of the OAS session carried out yesterday in Washington. The Organization of American States has just completed two days of extraordinary permanent council sessions with all member-states on March 27 and 28. The two days of meetings were devoted to the situation in Venezuela. These meetings revealed quite clearly that the Government of Venezuela continues to care deeply about its international reputation in the region, as it should, and its reputation in multilateral organizations such as the OAS. And within that forum in particular but also regionally, it is increasingly – it is becoming increasingly isolated and clearly so.

     The Government of Venezuela resorted to procedural antics, ad hominem insults, and a combative stance, but they failed in both of the sessions to prevent member-states from stating their concerns about the state of Venezuela’s democracy and failed to prevent member-states from proposing means by which the OAS can now support a peaceful resolution to the situation in Venezuela. In that sense, the meetings were a clear and immediate success for the Organization of American States. Mexico in particular, joined by Canada, played extremely productive leadership roles on behalf of a clear majority of likeminded member-states. The US shared its concerns about the state of democracy in Venezuela. The secretary-general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, laid out in careful detail in his report released March 14th analyzing the current situation in Venezuela.

     The U.S. continue to encourage Venezuela to participate in a productive discussion. One can call it a dialogue, call it negotiations – but a discussion on ways to solve the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis that besets Venezuela. The U.S. goal is to support the functioning of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela, and not seek Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS in the short term. It believes that dialogue is an important component for the Venezuelan people to address Venezuela’s challenges, but for that dialogue to be effective, however, the government must follow through on the commitments it makes and indeed on those commitments it has already made. President Maduro should permit the democratically elected national assembly to perform its constitutional functions, and it should hold elections as soon as possible. And lastly, the United States calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience in Venezuela, including Leopoldo Lopez.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION RATCHETS UP PRESSURE ON NICOLAS MADURO

     WASHINGTON, D.C.     --
The Trump administration is demonstrating willingness to ramp up pressure on Venezuela as the Organization of American States begins a new debate on what to do about the economic and humanitarian crisis in the South American country. A month after the Trump administration issued sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of drug trafficking and money laundering, the U.S. government is working with other foreign leaders to increase international pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, including threatening to suspend the government from the United Nations-like OAS. “We need to act with urgency and clarity of purpose for indeed, as the saying goes, the whole world is watching,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

     “This is an important for the day for the OAS, which is fulfilling its responsibility to safeguard democracy.” Fitzpatrick emphasized that the goal “is not immediate suspension,” but that it was time for the 34 member OAS to consider all available tools to help the people of Venezuela. In an emotional three-plus hour debate on Venezuelan democracy during which one ambassador walked out and others threatened to do the same as Venezuelan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Samuel Moncada insulted those that had spoken against his government. While no action was taken, the OAS debated whether the embattled Venezuelan government was fulfilling its democratic obligations under the group’s Inter-American Democratic Charter.

    Last year, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro issued a scathing 75-page report accusing Maduro’s government of repeatedly violating the group’s human rights and democracy standards. On Tuesday, Almagro recommended that the OAS suspend Venezuela if it does not hold elections soon. “We do not support any invasion,” Almagro said. “We want elections soon.” Hours before the meeting, the State Department held a rare background briefing for U.S. and international journalists to share the administration’s perspective on the changing dynamics in the region and growing confidence that the region is ready to take stronger action against Venezuela. “Venezuela has lost its blocking majority, if you will,” said the senior official. “The silence was deafening, quite frankly, yesterday after the Foreign Minister of Venezuela raced up to Washington to give a presentation yesterday, after the majority of the member states had called for today's meeting. Very little support in the room for what she said.”

DICK CHENEY: RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE COULD BE 'ACT OF WAR'

         WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
 Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election could be considered an “act of war” against the U.S. “There’s no question there was a very serious effort made by Mr. [Vladimir] Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic fundamental democratic processes,” Cheney said Monday during a speech at the Economic Times’ Global Business Summit 2017 in New Delhi. “In some quarters, that would be considered an act of war. I think it’s a kind of conduct and activity we will see going forward. We know he’s attempted it previously in other states in the Baltics,” Cheney said, according to video of the remarks.

    Some Democratic lawmakers charged last week that Russia’s election meddling amounted to an act of war, and others have accused Moscow of “attacking” the United States through its hacking. “I actually think that their engagement was an act of war, an act of hybrid warfare, and I think that’s why the American people should be concerned about it,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election interference last Monday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also said back in December that Russia’s actions amounted to an act of war. Still, experts have cautioned against making such accusations. The U.S. government does not currently have a definition of what actions in cyberspace would necessitate a military response.

    While the former vice president emphasized that there is no argument that President Trump’s election was “not legitimate,” he said Americans should be mindful of Putin’s actions. “I would not underestimate the weight that we Americans assign to the Russian attempts to interfere with our internal political processes,” Cheney said. The FBI has been investigating Russia’s efforts to influence the election, including looking at any possible coordination between Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow, FBI Director James Comey revealed last week. The intelligence community concluded in January that Russia waged a cyber and disinformation campaign to undermine the U.S. democratic process, damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and aid Trump.

March 29,  2017

VENEZUELA IN SHOWDOWN   WITH OAS, U.S. OVER POLITICAL PRISONERS
 

      Washington, d.c.   The besieged leftist government of Venezuela is under mounting pressure after the United States and 13 of the hemisphere's other leading nations demanded the release of political prisoners and other pro-democracy concessions. The Organization of American States, the region's main collective body, has threatened to suspend Venezuela because of what it called the autocratic repression imposed by President Nicolas Maduro.

     Maduro's foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, appeared Monday before an OAS panel in Washington to plead her government's case. This comes after members of the Venezuelan delegation stormed out of OAS meetings last week, according to diplomats. OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, in a report on Venezuela, noted that Maduro canceled both a referendum that could have recalled his government and later regional elections, after the opposition made huge gains in parliamentary voting in 2015. A Maduro-controlled Supreme Court then stripped the parliament of much of its power. In addition, thousands of people have been arrested for their political beliefs, Almagro said, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in jail for three years.

     The OAS is demanding Venezuela hold elections or risk suspension from the group, a drastic measure. The last time a country was suspended was when the military and right-wing politicians staged a coup against the elected president in Honduras in 2009. Under OAS regulations, a country can be suspended when the "democratic order" is "altered." Venezuela is in the throes of a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis. The oil-rich country has among the highest homicide and inflation rates in the world and suffers from severe shortages of food and medicine. The Maduro government angrily condemned the OAS actions as "imperialist interference" and vowed to resist. Adan Chavez, brother of the late Hugo Chavez, the socialist strongman who set Venezuela on its revolutionary path, claimed the OAS was plotting a coup against Maduro.

VENEZUELA BLASTS OAS SECRETARY GENERAL DAY BEFORE CRUCIAL VOTE

     WASHINGTON, D.C.     --
Venezuela Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez on Monday asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to stop considering the case to suspend Venezuela from the OAS by invoking the organization’s Democratic Charter. Maduro is being “harassed” by the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, Rodriguez said Monday. The actions OAS is taking against the Maduro regime are “arbitrary, deviated and partial”, Rodriguez argued before the OAS Permanent Council. These actions ultimately seek to “overthrow” Maduro, Rodriguez said at one point. Monday’s meeting was called at Venezuela’s insistence.

    Rodriguez went before the OAS Permanent Council Monday, the day before that body is to session on Venezuela. She blasted Almagro, while sitting right beside him, at one point calling him “a member of the (Venezuelan) opposition,” saying the Secretary General met with opposition representatives 27 times in 2016 and 2017. “21% of all the tweets Almagro has published are about Venezuela,” Rodriguez said at another junction during her diatribe. She defended President Maduro’s administration, without mentioning that the President had admitted to a humanitarian crisis Friday, when he called on the United Nations to please deliver Venezuela scarce, much needed medication aid.

    Meanwhile in Caracas, the Venezuelan Supreme Court asked that Almagro be removed from his post. The OAS has scheduled a special meeting of its Permanent Council for Tuesday to consider the case of Venezuela. 18 out of the 34 member countries called for the meeting to take place. Almagro has repeatedly said that Maduro should acquiesce to “general elections” or face suspension from the Inter American system, just as happened to Cuba in the early 1960’s. Earlier on Monday, the Foreign Ministry had issued a statement with the key arguments Rodriguez was to repeat hours later in Washington D.C. “Venezuela, in the face of grave and irregular happenings that have been developing against the Venezuelan State in the bosom of the Organization of American States, is addressing the President of the Permanent Council to request the suspension of the session,” the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Ministry stated Monday.

ODEBRECHT SCANDAL THREATENS DOMINICAN PRESIDENT DANILO MEDINA

         WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
  Recently published reports suggest that the public corruption scandal involving Brazilian multinational Odebrecht may have reached the Dominican Republic. President Danilo Medina’s popularity already has suffered, a month after his supporters engineered a constitutional amendment to allow him to seek reelection. As part of the investigation into Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras, Odebrecht has been accused of bribing public officials to obtain government contracts. In a dramatic development, the powerful president of the company, Marcelo Odebrecht, was arrested on June 19 by Brazilian authorities.

     Odebrecht has a predominant role in the construction industry in the Dominican Republic, one of the 21 countries in which it has a presence. According to the Brazilian magazine Epoca, in January 2013 former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva traveled to the Dominican Republic for meetings with President Danilo Medina and his predecessor Leonel Fernández on behalf of Odebrecht. According to that published report, Lula apparently lobbied on behalf of the company to secure a contract issued by the state-run Dominican Corporation of State Electrical Companies (CDEEE) to construct a thermoelectric plant in Punta Catalina.

    Within three months of Lula’s visit, Odebrecht was awarded the contract, in apparent violation of government contracting regulations and despite the fact that its bid was more than twice that of a Chinese competitor. The Chinese firm Gezhouba Group Corporation (CGGC) has filed a challenge alleging a lack of transparency in the Dominican Republic’s tender process. The contract to build the clean-coal-fired plant was awarded to the Odebrecht-Tecnimont consortium, even though its bid of $2.040 billion was more than double the $900 million cost proposed by CGGC. Furthermore, because Odebrecht was under investigation by authorities at the time, the company should have been disqualified from the bidding process. To date, Odebrecht also has failed to prove that it can finance the project, which is another reason why a large number of companies were barred from participating in the tender.

March 28,  2017

OAS TO DISCUSS VENEZUELA CRISIS ON TUESDAY (HOY) DESPITE DESPERATE REQUEST FOR SUSPENSION   
 

      Washington, d.c.   --  The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) will meet on Tuesday (today) to analyze the situation in Venezuela despite the fact that the government of Nicolás Maduro requested to suspend the session, alleging that "serious" and "irregular" events were committed. Belizean ambassador Patrick Andrews, the current chair of the Permanent Council, told The Associated Press on Monday that he did not receive a formal request to cancel the session on Tuesday and confirmed that "the meeting remains." However, Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Carmen Velásquez, said that her delegation formally requested the suspension of Tuesday's meeting, saying that it "insists on addressing the issue of Venezuela without proper consent of the Venezuelan State."

    The besieged leftist government of Venezuela is under mounting pressure after the United States and 17 of the hemisphere's other leading nations demanded the release of political prisoners and other pro-democracy concessions. The Organization of American States, the region's main collective body, has threatened to suspend Venezuela because of what it called the autocratic repression imposed by President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro's foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, will appear Monday before an OAS panel in Washington to plead her government's case. This comes after members of the Venezuelan delegation stormed out of OAS meetings last week, according to diplomats.

     OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, in a report on Venezuela, noted that Maduro canceled both a referendum that could have recalled his government and later regional elections, after the opposition made huge gains in parliamentary voting in 2015. A Maduro-controlled Supreme Court then stripped the parliament of much of its power. In addition, thousands of people have been arrested for their political beliefs, Almagro said, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in jail for three years. Despite Venezuela’s opposition, the Tuesday session was approved. 19 countries voted to hold the meeting: Uruguay, Suriname, Paraguay, Peru, Panama, Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Guyana, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Belize, Barbados, Bahamas and Argentina . In addition to Venezuela,13 voted against: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, Granada, El Salvador, Ecuador, Dominica, Bolivia and El Salvador. Trinidad and Tobago and St. Lucia were absent.

WESTERN HEMISPHERE DIRECTOR AT NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL APPOINTED

     WASHINGTON, D.C.     --
  As of last week Rick Waddell, a two-star general in the Army Reserve, is the second senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC). His is the top White House position with policymaking responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean, managing the activities of the State Department, the Defense Department, and other agencies. He replaces Craig Deare, a scholar of security in Mexico who served during Gen. Michael Flynn’s brief tenure as national security advisor.

     Like Deare, Waddell is a defense academic, a fellow at the National Defense University (NDU) Institute for National Strategic Studies, and director of the NDU “Capstone” course for one-star generals and other military education programs. He has an International Relations PhD from Columbia and attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. As a staff officer, he spent much of the 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan, occasionally commanding troops. He is no stranger to the National Security Council, where he was the senior director for European affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

     With Waddell’s addition to the Trump team, most of the named and confirmed officials responsible for Latin America policy right now are military: McMaster and Waddell, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security, and Adm. Kurt Tidd at U.S. Southern Command. There is still no nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, or for deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs. No USAID administrator, or assistant administrator for Western Hemisphere. For now, the brass is minding the store.

U.S. COURT UPHOLDS AWARD TO MINER CRYSTALLEX IN VENEZUELA DISPUTE

         WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
   A U.S. court has upheld an award by a World Bank Tribunal that orders Venezuela to pay more than $1 billion to Canadian mining company Crystallex, paving the way for the firm to seize assets for the 2008 expropriation of the Las Cristinas gold project. The tribunal known as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) last year ordered Venezuela to pay Crystallex $1.2 billion plus accrued interest, which adds an additional $200 million for a total of $1.4 billion. The ICSID is often used by global companies seeking compensation from governments that have nationalized their assets.

     The U.S. district court for the District of Columbia on Saturday upheld the Crystallex award and dismissed Venezuela's request to have the award vacated. Venezuela's information ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment. Companies seeking to collect on such awards first need to obtain rulings from courts in the countries where it wants to seize assets. Venezuelan assets in the United States include refineries owned by Citgo, a subsidiary of state oil company PDVSA. Crystallex in November sued Citgo on the grounds that its 2016 debt swap, which used Citgo shares as collateral, could prevent it from collecting on its arbitration awards.

     Las Cristinas in Venezuela was Crystallex's flagship project and at the time was regarded as one of the world's biggest undeveloped gold deposits with estimated gold reserves of 12.5 million ounces. But development was delayed for years by legal disputes and permitting hold-ups. Venezuela, which is struggling under triple-digit inflation and a severe recession, is immersed in nearly 20 arbitration disputes with foreign companies resulting mainly from a wave of state takeovers by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. It has reached negotiated settlements to some of the disputes, but companies that have won ICSID awards have not been able to collect on them due to frequent appeals and the complexity of attaching Venezuelan assets.

March 27,  2017

OAS CONVENE TWO SESSIONS ON VENEZUELA AND WILL RECEIVE ITS FOREIGN MINISTER   
 

      Washington, d.c.   --  The Organization of American States (OAS) convened two extraordinary sessions for next week on Venezuela. One will be on Monday to receive its chancellor, Delcy Rodriguez, at her request, and the other on Tuesday to analyze "the situation" of the country as requested by 18 member states. The official announcements only indicates that the first session will be to hear a "presentation" of the chancellor and the second to "consider the situation" in Venezuela. Monday's meeting will begin at 11 am and Tuesday at 2 pm, both in the Permanent Council room at OAS headquarters in Washington. Tuesday's meeting was convened at the request of Canada, Argentina, Barbados, Bahamas, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia and Uruguay.

    On Monday, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez, will be heard by the OAS plenary. The 14 countries signed a joint declaration calling for an electoral calendar and the release of "political prisoners" from the Venezuelan government, plus four other Caribbean countries (Barbados, Bahamas, Saint Lucia and Jamaica), with the 18 votes needed to celebrate The session, although Venezuela opposes. Belize belongs - together with the 14 countries of the declaration - to the so-called "group of 15", as they are already known in the corridors of the OAS, but it has not joined this occasion to maintain its neutrality for holding the Presidency of Permanent Council. These nations have not yet decided whether to vote on the joint statement they issued yesterday or whether they will propose to vote on starting the implementation of the Democratic Charter, as requested by the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro.

    To this end, the Council should vote to declare that in Venezuela "there is an alteration of the constitutional order" that "seriously affects its democratic order", something that Almagro already affirmed in his document last year to invoke Article 20 of the Charter . At least 18 votes would be required from the 34 countries that are active members of the OAS (Cuba belongs to the organization but has not participated since 1962). If that vote were successful, according to the gradual process contemplated in the Democratic Charter, there would be diplomatic efforts and good offices. Failure to do so would require that 24 ambassadors (two-thirds of the 35 OAS countries) vote in a Permanent Council to convene an extraordinary General Assembly of foreign ministers. The diplomatic route would again be attempted and, if it failed, it would be necessary again the vote of 24 countries to suspend Venezuela from the entity, thus failing to participate in the programs and activities of the OAS.

IRAN SANCTIONS 15 U.S. FIRMS, CITING HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES AND ISRAEL TIES

     TEHRAN, IRAN   --
  Iran has imposed sanctions on 15 U.S. companies for alleged human rights violations and cooperating with Israel, the state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday, in a tit-for-tat reaction to a move by Washington.

    The agency quoted Iran's foreign ministry as saying the companies had "flagrantly violated human rights" and cooperated with Israel in its "terrorism" against the Palestinians and the expansion of Jewish settlements. It was not immediately clear if any of the companies, which included defense technology firm Raytheon, had any dealings with Iran or whether they would be affected in any way by Tehran's action, which IRNA said would include seizure of their assets and a ban on contacts with them.

     The sanctioned companies also included ITT Corporation, United Technologies and specialty vehicles maker Oshkosh Corp. For a full list click on: http://bit.ly/2noZWNo The Iranian move came two days after the United States imposed sanctions on 11 companies or individuals from China, North Korea or the United Arab Emirates for technology transfers that could boost Tehran's ballistic missile program. Iran would face tighter U.S. sanctions over ballistic missile launches and other non-nuclear activities under a bill announced on Thursday by a bipartisan group of senators, echoing a harder line on Tehran espoused by Republican President Donald Trump.
 

TO GET TRUMP'S EAR ON FUGITIVE N.J. COP KILLER, CHRISTIE GOES ON FOX

         TRENTON, NEW JERSEY --
  Gov. Chris Christie had a request for President Donald Trump: Have convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard extradicted to New Jersey. The way he chose to send Trump the message seemed guaranteed to reach him. Having sent up a flare on Twitter half an hour before, Christie sat on Friday evening for an interview with Fox News Channel's Tucker. "I hope that what the Trump administration is going to do is, before we take any further steps with the relationship with Cuba, first and foremost, return this fugitive from justice so that she can rightfully serve the rest of her term for murdering a police officer."

     In February, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president would conduct a "full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba. March 25 marks the 40th anniversary of Chesimard's 1977 conviction in New Jersey superior court as an accomplice in the shooting death of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. Although being convicted as an accomplice to murder carries a life sentence, Chesimard would have been eligible for parole after serving 25 years. However, a little over two years after her conviction, November 2, 1979 Chesimard was broken out of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in an armed jailbreak orchestrated by the Black Liberation Army. She fled to Cuba in the early 1980s and has remained there ever since as a guest of the Cuban government.

     "Foerster gave his life. And his family has lived for the last 40 years with the knowledge that his murderer has been living with impunity in an island protected by that government," said Christie. "It's outrageous." Last month, New Jersey's senior U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez introduced a bill with fellow Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to "reform" the State Department's annual human trafficking report. Both men were angered by a 2015 decision to improve Cuba's ranking from one of the world's worst offenders to the "tier 2 watch list" of its report. But it was only after having dinner with Rubio in Florida last month that the president announced that he and the senator shared "very similar views on Cuba."

March 26,  2017

VENEZUELA'S LEGISLATIVE OPPOSITION BACK APPLICATION OF OAS DEMOCRATIC CHARTER
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  --  Opposition legislators in Venezuela’s National Assembly approved an agreement Tuesday backing OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s latest attempt to invoke the organization’s Democratic Charter against the South American country. Entitled the Agreement to Reactivate the Application of the Democratic Charter, the text was presented to Venezuelan lawmakers by MUD legislator for Lara, Luis Florido. In his address, Florido stated that the Inter-American Democratic Charter carried more legal weight than Venezuela’s 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, and called for the legislation to be applied against Venezuela due to an alleged “breakdown of the democratic order”. He was backed by the 90 opposition legislators in attendance at the parliamentary session.

     “We are presenting an agreement to make the position of the assembly clear on the application of article 20 of the Democratic Charter,” said Florido. “The assembly is at the front lines of the battle for the respect of our people who are suffering. Here is our support for the application of the Democratic Charter and for a people who are demanding elections,” he continued. Last Tuesday Almagro submitted a 75 page report detailing alleged violations of political rights carried out by the Venezuelan government and renewing his call for the country to be suspended from the OAS. The secretary general claimed that Vatican-backed dialogue efforts begun last year between the national government and opposition groups had reached a definitive stalemate, and echoed the Venezuelan opposition’s demands for “immediate” national elections more than a year ahead of schedule.

    The secretary general first made headlines in May 2016 when he submitted a similar report at the behest of Venezuelan opposition legislators, leading to an internal debate on Venezuela’s status in the organisation. Nonetheless, the call to suspend Venezuela was thrown out by the majority of OAS member states, many of which chastised Almagro for overreach and political bias towards Venezuela’s opposition. Despite the controversy, opposition legislators moved once again to officially back Almagro’s position on Tuesday, just a day after the OAS head gave a press conference with eminent opposition leaders, including Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed rightwing politician Leopoldo Lopez. “I request recognition for the secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, for his struggle and commitment to the Venezuelan people,” declared Florido. o (PNUD).

VENEZUELA'S NICOLAS MADURO ADMITS TO HUMANITARIAN CRISIS--CALLS ON UN FOR HELP

     CARACAS, VENEZUELA    --
 Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro admitted Friday on live television the country has a shortage of medicines which necessitates help from the United Nations. “I request the support of the United Nations to regularize the situation with medicines,” a sheepish Maduro said during a televised event, only one day after inaugurating the “Venezuela Potencia” industrial and science fair, a government effort meant to portray the oil-rich country as a regional powerhouse. “I have asked for support from the United Nations in order to tend to the social and economic wounds that the economic war has inflicted on our people, as well as the abrupt fall in oil prices, in order to regularize everything that has to do with medicines and in order to strengthen the health care systems,” Maduro said.

     Since Hugo Chavez first took over in 1999, Venezuela has mostly relied on workers from Cuba (which at some point numbered 100,000 in-country, including doctors and nurses) to manage its health-care system. However, that decades-long experiment has largely failed -- so much so that the government needs to ask the U.N. for help. More than half of the Cuba-manned CDI first-response centers, located mostly in Venezuela's worst "barrios" (slums) have been closed and the Cuban doctors fled Venezuela for better lives in other countries.

     The drugs however will be distributed through the CLAP network of food distribution, which is affiliated with the PSUV ruling party of Maduro and was founded by his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. The opposition says CLAP doesn’t sell price-controlled food to anybody but the party faithful and the government has admitted the system is rife with corruption and only reaches 30% of the Venezuelan population. The program is only one year old and was created after a stinging electoral defeat. Maduro’s admissions came four years after the opposition began denouncing serious shortages in medicines and food, a situation that has now devolved into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

COLOMBIA OFFICIAL SAYS VENEZUELA RAID MAY BE TIED TO CRISIS

         BOGOTA, COLOMBIA   --
 A Colombian official said a four-day incursion into the country by Venezuelan troops may have been linked to Colombia's call for elections in the troubled, neighboring south American nation. Around 60 Venezuelan soldiers crossed the border into Colombia Monday night and raised their national flag in a camp they set up on a plantain farm. The troops withdrew Thursday after President Juan Manuel Santos called his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro to protest what he called a "totally unacceptable" violation of Colombia's sovereignty. A video provided by Colombia's Defense Ministry show the Venezuelans lowering their flag hoisted on a giant bamboo stalk and then slowly wading across the parched Arauca River that divides the two countries as dozens of Colombian troops heavily armed with assault rifles look on.

     A Colombian official briefed on the call between the two leaders described it as tense. He said that during the conversation Maduro complained about Santos' support for a diplomatic intervention by the Organization of American States to restore Venezuela's democratic order. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the call, said Santos also ordered his top military commanders to arrest the Venezuelans unless they had withdrawn. Colombia on Thursday joined the U.S., Canada and 11 other western hemispheric nations in a strongly-worded statement calling for Maduro to immediately hold elections, free political prisoners and recognize the legitimacy of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

     It was the strongest statement yet from a growing cadre of nations in Latin America concerned that the political standoff in Venezuela at a time of severe food shortages and triple-digit inflation could erupt into a full-blown crisis. This week's cross-border raid, which shocked Colombians but drew scant attention in Venezuela, is the latest in an increasing number of border disputes to rattle relations between the two neighbors. It also underscores the risk that Venezuela's deepening political and economic problems could spill across its borders. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Thursday's declaration "is a clear measure of both the political shift in South America toward more conservative governments and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela. In the face of such a severe humanitarian crisis it became more and more difficult for many governments to remain silent."

March 25,  2017

STATEMENT OF THE OAS SECRETARY GENERAL IN SUPPORT OF THE DECLARATION OF 14 COUNTRIES
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C. --  I firmly support the Declaration on the Situation in Venezuela that –in the framework of the OAS Charter, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the promotion, defense and protection of democracy and human rights- was issued yesterday by 14 countries of the Organization. As I’ve outlined in my two reports, I agree completely that suspension is a measure to be contemplated only at the end of the process, and I view positively that the 14 countries leave this possibility open. As the Secretary General of the OAS I underscore the signatory countries’ call to urgently, and as a matter of priority, free the political prisoners, respect the legitimacy of the decisions taken by the National Assembly, and the need to have an electoral calendar, given all the postponed elections which violated the electoral rights of the people, elements that show a clear alteration of the constitutional order.

    There is no doubt that, as the Declaration says, "dialogue is the right path to achieve lasting solutions to the challenges faced" by the country, and it is fundamentally important that, once the essential elements of democracy are reestablished, the Venezuelan people commit themselves to rebuilding their country in that framework. It is very important that fulfilling the agreements reached during other good offices efforts be accomplished within the framework of the Constitution, as outlined in the Declaration; that means that only those agreements that are constitutional can be implemented. In the report I presented last week I noted the severe deterioration in Venezuela of all of the political, economic, social and humanitarian variables which I had outlined in May, 2016. I did this with an emphasis on the loss of democracy, the loss of the civil and political rights of the people, and the deconstruction of the institutions of the country.

     Once again I reiterate the willingness of the OAS General Secretariat to cooperate with Venezuela in order to put an end to the violations of civil and political rights and restore the economic and social rights of the people. Rebuilding the democratic institutionality of Venezuela is the task of all of the countries of the region and of all those who believe in freedoms, values and principles. In supporting the critical evaluation undertaken by the 14 signatory countries, I call on the governments of the region to unite in order to continue to deepen the collective effort to ensure that we have a democratic Venezuela in the OAS once again.

U.S. JUDGE: CONVICTION OF VENEZUELAN FIRST LADY'S NEPHEWS STANDS

     NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK   --
 A U.S. judge on Friday refused to overturn the conviction of two nephews of Venezuela's first lady on charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal to help their family stay in power. Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores had argued in a motion challenging their conviction that they were entrapped in a sting operation and that their trial was tainted by a witness who perjured himself. But U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty in Manhattan rejected those arguments. "The Court is not in any better a position than the jury was to find the facts of this case, nor do the interests of justice require that the verdict be set aside," he wrote.

     Flores de Freitas, 31, and Campo Flores, 30, were convicted by a Manhattan jury in November of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. The two men are nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Days later, Maduro blasted the conviction in a speech as an instance of "U.S. imperialism." The two men were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 and flown to the United States following a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation. Prosecutors said the two men plotted to use a Venezuelan airport's presidential hangar to send 800 kgs of cocaine to Honduras for shipment into the United States.

    They said recordings of meetings with two DEA informants showed the nephews wanted the cash to counteract money they believed the United States was supplying to Maduro's opposition before Venezuela's December 2015 National Assembly elections. Maduro's Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority in the election. At trial, defense lawyers said neither man was sophisticated enough to have carried out the transaction and did not intend for drugs to be shipped into the United States. One of the government's witnesses was a DEA informant posing as a Mexican cartel member who later pleaded guilty to lying to the government to engage in drug trafficking himself. He testified under a cooperation agreement with prosecutors.

ANGRY COLOMBIA SAYS VENEZUELA SENT TROOPS INTO ITS TERRITORY

         BOGOTA, COLOMBIA   --
 Colombia slammed its neighbor Venezuela on Thursday for what it said was an "unacceptable" incursion by Venezuelan military forces on its territory, and sent troops to secure the area. The move came just months after the two countries started to reopen their border following a security dispute. Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said he had complained to his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro that Venezuelan troops had been camped out in the Colombian border region of Arauca since Tuesday.

     Shortly afterward, Santos said the Venezuelan troops had withdrawn -- but not before triggering a tense row between the two neighbors. "I told (Maduro) that the situation is totally unacceptable for Colombia," Santos said of his conversation "He assured me that he had ordered the withdrawal of the troops from Colombian territory." Santos said Colombian "military personnel" had been sent to the area. "I have instructed the armed forces to stay in the area and  continue exercising full sovereignty over the territory."

     The foreign ministry said in a statement earlier that it had "information from the Colombian armed forces about the installation of a Venezuelan military camp in the municipality of Arauquita," in Arauca. It said the government had sent officials to the area to investigate and meet Venezuelan border authorities. The two countries in August started reopening border crossings after the frontier was closed a year earlier. Venezuela had closed the border following an armed attack on a Venezuelan military patrol that left three soldiers wounded. That attack was blamed on Colombian paramilitaries, remnants of Colombia's long civil war. Arauquita is a strategic spot near the two countries' porous border, located on a road linking the Caribbean with the Pacific.

March 24,  2017

VENEZUELA'S FUEL SHORTAGE IS GETTING WORSE
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA --  Venezuela’s state oil company was rushing to replenish gasoline supplies in various neighborhoods of Caracas on Thursday morning as drivers lined up at filling stations amid a worsening shortage of fuel. While Petroleos de Venezuela SA says the situation is normalizing and blamed the lines on transport delays, the opposition says the company has had to reduce costly fuel imports as it tries to preserve cash to pay its foreign debt. Tanker trucks were seen in several neighborhoods of the capital city resupplying filling stations after local newspaper El Nacional reported widespread shortages across the country.

     As the company’s crumbling refineries fail to meet domestic demand, imports have become a financial burden because the country buys fuel abroad at market prices only to sell it for pennies per gallon at home. PDVSA, as the state-run producer is known, has been reducing the money-losing imports as it prepares for $2 billion in bond payments due next month, said Jose Brito, an opposition lawmaker on the National Assembly’s oil commission. “They’re not importing enough because they are saving up to pay the debt,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s unbelievable that this is happening in an oil producing country.” The hunt for gasoline is just the latest headache for consumers after years of severe economic contraction and triple-digit inflation have produced shortages of everything from bread to antibiotics.

     Long accustomed to the world’s cheapest gasoline in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, now Venezuelans are worried they’ll lack fuel, too. Venezuela has been forced to increase imports of finished gasoline and components over the past years as its refinery utilization rates declined because of deteriorating infrastructure and under-investment. The country imported about 75,000 barrels a day of refined products from the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Caracas’ eastern Sucre municipality, around 20 cars were lined up outside of a PDVSA gas station trying to fill up. National police in the Las Mercedes part of the city, meanwhile, were trying to prevent lines from forming outside of filling stations there.

PDVSA PREPARES TO MAKE DEBT PAYMENTS FOR USD 3.1 BN

     CARACAS, VENEZUELA   --
 According to financial firm Torino Capital, this amount represents around one-third of the total USD 9.7 billion due to be paid this year. In March and April, the Republic, Pdvsa and Elecar must make USD 3.16 billion in capital and amortization, around one-third of the total USD 9.7 billion due to be paid this year, financial firm Torino Capital commented this week in its weekly report.

     According to the think tank, a “key date” is April 12. Then, they reasoned, Pdvsa must pay USD 2.23 billion of interest and principal on the Pdvsa 5.25% 2017, 5.375% 2027 and 5.5% 2037 bonds. “Although the market is expecting the payment to be made, the current 56% yield on the 5 Œ PDVSA 2017s suggests that concerns about a default event remain among some participants,” Torino Capital spelled out. The firm expects that the Venezuelan oil holding will pay the April amortizations in cash.

    On that month, the oil company must pay USD 2.47 billion, with the remaining USD 694 million corresponding to the Republic and Elecar. “Pdvsa still has available for use most of the USD 1.5 billion Rosneft loan signed last year, and we expect it to be able to cover the remainder of the payments from its own cash flow,” reads the Torino Capital report. The experts remembered that Pdvsa oil sales sum to USD 2.5 billion a month, “affording it some space” to direct revenue flows to debt service payments. “If this proves insufficient, we may see the firm receive a transfer from international reserves to complete the payment, as it has done on numerous past occasions,” experts pointed out.

COLOMBIA ENQUIRES INTO VENEZUELAN MILITARY DEPLOYMENT IN ARAUCA

         BOGOTA, COLOMBIA   --
 Around 60 Venezuelan troops crossed the Venezuela-Colombia border, set up tents and hoisted the Venezuelan flag, Nélson Pérez, the Secretary of Government of Arauquita municipality, reported. The Colombian Minister of Defense has apprised his Venezuelan counterpart of the event.

    Pérez went to the site and told daily newspaper El Tiempo that the occurrence took place in Arauquita, municipality of Arauca Department (east), on the borderline with Venezuelan Apure state. Meantime, the Colombian government claimed to be investigating the event, Efe cited. “They are more than 60 militaries; this Wednesday they were erecting some tents and have raised the Venezuelan flag in the middle of Colombian territory,” the official told the newspaper.

    The Ministry of Defense sent troops to the site to verify the action and apprised the Colombian Foreign Office of the situation, which in turn contacted Venezuelan authorities. A source of the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Efe that the Colombian Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, got in touch with his Venezuelan counterpart Vladimir Padrino López, whereas Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, María Ángela Holguín, acted likewise with her Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez, "to clarify what happened as soon as possible."

March 23,  2017

FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN PAUL MANAFORT SECRETLY WORKED TO ADVANCE RUSSIA INTERESTS
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C.  --  Paul Manafort, who worked on the Trump campaign from March until August 2016, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with ties to Putin to advance Russian interests beginning during the Bush administration, the Associated Press reports. A U.S. official told the AP that Manafort is a primary subject of the U.S. intelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian election influence; FBI director James Comey confirmed the existence of an investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday.

      Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.

     The effort, Manafort wrote, “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.” Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska, but claimed that his work for the oligarch “did not involve representing Russia’s political interests” (Deripaska, the AP notes, has close ties to Kremlin interests). He also claimed that this is a “smear campaign.” The White House has been trying to downplay Manafort’s connection to the Trump campaign, claiming he played a “very limited role”. He resigned following reports that Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, conducted a covert lobbying operation between 2012 and 2014 to sway public opinion in favor of Ukraine’s then pro-Russian government; Manafort was recently accused of laundering payments from the now-disgraced party.

UK PARLIAMENT TERROR ATTACK: 4 PEOPLE KILLED, INCLUDING COP AND ALLEGED ASSAILANT; 20 INJURIES

     LONDON, ENGLAND   --
 Four people, including a London police officer who was stabbed and the alleged assailant, were killed after a terror attack that saw more than 20 people injured outside the Parliament building on Wednesday. Acting Deputy Commisssioner and Head of Counter Terrorism Mark Rowley told reporters they believe there was only one attacker. Among the injured were three police officers. "Sadly, I can confirm that now four people have died. That includes the police officer who was protecting Parliament, and one man that we believe to be the attacker who was shot by police fire at the scene," he said.

     He added: "We are satisfied at this stage that it looks like there was only one attacker. But it would be foolish to be overconfident early on." Police said a vehicle mowed down pedestrians on London's Westminster Bridge, leaving more than a dozen with injuries described as catastrophic. Rowley said the car then crashed near to Parliament, and at least one man - armed with a knife - continued the attack and tried to enter Parliament. The knife-weilding attacker stabbed a police officer and was shot on the grounds outside Britain's Parliament, sending the compound into lockdown.

    The threat level for international terrorism in the U.K. was already listed at severe. The attack came on the one-year anniversary of the terror attacks in Brussels in which 32 people were killed and more than 300 injured. ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated suicide bombings -- two at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem and one at Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels. The bombings were the deadliest terror attack in Belgium's history. ISIS has long promoted the use of vehicles and knives in attacks by so-called "lone wolf" terrorists, particularly in Western countries. The terrorist group has not claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, but a European government official told Reuters that investigators are considering the possibility the attack was inspired by ISIS propaganda.

PAKISTANI MILITANT COMMANDER REPORTEDLY KILLED IN US DRONE STRIKE

         WASHINGTON, D.C.    --
A U.S. drone airstrike in southeastern Afghanistan has killed a Pakistani militant commander accused of involvement in several deadly attacks, Pakistani media reported. Qari Mohammad Yasin, also known as Ustad Aslam, and three other militants were targeted by a U.S. unmanned aircraft that struck his car on Sunday in the Afghan province of Paktika bordering Pakistan, according to Pakistani security sources. U.S. officials did not respond to a VOA request seeking comment. The Pentagon routinely does not comment on drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

      The 51-year-old Yasin, who was from Pakistan's Punjab province, had a bounty of about $48,000 on his head. Punjab authorities named him one of the most wanted men who masterminded several suicide attacks in different parts of the country. He was involved in several high-profile terrorist attacks in Pakistan, according to Pakistani intelligence. The attacks included one on a bus carrying Sri Lanka's cricket team in 2009 and a bomb blast at Data Darbar, a Sufi shrine in Lahore. Specialized in training suicide bombers, Yasin also was an expert in making improvised explosive devices, authorities say.

     According to reports, Yasin also was associated with the Amjad Farooqi group, a militant organization that engineered two assassination attempts against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Later, Yasin became a key member of the Punjabi Taliban, a militant group aligned with al-Qaida's subcontinent chapter in Pakistan and other militant groups that fight government and international forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military has been carrying out an operation to clear militants from the tribal region of Punjab since 2014. The operation has forced many Pakistani militants to cross into neighboring Afghan provinces. Ali bin Sufyan, a spokesperson for the Pakistani militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami, confirmed Yasin's death, saying the group carried out a bomb attack against Pakistan's military in the southwestern province of Baluchistan as “revenge.”

March 22,  2017

PUERTO RICANS DYE HAIR BLOND TO UNITE TEAM, FANS FOR WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC
 

      SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO --  The skilled performance of Puerto Rico, finalist for the second straight time in the World Baseball Classic, has raised spirits so much among players and fans that they’re all dying their hair blond as a sign of solidarity. Team captain and star catcher Yadier Molina was the one who came up with the idea during the warm-up games in preparation for the world event as a sign of union among the players, even leading them to create the #TeamRubio (#TeamBlond) hashtag on social networks. Once started there was not stopping it, and the team’s ballplayers began dying their hair one after another.

       Most of the team members, also identified as #LosNuestros (#Ours) by General Manager Alex Cora, now have their hair colored, while others that are bald like veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran have tinted their beards blond. So now in a game, every time a player gets on base or advances from one to another, he takes off his cap, looks toward his team’s dugout and shakes his hair with his hands as a sign of identity with his buddies, while baldies like Beltran stroke their blond beards. At this stage of the tourney, with the team already qualified for the final, its many fans on the island have also become blondies as a way of supporting the Puerto Rican team, coached by Edwin Rodriguez and which boasts some future big leaguers on its roster like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez.

       In fact, everyone can pitch in. The Rondapro store in Guaynabo – a municipality next to San Juan – ordered some black T-shirts with the silhouette of a man with a yellow goatee and moustache on the front that even the daughter of Gov. Ricardo Rossello has worn. The whole idea of uniting the team has helped Puerto Ricans forget for awhile all the economic troubles the island is going through. Meanwhile, left-handed pitcher Hector Santiago asked to have his hair decorated with the emblem of the World Baseball Classic, which contains the five Olympic colors representing the five continents, and a baseball from the sport invented in the United States that is also known as “America’s pastime.” The Caribbean team now waits for the championship game on Wednesday to face the United States team, winner of Tuesday’s other semifinal against Japan.

NORTH KOREA SAYS IT'S NOT AFRAID OF US THREAT OF MILITARY STRIKE

      PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA   --
 North Korea said Monday it is not frightened by U.S. threats of possible pre-emptive military action to halt its nuclear and missile buildup. A spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry slammed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent talk of tougher sanctions, more pressure, and possible military action, and said the North would not be deterred in its nuclear program. "The nuclear force of (North Korea) is the treasured sword of justice and the most reliable war deterrence to defend the socialist motherland and the life of its people," the official Korean Central News Agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

     Tillerson recently visited Japan, South Korea and China on trip that focused on North Korea's nuclear program. On Friday, he signaled a tougher strategy that left open the possibility of pre-emptive military action. "Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended," he said after visiting the heavily militarized border between the rival Koreas. "We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table." A day earlier, in Japan, Tillerson had described the past 20 years of U.S. policy toward North Korea as a failure and vowed a comprehensive policy review under U.S. President Donald Trump. KCNA quoted the unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the U.S. should accept that North Korea is a nuclear-capable nation that "has the will and capability to fully respond to any war the U.S. would like to ignite."
    
      "If the businessmen-turned U.S. authorities thought that they would frighten (North Korea), they would soon know that their method would not work," he said. On Saturday, North Korea conducted a ground test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine that leader Kim Jong Un called a revolutionary breakthrough for the country's space program, KCNA reported earlier. North Korea has accelerated its weapons development, violating multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions without being deterred by sanctions. It conducted two nuclear test explosions and 24 ballistic missile tests last year. Experts say it could have a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland within a few years.

THE EUROPEAN UNION CALLS ON VENEZUELA TO STABILIZE ITS DEMOCRACY

         GENEVA, SWITZERLAND    --
The Vice-Secretary General of the European External Action Service (SEAE), Christian Leffler, today called on Venezuela to "stabilize its democratic credentials" to contribute to peace in Colombia, which has ended more than 50 years of clashes with the FARC. Leffler stressed at a European Parliament hearing on relations between the European Union (EU) and Latin America that Colombia's neighbors "must contribute and find their own way" in the peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC. "We have been waiting greater efforts in recent years to facilitate and promote dialogue in Venezuela," he said.

    The representative of the EU's diplomatic service called for "maintaining the effort for a united and peaceful Colombia", although he warned that there are challenges to overcome, "especially in disarmament and integration in the economic and normal life of the guerrillas "Of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On the other hand, Leffler also referred to Venezuela during his presentation of the cooperation treaties between the EU and the different Latin American regions which, he insisted, "not only cover trade but cooperation in a broader sense." Venezuela, Leffler said, "has pending several requirements that have to be met before it can be integrated into the free trade community.

    The intervention of the Deputy Secretary-General of the EEAS was part of a debate in which Ibero-American Secretary General Rebeca Grynspan also participated, noting that the alliance between Latin America and the EU has been key to achieving "ambitious agendas" in global pacts such as Paris on climate change or the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This session will contribute to the drafting of a report to "renew the EU vision on strategic relations between the EU and Latin America", the rapporteur is the Spanish MEP Javi López and that the plenary of this institution will debate and vote foreseeably after the summer . "The Latin American countries may be very distant (geographically) from the EU, but culturally and structurally they are very close," Leffler said, adding that "the values and languages shared" between the two regions.
 

March 21,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP TALKS ABOUT VENEZUELA IN CALLS WITH BRAZILIAN, CHILEAN PRESIDENTS
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C.  -President Donald Trump on the weekend discussed the Venezuelan situation by telephone with Brazilian President Michel Temer and with his Chilean counterpart, Michelle Bachelet. Trump, who is spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, his exclusive Florida country club and resort, spoke with Temer on Saturday and with Bachelet on Sunday afternoon before returning to Washington.  According to a White House statement, Trump and Temer held a lengthy and fruitful chat in which the US leader emphasized the importance of the bilateral relationship with Brazil, a key partner in the Western Hemisphere.

      The pair also discussed fostering respect for democratic and humanitarian rights in Venezuela, the White House said, and Temer said on his Twitter account that Trump invited him to visit Washington in the near future. Trump then spoke with Bachelet Sunday afternoon and expressed his “concern” with the situation in Venezuela, and the two leaders agreed on the importance of advancing democratic principles throughout the Western Hemisphere, the White House said in a statement. The mogul discussed the US-Chile bilateral relationship with Bachelet and issues linked to the close mutual cooperation on trade and security questions, the White House added.

     This weekend, after cancelling a meeting scheduled for Friday evening with businessmen and doctors to discuss veterans’ healthcare, the president spent Saturday dealing with issues involving veterans and the active military, the White House said. Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal released last week includes a 6 percent increase for veterans, along with hikes in Defense and Homeland Security spending. According to the press pool accompanying the president to the golf club and Mar-a-Lago, several dozen supporters greeted him with flags and “Make America Great Again” caps.

RUSSIAN SUMMONS ISRAEL ENVOY OVER SYRIA AIR STRIKE

      MOSCOW, RUSSIA   --
 Russia on Friday summoned Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren to justify Israel’s air strike in Syria at a target near the city of Palmyra. According to Channel 2 the strike hit close to Russian troops. The Foreign Ministry confirmed Koren’s meeting with the Russians, just one day after the ambassador presented his credentials, but did not expand on its content. Israel and Russia have a mechanism by which to coordinate military activity so as not to create a diplomatic crisis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on March 9 for one day to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the dangers to Israel from Hezbollah and Iran in Syria.

     On Friday, Netanyahu said of the air strike: “Our policy is very consistent. When we detect attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah and we have the intelligence and feasibility to carry out an operation, we will work to prevent it. This is how we acted and how we will continue to act. Our determination is strong and the proof that is that we are operating. Everyone should take this into account. Everyone.” Although Israel has reportedly carried out air strikes against Syria in the past, this attack threatened to escalate tensions in the region because of the flare-up with Russia and because Syria struck back with anti-aircraft missiles.

     According to the Syrian Arab News Agency SANA, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said, “Syria calls on the UN secretary- general and the president of the UN Security Council to condemn this blatant Israeli aggression, to force Israel to stop supporting terrorism in Syria, to implement all UN Security Council resolutions on counterterrorism, including Resolution No. 2253, to withdraw from the whole occupied Syrian Golan to the line of June 4th, 1967, and to implement Resolution No.497 from 1981.” On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Israel is using ISIS to justify its interference in the Syrian conflict. “Syria has won, they are just waiting to defeat the terrorists,” Nasrallah stated. “Netanyahu went to Putin, pleading with him due to his fear of an ISIS defeat, because an ISIS defeat in Syria would put an end to Netanyahu’s plans,” he said.

ISRAEL THREATENS TO DESTROY SYRIAN AIR DEFENSE SYSTEM

         TEL AVIV, ISRAEL    --
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened on Sunday to destroy Syria’s air defense systems if they target Israeli fighter jets, flying over Syrian airspace, again. Syria activated its ground to air missile systems as Israeli warplanes flew inside Syria’s airspace to carry out airstrikes on Friday.

    “The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes, we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Lieberman said. In response to the Israeli bombings in Syria, the war-torn Arab nation fired Surface to Air missiles (SAM) that were intercepted by Israel’s Arrow defense system, before crashing into Jordanian territory.

    “Our main problem is with the transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Lebanon. That is why every time we identify an attempt to smuggle game-changing weapons, we will act to thwart it. There will be no compromise on this issue,” Lieberman added. He insisted that Israel has no interest in intervening in the ongoing conflict in Syria or picking a fight with Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. After the Israeli strikes, Russia summoned the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Gary Koren, and protested the violation of Syrian airspace. On the other hand, Syrian claimed to have downed one of the aircraft delivering the airstrikes inside Syrian territory.

March 20,  2017

TALCUAL: THE DEMOCRATIC CHARTER IS NOT THE SOLUTION FOR VENEZUELA, BUT IT WILL BE OF HELP
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  -The government of Nicolás Maduro has lost legitimacy, but we should not harbor any illusions about the Organization of American States invoking its Inter-American Democratic Charter. It is certainly not the definitive solution, although it will help exert some pressure on the Government. The request to apply the Inter-American Charter on the government of Nicolás Maduro by the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, is based on "false assumptions," said Delcy Rodriguez, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a press release this week lambasting Almagro’s attitude.

      It is clear that Rodríguez is lying for a change. It is not a supposition that the Maduro government has annulled the electoral path to resolve the current political differences in Venezuela. Not only did it when it decided to suspend a presidential recall referendum and the elections for governors last year, but when it disrespected the decision of the majority of Venezuelans to vote for the candidates of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition in a parliamentary election held on December 6, 2015. It is true that the National Electoral Council (CNE) counted the votes as expressed, but the consequences of such votes have not been respected. And that violates the Constitution.

    This is not the only case in which the Constitution has been disrespected by Maduro and his people. They have violated human rights as well. There is a group of political prisoners still behind bars despite the fact that the courts of justice have already issued release orders, simply because the nation’s political police don’t feel like complying with that ruling. In this situation are 14 members of the Chacao Municipality Police and former student leader Yon Goicoechea, among others. The government of Maduro has lost legitimacy, but we should not harbor any illusions about the Organization of American States invoking its Inter-American Democratic Charter. It is certainly not the definitive solution, although it will help exert some pressure on the Government. And all pressure is definitely welcome.

TRUMP ACCUSES GERMANY OF OWING VAST SUMS OF MONEY TO NATO, US

      WASHINGTON, D.C.    --
 US President Donald Trump accused Germany on Saturday of owing “vast sums of money to NATO and the United States” one day after his meeting at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump also wrote on his personal Twitter account that he had a “great” meeting with Merkel, despite the “fake news” that, in his opinion, have been published in US media outlets.

     “Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” Trump tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, where he is spending the weekend. Nonetheless, he said that Germany owes NATO and the US for the “powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” At a press conference he and Merkel gave Friday from the White House, Trump repeated his “strong support” for NATO, but insisted that all its member countries “must pay their fair share.”

     “Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe,” Trump said. In particular, the US president demands that each of America’s NATO partners work toward the common goal of raising their respective defense budgets by 2 percent of GDP. Merkel, for her part, noted during the press conference that the North Atlantic Alliance “is of prime importance for us” and said that Germany acknowledges the need to spend more on defense. “Last year we increased our defense spending by 8 percent, and we’re going to work again and again on this,” the German chancellor said.

NORTH KOREA TESTS POWERFUL NEW ROCKET ENGINE

         PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA    --
North Korea ground-tested a new high-thrust rocket engine, the country’s official news agency, KCNA, said Sunday. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the test was successful and “emphasized that the world will soon witness the great significance of the epoch-making victory we achieved today,” KCNA reported. The test consisted of firing the rocket engine while it was held in place on the ground, not powering a missile. The ignition took place at the Tongchang-ri rocket launch station near the North’s border with China, according to KCNA, which said Kim went to the site at dawn, “mounted an observation post and gave the order to start the test.”

    From this same region, Pyongyang launched a satellite into space in February 2016 using banned intercontinental ballistic missile technology. The state news agency quoted Kim as saying the new “high-thrust engine would help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development.” This also indicated the engine being tested was likely intended for use in long-range missiles. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized Saturday during his visit to China the need for a new approach to deal with the growing North Korean nuclear threat, and stressed the United States is willing to consider “all options” to rein in North Korea’s aggressive military policies.

    Analysts say this could range up to some form of limited military action, and would certainly confront North Korea more directly that the diplomatic approach backed by former President Barack Obama, whose policy in the region was known as one of “strategic patience.” In South Korea Friday, Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear, the Policy of Strategic Patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” Earlier this month, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan in response to annual U.S.-South Korea military drills, which the North sees as a preparation for war.

March 19,  2017

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON IN BEIJING SET TO TALK ON NORTH KOREA, SOUTH CHINA SEA
 

      BEIJING, CHINA  -Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State, arrived in Beijing on Saturday for a face-to-face meeting with a China official who last week likened the U.S., South Korea and North Korea to speeding trains ready to hit each other. Tillerson's visit followed his remarks in South Korea on Friday in which he warned that pre-emptive military action against North Korea might be necessary if the threat from their weapons program reaches a level "that we believe requires action." China, the North's biggest source of diplomatic support and economic assistance, has yet to respond to his remarks, although Beijing has called repeatedly for steps to reduce tensions.

     Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with whom Tillerson was due to meet on Saturday afternoon, spoke about the tension between the countries. He said, "The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?" Wang told reporters. "Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains." Wang said North Korea could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, a proposal swiftly shot down by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who said Washington has to see "some sort of positive action" from North Korea before it can take leader Kim Jong Un seriously.

     China has agreed reluctantly to U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea, while calling for renewed dialogue under the Beijing-sponsored six-nation format that broke down in 2009. In a further sign of its frustration with Pyongyang, China last month banned imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year, potentially depriving Kim's regime of a key source of foreign currency. Past U.S. administrations have considered military force because of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile to deliver them, but rarely has that option been expressed so explicitly as by Tillerson. North Korea has accelerated its weapons development, violating multiple Security Council resolutions without being deterred by sanctions.

ARGENTINA'S LARGEST LABOR FEDERATION CALLS FOR GENERAL STRIKE

      BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA    --
 Argentina’s largest labor federation announced on Thursday that it is planning a 24-hour general strike for April 6 to protest the economic policies of conservative President Mauricio Macri. The date was selected by a unanimous decision of the executive council, Carlos Acuña, a member of the three-person leadership of the Confederacion General del Trabajo (CGT), told a press conference here. The CGT decided to call the first general strike of Macri’s 15-month-old government after thousands of union workers, political activists and owners of small and medium-sized businesses took to the streets of Buenos Aires last week to denounce the government.

     The general strike will not be accompanied by demonstrations, the CGT said. “There is generalized unhappiness among broad segments of the population,” CGT co-leader Juan Carlos Schmid said. Both unemployment and poverty have worsened since Macri took office in December 2015, while inflation exceeded 40 percent last year, due in part to the government’s decision to impose whopping increases in utility rates. The CGT says that government policies have had the effect of favoring imports at the expense of domestic firms, especially small and mid-sized manufacturers. Acuña said that in the interest of “social peace,” the CGT has reacted in a cautious and responsible manner to what he described as the errors of the Macri administration.

    Last year, the government convened a dialogue between organized labor and employers, but talks broke down after some companies declined to adhere to a moratorium on layoffs. Macri’s policies have led to the “destruction of very large numbers of jobs,” the CGT’s Hector Daer said at the press conference. Asked about official data published Thursday showing unemployment fell 0.9 percent to 7.6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, Daer said that more weight should be given to the loss of 52,000 industrial jobs in 2016. Unemployment in mining and agriculture also declined last year, he said.

'BREAD WAR' BREAKS OUT IN VENEZUELA, NICOLAS MADURO DECIDED TO TAKE OVER BAKERIES

         CARACAS, VENEZUELA    --
Facing a bread shortage that is spawning massive lines and souring the national mood, the Venezuelan government is responding this week by detaining bakers and seizing establishments. In a press release, the National Superintendent for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights said it had charged four people and temporarily seized two bakeries as the socialist administration accused bakers of being part of a broad “economic war” aimed at destabilizing the country.

     In a statement, the government said the bakers had been selling underweight bread and were using price-regulated flour to illegally make specialty items, like sweet rolls and croissants. The government said bakeries are only allowed to produce French bread and white loaves, or pan canilla, with government-imported flour. However, in a tweet on Thursday, price control czar William Contreras said only 90 percent of baked goods had to be price-controlled products. “The government isn’t importing enough wheat,” he said. “If you don’t have wheat, you don’t have flour, and if you don’t have flour, you don’t have bread.” He said the country needs four, 30-ton boats of wheat every month to cover basic demand.

     The notion that bread could become an issue in Venezuela is one more indictment of an economic system gone bust. The country boasts the world’s largest oil reserves but it has to import just about everything else. Facing a cash crunch, the government has dramatically cut back imports, sparking shortages, massive lines and fueling triple-digit inflation. Venezuela has been wracked by an economic crisis with soaring inflation and shortages of commercial goods. Most economists blame the woes on price controls, falling prices for oil exports, heavy government spending and production-crippling policies that gave Venezuelans lots of money but little purchasing power.

March 18,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP ACCUSES NORTH KOREA OF BEHAVING VERY BADLY,  ADDING THAT CHINA IS NOT HELPING
 

      Washington d.c. -- Donald Trump has accused North Korea of “behaving very badly” – and said that China has done “little to help”. The US President said on Twitter: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” His words came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking Friday during his first visit to South Korea as America’s top diplomat, the Associated Press reported that Tillerson said “all of the options are on the table,” including the use of military force, when it comes to U.S. policy towards North Korea.

    The President’s highest-ranking diplomat said during a visit to South Korea that he would bring an end to the policy of “strategic patience”, where the US tolerated the North’s nuclear and missile tests. Instead, he said, the US would explore a range of military options, alongside diplomatic, security and economic measures. A preemptive strike, Tillerson said, could be appropriate should North Korea’s nuclear missile program escalate to a level “that we believe requires action."

    Trump has promised a get-tough approach on foreign policy and has pledged that North Korea will not accomplish its goal of obtaining a nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. During Friday’s visit, which included a trip to the demilitarized zone along the border between the two Koreas, Tillerson promised a “different approach” from the U.S. towards North Korea and said that two decades of "diplomatic and other efforts" had failed to halt the “ever-escalating threat” of its nuclear ambitions.

'STRATEGIC PATIENCE' WITH NORTH KOREA HAS RUN OUT, SAYS SECRETARY TILLERSON IN SEOUL

       SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA.   --
The Trump administration is no longer willing to exercise “strategic patience” with North Korea and is considering military options in response to a series of provocations by Pyongyang, the US secretary of state said after a visit to the demilitarised zone. Rex Tillerson’s declaration in Seoul marked a break from the Obama administration’s policy of attempting to contain North Korean belligerence through a combination of isolation, sanctions and stepped-up military assistance to regional allies and could raise alarms in a region of already rising tensions.

    “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr Tillerson told reporters in Seoul. “We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table.” US president Donald Trump reinforced Mr Tillerson’s message with a tweet on Friday: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” North Korea has emerged as Mr Trump’s first major foreign policy crisis after Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, test fired mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan last month and his brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

    Even before Mr Trump took office, US officials said then-president Barack Obama had warned his successor that Mr Kim’s increasing volatility would likely post an early test to the incoming White House. The US has already sped up deployment of a anti-missile shield to South Korea in response to Pyongyang’s actions, a move that has increased tensions with Beijing, where Mr Tillerson is due to visit during his Asian tour. But Mr Tillerson’s comments were the first comprehensive statement of policy by the administration since Mr Kim’s actions. Mr Tillerson said Washington was developing a “comprehensive set of capabilities” to deal with North Korea, declaring talks over the past decades to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions have failed.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: USE OF PRE-EMPTIVE FORCE AN OPTION WITH NORTH KOREA

         SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA   --
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday it may be necessary to take pre-emptive military action against North Korea if the threat from their weapons program reaches a level "that we believe requires action." Tillerson outlined a tougher strategy to confront North Korea's nuclear threat after visiting the world's most heavily armed border near the tense buffer zone between rivals North and South Korea. Asked about the possibility of using military force against the North, Tillerson told a news conference in the South Korean capital, "all of the options are on the table."

     He said the U.S. does not want a military conflict, "but obviously if North Korea takes actions that threatens South Korean forces or our own forces, that would be met with (an) appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action that option is on the table." But he said that by taking other steps, including sanctions, the U.S. is hopeful that North Korea could be persuaded to take a different course before it reaches that point. Past U.S. administrations have considered military force because North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile to deliver them, but rarely has that option been expressed so explicitly.

     North Korea has accelerated its weapons development, violating multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and appearing undeterred by tough international sanctions. The North conducted two nuclear test explosions and 24 ballistic missile tests last year. Experts say it could have a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. within a few years.Tillerson is mid-way through a three-nation swing throgh Northeast Asia, which began in Japan and will end in China. State Department officials have described it as a "listening tour" as the administration seeks a coherent North Korea policy, well-coordinated with its Asian partners.

March 17,  2017

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION THREATENS TO LEAVE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
 

      Washington d.c. -- The Trump administration is threatening to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, citing among other things the intergovernmental body’s “biased agenda against Israel.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter this week to nine nonprofit groups opposed to withdrawal — including one affiliated with the American Jewish Committee — in which he explained that the United States may quit the council unless it makes reforms, Foreign Policy reported. In the meantime, Tillerson said the US would “reiterate our strong principled objection to the Human Rights Council’s biased agenda against Israel.”

     Tillerson wrote that the US was concerned as well about the council membership of countries accused of human rights violations, such as China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waits for a meeting with Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende at the US Department of State on March 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. The nine groups, which include the AJC-affiliated Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human rights, wrote a letter last month to Tillerson arguing that the US can better protect Israel from disproportionate criticism if it remains a member.The Obama administration rejoined the Human Rights Council in 2009 after the Bush administration had withdrawn, partly as a means of exerting influence and partly because the US presence might mitigate some of the council’s harsh criticism of Israel.

     Israel and its supporters have accused the Human Rights Council of disproportionately targeting the Jewish state with criticism while overlooking abuses by other countries. From the council’s creation in June 2006 through June 2016, over half of its resolutions condemned Israel, according to UN Watch, a watchdog that monitors criticism by the United Nations of the Jewish state. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman asked the Trump administration to pull out of the Human Rights Council and conduct a review of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The groups “do not fulfill the roles assigned to them,” Liberman told Tillerson, according to an Israeli Defense Ministry readout of the meeting, which took place March 8 in Washington, DC.

TRUMP GIVES CIA AUTHORITY TO CARRY OUT DRONE STRIKES AGAINST TERRORISTS

       WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
US President Donald Trump has given the Central Intelligence Agency the authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, a role previously assigned exclusively to the Pentagon, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. According to unidentified official sources cited by the newspaper, Trump’s decision is a change from the policy implemented by former President Barack Obama, who limited the paramilitary role of the CIA.

     During Obama’s administration, CIA drones were used to carry out reconnaissance and collect intelligence to locate suspected terrorists, but attacks were then carried out by the military. The drone strike that killed Taliban leader Ajtar Mansurin in May 2016 in Pakistan “was the best example of that hybrid approach” by the CIA and the Pentagon, the newspaper said. By the end of his tenure, Obama managed to implement a set of rules that allowed only the Pentagon to carry out strikes in order to ensure transparency.

    The sources said the CIA first used its new authority to carry out drone strikes in late February in an attack in northern Syria, which killed al-Qaeda leader Abu al-Jair al-Masri, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law. Al-Qaeda confirmed on March 2 that al-Masri was killed by an unmanned drone. Officials said Trump’s new order specifically applies to CIA operations in Syria, but it could eventually be extended to other operations against terrorists in other countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia. Sources told the newspaper that the orders were given to the CIA by Trump shortly after his meeting with intelligence officials at Trump autoriza a la CIA a matar terroristas con drones.

BRAZIL'S LULA DA SILVA FACES JUDGE IN ANOTHER CORRUPTION CASE

         BRASILIA, BRAZIL   --
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proclaimed on Tuesday his innocence while answering questions from a judge in a case where he is charged with obstruction of justice. Besides denying the accusation that he sought to interfere with the investigation of a $2 billion corruption scandal centered on state oil company Petrobras, Lula, who faces five separate indictments, called himself a victim of “political persecution.” He was greeted outside the Brasilia courthouse by more than two-dozen supporters urging him to run in next year’s election to choose a successor to incumbent President Michel Temer, who took office last August after Congress ousted Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s protege and successor.

     Though the leader of the center-left Workers Party (PT) declined to answer questions from reporters, Magistrate Ricardo Leite authorized the release of parts of Lula’s statement to the court. “It is nearly three years that I have been the victim of a near massacre,” the former head of state told the judge, alluding to the 2014 launch of Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), as the Petrobras probe is known. Lula, whose wife died last month, complained of waking up every day with a crowd of journalists waiting outside the door in expectation of his arrest.
Addressing the substance of the obstruction charges, he denied having arranged for the offer of a bribe to disgraced Petrobras executive Nestor Cervero in exchange for his silence in the corruption investigation.

    The charge is based on testimony from former Sen. Delcidio Amaral, himself a defendant in the Petrobras case. Amaral said that while serving as the PT leader in the Senate, he was approached by Lula with instructions to pay 250,000 reais ($79,000) to “buy the silence” of Cervero. The plan also called for helping Cervero flee the country, according to Amaral. “I am not acquainted with Cervero. I only learned of him when he became famous” following his arrest in the Petrobras case, Lula told the court Tuesday. “If anyone spoke with Cervero it was Delcidio (Amaral), who was his friend.” Lula repeated his claim that the indictments are meant to prevent him from returning to the presidency in 2018, pointing to polls showing him as the clear favorite.

March 16,  2017

VENEZUELA'S PARLIAMENT ON WEDNESDAY UNANIMOUSLY APPROVED A RESOLUTION ON HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN THE COUNTRY
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Venezuela’s opposition-controlled parliament on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution on humanitarian crisis in the country, as well as the creation of a commission to investigate the issues with provision supply, President of the parliament Julio Borges said.

     According to Borges, the government is trying to hide the existing critical situation of the people. "It would be logical for the government to declare state of emergency in humanitarian sphere, but it is trying to hide the truth and destroy the production," Borges said, as cited by the Nacional news portal. Borges added that the parliament called on the government to open a special humanitarian channel for the foreign aid to get to the country in order to tackle the issues of poverty and hunger.

    It is the second time the country’s National Assembly declares a humanitarian state of emergency. For the first time it happened in February 2016, with the majority of the parliament voting for resignation of Food Minister Rodolfo Marco Torres in April, blaming him for the provision shortage. Venezuela is struggling with a shortage of certain goods combined with galloping inflation and decline of state’s income. The crisis was caused by the drop of oil prices and institutional crisis between the legislative and executive powers, which started in January 2016 after the parliamentary election resulted in the victory of opposition.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (HRW), JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO, URGES OAS TO APPLY THE DEMOCRATIC CHARTER TO VENEZUELA

       WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
The Organization of American States should invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to press Venezuela to restore judicial independence and the protection of fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro. Under the charter, the OAS secretary general or any other member country can convoke a Permanent Council meeting to address situations where there has been an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” This application of the charter does not require consent from the government of the country whose democracy has been impaired.

     Early this year, the Venezuelan foreign affairs minister, Delcy Rodríguez, said in a meeting at the OAS Permanent Council that the government rejected the OAS application of the charter, contending that it would violate Venezuela’s sovereignty and interfere with its internal affairs. “The OAS should hold Venezuela accountable for its flagrant disregard of judicial independence, a core element of the Democratic Charter that is essential to protect fundamental rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “If the OAS really needed to ask offending governments for their permission before doing anything, it would completely defeat the purpose of the charter. Fortunately, for situations as bad as Venezuela’s, the charter doesn’t include such an absurd requirement.”

    The OAS should hold Venezuela accountable for its flagrant disregard of judicial independence, a core element of the Democratic Charter that is essential to protect fundamental rights. The Inter-American Democratic Charter states that representative democracy is indispensable for the stability, peace, and development of the region, and that governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. One of the key principles enshrined in the charter is that an essential component of representative democracy is “the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”

LILIAN TINTORI, WIFE OF LEOPOLDO LOPEZ, 'PERSONA NON GRATA' IN ECUADOR

         QUITO, ECUADOR   --
Lilian Tintori, the wife of the Venezuelan dissident Leopolodo López, who has been imprisoned for three years, has not been able to enter Ecuador after more than five hours at the airport in Guayaquil where immigration authorities have withdrawn her passport during this time. Tintori assured that "they do not let me in because they do not want me to tell the truth about what is going on in Venezuela, they do not let me enter Ecuador because they know that a change is coming, they will not let me in because they do not want me to help my brothers in Ecuador" .

     Tintori reported that in the airport security area, " five men with cameras recorded and took photos, " which she defined as harassment and political persecution. Finally Tintori has had to embark on a plane to Miami - where she will make statements before the press to denounce what happened - and from there she will return to Venezuela. "President Rafael Correa does the same as Nicolás Maduro , he is violating the human rights of the citizens," has denounced the wife of the most emblematic political prisoner of Chavismo in social networks. "Correa expels me from Ecuador because he is an accomplice of Maduro's dictatorship, he does not want us to talk about change with our brothers," he added.

     Tintori was scheduled to meet with Ecuadorian opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso (to compete in the second round of the Ecuadorian elections on April 2 against Lenin Moreno ) and human rights organizations want to expose the reality of Venezuelan political prisoners . "Unfortunately, without any justification, she has been prevented from entering country," said presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso from Guayaquil airport. Lasso added that he had invited Tintori to Ecuador and that she "was planning to come and accompany me and my wife in this campaign for a couple of days." "I will continue to fight for the freedom and human rights of all Ecuadorians." On April 2 they have the opportunity for change in Ecuador, "the activist wrote in her Twitter profile.
 

March 15,  2017

NORTH KOREA WARNS OF 'MERCILESS' STRIKES AS US CARRIER JOINS SOUTH KOREA DRILLS
 

      PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA -- North Korea warned the United States on Tuesday of "merciless" attacks if an aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson, which is joining South Korean forces for exercises, infringes on its sovereignty or dignity. North Korea, which has alarmed its neighbors with two nuclear tests and a string of missile launches since last year, said the arrival of the U.S. strike group was part of a "reckless scheme" to attack it.

     "If they infringe on the DPRK's sovereignty and dignity even a bit, its army will launch merciless ultra-precision strikes from ground, air, sea and underwater," the North's state KCNA news agency said. "On March 11 alone, many enemy carrier-based aircraft flew along a course near territorial air and waters of the DPRK to stage drills of dropping bombs and making surprise attacks on the ground targets of its army," KCNA said. A U.S. Navy spokesman said the Carl Vinson was on a regular, scheduled deployment to the region during which it would take part in exercises with the forces of ally South Korea.

     Last week, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan in response to annual U.S.-South Korea military drills, which the North sees as preparation for war. The murder in Malaysia last month of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother has added to a sense of urgency to efforts to handle North Korea. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to make his first visit to South Korea on Friday. Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said President Donald Trump's administration was re-evaluating its North Korea strategy and "all options are on the table." Exacerbating regional tension, China is vehemently opposed to the deployment in South Korea of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system.

COLOMBIA'S SANTOS APOLOGIZES FOR ILLEGAL FUNDS PAID INTO CAMPAIGN

       BOGOTA, COLOMBIA   --
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday acknowledged that his 2010 election campaign received illegal payments from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht SA and asked the country's forgiveness. Without specifying amounts, the Colombian attorney general's office has alleged Santos' successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns received money from Odebrecht, which is engulfed in a region-wide corruption scandal. Santos said he had no knowledge at the time of the illegal payments and did not authorize acceptance of them.

    He said he "rejects and condemns" them. "I am deeply sorry and ask forgiveness from Colombians for this shameful act that should never have happened and that I have just learned about," Santos said in a statement. It is illegal in Colombia to receive campaign financing from overseas companies. Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, did not mention Odebrecht in his statement. The revelation is likely to put corruption front and center in next year's election. While Santos, whose popularity is at near record lows, is barred from running for another term, the candidate of his U Party may well be damaged.

     His campaign manager Roberto Prieto told local Blu Radio on Tuesday that Odebrecht paid $400,000 for election posters in 2010. He said Santos had no knowledge of the payment. In Colombia, political parties may be disbanded and prevented from backing candidates if a campaign is found guilty of electoral violations. The statute of limitations is three years, so only the 2014 campaign would be at issue. The funding scandal will remind Colombians of cash paid to the 1994 campaign of former President Ernesto Samper by the Cali drug cartel. Samper was impeached, but Congress cleared him. U.S. prosecutors contend Odebrecht paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in association with infrastructure projects in 12 countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, between 2002 and 2016.

EGYPTIAN PROSECUTOR ORDERS RELEASE OF HOSNI MUBARAK, PRESIDENT TOPPLED IN 2011

         CAIRO, EGIPTO  --
 An Egyptian prosecutor ordered Hosni Mubarak, the toppled autocrat, released from the Maadi Military Hospital in southern Cairo, where he has been held for much of the last six years. But as of Monday night, Mr. Mubarak, 88, still had not left the hospital, underscoring the murkiness surrounding his status. His detention has been viewed by many Egyptians as a political matter as much as a legal one. Mubarak led Egypt for almost 30 years until he was toppled in 2011. He was later prosecuted on a variety of charges, including corruption and murder, but almost all the cases eventually foundered.

     His only standing conviction is for his role in embezzling state funds to redecorate his family’s lavish residences. He appeared to be set for release earlier this month after the country’s top appeals court cleared him of responsibility for the killings of 239 protesters by the police. On Monday, the Cairo prosecutor, Ibrahim Saleh, ruled that there was no longer any reason to hold him. “As far as I am concerned, he was in prison until today, and now he is free,” Mr. Saleh said in a telephone interview. Mubarak’s longtime lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, said Monday that Mr. Mubarak would be released from detention in the next few days.

     The freeing of one of the Arab world’s most notorious strongman leaders, a longtime American ally accused of cronyism and corruption, would be a landmark in Egyptian history. In some respects it illustrates how little the country has changed, despite the tumultuous days of the Arab Spring, when millions of Egyptians thronged the streets clamoring for a radical new direction. Some of those frustrations were evident on Monday on social media, one of the few avenues of free speech left in Egypt, where some people were voicing bitter criticism by borrowing a phrase, “on the asphalt,” that is usually associated with the release of jailed democracy activists. “Mubarak on the asphalt, and the youths are in prison,” a Twitter user who gave his name as Mohamed 303 wrote.
 

March 14,  2017

ECUADOR FORMER BANKER LASSO HEADS OPINION POLL FOR RUN-OFF PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
 

      QUITO, ECUADOR -- The run-off election will decide who will replace left-wing President Rafael Correa, who has led the country for 10 years. The second round of voting that will choose the next president will take place in April. Ecuador's right-wing politician Guillermo Lasso was leading his left-wing rival by little more than four points, according to the polling agency Cedatos on Sunday.

     The latest Cedatos poll of 2,862 people conducted from February 23-24 showed Lasso winning 52.1 percent of votes, against Moreno's 47.9 percent in the run-off. The poll's margin of error is 3.4 percent. The ruling party's candidate, Lenin Moreno, blew past Lasso and the rest of the field during the first round of voting earlier this month. But his comfortable margin of victory fell short of the super majority needed to avoid a run-off election scheduled for April 2. Now, with right-wing parties consolidating behind one candidate - Lasso - the conservatives have a chance to win back power after 10 years of left-of-center rule by the popular Rafael Correa, who is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third term.

     Lasso is standing on a platform of tax and spending cuts. To avoid a run-off election, a candidate in the small, oil-rich South American country needs to secure at least 40 percent of the vote and hold at least a 10-point lead over his nearest rival. Moreno fell just short of the mark during the first round of voting. Julian Assange watching WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is watching the election closely. He has been sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 to avoid going to Sweden to face rape charges. Lasso has said he would move to end Assange's asylum.

OIL EXTENDS LOSSES TO THREE-MONTH LOWS, TESTS SLIDE

       CARACAS, VENEZUELA   --
NEW YORK Oil prices were steady to soft after touching three-month lows on Monday, testing a slide that began last week when the market became less optimistic that OPEC's efforts to restrict output would reduce a global oil glut amid swelling U.S. supplies. Prices have fallen by more than 8 percent since last Monday, its biggest week-on-week drop in four months, and analysts said the slide may not have much further to run.

     After more than two months of reduced production from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the market is facing evidence that U.S. production remains high and global markets remain oversupplied. "There is growing skepticism that the production cut has been enacted long enough to take care of the overhang," said Gene McGillian, director of market research at Tradition Energy. "The longs who piled in last year are turning on the market because there seems to be a realization that a six-month agreement isn't long enough to rebalance the market.

     Brent crude futures LCOc1 fell 6 cents to $51.31 a barrel by 1:30 p.m. Eastern (1730 GMT), having earlier hit a session low of $50.85, the lowest level since Nov. 30. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI) CLc1 fell 17 cents to $48.32 a barrel. Goldman Sachs said in a note it remained "very confident" about commodity prices and maintained its price forecast of $57.50 for WTI in the second quarter. The slide could be the result of traders unwinding bullish long positions, and could slow as those positions are unwound, Tradition Energy's McGillian said. U.S. drillers added oil rigs for an eighth consecutive week, Baker Hughes data showed on Friday, and they have announced ambitious production growth plans as they rebound from a two-year price war with OPEC.

WEAK DEMAND PROMPTS TWO U.S. AIRLINES TO CANCEL CUBA SERVICE

       MIAMI, FLORIDA --
The shake-up continues in the Cuba travel business with two U.S. airlines announcing Monday that they planned to cancel their routes to the island. Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways said it had made “the difficult but necessary” decision to suspend all its Cuba service on April 22. It had originally hoped to serve all nine of the Cuban cities outside Havana that the U.S. Department of Transportation had authorized for regularly scheduled flights from the United States to Cuba. Frontier is canceling its Miami-Havana route on June 4 due to higher than anticipated costs and lower than expected demand.

     “Market conditions have failed to materialize there, and excess capacity has been allocated to the Florida-Cuba market,” the airline said in a statement. Frontier launched its service to Cuba on Dec. 1, 2016 with a special introductory one-way fare of $59 on the Miami-Havana route. The low-cost carrier had planned its daily flights to and from Havana so that Frontier passengers coming from Denver and Las Vegas could make easy one-stop connections in Miami. The Denver-based airline noted that more than 80 percent of its “new routes have succeeded over the past few years, yet circumstances sometimes prevent us from achieving our objectives.”

     Last year there was a mad scramble as U.S. airlines applied to DOT for the first flight frequencies to Cuba in more than half a century. Part of the enthusiasm was based on the assumption that the travel opening that began under former President Barack Obama would continue. But U.S. travelers still can only visit the island if they fall into 12 specific categories of travel such as family visits and those making people-to-people, humanitarian or educational trips President Donald Trump also has ordered a review of all Obama’s executive orders on Cuba, leaving the future of his Cuba policy still up in the air. Some of the forbidden-fruit, pent-up-demand aspect of Cuban travel that was so much in evidence in 2015 and 2016 has faded too.

March 13,  2017

NICOLAS MADURO: FIDEL CASTRO GAVE CHAVEZ AND ME "INSTRUCTIONS" ON HOW TO RUN VENEZUELA
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Thursday night that he received “instructions” from Fidel Castro on how to run Venezuela. Maduro then said Hugo Chavez, his predecessor and mentor, also received instructions from the late Castro. “We received instructions, nobody denies that”, said Maduro, who went to a special school for Communist cadres in Cuba in the 1980’s for two years. The “instructions” pertained to “how to face down the international aggression” the Bolivarian Revolution received in 2003.

    During an oil workers-cum-general strike between 2002 and 2003, Chavez fired 20,000 suspected dissenting employees from state oil company PDVSA. He increased the government’s control on the economy as well as handouts to the poor in a bid to boost his popularity -- policies that would continue for the rest of his natural life and would only get deeper under Maduro. Venezuela is now deeply in debt, suffering from world-record inflation and PDVSA produces half of the oil it was producing in 1998. However, the relationship between the older Castro and Chavez kept on growing: “The Giant” was how Chavez called Castro. “I don’t know whether to call you father or brother,” Chavez also said in a typical exchange during a live television transmission.

     “I know he is watching”, Chavez would often say, giddily, during his frequent televised allocutions. “Hello Fidel!”, the late President would add in English, adding often, in Spanish: “he is teaching me English, you know?” On Thursday, Maduro also criticized former Chavez supporters, explaining that it was “their lack of maturity” which made the advice from Castro necessary. Once Chavez rose to power, he sent oil (currently, some 100,000 barrels a day) and money to Cuba in order to secure support in the form of thousands of cooperation workers, officially teachers and doctors, but in practice spies and militia, according to the Venezuelan opposition and local NGO’s. Venezuela now has some 20,000 Cuban “cooperation workers” in the field of military expertise, public safety, health, education and sports, down from the 100,000 it had back when Chavez was alive.

ISRAEL WARNS RUSSIA AGAINST IRANIAN TROOPS BUILDUP IN GOLAN HEIGHTS

       TEL AVIV, ISRAEL   --
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused long-time enemy Iran of using the Syrian conflict to "gain a foothold to fight Israel" as Iranian troops reportedly straddle the 1967 ceasefire line in the Golan Heights. Iran has long supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with deployments of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and the volunteer Basij militia in addition to funding Israel's arch enemies, Hezbollah. Skirmishes between Syrian forces and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) have occurred regularly in the Golan Heights since the start of the Syrian civil war six years ago. New reports suggest that the IRGC have positioned themselves along the border with the occupied Golan Heights.

     Brig Gen Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, a commander in Iran's Basij force, was pictured surveying the border in July last year according to Israeli media. And the Tehran-backed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba said they were "ready to take action to liberate Golan" according to Iranian state media earlier this week. In response to rising tensions in the region Netanyahu met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express his view that any truce in Syria must not allow Iranian forces to stay in the country. "We discussed at length the matter of Iran, its objectives and intentions in Syria, and I clarified that there cannot be a peace deal in Syria when Iran is there and declares its intention to destroy Israel," Netanyahu said, according to Reuters.

     He added: "We do not want to see Shia Islamic terrorism led by Iran step in to replace Sunni Islamic terrorism," the Independent reported. "Iran continues attempts to destroy the Jewish state. They speak of this openly and write this in black and white in their newspapers. "Today, we have our own country and our army and we can defend ourselves. But I want to say that the threat of Shia Islamic terror is directed not only against us but against the region and the entire world." Tehran has emerged as a major player in the Syrian conflict and has met Russian and Turkish envoys in Astana, Kazakhstan, in attempts to thrash out a ceasefire. For 50 years the Golan Heights has been the scene of intermittent fighting between Israel and Syria. The Israeli army seized the 1,200 sq km (460 sq miles) of land from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967. Syria attempted to retake the area during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Heights were then annexed by Israel in 1981.

SYRIAN PRESIDENT SAYS US, TURKISH TROOPS ARE INVADERS IN HIS COUNTRY

       DAMASCUS, SYRIA --
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Saturday that US and Turkish troops were invaders because they had not asked for permission to fight terrorists on Syrian territory. Al-Assad made his statements in an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix. “Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation or consultation or permission, they are invaders, whether they are American, Turkish,” al-Assad said, according to Syria’s official news agency SANA.

     The US government approved this week sending a contingent of 400 soldiers to join a further 500 already operating in Syrian territory to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia headed by Kurdish fighters, in its campaign against the Islamic State terror organization. SDF combatants, trained and armed by the United States, have surrounded the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, the main bastion of the IS militants, with aerial coverage from the international coalition. Al-Assad considered that the promise of US President Donald Trump to fight IS militants had not yet been reflected in concrete actions.

    “We haven’t seen anything concrete yet regarding this rhetoric,” the Syrian leader said, adding what was being seen was “a local kind of raids.” “You cannot deal with terrorism on local basis; it should be comprehensive, it cannot be partial or temporary,” he explained. Assad hoped the United States would take into consideration that terror was not confined to the IS, but also included other groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch of Nusra Front, who recently allied with a number of armed groups. The Syrian president said there was no official communication channel between his country and Washington. The United Nations plans to hold a new round of peace negotiations on Syria on March 23 in Geneva.

March 12,  2017

CUBAN FOREIGN MINISTER BRUNO RODRIGUEZ CALLS FOR UNITED CARIBBEAN RESPONSE TO REJECT TRUMP'S POLICIES
 

      HAVANA, CUBA -- The new geopolitical scenario, the challenges imposed by today’s often discriminatory migration policies, climate change and the search for sustainable economic development demand a united response by Caribbean nations, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Friday. At the inauguration of the 22nd Ordinary Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) based in Havana, Rodriguez defended unity and consensus as the only viable way to deal with the vast changes taking place in the worldwide panorama,” and which have “significant repercussions” in the region.

    In his capacity as host and president of the Council of Ministers, the Cuban official called attention to Trump’s “discriminatory and repressive migration policies that could lead to more deportations and discrimination against Latin American and Caribbean migrants.” He also noted the “application of extreme protectionist measures in trade matters,” which could mean “a serious impact on the development” of Caribbean economies, because of their negative effect on job creation, revenues, industry and commerce. “Against the wall they now intend to build, we must continue to be united, solidary and complementary, Rodriguez said at the opening of the meeting, presided over by Cuban President Raul Castro.

     Rodriguez noted how member states are strengthening the organization and the growing number of observer nations actively participating in promoting ties of cooperation to meet Caribbean needs, with emphasis on developing the areas of transport and tourism while dealing with climate change. To take advantage of the presence of representatives of ACS member nations, most of them also members of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), a meeting will be held Saturday between Cuba and that organization, mostly made up of English-speaking Caribbean countries. Member states of the ACS are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, El Salvador, Granada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

PRESIDENT TRUMP ORDERS 46 OBAMA-ERA PROSECUTORS TO RESIGN IMMEDIATELY

       WASHINGTON, D.C.    --
The Trump administration moved on Friday to sweep away most of the remaining vestiges of Obama administration prosecutors at the Justice Department, ordering 46 holdover United States attorneys to tender their resignations immediately, leaving their deputy United States attorneys, who are career officials, in place in an acting capacity. Including among them is Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan.

     The firings were a surprise — especially for Mr. Bharara, who has a reputation for prosecuting public corruption cases and for investigating insider trading. Bharara, appointed by the former Democratic president in 2009, accused Efrain Campos Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, nephews of the Venezuelan presidential couple. Both were found guilty of conspiracy to smuggle 800 kilograms of drug into the northern country on Nov. 18 and could face a 20 to 30-year prison sentence. They were expected to be sentenced on March 7, but the court suspended the date until further notice for giving the defense two weeks.

    In November, Mr. Bharara met with then President-elect Donald J. Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan and told reporters afterward that both Mr. Trump and Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general, had asked him about staying on, which the prosecutor said he expected to do. But on Friday, Mr. Bharara was among federal prosecutors who received a call from Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney general, instructing him to resign, according to a person familiar with the matter. As of Friday evening, though some of the prosecutors had publicly announced their resignations, Mr. Bharara had not. A spokesman for Mr. Bharara declined to comment.

MARINES ARRIVED IN SYRIA TO PROVIDE ARTILLERY SUPPORT IN FIGHT AGAINST ISIS

       WASHINGTON, D.C.  --
El Canciller Cubano Bruno Rodríguez pide unidad del Caribe contra ls política exterior del Presidente Trump
Cuba pidió este viernes a los países del Caribe unirse en contra del impacto que tendrán para la región las políticas migratorias que impulsa el presidente de Estados Unidos, Donald Trump. El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Cuba, Bruno Rodríguez, criticó las políticas migratorias "excluyentes y represivas anunciadas en países de destino que pudieran derivar en mayores deportaciones y discriminación de migrantes latinoamericanos y caribeños". Las palabras del canciller cubano se produjeron durante la reunión de la Asociación de Estados del Caribe (AEC), un encuentro que fue presidido por el mandatario cubano, Raúl Castro.

     El jefe de la diplomacia cubana consideró que las políticas restrictivas con la emigración tendrán repercusiones negativas en la economía, la industria y el comercio o la generación de empleo. "Ante los muros que hoy pretenden levantarse, nuestra opción deberá seguir siendo la de la unidad, solidaridad, y la complementariedad", señaló Rodríguez en alusión al muro que pretende construir la Administración de Donald Trump en la frontera mexicana. El canciller mexicano Luis Videgaray participó este viernes en el Consejo de Ministros de la Asociación de Estados del Caribe, que sesionó en el emblemático hotel Habana Libre de La Habana.

    Videgaray se entrevistó el pasado jueves en Washington con Jared Kushner, yerno y asesor de Trump, y con el secretario de Comercio, Wilbur Ross, entre otros. El jefe de la diplomacia mexicana trasmitió la preocupación de su país por la posible separación de familias de inmigrantes indocumentados durante el proceso de deportación y expresó la necesidad de trabajar en el desarrollo de Centroamérica para atender las causas de la migración. Actualmente los miembros de la AEC son Antigua y Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belice, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, El Salvador, Granada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haití, Honduras, Jamaica, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, República Dominicana, San Cristóbal y Nieves, Santa Lucía, San Vicente y las Granadinas, Surinam, Trinidad y Tobago y Venezuela.

March 11,  2017

WORLD BANK PANEL OVERTURNS $1.6 BILLION EXXONMOBIL JUDGMENT AGAINST VENEZUELA
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A World Bank decision ordering Venezuela to pay $1.4 billion for the 2007 expropriation of ExxonMobil's multibillion dollar Cerro Negro investment has been annulled by a second World Bank panel. "The Tribunal exceeded its powers by failing to apply the proper law, and the 'manifest' nature of this failure is shown by the inadequacies in the Tribunal's reasoning for the choice of applicable law," the three arbitrator tribunal at the World Bank's International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) held. "The request for the annulment of the portion of the Award dealing with compensation is upheld in part, as follows: paragraph 404(d) of the Award is annulled."

    Part of the original $1.6 billion judgment was not annulled, ordering Venezuela to pay $179.3 million in compensation plus interest for the expropriation of ExxonMobil's investments in the La Ceiba Project. There is no appeal of ICSID judgments. The Annulment Panel in this case ruled that the original Tribunal -- which studied and debated the complicated case, especially the issue of compensation, for 7 years -- had "manifestly exceeded its powers to the extent that it held that general international law, and specifically customary international law, regulated the determination and assessment of the compensation due to the Mobil Parties for the expropriation of their investment in the Cerro Negro Project, in place of the application of the provisions of the BIT [Bilateral Investment Treaty]."

    "Under ICSID rules, ExxonMobil now has the right to request the resubmission of the dispute to another new Tribunal to again look at the original award in the case," said Dallen. Venezuela has lost a number of other costly cases recently. Mining company Gold Reserve has an award for $790 million that it is trying to enforce against Venezuela around the world. Miner Crystallex has a $1.4 billion dollar judgment that it is currently registering in the U.S. courts. Mining company Rusoro has a $1.2 billion judgment. Container-maker Owens-Illinois has a $455 million judgment that it is trying to get registered in the U.S. but Venezuela has been trying to avoid service of the summons. And oil driller Tidewater has a judgment for $45 million. "Venezuela dodged a bullet," says Dallen.

SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE OUSTED FROM OFFICE

       SEOUL,  SOUTH KOREA  --
South Korea’s president was ejected from office by the country’s Constitutional Court, following her impeachment over accusations that she helped a friend win bribes from Samsung and other South Korean conglomerates. The ouster of President Park Geun-hye will trigger an election by May 9 that is expected to install a leader who is more skeptical of Washington’s policies in the region and more sympathetic to North Korea and China. Ms. Park, South Korea’s first female leader, was stripped of her presidential powers in December by the National Assembly, which kicked off a period of political paralysis for the close U.S. ally.

     At least two people have died in the protests, police said. Photo: Reuters. The court’s decision, which was unanimous, makes Ms. Park the first South Korean leader to be removed from office by impeachment. Her ouster also brings some closure to a dramatic political corruption scandal that has gripped South Korea for half a year. The scandal has also led to the arrest and indictment of the Samsung conglomerate’s de facto chief; prosecutors are seeking multiple criminal charges against him and a friend of Ms. Park. The allegations against her first surfaced in the fall of last year, after reporters uncovered a tablet computer owned by Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend and confidante of the president. It suggested Ms. Choi exerted considerable control over government affairs, despite not having an official post.

     In the subsequent months, a special prosecutor alleged a wide-ranging scheme in which Ms. Choi used her ties to Ms. Park to squeeze the country’s biggest conglomerates, including Samsung, into giving millions of dollars to foundations that she was said to control. The prosecutor’s investigation uncovered lurid details, including a secret blacklist of artists who were critical of Ms. Park and a horse named Vladimir that was allegedly purchased with Samsung funds to support equestrian training for Ms. Choi’s daughter. Botox injections given to Ms. Park at the presidential office also became a source of controversy, though she has denied receiving such treatments.

NORTH KOREAN MISSILE LANDS 200 KILOMETERS OFF JAPANESE COAST

       PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA  --
One of the four ballistic missiles test-fired by North Korea on Monday fell about 200 kilometers (125 miles) off the coast of Japan, the Japanese government said on Thursday, adding that Pyongyang’s nuclear threat has entered “a new phase.” The missile fell into the Sea of Japan about 200 km (125 mi) north-west of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference. “The latest launch again clearly shows that North Korea’s threat is at a new phase,” he said.

    According to government officials, the four missiles are believed to be an improved version of a Soviet Scud type, which has a maximum range of 1,000 km (625 mi). All four missiles fell into the sea within a range of between 200 and 450 km (125-280 mi) off the peninsula, which is about 280 km (175 mi) from the Japanese capital. Three landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, an area stretching some 370 km (230 mi) from the coast, in which Tokyo has rights to explore and manage its natural resources.

      Pyongyang said this week that the missile test is “tasked to strike the bases of the US imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.” Monday’s missile launch was Pyongyang’s second test – following a test-fire on Feb. 12 – since Donald Trump was elected US president earlier this year. The test comes at a tense time in the region and is believed to be a response to the annual military maneuvers currently being carried out by Washington and Seoul. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year greeting message that Pyongyang had successfully developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, weapons that could reach US territory.

March 10,  2017

HUGO CHAVEZ PROBED OVER ODEBRECHT SCANDAL, VENEZUELAN LAWMAKER SAYS
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Comptroller Committee in the National Assembly, said Venezuelan and Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into late former President Hugo Chavez over his possible role in the multinational Odebrecht corruption scandal. Venezuela's Public Ministry late January said it launched an investigation into accusations officials under Chavez and his replacement Nicolas Maduro received nearly $100 million in bribes from Brazilian company Odebrecht.

      In the investigation conducted by the Brazilian and Venezuelan public prosecutor's offices, several transport ministers who worked under Chavez's regime are accused of receiving bribes. Those implications have widened the investigation to include Chavez himself, Guaidó said. "The transport ministers of Chavism are on the list of bribes of the construction company," Guaidó said on the Éxitos FM Caracas radio station. "In addition, an investigation was also opened against the late President Hugo Chavez for being part of the binational agreements with the Brazilian government." Odebrecht is accused of paying about $98 million in bribes to Venezuelan officials from 2006 through 2015 to obtain and hold public works contracts.

Odebrecht in December agreed to pay at least $2.6 billion in criminal penalties over its role in the massive corruption scandal. Politicians, mainly in Brazil but also in Peru and Venezuela, are accused of accepting bribes -- either personal bribes or bribes distributed to their political party -- in exchange for lucrative government contracts. Odebrecht's influence in Venezuela was spearheaded through economic agreements with Chavez and former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is facing a trial over corruption and money-laundering charges. Guaidó said about 21 infrastructure projects awarded to Odebrecht were left unfinished. Guaidó said Chavez and Odebrecht were only interested in the projects to launder money. "Neither the government nor the company ever had a real interest in building good infrastructure. They just cared to launder money," Guaidó said.

FORMER ARGENTINE PRESIDENT CRISTINA KIRCHNER CHARGED IN CORRUPTION CASE

       BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA   --
Former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner was charged in a corruption case Tuesday and slapped with a US$630-million asset freeze over public tenders awarded to a businessman friend during her administration. Kirchner, who was in office from 2007 to 2015, was charged with illicit association and fraudulent administration for allegedly favouring construction magnate Lazaro Baez for public contracts in Patagonia, her southern political bastion. The former president, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, has blasted the accusations as “a big manoeuvre of political persecution.”

     It is the latest legal trouble for a generation of leftist leaders who dominated Latin American politics until recently. Former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner waves to supporters as she leaves a Justice building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 13. Photo: Reuters Kirchner, 63, joins Brazil’s former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff on a list of so-called “pink tide” leaders facing corruption charges or allegations of abusing power. It is the second set of charges brought against her this year. In November, an appeals court upheld a decision to charge her with damaging the national finances during her time in office.

      In that case, she is accused of ordering the central bank to sell dollar futures at artificially low prices near the end of her term, causing Argentina to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. She had already been hit with a US$1million asset freeze in that case. The latest decision goes much further. Judge Julian Ercolini ordered “an embargo on her assets of 10 billion pesos (US$630 million),” according to a justice ministry statement. Also charged were Baez; Kirchner’s planning minister at the time of the tenders, Julio de Vido; and former deputy public works minister Jose Lopez.Lopez shot to infamy in Argentina in June when he was caught trying to hide 160 bags stuffed with more than US$9 million in cash in a monastery garden. Baez, the owner of the Austral group conglomerate, has been in jail since April. He was close to Kirchner and her late husband Nestor, who preceded her as president from 2003 to 2007.

NEW BRAZILIAN FOREIGN MINISTER POINTS TO "AUTHORITARIAN ESCALATION" IN VENEZUELA

       BRASILIA, BRAZIL  --
Incoming Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Aloysio Nunes, vowed to maintain “a line critic of the government of Nicolás Maduro” and back the initiatives of the Venezuelan opposition. In his first speech after taking office, the brand-new Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aloysio Nunes, denounced on Tuesday an “authoritarian escalation” in Venezuela.

     “I would like to express my concern about the authoritarian escalation in Venezuela” and “Brazil’s solidarity with those who fight to recover democracy” in that country, Nunes said during his address to the diplomatic corps and the staff of the Brazilian Foreign Office, Efe cited. Nunes, a 71-year-old lawyer, was appointed by Brazilian President Michel Temer to stand in for José Serra, who stepped down 10 days ago, for health reasons. The new foreign minister also vowed to maintain “a line critic of the government of Nicolás Maduro” and back the initiatives of the Venezuelan opposition.

     He recalled that, as a Senator and member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Upper House, he “always” got in touch with Venezuelan dissenters. As a matter of facts, in June of 2015, along with other members of the Senate commission, Nunes traveled to Venezuela to try to visit some political prisoners, but the group did not manage to leave the airport, because the vehicle that would take them to Caracas was surrounded by Chavez protesters blocked his way. After that incident, his criticisms of Venezuela were accentuated, to the point that since then he has defended the application to that country of the so-called "democratic charters" of Mercosur and the Organization of American States (OAS).

March 9,  2017

TRUMP BELIEVES CUBA HAS MADE NO CONCESSIONS IN NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH THE USA
 

      WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "The president (Trump) has made very clear that the previous administration's (former President Barack Obama) agreements with Cuba will be fully evaluated," said presidential adviser Helen Aguirre Ferré. President Donald Trump believes that Cuba has made no concessions to the United States, while Washington has given much to Havana in the process of normalizing relations, Aguirre Ferre said on Wednesday.  Cuba maintains "fugitives from the US Justice, it has to hand over these people and also talk about the importance of free elections, and release political prisoners," said Aguirre Ferré.

     Trump's advisor avoided commenting on whether there had already been any contact between Trump's government, which took office on January 20, and Cuba, and said that was "a question for the State Department." As president-elect on Nov. 28, Trump said he would reverse the moves by Obama, his predecessor in the White House, to Cuba if the island's government does not lend itself to negotiating with him "a better deal". A few days earlier, in his reaction to Fidel Castro's death, Trump called the Cuban leader "brutal dictator" and promised that his government would "do everything possible to ensure that the people of Cuba can finally begin their journey towards prosperity and freedom".

     On January 11, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, assured at his confirmation hearing in the Senate that Trump would make a "bottom-up review" of the bilateral relationship with Cuba, including the decision of Obama to remove the country from the list of sponsoring states of terrorism. More recently, in early February, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the Trump government will prioritize human rights in its "complete review" of US policy toward Cuba. Spicer then said that Trump "is committed to an agenda that guarantees human rights for all the citizens of the world", reason why this subject will occupy a "principal" place in the revision of the policy with Cuba.

UN SECURITY COUNCIL BLASTS NORTH KOREA MISSILE LAUNCH

       UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK   --
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has condemned the "increasingly destabilising behaviour" of the North Korean regime following its latest missile launch. The top UN body is also poised to meet for an emergency session on Wednesday, 8 March to discuss Pyongyang's act. On Tuesday, the Security Council managed to issue a strongly-worded statement — unanimously agreed by the members despite the differences between the US and China — expressing serious concerns over Pyongyang firing off four ballistic missiles.

     In the US-drafted statement, which was longer than usual, the members "deplore" the North's missile activities and called the launches a "grave violation" of UN regulations by the Kim Jong-un regime. The UNSC said the North's acts "increase tension in the region and beyond as well as the risk of a regional arms race". The Council is also expected to formally adopt the statement later in the day when it convenes for an emergency session. The North had fired four ballistic missiles — one of them suspected to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — on Monday as a mark of warning to the ongoing US-South Korea joint military drills.

     While three of the missiles landed in Japan's special economic zone, the fourth one splashed close to the area in the Sea of Japan or the East Sea. Currently UN regulations forbid the North from carrying out missile or nuclear tests. The UNSC has already adopted six rounds of stinging sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime aiming to squeeze the impoverished nation financially. Still, the top body has also promised "further significant measures" are on their way in clamping down the regime as a response to the latest missile launch.

COLOMBIA PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS MAY HAVE RECEIVED ODEBRECHT CONTRIBUTIONS

       BOGOTA, COLOMBIA  --
A corruption scandal that has spread across Latin America is inching closer to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos amid new evidence that suggests a Brazilian construction company paid $1 million for an opinion poll carried out during his re-election campaign. Chief Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martinez said Monday his office had verified that Odebrecht signed a contract with a Panamanian-registered company linked to a local advertising agency hired by Santos' 2014 campaign. He said the company's goal was to curry favor with the Santos government to help it win a $100 million arbitration involving disputes over a highway project.

    Presidential campaign contributions by companies other than banks are illegal in Colombia, and Santos didn't report taking any contributions from individuals. But it's an open secret in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America where such restrictions exist that politicians regularly turn to companies for undeclared contributions and to pay costs associated with running for office. Indeed, Odebrecht is also accused of covering the bill for Santos' conservative rival during the 2014 race. Martinez said his office had obtained new evidence showing how Odebrecht executives introduced the candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, to a top-flight Brazilian campaign strategist during a 2014 meeting in Sao Paulo and then proceeded to pay $1.6 million for services to the candidate's campaign.

    Santos has yet to comment. But just his association with Odebrecht is bound to further damage Santos with elections to choose his successor 14 months away and an uneasy coalition in congress needed to implement a peace accord with leftist rebels showing signs of fraying. Odebrecht, in a plea agreement last year with the U.S. Justice Department, admitted to paying some $800 million in bribes to win business across Latin America, Santos' approval rating stood at 24 percent in February, near the lowest since he took office in 2010, according to a Gallup poll. The same survey found Colombians for the first time in more than 12 years of polling by Gallup listing corruption as the country's top problem, more than even the traditional concerns in the war-torn country of public safety and the lack of economic opportunity.

March 8,  2017

DELCY RODRIGUEZ CALLS PERUVIAN PRESIDENT 'COWARD' AND 'DOG'
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  -- Venezuela's leftist government on Monday called Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski a "coward" and "dog" servile to the United States for his antagonism to socialism. Kuczynski, a 78-year-old former Wall Street investment banker who won election last year, has been one of the most vocal critics in the region of Venezuela's ruling "Chavismo" movement named for late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. He particularly irked President Nicolas Maduro's government with a recent speech in the United States where he said Latin America was in general like a well-behaved dog on the carpet except for Venezuela which was "a big problem."

     Maduro called for an apology over the weekend, and his feisty Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez followed up on Monday with a blistering attack at an event in honor of Chavez. "He goes round, poor thing, with my respect because he is an elderly man, (like) a good dog who wags its tail at the empire and asks for an intervention in Venezuela. He's alone, going round like a crazy man, with no one paying attention," she said. Rodriguez also accused the Peruvian leader of insulting Chavez's memory during a recent summit in Colombia. "I also rose and told him, 'look, mister, you are a coward, and I repeat it here, Mr. Kuczynski, you are a coward who dared to tarnish the memory of our commander Hugo Chavez."

        Later on Monday, Peru's government said it rejected Venezuela's "insolent" comments and would send a protest letter. "The comments made by Venezuela's foreign minister are unacceptable," Peru's Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna said in a speech to congress. Kuczynski employed "an idiomatic and metaphorical expression used in academic circles" meant to describe Latin America's lack of conflicts rather than "demonize" the region, Luna added. With recent moves to the right in Brazil and Argentina as well, Venezuela's government has lost support in Latin America, although it retains strong links with fellow leftist-led nations Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

NORTH KOREA SAYS MISSILES WERE DRILL FOR STRIKE ON US BASES

       PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA   --
Nuclear-armed North Korea said Tuesday its missile launches were training for a strike on US bases in Japan, as global condemnation of the regime swelled. Three of the four missiles fired Monday came down provocatively close to US ally Japan, in waters that are part of its exclusive economic zone, representing a challenge to US President Donald Trump. In separate phone calls, Trump -- whose rhetoric on the campaign trail had raised doubts about the issue -- reaffirmed Washington's "ironclad commitment" to Japan and South Korea.

      The US will demonstrate to Pyongyang that there were "very dire consequences" for its actions, the White House said in a statement. The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday after a request by Washington and Tokyo to discuss additional measures following the launch. Under UN resolutions, Pyongyang is barred from any use of ballistic missile technology, and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said on Twitter that the world "won't allow" North Korea to continue on its "destructive path".

     But six sets of UN sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons. Kim Jong-Un gave the order for the drill to start, the North's official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. "Feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets", he praised the Hwasong artillery unit that carried it out, it said. "The four ballistic rockets launched simultaneously are so accurate that they look like acrobatic flying corps in formation, he said," the agency added, referring to Kim. The military units involved are "tasked to strike the bases of the US imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency", KCNA said. The Korean version of the KCNA report said the North's missile launch demonstrated its readiness to "wipe out" enemy forces with a "merciless nuclear strike".

US SETTING UP MISSILE DEFENSE SYSTEM IN SOUTH KOREA

       WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
The United States has begun to set up an anti-missile system in South Korea to help protect that nation from a possible North Korean attack. The arrival of the first elements of the system had been long-planned but occurred the day after another round of provocative North Korean missile tests. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is designed to intercept incoming short- and medium-range missiles. The United States and South Korea announced in July 2016 that the system would be deployed to South Korea following a series of North Korean missile launches last year.

     The arrival of the first elements of the THAAD system arrived the day after North Korea fired four medium-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, some of them traveling as far as 600 miles. A U.S. defense official said the system's arrival in South Korea was coincidental and had been long-planned. "The timely deployment of the THAAD system by U.S. Pacific Command and the secretary of defense gives my command great confidence in the support we will receive when we ask for reinforcement or advanced capabilities," said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea.

      The United States maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea to help deter any North Korean aggression. “Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” said Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “We will resolutely honor our alliance commitments to South Korea and stand ready to defend ourselves, the American homeland, and our allies.” The deployment of the missile system has experienced many delays since last summer's agreement between the United States and South Korea to deploy the system.

March 7,  2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP SIGNS NEW EXECUTIVE ORDER ON IMMIGRATION, DROPS IRAQ FROM TRAVEL BAN
 

      washington, d.c.  -- President Donald Trump signed a revised executive order on Monday banning citizens from six Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States but removing Iraq from the list, after his controversial first attempt was blocked in the courts. The new order, which the White House said Trump had signed, keeps a 90-day ban on travel to the United States by citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the new order would take effect on March 16. The delay aims to limit the disruption created by the original Jan. 27 order before a U.S. judge suspended it on Feb. 3.

     Trump, who first proposed a temporary travel ban on Muslims during his presidential campaign last year, had said his original executive order was a national security measure meant to head off attacks by Islamist militants. It came only a week after Trump was inaugurated, and it sparked chaos and protests at airports, as well as a wave of criticism from targeted countries, Western allies and some of America's leading corporations. "It is the president's solemn duty to protect the American people," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after Trump signed the new order. "As threats to our security continue to evolve and change, common sense dictates that we continually re-evaluate and reassess the systems we rely upon to protect our country."

    The leader of the minority Democrats in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said he expected the revised order to have the same uphill battle in the courts as the original version. "A watered down ban is still a ban," he said in a statement. "Despite the administration's changes, this dangerous executive order makes us less safe, not more, it is mean-spirited, and un-American. It must be repealed." Iraq was taken off the banned list because the Iraqi government has imposed new vetting procedures, such as heightened visa screening and data sharing, and because of its work with the United States in countering Islamic State militants, a senior White House official said. Thousands of Iraqis have fought alongside U.S. troops for years or worked as translators since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many have resettled in the United States after being threatened for working with U.S. troops.

IRAN LAUNCHES 2 BALLISTIC MISSILES, US OFFICIALS SAY

       TEHRAN, IRAN   --
Continuing a pattern of provocative actions, Iran this weekend test-fired a pair of ballistic missiles. Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. officials confirmed to Fox News.One of Iran's ballistic missile tests were successful, destroying a floating barge approximately 155 miles away, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the launch told Fox News. The launches of the Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles were the first tests of the missile in two years, one official said.

    According to one official, Iran launched its two short-range ballistic missiles from an IRGC base in Bandar-e-Jask, in southeastern Iran. The first missile was fired on Saturday, but missed its target, though it landed “in the vicinity,” one official said. A day later, Iran made another attempt and was successful. The Iranian Fateh-110 Mod 3 has a new “active seeker,” helping the missile locate ships at sea, according to one official. "It's a concern based on the range and that one of the missiles worked," said one official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the launch.

    Two years ago, Iranian cruise missiles destroyed a large barge designed to look like an American aircraft carrier. Iranian state-television broadcast the images publicly at the time. The new Iranian short-range ballistic missile launches come a week after Iran successfully test-fired Russian surface-to-air missiles, part of the S-300 air defense system Russia sent to Iran recently. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran has conducted as many as 14 ballistic missile launches since the landmark nuclear agreement in July 2015. A senior U.S. military official told Fox News that Iran had made great advances in its ballistic missile program over the past decade.

A SWARM OF IRANIAN FAST-ATTACK BOATS FORCED A US NAVY SHIP TO CHANGE COURSE IN THE PERSIAN GULF

       WASHINGTON, D.C.   --
Multiple fast-attack vessels from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps came close to a US Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, forcing it to change direction, a US official told Reuters on Monday. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the IRGCN boats came within 600 yards of the USNS Invincible, a tracking ship, and stopped. The Invincible was being accompanied by three ships from British Royal Navy and forced the formation to change course. The official said attempts were made to communicate over radio, but there was no response and the interaction was "unsafe and unprofessional."

     Lawrence Brennan, a former US Navy captain and an expert on maritime law, said the Invincible is a scientific-research vessel and was unlikely armed except for "small arms for self defense." The US Navy officially lists the Invincible as a "missile range instrumentation ship" that monitors missile launches and collects data, so it was likely in the region because of Iran's repeated ballistic-missile launches. The Invincible carries out a mission similar to that of the Russian spy ship that sat outside a US submarine base in Connecticut. "This generic type of unarmed ship has been a target a number of times," Brennan said, citing attacks on the USS Liberty and Pueblo as examples of similar harassment.

     However, the Iranian navy and IRGC navy have made a habit of harassing US ships near the Strait of Hormuz, and experts contacted by Business Insider believe that Iran provided Yemeni Houthi rebels the means to carry out a suicide boat attack on a Saudi Arabian navy vessel that killed two sailors. This attack made the US Navy acutely aware of the danger from Iran's swarming ships, which the US Navy has resorted to firing warning shots at before. The US recently tested the efficacy of using A-10 Warthog guns and percision-guided munitions dropped from jets on Iranian fast-attack craft like the ones that harassed the Invincible on Saturday.

March 6,  2017

VENEZUELA, BOLIVIA BLAST 'HYPOCRITICAL US NARCOTICS REPORT AFTER YEARS OF FAILED WAR ON DRUGS'
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry decried the report, denouncing the "hypocrisy of the supranational police,” the United States. Both Venezuela and Bolivia have come out to reject a new narcotics report from the U.S. State Department and Washington's attempt to impose its drug policy of "double standards" on the South American countries, arguing that in contrast to the failed U.S. war on drugs, other nations are genuinely committed to the fight against illicit drug trafficking. Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry slammed the report — titled "International Narcotics Control Strategy 2017" and drawn up by the U.S. State Department — as illegitimate Saturday, arguing that it violates fundamental principles of international law, such as non-intervention in internal affairs.

      "It is serious, questionable and absolutely undemocratic that the United States of America, in its alleged role of supranational police, is not aware of and impedes the systems of crime prevention and control of sovereign states," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Venezuelan officials also questioned the United States’ hypocrisy for issuing such a report — which accused Venezuela, Bolivia and Burma of having “failed demonstrably” in their obligations to combat drug trafficking — by pointing to the U.S.'s "false policy" of controling money laundering linked to the drug trade and failure to implement a public health approach in dealing with drug-related issues in the "world's leading drug market."

     "The failed 'war on drugs' deployed by the United States of American beyond its borders has only served to expand warmongering and interventionist policies that massively violate the human rights of entire populations in increase both the production and trafficking of drugs and the legitimation of assets derived from this crime," the Foreign Ministry statement continued. Bolivian President Evo Morales, visiting Cuba for medical treatment, took to Twitter Friday to condemn the report, saying that Venezuela and Bolivia will continue to stand up to U.S. imperialism and noting his country's strides in combating illicit coca production under his government. "The only demonstrable failure is that of the U.S.: Bolivia and Venezuela are sovereign states and not submissive to empire," Morales continued.

VENEZUELAN OIL PRODUCTION  MAY TUMBLE 20% BY THE END OF 2017

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- Venezuela’s oil production is poised for a significant decline in the months ahead—and that has nothing to do with its pledge to cut output as an OPEC member. As the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has the potential to influence the oil markets in a big way. “While Venezuela has a ton of oil underneath it, unfortunately for them, they have one of the highest costs [per] barrel to lift and process it.”Tyler Richey, editor of The Sevens Report “While Venezuela has a ton of oil underneath it, unfortunately for them, they have one of the highest costs [a] barrel to lift and process it,” among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting members, said Tyler Richey co-editor of The Sevens Report.

     Venezuela’s proved oil reserves was estimated at 300.9 billion barrels at the end of 2015, according to BP’s BP, -0.09% Statistical Revenue of World Energy June 2016. That’s below Saudi Arabia’s 266.6 billion and much less than the U.S.’s 55 billion. But it cost Venezuela about $27.62 to produce a barrel of oil and natural gas in 2016, according to a story published by WSJ News Graphics last year, which cites data from Rystad Energy UCube. That ranks it as fourth in terms of major producers who pay the most to get the commodities out of the ground.
And profits have been cut significantly in recent years.

     Prices for the global benchmark Brent crude LCOK7, +1.14% trade at around $55 a barrel, down by about half from a high of roughly $113 in June of 2014. West Texas IntermediateCLJ7, +1.12% trades close to $53 a barrel, down from about $106 almost three years ago. When oil prices were in the $100s, “the Venezuela government was able to make things work, but now with prices as low as they are,” production has dropped, said Richey. “They have a serious budget problem on their hands.” Venezuela has only $10.5 billion in foreign reserves left for the rest of the year, it owes about $7.2 billion in outstanding debt payments, according to a CNN report published this week. Those figures suggest that nation could soon run out of cash.

NORTH KOREA THREATENS 'MERCILESS ATTACKS' AS U.S. AND SOUTH KOREA CONDUCT DRILLS

       Pyongyang, North Korea    --
North Korea warns of unleashing a “merciless” response if South Korea and America conduct military drills that overlap its borders. The threat of attack is not unusual, but, taking North Korea’s recent successful missile attempts into account, it’s one that is being taken more seriously. The U.S. and South Korea would respond “overwhelmingly” if such an attack were to occur, reports Reuters. The war games between Seoul and Washington annually frustrate North Korea, who considers its military activities a sign of aggression. The manoeuvres began Wednesday and usually involve hundreds of thousands of troops from South Korea and the U.S. practising drills in an operation called Foal Eagle.

    “The value of training like this is key to our mission to be ready to ‘fight tonight’ if called upon,” Maj. Jared Nichols, the battalion’s executive officer, told Yonhap News Agency, South Korea’s News Agency. The two countries plan to conduct Key Resolve practice in March, a computer-simulated exercise, the South Korean Defense Ministry told Yonhap. Last year the drills were the largest ever conducted by the U.S. and North Korea, amid rising tension in the region. Jim Mattis, U.S. defense secretary, and South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min-Koo had a phone conversation in which the U.S. expressed commitment to its Asian ally.

     “Secretary Mattis said that the United States remains steadfast in its commitment to the defense of [South Korea]. He further emphasized that any attack on the United States or its allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that is effective and overwhelming,” a statement from Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis read, as cited by Yonhap. According to KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, the “North will mercilessly foil the nuclear war racket of the aggressors with its treasured nuclear sword.” South Korea has confirmed that it will resolutely push North Korea if provoked, Al Jazeera reported. Recent events associated with North Korea have created turmoil with its immediate neighbors, and the U.S. are well-prepared, with over 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea as a deterrent.
 

March 5,  2017

NICOLAS MADURO SENDS DISSIDENT EX-GENERAL BADUEL BACK TO PRISON FOR "CONSPIRACY TO OVERTHROW  THE GOVERNMENT"
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- General Raul Baduel – former allied of late President Hugo Chávez - will remain in detention despite serving a sentence this Friday, when he was presented with new charges for allegedly planning the ouster of President Nicolás Maduro. A military judge ordered the "deprivation of freedom of the general (retired) for treason and under instigation for rebellion," defense lawyer Omar Mora told AFP. Baduel, who helped restore Chavez after the April 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power, was to be released Friday, March 3, after serving a seven-year, 11-month jail term for corruption.

     But the prosecution filed a new accusation for crimes that are punished with up to 26 years in prison. "They are supporting this detention with illegal and non-existent evidence," said the lawyer of the former defense minister, who distanced himself from Chávez (1999-2013) for disagreements with his socialist model. On Thursday, the defense had challenged the judge because she was the executor of Baduel’s conviction for corruption, but the magistrate remained in control of the case and decided to keep Baduel under arrest, Mora said. After this measure, then the formal investigation stage began, which will last 45 days. The new charges relate to an alleged "conspiracy to overthrow the government of Nicolas Maduro" an active case in which nine military personnel - retired and active - and a university professor were captured between January and February while Baduel was already in jail completing his sentence.

    "They fabricated charges with interviews with alleged witnesses who supported these allegations. It is a new montage that only seeks that Baduel does not recover his freedom and with it his civil and political rights, "asserted the jurist. Considered part of the 100 "political prisoners" denounced by the opposition, Baduel was paroled on August 12, 2015, but on January 12 he was again jailed when he attended a regular filing hearing. Army Commander between 2004 and 2006 and Defense Minister between 2006 and 2007 - the general was arrested by military intelligence agents in 2009 and sentenced a year later. The new charges relate to an alleged "conspiracy to overthrow the government," a case in which nine military personnel - retired and active - and a university professor were captured between January and February. Baduel’s situation is similar to that of many opposition leaders who are in prison only because the government is afraid of their leadership and popularity.
 

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION LEADERS ENTERED CHINA EMBASSY TO PRESENT "ILLEGAL DEBT REQUEST"

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- The Chinese Embassy in Caracas allowed two opposition lawmakers inside on Friday and received a Parliamentary Request for Information regarding some $60 billion in loans between oil-rich Venezuela and the Asian giant. Lawmakers Jose Guerra and Jorge Millan were admitted inside the Chinese compound in Las Mercedes, Eastern Caracas Friday morning. Before going inside, Guerra told assembled reporters that at least a third of the total debt Venezuela has with China, some $20 billion, had been unlawfully contracted, because it didn’t have the National Assembly’s approval, as required by the Venezuelan Constitution.

     “It is a debt that is growing and growing every day without us knowing the conditions. We do know that the (Maduro) government is desperately looking for funds. And this is the warning we are making to China, that any debt contracted has to go through the National Assembly,” Guerra said after exiting the Chinese embassy in Caracas. “We met with the First Secretary and he was very kind and respectful,” Guerra added, showing a signed copy of the letter he delivered. Guerra and Millan delivered a terse, seven-paragraph, one page document addressed to “The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China.”

     In the letter, after reiterating “our commitment to the strengthening of the relations” between the two countries, the lawmakers asked for details of the debts which began in 2007, back when Chavez was alive and President of Venezuela, with particular insistence on some $20 billion contracted between the time of Chavez’s death and Maduro’s election and January 2017. After the U.S., China is the main recipient of Venezuelan oil, getting between 350,000 and 600,000 barrels a day to repay the $60 billion debt, which is revolving, meaning that once serviced the credit is renewed, according to the information the Maduro administration has provided. In turn, Venezuela is the largest client for China’s bilateral, cooperation loans in the hemisphere, getting some $60 out of each $100 lent to the region, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin America think tank based in Washington, D.C.

ABOUT 2,000 TRUMP SUPPORTERS RALLY AT TROPICAL PARK

       MIAMI, FLORIDA   --
Waving American flags and wearing red caps, about 2,000 people gathered at Tropical Park Saturday morning to show their support for President Donald Trump. Displaying signs like Eva Sanchez’s “Latinos Support Trump — Build the Wall & Close the Border,’’ the crowd cheered on Trump’s immigration policies, which call for building a wall on the southern border with Mexico and temporarily banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Yemen and Sudan — from entering the country. (A federal appeals court panel unanimously rejected the ban last month; Trump is expected to issue a new one soon.)

     The March4Trump rallies were held across the nation Saturday to show support for Trump, whose national disapproval ratings, hovering around 50 percent, are at historically high levels for a new president. In Palm Beach, where Trump is staying this weekend at his Mar-A-Lago estate, dueling rallies of pro- and anti-Trump supporters squared off with harsh words, the Palm Beach Post reported. A liberal women’s group, UltraViolet, planned to air a TV ad in Palm Beach highlighting Trump’s ratings.

   The groups that organized the demonstrations included Latinas for Trump, Cubans4Trump, Tea Party Miami and Miami Dade Citizens 4 Trump. Trump was expected to have dinner Saturday evening at Mar-A-Lago with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among others. Sessions recused himself on Thursday from a federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, after the Washington Post reported that he testified under oath to a Senate committee that he “did not have communication with the Russians’’ during the presidential campaign, when, in fact, he met with the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign. Sessions has denied any wrongdoing and disputed assertions that he spoke with the Russian ambassador about the campaign.

March 4,  2017

VENEZUELA MONSIGNOR SANTANA: CATHOLICS "CAN'T FAST IN A COUNTRY THAT IS ALREADY GOING HUNGRY"
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA --  The ongoing confrontation between the Catholic Church and the embattled administration of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro deepened on Ash Wednesday, when Monsignor Ubaldo Santana said during mass that “you can’t fast in a country that is already going hungry.” During his homily, which asked for the political process in Venezuela to continue unhindered, Monsignor Santana said he hoped his message “reached our (Venezuelan) homes, the Assembly, the Supreme Court and the CNE electoral board”. The opposition-controlled National Assembly is engaged in an open confrontation with the Maduro-controlled Court and CNE on several issues, chief amongst them the abrupt halt of a Presidential recall against Maduro last year.

     Venezuela is suffering from acute food and medicine shortages and the government is refusing calls to declare a humanitarian emergency, insisting that decreeing such a state would facilitate foreign intervention. “We practice fasting to strengthen ourselves, to take control of ourselves,” Monsignor Ubaldo Santana said during the Ash Wednesday mass, according to local media. “Depriving ourselves of aliments is one of our traditional practices but this year we Venezuelans can’t deprive ourselves of food because it is already very difficult to obtain it. There is already a lot of malnourished people, that can’t fend for themselves, that are sick and gaunt and it would go against God’s will, which is for us to be strong and healthy and in capacity to perform our duties and obligations.”

    Monsignor’s remarks became a trending topic on Tweeter Wednesday and Thursday. The Church has tried to broker a dialogue between the Maduro administration and the opposition but the effort failed, giving veteran Vatican diplomacy a rare black eye and proving to what extent political polarization has worsened the Venezuelan crisis, paralyzing almost every serious relief effort. Monsignor not only criticized polarization by name, but asked that the political process be allowed to continue unhindered: Maduro has paralyzed or delayed all political contests since his party lost the 2015 legislative elections by a landslide, while also increasing the jailing and harassment of political opponents and critics, causing the opposition to denounce the existence of a dictatorship in Venezuela.

CARACAS IS RUNNING OUT OF CASH

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- Venezuela only has $10.5 billion in foreign reserves left, according to its most recent central bank data. For rest of the year, Venezuela owes roughly $7.2 billion in outstanding debt payments. In 2011, Venezuela had roughly $30 billion in reserves. In 2015, it had $20 billion. The trend can't persist much longer, but it's hard to know exactly when Venezuela will run completely out of cash.

     "The question is: Where is the floor?" says Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America fixed income strategy at Nomura Holdings. "If oil prices stagnate and foreign reserves reach zero, then the clock is going to start on a default." According to the country's recently released 2016 financial report, about $7.7 billion of its remaining $10.5 billion of reserves is in gold. To make debt payments in the past year, Venezuela shipped gold to Switzerland. The thinning reserves paint a scary financial picture as the country faces a humanitarian crisis sparked by an economic meltdown. Venezuelans are suffering massive food and medical shortages, as well as skyrocketing grocery prices.

     Massive government overspending, a crashing currency, mismanagement of the country's infrastructure and corruption are all factors that have sparked extremely high inflation in Venezuela. Inflation is expected to rise 1,660% this year and 2,880% in 2018, according to the IMF. Another key problem is the relatively low price of oil, which stands at half of what it was in 2014. Venezuela has more oil reserves than any other nation in the world, and oil shipments make up over 90% of the country's total exports. That's making it nearly impossible for the country to pay its debts and import food, medicine and other essentials for its citizens. Venezuela's imports are down 50% from a year ago, according to Ecoanalitica, a research firm in Venezuela.

TSUNAMI OF SEWAGE SPILLS' IN TIJUANA FOULS U.S. BEACHES, MAY HAVE BEEN INTENTIONAL

       TIJUANA, CALIFORNIA  --
A massive sewage spill in Tijuana that polluted beaches in San Diego County last month may have been no accident, according to state and local officials. In a preliminary estimate, officials said about 143 million gallons of raw sewage spewed into the Tijuana River during a period of more than two weeks that ended Thursday. While cross-border sewage spills of a few million gallons are routine for the region, this is one of the largest such events in the last two decades, according to water quality experts in San Diego. People from Tijuana to as far north as Coronado have been complaining of foul odors for weeks, prompting lawmakers in San Diego County to contact federal regulators as well as agencies in Mexico.

      The U.S. regulators said their Mexican counterparts have given little explanation. Mexican officials also haven’t responded to requests for comment for this article since Monday. “This was like a tsunami of sewage spills,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, who said he tried to get answers from officials on both sides of the border for more than a week, with no response. “What’s worse is it looks to me like this was deliberate,” he added. “It saves [the Mexican agencies] a lot of money in pumping costs, and ultimately, they can get away with it and do it all the time, just on a much smaller scale.” The toxic discharge is estimated to have happened from Feb. 6 through Thursday, while repairs were made to a major sewer pipe near the confluence of Mexico’s Alamar and Tijuana rivers, according to the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission.

     Baja California’s State Public Service Commission maintains the sewer system infrastructure in that area. “They basically said it was a bypass of raw sewage into the Tijuana River during the rehabilitation of a large sewer pipeline in Tijuana,” said Lori Kuczmanski, spokeswoman for the U.S. side of the commission, which oversees international water treaties with Mexico, among other things. The commission announced the spill on Friday. Before that day, officials in Mexico had not responded to multiple inquiries about the incident, according to local, regional and federal regulators in the United States. “Was the spill intentional? Well, yeah,” said Dave Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “At least a notification would be a good neighborly thing to do, to let us know what was coming down the river before it got here so we could alert the public,” he added.

March 3,  2017

AFTER US SENATE VOTE, NICOLAS MADURO DEFAULTS TO FAMILIAR DEFIANT DISCOURSE AGAINST PRESIDENT TRUMP
 

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA --   Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro warned Wednesday of a resurgence in “racism and xenophobia,” the day after the US Senate unanimously voted a resolution expressing “profound concern” about the present Venezuelan crisis. It is a familiar pattern for Cuban and Venezuelan leaders, and, in his first public speech after the U.S. Senate’s vote, Maduro re-adopted it with ease. “I am making a worldwide alert in the face of surging dangerous , segregationist, racist and xenophobic currents that threaten to divide mankind even further, threaten to fill the whole world with war.

     That’s why I am calling and asking for the Venezuelan people to unite, to keep on making the revolution and keep on defending our identity,” Maduro said during an event of the CLAP, a new government mechanism to ration price-controlled foodstuffs administered by ruling party PSUV militants. Maduro didn’t mention the U.S. vote specifically, nor the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and opposition leader Lilian Tintori, but he denounced “white supremacy” and it was enough for a crowd of hundreds, clad in red, to cheer for him. “White supremacists”, Maduro warned, “seek to deny other races’ right to exist.” During Wednesday’s speech Maduro said “we will defend our freedom and our right to live, we are not anybody’s slaves, and we don’t believe ourselves to be less than anybody else.”

     However, since he was elected President by a narrow margin in 2013, Venezuela has reached world-record inflation and homicide rates, while food and medicine shortages have become the norm. More than 100 political prisoners, arrested during Maduro’s rule, languish in Venezuelan prisons. However, the illusion that somehow Trump and Maduro could co-exist shattered fast: The US Treasury Department designated Maduro’s Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, as a “drug kingpin”, together with another Venezuelan, businessman, Samark Bello. Days after the El Aissami-Bello designation by the Treaasury Department, Trump called for Maduro to release Leopoldo Lopez “immediately.” Maduro not only didn’t oblige, but the very next day the Venezuela Supreme Court reiterated Lopez’s 14-years in prison.

HEAD OF THE ISLAMIC STATE ADMITS DEFEAT IN IRAQ AND DISMISSED HIS FOLLOWERS

      MOSUL,  IRAQ 
-- The maximum leader of the terrorist group Islamic State (EI), Abu Bakr al Bagdadi, “said goodbye” to his followers in a written speech distributed in the iraqi city of Mosul, in which he admitted the defeat of his forces in front of the government troops, today reported military sources. The publication was distributed among close aides to Al Baghdadi and among the imams of the mosques in the neighborhoods to the west of Mosul that are still in the hands of the jihadists, explained the head of the Security Council of the province of Ninevah -of which Mosul is the capital, Mohamed Ibrahim al-Bayati. In the text, Al-Baghdadi admitted the defeat of the EI in the province of Nineveh and in the other states of his caliphate.

     The leader of jihadist instructed the group members to try to flee to the mountainous areas in Iraq and Syria, but ordered them to make it detonate in the event that they are surrounded by the iraqi forces. The iraqi troops have information that some members of the so-called ‘advisory Council’ of the EI escaped from Mosul and the region of Tel Afar, west of Mosul towards the syrian territory, where they still maintain Raqa, considered the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Al Bayati said that the ringleaders highlights of the EI “move with no clear direction” on the borders between Iraq and Syria, including in the areas of The Beach and The Qaim “fearful for what happened to their peers who remained in the fronts of combat.”

    Meanwhile, others shaved their beard in order to disguise and remain as sleeper cells in the city of Mosul, wait to receive instructions of the leaders of the radical group. The iraqi security forces to pursue these cells and has managed to arrest hundreds of them, based on information provided by the inhabitants of Mosul, added the responsible police. The army and the iraqi police, whose intelligence services have a list of the wanted for justice, is conducting an offensive to expel the EI of the western half of Mosul, its last great feud in Iraq. Last January, the iraqi forces managed to liberate the eastern half of the city, which is the third most populous in the country.

UNITED STATES DENOUNCES DEMONSTRABLE FAILURE OF VENEZUELA IN THE FIGHT AGAINST DRUGS

       WASHINGTON, D.C.    --
Bolivia and Venezuela are, along with Burma, the countries of the world where there is a "demonstrable failure" in implementing their international obligations in the fight against drugs, according to the annual report of the United States on drug trafficking in the world, Efe said. Among the largest producers and transit countries of the world are also Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Belize, according to the report, Sent today by the State Department to the US Congress.

     The 2016 report, is based on recommendations issued last September by former US President Barack Obama when he designated Bolivia, Venezuela and Burma as responsible for a failed policy in the fight against drugs in the previous 12 months. Although the title may imply US sanctions, Obama's report was accompanied in this case by a recommendation to Congress not to discontinue economic assistance to Venezuela and Burma, which is "in the national interest of the United States," according to Department of State.

     The list of the 22 countries that are the largest producers and transit zones for drugs in the world that appears in the report is identical to that of last year, referring to 2015, and it is made up of a majority of Latin American nations, as well as Five Asians: Afghanistan, Burma, India, Laos and Pakistan. The main novelty of the report is the inclusion of Belize in the list of major source countries that use chemicals in the production of illegal narcotics. In this list, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that are included one more year; Among a score of countries that include several Europeans such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland and Belgium and Asian countries such as Thailand and China.

March 2,  2017

FLORIDA GOVERNOR OFFERS TO HELP END OBAMA POLICY OF CODDLING CUBA'S DICTATORSHIP
 

      TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA  --The despicable way in which some governors (both Democrats and Republicans) have been courting Cuba’s vile apartheid dictatorship is truly disgusting. Any semblance of decency and morality is quickly tossed to the side as they trip over each other to make a quick buck off the backs of the enslaved Cuban people. Thankfully, some governors have not put their integrity up for sale to the Castro regime. “I do not think it’s good for our country to spoil a dictator like Raul Castro.” Governor of Florida Rick Scott has offered to help US President Donald Trump reverse the country’s approach to relations with Cuba.

     “I do not think it’s good for our country to spoil a dictator like Raul Castro,” he said. “I want to work with the Trump administration on what would be the right policy.” The politician also mentioned that in his opinion, President of Cuba Raul Castro does not believe in democracy or freedom and stated that he hoped Trump would renegotiate with Havana soon. “My impression is that they are working on what they are going to do,” he said, when asked about future policy plans.

     Though the governor of Florida did not specify what approach he would recommend, he stated that his intention is to close off business with Cuba.
Scott recently threatened to withhold money from Florida ports that do business with the communist island, demanding that the $176 million established for ports go to businesses not associated with Cuba. “I am disappointed that Florida ports have reached any agreement with the Cuban dictatorship,” he tweeted. Scott has also gone on the record saying he will propose tax cuts totaling $618 million in 2018. The recommendation will be presented to the state Congress in the coming months. The proposal includes a 25-percent cut in sales tax on commercial property rentals.

OAS' LUIS ALMAGRO ADVISES MORE POLITICAL PRESSURE TO ACHIEVE "FREE ELECTIONS" IN VENEZUELA

      WASHINGTON, D.C. 
-- According to Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), “first of all, democracy should be restored, the people should be given back their sovereign decision and, from there, there will be the need for dialogue.” “The solution is a decision of people in free elections, and this is the country real solution; above all because democracy needs to be restored,” Almagro said.

     Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), strongly recommended the mediators for the talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition coalition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD), to lobby for “free elections,” as it is “the only solution to get out of an authoritarian regime.” Today, however, the dialogue is a mere pretext to continue violating the Constitution,” Almagro said on Thursday during an interview with Efe at the OAS headquarters in Washington.

     “Every setback in the dialogue table has implied direct violations of the Constitution,” the OAS Secretary General added. Later, he disclosed that he would introduce an updated report on the state of affairs in Venezuela in the upcoming days. In his opinion, the attempts at dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, with the mediation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican “take place in absolutely authoritarian conditions.” Therefore, “it is impossible for them to bear fruit and yield the necessary results.”

MORE THAN 40 VENEZUELAN NGOS ASKED THE OAS TO ACTIVATE THE DEMOCRATIC CHARTER

       CARacas, venezuela    --
Nearly half of Venezuelan social and human rights organizations sent a letter to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States requesting the activation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the case of Venezuela, La Voz de América reported.

      The petition, signed by 46 organizations in addition to the outgoing president of the Federation of University Centers, Hasler Iglesias, historian Margarita López Maya and journalist Oscar Murillo, states that although "dialogue is important and necessary in any conflict ... until now the Executive National has shown evidence of not having the political will to respect it. " "Regardless of whether the dialogue mechanism will continue to be carried out in the country, the OAS must continue the process of activating the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IDC) to Venezuela," the petitioners point out.

    The application of the Democratic Charter - a mechanism that applies in case of a rupture of the democratic institutional political process or the legitimate exercise of power by a democratically elected government - could imply the temporary suspension of Venezuela as a member state in that organism. If the Charter is applied, the Permanent Council of the OAS could determine the need to evaluate the situation in Venezuela, "stimulating all diplomatic efforts necessary for the normalization of democratic institutions" in the Caribbean country. The Venezuelan government has frequently rejected the intervention of the OAS in the country's internal problems and has criticized Almagro's efforts and opinions on Venezuela.

March 1st.,  2017

MORE THAN 4 TONS OF COCAINE WORTH $125 MILLION SEIZED NORTH OF SURINAME
 

      SAN JUAN SURINAME  --Four Guyanese citizens were arrested in an operation that seized 4.2 tons of cocaine worth some $125 million from a fishing boat sailing north of Suriname, the San Juan Coast Guard reported Monday. Authorities said in a press release that the operation was carried out Feb. 16 in the Atlantic Ocean, when a US Coast Guard ship detected the cocaine-carrying fishing vessel 70 feet (21 meters) long, registered on the isle of Saint Vincent.

      The captain of the Coast Guard ship out of San Juan, Francisco Rego, called this is the biggest maritime drug bust in the Atlantic Ocean since the year 1999. Capturing the drug runners and their cargo was made possible thanks to intelligence sharing by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) personnel in its Santa Cruz and Barbados offices, among other federal agencies that make up the Caribbean Corridor Strike Force. Where the cargo of drugs came from and where it was headed have not been revealed, since the investigation is still underway.

      “As the cocaine flow from South America continues to increase, law enforcement partners in the Eastern Caribbean Region have to increase our collaborative efforts in order to effectively respond to the threat,” the DEA’s assistant special agent in the Caribbean, James Doby, said. “Such collaborative efforts are currently underway in the Caribbean Corridor Strike Force, where law enforcement partners are collocated every day,” he said. The four men taken into custody face criminal charges at the US District Court of the Virgin Islands, the Coast Guard said.

MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE FACING INHUMAN CONDITIONS IN VENEZUELA RIGHT NOW

      CARACAS, VENEZUELA  
-- “There is no food in Venezuela,” my Venezuelan friend wrote. “Maybe this is the last time you hear from me.” I was shocked with these two sentences. Like him, millions of people are facing inhuman conditions in Venezuela right now. It was not easy for him to reach me. He had to write a letter, give it to his brother who was visiting and his brother sent it to me from abroad. International phone calls are blocked. All the letters they send are opened, as well as everything they receive is opened and checked. There is no privacy, no liberty of expression and “big brother” is watching 24/7. Even their internet access is limited and controlled. And the military in the streets is ready to use violence and to make detentions.

     Like millions of Venezuelans, my friend goes to bed feeling hungry and wakes up feeling hungry. After nine hours in a line, he might get some flour. Yesterday it was actually a good day; it only took him only six hours in a line to get some basic food. So far, he has already lost 33 pounds (15 kilos). Many kids don’t go to school and are standing in the food lines with their parents. Others go to school, but many faint, because of hunger and malnourishment. The worst situation happens if someone gets sick, or needs hospital treatment. Hospitals have no conditions and many doctors have left the country. Medicine cabinets in hospitals and pharmacies are as empty as the supermarket shelves. Together with other international friends we tried to contact him to get him help. However even our help is extremely difficult to reach him.

     First, he cannot receive foreign money. Second, he cannot have a passport to leave the country, unless he pays a lot of money to a corrupt public worker. But then again, with his income of $29 a month, that would be impossible. There are no basic goods there either. He was taking showers only with water, until a friend from abroad sent him 10 soaps, from which he only received half, the rest was taken away as bribery. Before this economic crisis devastated Venezuela, my friend used to be an engineer with a good life, a house and a car. Now he is almost starving, his rights are all gone and there is little we can do to help him. All media in the country is controlled by President Nicolás Maduro. CNN in Spanish was banned. And the government makes a lot of fake propaganda.  Of course, political opposition is not allowed either, the Supreme Court has upheld the almost 14 years in jail sentence of the opposition leader, Leopoldo López, whose wife, Lilian Tintori was a few days ago with President Donald Trump and had his public support.

NORTH KOREA 'EXECUTED FIVE TOP OFFICIALS WITH ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS' OVER FALSE REPORTS

       PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA   --
North Korea executed five senior security officials with anti-aircraft guns because they made false reports that "enraged" leader Kim Jong-un, South Korea's spy agency said Monday. The comments by the National Intelligence Service in a private briefing to lawmakers come as Malaysia investigates the poisoning death of Kim's estranged elder half brother, Kim Jong-nam. That investigation is still going on, but South Korea says it believes Kim Jong-un ordered the assassination, which took place February 13 at Kuala Lumpur's airport.

     The spy agency told lawmakers that five North Korean officials in the department of recently purged state security chief Kim Won Hong were executed by anti-aircraft guns because of the false reports to Kim, South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo said. It's not clear what false reports they allegedly made, and the NIS didn't say how it got its information. South Korean spies have a spotty record when reporting about high-level events in authoritarian, cloistered North Korea.

     North Korea fired Kim Won Hong in January, presumably over corruption, abuse of power and torture committed by his agency, Seoul said earlier this month. The fallen minister had been seen as close to Kim Jong-un. North Korea has not publicly said anything about Kim Won Hong or about the alleged executions in his department. Lee also cited the NIS as saying that Kim Won Hong's dismissal was linked to those false reports, which "enraged" Kim Jong-un when they were discovered. Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has reportedly executed or purged a large number of high-level government officials in what rival Seoul has called a "reign of terror."

 

 

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