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September 30, 2015

GUYANA DENOUNCES AGGRESSIONS FROM VENEZUELA; DEMANDS A FINAL SETTLEMENT

     
Guyanese President David Granger denounced on Tuesday at the United Nations (UN) "aggressions" from Venezuela, and urged the UN to mediate to achieve a final settlement of the territorial dispute between the countries. "For fifty years, our small country has been prevented from fully exploiting our rich natural resources. Venezuela has threatened and deterred investors and frustrated our economic development," said Granger before the United Nations General Assembly.

    For Guyana, Venezuela's territorial claim runs counter to the international legislation and the United Nations Charter. "Guyana's border with Venezuela was settled 116 years ago. The whole world, except the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, accepts our borders," the president noted.
Granger accused the Venezuelan government of using its superior wealth and military power to pursue a path of "intimidation and aggression." Hence, he urged the UN to play a more active role in the conflict and to do more than appointing Good Officers to help to resolve this controversy.

     "We feel that this process has now been exhausted," said the Guyanese president. Last week, he announced he would resort to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the dispute, as he believed that UN mediation was not efficient. However, Granger stressed that the UN "remains our best hope" to settle the dispute. Presidents Nicolás Maduro and David Granger met on Sunday at the UN with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and agreed on the return of their relevant ambassadors. The border conflict escalated in May, when oil company ExxonMobil discovered an oil deposit off the Essequibo coast.

GUYANA PONDERS PROCUREMENT OF NEW COMBAT AIRCRAFT FOR DEFENSE AGAINST THE NEW VENEZUELAN DICTATOR

      
Guyana is pondering the possibility of acquiring new combat military aircraft for its Air Corps as part of a five-year strategic plan which would be presented for consideration by the Guyanese government, said the Chief of Guyana Defense Forces Mark Phillips. In a press conference on Sunday, Phillips explained that the final decision on the procurement of new military equipment would depend on the analysis of the threats Guyana might face. The country is currently in dispute with Venezuela over the sovereignty of the Essequibo region and the Cuyuní River, Efe reported. Tensions between Venezuela and Guyana heightened last week. Consequently, the Venezuelan government decided to conduct military exercises with hundreds of soldiers in preparation for a possible armed conflict with Guyana.

     The territorial dispute is under the United Nations' mediation since the signing of the Geneva Agreement of 1966. However, the conflict escalated when US firm ExxonMobil found oil deposits in disputed waters in May. Maduro asserted on Sunday after meeting with Guyanese President David Granger and United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Venezuela would be visited by a committee of the UN and its General Secretariat to assess Venezuela's territorial claim over the Essequibo region. Maduro explained that, against the backdrop of the Geneva Agreement, the UN special technical committee would carry out a comprehensive assessment of the circumstances and the current situation of this border dispute over the Essequibo.

      "The Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon) has committed himself, after that visit, to study all the options provided for in the Geneva Agreement, and in article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations. Venezuela has insisted on the need to activate the Good Offices, the last decision reached by consensus between Guyana and Venezuela, and the Geneva Agreement and the General Secretariat," Maduro highlighted. He stressed that a time limit had to be set for the Good Offices. He hoped that political, diplomatic, and international mechanisms arise from the UN Good Offices to reach a final settlement of the dispute that is fair for both parties. Maduro described Sunday's meeting as "complex, tense, and difficult." He said that Venezuela supported UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's efforts to improve dialogue and communication. He stressed that Venezuela advocated peace diplomacy, direct dialogue, and compliance with the Geneva Agreement as the only way for Venezuela and Guyana to address the claim over the Essequibo.

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ'S WIFE TO ADDRESS UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY    

     
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed Venezuelan dissenter Leopoldo López, announced on Wednesday that she would attend the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York next week to present the case of her husband, who was sentenced to nearly 14 years of imprisonment, and also the situation of dissenters described as "political prisoners" by the Venezuelan opposition.

     Tintori said she would continue on an international tour airing "the truth, the voice of Venezuela in the world, and next week, we will be in the UN General Assembly," she announced in a press conference. Tintori has been in Prague (Czech Republic) and Spain, were she met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy, from whom she received "unconditional support."

     "Convicting someone who is innocent is a crime (...) It has shocked us and the entire world, because it is a sentence which one cannot make head nor tail of it," she added. Tintori denounced that the situation of Leopoldo López in prison "continues to be critical, with inhuman treatment and continuous torture." For his part, López's defense attorney Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, recalled that so far, the sentence imposed on López has not been published, which means a violation of due process, because the lawyers "are unaware of the content of the decision, and we cannot prepare the rationale for an appeal."

September 29, 2015

POPE FRANCIS WRAPS UP JOYFUL US VISIT WITH HUGE OPEN-AIR MASS

     
Pope Francis urged hundreds of thousands of the faithful gathered Sunday for the biggest event of his U.S. visit to be open to "miracles of love," closing out his joyful six-day trip with a message of hope for families, consolation for victims of child sexual abuse and a warning to America's bishops. The wide Benjamin Franklin Parkway overflowed with the jubilant, who stood in line for hours and endured airport-style security checks to see history's first pope from the Americas celebrate an open-air Mass in the birthplace of the United States. The Mass - the last major event on Francis' itinerary before the 78-year-old pontiff took off on the flight home to Rome - was a brilliant tableau of gold, green, white and purple in the evening sunlight of a mild early-autumn day. Riding through the streets in his open-sided popemobile, the pontiff waved to cheering, screaming, singing, flag-waving crowds and kissed babies as he made his way to the altar at the steps of the columned Philadelphia Museum of Art.

     With a towering golden crucifix behind him, Francis told his listeners that their presence itself was "a kind of miracle in today's world," an affirmation of the family and the power of love. "Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world," he said to the hushed crowd spread out along the tree-lined boulevard. Crowds a mile away fell silent during the Communion part of the Mass. Some people knelt on the paving stones at City Hall, a few blocks from the altar. There was no immediate estimate of the crowd at the Mass. But there were signs that the heavy security precautions and weeks of dire warnings from the city may have scared some people away. Train ridership was lower than expected, downtown hotel rooms went unfilled over the weekend, normally bustling city streets were deserted, some businesses closed early, and many Philadelphians complained that the precautions were oppressive.

       Crowds a mile away fell silent during the Communion part of the Mass. Some people knelt on the paving stones at City Hall, a few blocks from the altar. Organizers had predicted 1 million people would attend the Mass. The pope met with five victims of child sexual abuse and told them he was "deeply sorry" for the times they came forward to tell their stories and weren't believed. He assured them that he believes them and that bishops who covered up for abusers will be made to answer for what they did. "I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead," Francis said in Spanish. "Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children." Minutes later, he went into a meeting of bishops from the U.S. and around the world who were in town for a Catholic festival on the family and told them the same thing. "God weeps" over what was done to the youngsters, he lamented. The pope has agreed to create a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock, and he has accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops accused of mishandling abuse cases.  During his first meeting with victims, held at the Vatican in July 2014, Francis similarly vowed to hold bishops accountable, but Sunday marked the first time that he warned the bishops themselves, face-to-face, and in public.

PRESIDENT OBAMA PREDICTS CUBAN EMBARGO WILL "INEVITABLY" BE LIFTED 

      
President Barack Obama joined leaders from around the world on Monday, covering controversial topics like Cuba at the United Nations in New York. The president arrived under very heavy security and spoke about various topics including the United States’ new relationship with Cuba and where it should go in the future. “For 50 years the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that,” said the president. “We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights but we will address these issues through diplomatic relations and increase commerce and people to people ties. To cheers, the president predicted Congress would eventually vote to lift the embargo on the island nation. “As these contacts yield progress,

      Obama said he was confident that the US Congress will "inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore," drawing applause from the 193-nation assembly. “Change won’t come overnight to Cuba but I’m confident that openness, not coercion will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve.” But not all agree with the president’s view. A Cuban woman who lives in Queens, Ana Martinez, plans to join a group of Miami protesters on Monday who oppose the plan to lift the embargo and disagrees with how relations were re-established. “They have an agenda, okay, they have an agenda,” said Martinez. “I don’t know for how many months they do secret negotiation. That’s not the American way.” During a speech at the United Nations summit on Saturday, Castro told the world leaders that re-opening the U.S. Embassy in Cuba was an important first step forward.

      He then slammed the U.S. for maintaining the embargo on his country. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba persists, bringing damages and hardships on the Cuban people and standing as the main obstacle to our country’s economic development,” said Castro. The Cuban leader also touched on the treatment of women in other countries. On Tuesday, Castro will have his first formal meeting with President Barack Obama. Washington and Havana reestablished diplomatic relations in July after more than half a century of enmity. But the US embargo, which has been in place since 1960, remains a bone of contention as the Republican-held Congress balks at the administration's move to end the blockade. Obama acknowledged that Washington's Cuba policy had "failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people" but stressed that human rights remained a concern in relations with Havana.

CUBA'S DICTATOR RAUL CASTRO AT UN CALLS FOR END TO US EMBARGO    

     
Cuban DICTATOR Raul Castro on Saturday took aim at the US embargo against his country, describing it as the "main obstacle" to his country's economic development. "Such a policy is rejected by 188 United Nations member-states that demand its removal," Castro told a UN development summit, referring to a UN resolution calling for the end of the decades-old embargo. The UN General Assembly has voted each year since 1982 to approve a resolution calling on the United States to lift the embargo against Cuba, which has been in place since 1960.

      Making his first visit to the UN, Castro hailed the re-establishment of relations with Washington as a "major progress," but stressed that the embargo was unfinished business. "The economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba persists, as it has been for half a century, bringing damages and hardships on the Cuban people" said Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in 2006. Cuba estimates that more than $121 billion in damage has been inflicted on its economy from the embargo, which was imposed in retaliation for Cuba's nationalization of US properties on the island.

      Since the rapprochement with Cuba, President Barack Obama's administration has expressed support for lifting the embargo, but the decision rests with Congress, where a Republican majority opposes the move. Castro argued that the embargo affects other nations that face punishment for investing in Cuba under US laws, and that it was "hurting the interests of American citizens and companies." The General Assembly is set to discuss a new draft resolution condemning the embargo at a session next month. This year, however, Cuba will introduce a resolution that "welcomes" the reestablishment of relations and acknowledges Obama's determination to work with the US Congress to lift the embargo, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has said. More than 160 world leaders are arriving in New York for the UN development summit, followed by the UN General Assembly debate opening Monday. Castro is due to speak again on Monday, a few hours after Obama takes the podium.

September 28, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA TO MEET RAUL CASTRO TUESDAY DURING UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY

     
The meeting will be held on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly, a massive gathering of world leaders in New York City.   It will be the second face-to-face meeting between Obama and Castro since the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations late last year.

     Obama and Castro also convened a rare phone call earlier this month, ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to both their countries. At the UN on Sunday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov urged the US to lift its embargo on Cuba and to end other sanctions which he said “bypassed the UN security council”.


     The US and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on Russia for its take-over of Crimea and backing for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. Lavrov decried such measures, which he said were imposed in violation of the UN Charter, saying they contradicted new global development goals and undermined market principles in trade, finance and technology. In addition to his bilateral meeting with Castro, the White House said Obama would meet with the president of Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Obama arrived in New York on Sunday morning. While aboard Air Force One, he spoke with Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

AMERICANS FIND WAY AROUND CUBA TRAVEL BAN 

      
"Is travel to Cuba for tourist activities permitted? No." That's what the U.S. Treasury Department website says. And yet Havana is loaded with Americans, from the Floridita bar, where they pose for photos with a bust of Ernest Hemingway, to the Rum Museum, where they swig rum samples. Sure, some Americans follow the rules on sanctioned travel, bringing supplies to Cuban churches or synagogues, for example, on a religious activities license. Others come on approved group tours known as people-to-people trips with themed itineraries such as the arts.

     But the 36 percent increase in American visitors here since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations includes many travelers who sidestep the rules. Some fly to Cuba from Mexico or the Bahamas. Others go on their own from the U.S., casually filling out paperwork for one of 12 categories of travel authorized by the U.S., without much worry that anyone will check on its accuracy. The fact is, "there's been almost no active enforcement" of the tourism ban under the Obama administration, according to attorney Robert Muse, an expert on the legal aspects of Cuba travel. New Yorker Zach Chaltiel, 28, traveled to Havana from the U.S. with some buddies after graduating from law school.

      He researched the trip online, booked a villa through Airbnb, hired a driver, and filled out a form saying the purpose of his trip was "support for the Cuban people," one of the 12 authorized travel categories. "It's so easy," said Chaltiel as he shared drinks with friends at the Hotel Nacional, overlooking the sea as a peacock strutted by. "I just wanted to go before it becomes all Americanized." On May 16, five Hobie Cat sailboats and more than a dozen support vessels ran the first official boat race from Key West to Havana in more than 50 years. The race had been scheduled for April 18 but was postponed because getting U.S. government permission took longer than expected. Two Hobies were wrecked in rough seas on the way over - though all aboard were accounted for - but organizer George Bellenger said the trip's value outweighed the losses. "We kicked the doors open with our Hobie Cats," he said over lunch at the Hemingway Marina in Havana, where the group stayed awaiting a boat parade in Havana harbors. Describing centuries of connections between Key West and Havana, he added: "Our working mantra is 'Bridging cultural divides through traditional maritime heritage.' "
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FRANCE LAUNCHES FIRST AIRSTRIKES AGAINST ISIS IN SYRIA    

     
Six French jet fighters targeted and destroyed an Islamic State training camp in eastern Syria, President Francois Hollande said Sunday, making good on a promise to go after the group that the president has said is planning attacks against several countries, including France. The airstrikes were the first in Syria by France as it expands its mission against ISIS. "The camp was totally destroyed," Hollande said Sunday after arriving at the United Nations, before the start of a major development summit and the U.N. General Assembly bringing together world leaders. "We're sure there were no casualties" among civilians, he added.

     The French president's office announced the strikes, without details, in a statement hours earlier. "Our nation will strike each time our national security is at stake," the statement said. Hollande told reporters the strikes on the training camp, and others to come, were aimed at "protecting our territory, cutting short terrorist actions, acting in legitimate defense." Hollande said more strikes "could take place in the coming weeks if necessary." The targets were identified in earlier French reconnaissance flights and with information provided by the U.S.-led coalition. The president announced earlier this month a change in French strategy — expanding its airstrikes over Iraq into Syria.

     France has carried out 215 airstrikes against ISIS extremists in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition since last year, the Defense Ministry said earlier this month. But it previously held back on engaging in Syria, citing concern over playing into Assad's hand and the need for such action to be covered by international law. Officials now evoke "legitimate defense" as spelled out in the U.N. Charter to support strikes in Syria. France has already been attacked by extremists claiming ties to ISIS. Hollande, who has ruled out sending ground troops into Syria, has cited "proof" of plans for attacks on France and the growing danger to Syrian civilians, with a large chunk of the population fleeing in a massive exodus. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France was going after ISIS "sanctuaries where those who want to hit France are trained." In his statement Sunday, Hollande said: "Civilian populations must be protected from all forms of violence, that of ISIS and other terrorist groups but also the murderous bombardments of Bashar Assad."

September 27, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA AND CHINESE LEADER REACH "COMMON UNDERSTANDING" ON KEY ISSUES  

     
President Obama said Friday that he and Chinese president Xi Jinping agreed on "a common understanding on the way forward" to combat cyberspace theft of U.S. companies' trade secrets, a major point of friction between the two nations, and said that the two leaders asserted that they would not condone or sponsor such activities. The two leaders agreed to establish a joint dialogue at the ministerial level between American law enforcement and Chinese legal and state security officials to review responses to cross-national investigations. An agreement between them said that "neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.

     The two agreed to establish "appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace within the international community," but they did not endorse a July report by the United Nations on that topic. Speaking alongside Xi in the Rose Garden, Obama said that China had also agreed to further open up access to its economy, not to devalue its currency, establish ways to avoid miscalculations that might lead to unintended collision between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. But Obama also twice said that the two had had "candid conversations" and while he said they would "help us understand each other better" the American president indicated that differences remained. Obama said that he and Xi did not discuss specific cases of cyber-crime, but he said "I raised once again our very serious concerns about cyber threats.

      I indicated that it has to stop." He said that the United States would still use "whatever tools we have in our tool kit" including sanctions on individuals and companies caught stealing secrets. Xi said that they should "turn cyber-security into a new source of growth rather than a confrontation between the two sides." Obama said the two sides agreed to work on rules of conduct for cyberspace and had made "progress but I have to insist that our work is not yet done." Another area of difference was China's ongoing construction of runways on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Obama said "the United States will continue to sail, fly or operate anywhere international law allows," adding that "I conveyed our concerns about construction and militarization of disputed areas which makes it hard for countries in the region to resolve these disputes peacefully." Xi did not promise to halt construction on the reefs or islands, but said that "China does not intend to pursue militarization."

GUYANA READY TO CONTAIN VENEZUELA MILITARY INCURSION ON ITS BORDER 

      
The Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force, Mark Phillips, stressed on Friday that if an incursion ever occurs inside Guyana's border, the response would be the detention of whoever violates the territorial integrity of the South American country. "In case of incursion, the Guyanese soldiers can arrest the military aggressors," said Phillips in a press conference. He headed the military drills of the Guyana's armed forces conducted nationwide, as a response to the mounting presence of Venezuelan troops on the border between the two countries amidst a dispute over the Essequibo territory and the Cuyuni River. "It belongs to us (the Cuyuni River)," Phillips stressed.

     Guyanese President David Granger recently announced he was willing to meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday. However, the Executive Office has not provided further information on the meeting. Meantime, hundreds of soldiers enlisted on Friday in all military bases before marching through the capital city of Georgetown. Venezuelan Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino López said Venezuelan troops were conducting military exercises in the eastern region of the country. Guyana began military exercises at a time when its relations with neighboring Venezuela are marked by a bitter border dispute.

      Hundreds of soldiers enlisted on Friday in all military bases before marching through the capital city of Georgetown and other nearby towns. Guyana's government said its troops will also perform parachute jumps outside the capital, reported AP. The exercises are being conducted only days after President of Guyana David Granger accused Venezuela of deploying troops in a border region. Venezuelan authorities have not commented on any deployment of troops, but Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino López last Tuesday said Venezuelan troops were conducting military exercises in the eastern region of the country. Venezuela has long claimed sovereignty over some 40% of the territory of Guyana. It has intensified its maritime claims after a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. said it made a significant oil discovery off the coast of Guyana.

"WAR" - READY GUYANESE SOLDIERS TOLD TO BE READY TO REPEL VENEZUELAN AGGRESSION    

     
"War" was the collective response by hundreds of soldiers Friday morning when they were asked "Ready for what?" By Chief-of-Staff of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Brigadier Mark Phillips at a Battle Muster at Base Camp Stephenson, Timehri. He quickly reminded them that their task was to "define aggression on our borders." Phillips told Demerara Waves that such a task includes monitoring the border to ascertain troop movement and report back to the military high command. That information is eventually transmitted to the civilian authority. He said if there is an incursion Guyanese soldiers could arrest opposing military personnel.

     GDF Chief of Staff Brigadier Mark Phillips addressing a Battle Muster at Camp Stephenson.He shied away from questions about possibly seeking or receiving military help from overseas, saying those are matters best dealt with through diplomacy by the government. Among the contingent of soldiers were several females dressed in battle fatigues and carrying heavy assault rifles. Woman Lance Corporal Latoya George said she is ready to leave her two children behind to be deployed to the Guyana-Venezuela border "As a mother it's difficult but as a soldier we plan to protect and serve so you got to give up somethings at times; it's not easy but you make a sacrifice when you become a soldier," she said.

     The Chief of Staff reiterated that the Guyana-Venezuela border was settled by the 1899 Arbitral Tribunal Award. "So as far as I'm concerned, as far as you are concerned it's a settled border. Isn't that so? The soldiers responded "yes sir." He pointed out that the Cuyuni River "belongs to us" and is part of the Guyana-Venezuela boundary. "It's important that we don't only monitor acts of incursion on the land but also what takes place in the river." READY FOR WAR: Woman Lance Corporal Latoya GeorgeThey responded with gusto when asked whether they were ready to define aggression and defend Guyana. The Chief of Staff expressed satisfaction with the countrywide mobilisation of Guyanese troops ahead of a route march Saturday morning to demonstrate to the public that they are operationally ready. Woman Lance Corporal George and her colleagues assured Guyanese "if the war comes, we are ready, we are all prepared. "Just be calm, don't be afraid, we got this," they said. George, who has been a member of the GDF for the past five years, says at her first military life was challenging for her because she had not been that physically fit.

September 26, 2015

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ: EVEN IN JAIL, I WILL FIGHT FOR A FREE VENEZUELA   

     
ON Feb. 12, 2014, the repressive and inept elite that governs Venezuelaordered my arrest on charges of conspiracy, arson, inciting violence, damage to public property and other crimes. I am now in solitary confinement in a 7-by-10-foot cell that has nothing more than a single bed, a toilet and a small shelf for my few changes of clothes. I am not allowed writing materials, and the only book permitted is the Bible. I don’t even have a light or candle for when it gets dark outside. While this has all been hard for my family, they understand that great causes require great sacrifices.

     I am convinced of the justice of our cause: the liberation of a people from the painful consequences of a system of government that has failed economically, socially and politically. Our economy is the worst-performing in the region: Gross domestic product is forecast to fall by 7 percent in 2015, and we suffer from the highest inflation in the world. This inflation has led to a devastating scarcity of basic staples and has destroyed domestic production, the oil industry included. The desperation these conditions have created, paired with widespread failures of law enforcement, has made ours one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 25,000 murders in 2014 alone.

     For the December elections, pressure must be applied on the government to allow electoral observers from the O.A.S. and the European Union, which has not occurred since 2006. Their independence and impartiality are needed now more than ever to ensure that our opportunity for change is not compromised. Finally, the government of Venezuela must end its baseless disqualifications of opposition leaders from the coming election. The ten who are banned from running include the former state governors Manuel Rosales and Pablo Pérez, the opposition leaders María Corina Machado and Carlos Vecchio, and myself. The regime should also release all 76 of its political prisoners, including those under house arrest, like the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and the illegally ousted mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos An election cannot be free or fair when those who think differently are barred from running or are even behind bars.

U.S. CHINA REACH DEAL ON CYBER THEFT 

      
The United States and China will no longer support cyberespionage that results in the theft of trade secrets or confidential business information, leaders from both countries announced Friday. It’s the first meaningful cooperation between the two countries on cybersecurity but falls well short of the Obama administration’s previously stated goals. “The United States and China agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors,” Obama said at a news conference Friday. “This is progress, but I have to insist that our work is not yet done.”

      U.S. officials previously suggested that the two countries would agree to not use cyberweapons against each other’s critical infrastructure, but that was not part of this deal. Washington and Beijing will open a new cyber “hotline,” where senior officials can “escalate” concerning technical issues. They have also agreed to create a senior experts group to continue discussing cyberwarfare and the protection of intellectual property. “The question now is, are words followed by actions," Obama said, in a news conference Friday. "We will be watching carefully to make an assessment on whether progress has been made in this area.” A meaningful cybersecurity arrangement was on top of the agenda between the two world leaders after experts blamed China for the hacks on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Anthem health insurance and a number of other breaches.

    American government officials previously suggested the two countries would at least agree to avoid crippling each other’s most essential services – including electrical grids, banking systems, hospitals and cellphone networks -- during peacetime. Disagreements over what actually constitutes “cyberwarfare” vs “cyberespionage,” along with China’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the breaches, seemed to doom negotiations on the protection of critical infrastructure from the outset. “In order to come to an agreement on critical infrastructure then you have to admit you have those capabilities,” said Ken Westin, senior security analyst at the cybersecurity company Tripwire. “China is taking the stance that they’re completely inexperienced and almost naïve in this area," he said. "They play more the victim when it comes to cybersecurity, they haven’t talked about things like the OPM hack, they can’t even communicate on the risks of cyberwar and cyberespionage.”

PRESIDENT SANTOS AND THE FARC ANNOUNCED A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH    

     
The Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a major breakthrough Wednesday night aimed at putting an end to the 51-year-old insurgent war that has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people. After three years of negotiations in Havana, Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, said they had reached a deal on the key issue of transitional justice and pledged to sign a definite peace treaty within six months. The two sides agreed to establish a March 23 deadline for signing the peace treaty. From that date, the FARC will have 60 days to disarm.

     Transitional justice had been one of the stickiest issues during the Havana peace talks, which have broken down on several occasions since they began in November 2012. The talks took a new turn in July when FARC leaders announced a new unilateral ceasefire and the government agreed to stop bombing rebel camps in Colombia. Since then, only a few skirmishes have occurred. Under the deal, the government and the rebels have agreed to create a post-conflict international justice tribunal, which will sentence those who accept responsibility, including members of the insurgency, military officers, politicians, civilians and others who played roles in the war.Depending on the convictions, those sentences could be of between five and eight years in a low security facility.

      Those who do not immediately accept their responsibility for causing harm to victims will be investigated by the tribunal, which will be made up of a panel of judges selected from Colombia and other countries. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 20 years in a regular prison. A reconciliation commission will also be created and reparations to the victims will be made under the terms of the agreement. The Colombian government is also willing to give amnesty to up to 15,000 guerrillas, who are charged with political crimes or having ties with politicians, said Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre. The two sides will now continue their talks on the last issue of their six-point agenda, which is implementing the ceasefire and verifying that the military and the rebels are no longer fighting.

September 25, 2015

POPE FRANCIS' CALL TO CONGRESS TO ABOLISH DEATH PENALTY   

     
Pope Francis’s unequivocal call in his speech before Congress for the death penalty to be abolished in the US comes at a critical moment in the history of the ultimate punishment, with several states preparing to restart the controversial practice after several months of interlude. The pontiff’s bold statement on Thursday could not be misconstrued: he told the assembled members of Congress that he wanted to see the “global abolition of the death penalty”. He rooted his opposition in fundamental moral ground, saying the conviction stemmed from his belief that “every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes”. A total of 1,414 prisoners have been executed in the US since the modern death penalty started in 1976. Overall, the practice has been on the wane since its peak in 1999 when 98 prisoners were killed – last year that number fell to 35.

      But though the wind of change is blowing against US capital punishment, a group of states, mainly in the south, continue to adhere doggedly to the contentious penalty. In June, the US supreme court in effect removed barriers to carrying out executions when it gave the go-ahead for the use of a controversial drug, midazolam, in death protocols – thus clearing a legal barrier that had been holding states back for several months. Now the death penalty rump is cranking back in to executions with renewed vigor. Between now and the end of October, 11 executions are scheduled in seven states – Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. It was within that context that the pope delivered his forthright words. Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center said that Francis commanded significant influence. “People’s views about the death penalty are affected by a number of different things – concern for the innocent, racial discrimination, cost. But they also have moral views about the death penalty and statements by the pope and other religious figures are influential in changing beliefs,” Dunham said.

      While the most heated debate over the criminal justice system is reserved for the death penalty, the pope also vented his dismay over another extreme judicial practice in the US – the meting out of life without parole sentences. Otherwise called “life means life” sentences, this involves committing convicted prisoners essentially to remain behind bars for the rest of their natural life. The pontiff said he opposed the sentence because it removed all hope from the prisoner. “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” he said. The US is the only country in the world that still sentences juveniles under 18 to life without parole, with some 2,500 people currently serving that sentence for crimes they committed as a child. As the ACLU has also reported, there are more than 3,000 prisoners of all ages who have been sentenced never to be set free fornon-violent offenses that in one case included stealing a jacket valued at $159.

VLADIMIR PUTIN CONFIRMS RUSSIAN Military involvement in syriA'S civil wAR 

      
Russia is providing “serious” training and logistical support to the Syrian army, Vladimir Putin has said, in the first public confirmation of the depth of Russia’s involvement in Syria's civil war. Commenting on reports that Russian combat troops have been deployed to Syria, the Russian president said discussion of direct military intervention is “so far premature,” but did not rule out that such a step could be taken in future. “To say we're ready to do this today — so far it's premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency quoted Mr Putin as saying when asked about Russian intervention in Syria during an economic forum in Vladivostok. "We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism," Mr Putin said. "To this end, we hold consultations with our American partners — I have personally spoken on the issue with US President Obama."

     Russia has repeatedly used its UN Security Council veto to support Bashar Assad throughout the four-and-a-half-year-long war, which is believed to have claimed some 250,000 lives. Russia has also been a long-term supplier of arms to the Syrian government, something it now justifies by the need to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). Speculation is growing that Russia has significantly expanded its involvement in recent months, including with deliveries of advanced weaponry, a raft of spare parts for existing machines, and the deployment of increasing numbers of military advisers and instructors. Russian troops are said to be "fighting alongside Assad's army against Syrian rebels." Last week Syrian state television released images showing an advanced Russian-built armoured personnel carrier, the BTR-82a, in combat. Videos have also appeared in which troops engaged in combat appear to shout instructions to one another in Russian.

     Last week the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth cited western diplomatic sources saying that Russia was on the verge of deploying “thousands” of troops to Syria to establish an airbase from which the Russian air force would fly combat sorties against Isis. Russian analysts called the Yedioth report far-fetched, pointing to Russian wariness of repeating the American experience in Iraq and the current strain on the Russian military froma covert war in Ukraine. Most government-connected analysts have previously insisted that Russia’s support for Assad is “strictly political” and have dismissed reports of military involvement as “madness.” “It is a canard. A deployment of that size would require approval from the Federation Council [Russia’s upper house of parliament],” said Yevgenny Buzhinsky, a retired Russian general who now heads the PIR analytical centre in Moscow. “As far as I am aware any advisers there do not engage in combat.” But Mr Putin’s comments chime with experts who say the Russian government would be willing to supply substantial logistical support and advice even if it shies away from large-scale intervention.

US SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER PRESENCE OF RUSSIAN FIGHTER JETS IN SYRIA    

     
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that Russia's movement of tactical aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to Syria could pose a threat to American and allied forces, and made clear that the U.S. could accept a resolution to the civil war that allows President Bashar Assad to remain in power for an unspecified time. "We're prepared to negotiate. Is Assad prepared to negotiate, really negotiate? Is Russia prepared to bring him to the table and actually find the solution to this violence?" Kerry told reporters after meeting with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. U.S. officials said Russia sent a small number of fighter jets to a base in Syria on Friday, hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter talked with Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the first military contacts between the two countries in some time.

     "Clearly, the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity ... and surface-to-air missiles raise serious questions," Kerry said. The Russians have deployed at least one such system, according to an American official, who was not authorized to discuss military matters and spoke on condition of anonymity. Russia says its recent military buildup in Syria is designed to fight the Islamic State group. While IS lacks an air force, the Russian aircraft are capable of striking ground targets and providing close air support for ground forces, a U.S. intelligence official said. The official was not authorized to discuss military matters and spoke on condition of anonymity Russia's military moves in Syria are its first major expeditionary force deployment outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan, the official said. Kerry said the military-to-military talks with the Russians are designed to make sure there are no incidents between Russian and American forces.

     The discussions also amount to a tacit acceptance of the Russian buildup, after weeks of warnings from Washington against any Russian escalation in Syria. The goal, Kerry said, is to make sure "there's no potential of a mistake or of an accident of some kind that produces a greater potential of conflict." While Kerry stressed the U.S. demand that Assad must go, he stated explicitly that an acceptable resolution to the Syrian war would allow Assad to remain in place for a time before departing. "We're not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time — we're open," Kerry said. "But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion and Russia has refused to bring him to the table in order to do that. So that's why we're where we are." As for an Assad timetable, Kerry said "it doesn't have to be on day one or month one or whatever," but in context of negotiations. Kerry also said the U.S. considered Assad "a magnet" for foreign fighters who are filling the Islamic State group's ranks. "So there's a lack of logic," Kerry said, for the Russians to say "they are bringing in more equipment, shoring up Assad, at the same time they say they're going after" IS militants.
 

September 24, 2015

ARCHBISHOP LÜCKERT: WITH MADURO ES POSIBLE EVEN CIVIL WAR  

     
The Archbishop of Coro, Roberto Lückert said yesterday that the actions of President Nicolas Maduro in frotnera respond to an electoral strategy that can reach the end of a civil war inicar. "Maduro himself has already said, if the opposition wins will go out.

     Here anything can happen.Everything is possible even a civil war and many casualties, "he said. In an interview with the newspaper ABC consedida of Spain, the cleric said that the government is able to hold on to such measures, which would cause many casualties. The strategy idea alleged Cuban regime advisers. "They cling to the Cuban strategy because there succeeded. That country was plunged into misery, destroyed, "he added.

     Lückert measures for state of emergency in the border states of Tachira, Zulia, Apure and Amazonas state is an experiment limited to guarantee parliamentary elections. "The totalitarian regime we have in Venezuela is able to suspend the elections of December 6. Declared states of exception it is a test tube to see how to condition and even suspend the elections, "he said. Moreover, the archbishop considered that the Pope has spoken Franciscose because it is focused on solving the relations between Cuba and the United States. "The Pope did not want to disturb the nest. His priority was to restore relations between Cuba and the United States.

SANTOS: MADURO "BROKE THE RULES OF THE GAME" 

      
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asserted on Tuesday that in the meeting held on Monday, he told his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro that he "broke the rules of the game" when he decided to shut down the border and to "violate the rights" of Colombians. During the International Seminar called New Ways to Conquer Markets, Santos recalled that former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and him had many ideological differences; however, they respected their differences, Efe reported.

    "We think in diametrically opposed ways, we believe in different models, but we are Heads of State, and if we learn to respect the differences we have, we can have a good relation," late President Chávez once told Santos. Santos noted that he brought that anecdote to Maduro's attention in the meeting held on Monday, as he rejected President Maduro's decision to closethe main border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela on August 19, and to deport Colombian immigrants from Venezuela. "He (Maduro) did not even let me know about it; you cannot do that," President Santos noted.

     In addition, Santos commented that in the meeting with Maduro, they "greeted each other coldly" and then they referred to the offenses they had used against each other. The bilateral meeting was held in Quito, Ecuador under the auspices of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur). The presidents agreed to the return of their respective ambassadors and to investigate the situation on the border, among other measures.

CUBAN DISSIDENTS COMPLAIN OF POPE FRANCIS' SILENCE ON HUMAN RIGHTS      

     
Members of Cuba’s internal opposition complained on Tuesday that Pope Francis did not mention the matter of human rights during his just-completed pastoral visit to the island, but they acknowledged the positive aspects of his messages in favor of reconciliation, unity and forgiveness. The leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, and former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer criticized the pontiff for not referring in hissermons and speeches to the situation of basic rights in Cuba. “We really know that he is not the liberator of Cuba, that the pope came as a missionary of compassion and to deal with the rapprochement of the Church with the government, that he said very nice words in his homilies, but did not mention respect for human rights and freedom,” Soler told EFE.

     Ferrer, the coordinator of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, commented in a similar manner, lamenting that there were no “clear pronouncements” in the “pale” papal homilies, while “today between 80 and 100 arrests of activists occurred in Santiago de Cuba and nearby towns to prevent their attendance at the event involving Francis.” Ferrer said that three members of his group remain in custody in Havana after onSunday they broke through the security cordon and approached Pope Francis shortly before the Mass he celebrated on the Plaza of the Revolution. “We haven’t heard the term human rights from any quarter and we regret that the pope has not spoken in a direct manner about the difficult situation Cuba is experiencing in that regard,” he said.

      Despite that, however, former political prisoner Marta Beatriz Roque said that Francis’s visit is going to make “contributions,” as occurred with those of John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012. “There are people in the exile community who would have loved to hear the words human rights, repression, policy, but (the pope) was very intelligent because he has great facility to express himself and he knew how to fulfill the objectives he brought with him for this visit,” she added. Roque, Soler and independent journalist Miriam Leiva were arrested for a few hours on the first two days of the papal visit when they tried to attend the events presided over by the pope in Havana and to which they had been invited. Leiva told EFE that, although she could not meet with the pope, she felt it was “very positive” that she had been invited to do so because “it was a way of paying attention to and listening to the opposition in Cuba.” 

September 23, 2015

ISRAEL, RUSSIA TO COORDINATE MILITARY ACTIONS ON SYRIA  

     
Israel and Russia agreed on Monday to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow. Recent Russian reinforcements for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which regional sources say include warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, worry Israel, whose jets have on occasion bombed the neighboring Arab country to foil suspected handovers of advanced arms to Assad's Lebanese guerrilla ally Hezbollah.

     Briefing Israeli reporters after he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu said he had come with the goal of "prevent(ing) misunderstandings between IDF (Israel Defense Force) units and Russian forces" in Syria, where Assad is fighting Islamist-dominated insurgents in a civil war. Netanyahu added that he and Putin "agreed on a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings". He did not elaborate. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin. In earlier remarks as he welcomed Netanyahu to the presidential residence of Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, Putin said Russian actions in the Middle East would always be "responsible".

     Underlining the importance of Netanyahu's one-day visit to Moscow, Israel's premier took along the chief of its armed forces and the general in charge of Israeli military intelligence. Putin, who shares Western concern about the spread of Islamic State influence, has pledged to continue military support for Assad, assistance that Russia says is in line with international law. Russia has been focusing forces on Syria's coast, where Moscow keeps a big Mediterranean naval base. The United States, which along with its allies has been flying missions against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, has also been holding so-called "deconfliction" talks with Russia. Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he had informed the Americans "on each and every detail" of his Moscow visit, adding: "Everyone has an interest in avoiding an unnecessary clash" over Syria.

RUSSIA DEPLOYS 28 COMBAT PLANES IN SYRIA 

      
Washington in recent weeks has expressed growing concern over Russia's moves to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and warned that militarily backing his regime risks further hampering efforts at bringing peace. Experts said the buildup is likely a prelude to military action. "There are 28 fighter and bomber aircraft" at an airfield in the western Syrian province of Latakia, one of the officials told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

      A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the figure and added there were also about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base. That official also said Russia was operating drones over Syria, but did not give additional details. According to the officials, Russia has sent 12 SU-24 attack aircraft, 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft and four Flanker fighter jets. Analyst Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said: "They are not going to sit around and defend the airfield or maybe even the province of Latakia. "This kind of aircraft suggests that the Russians intend to exert their combat power outside of Latakia in an offensive role."

      Moscow has been on a diplomatic push to get the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting the Islamic State group in Syria to join forces with Assad against the jihadists. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday, ending an 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by NATO anger over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis. They agreed to continue discussions, which are crucial to lessen the risk of incidents involving coalition forces and Russian forces operating in the same air space. The US-led coalition is carrying out almost daily strikes against the jihadists in Syria.

PRESIDENT DAVID GRANGER ON TUESDAY SAID VENEZUELA WAS BUILDING UP TROOPS NEAR THE VORDER WITH GUYANA      

     
President David Granger on Tuesday said Venezuela was building up troops near the border with Guyana.  "We have recently received reports that Venezuela has been making extraordinary military deployments in eastern Venezuela, that is western Guyana, which seem to be impacting on Guyana’s territorial defence," he told reporters. He said he and top security chiefs were meeting Tuesday to craft a response.

     Asked how convinced he was that the build-up of marine vessels and various forms of ground forces near the border between the two South American countries had anything to do with the controversy over the Essequibo Region, the retired Brigadier of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) said "I have been in my earlier profession familiar with Venezuelan behavior and what we have noticed during the month of September is an extraordinary escalation of Venezuelan military activity in eastern Venezuela," he said.

      The President stressed that the military build-up was "abnormal" and that the Police Commisisoner, Seelall Persaud; Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force, Brigadier Mark Phillips; Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan and Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo were Tuesday meeting at Cabinet to address Venezuela's persistent "aggressive" and "hostile" behaviour towards Guyana. "We feel that Venezuela is treading a dangerous course at this point in time rather than seeking a peaceful resolution of the matter, Venezuela seems to be pursuing a very offensive and aggressive course," he added. Granger reiterated that he would be raising Venezuela's claim to the mineral and forest-rich Essequibo Region in his address to the United Nations General Assembly next week and in bilateral talks with other world leaders.

September 22, 2015

POPE FRANCIS CLOSES HISTORIC VISIT TO CUBAN CITY OF HOLGUIN 

     
The Holy See capped a historic visit to the eastern Cuban city of Holguín on Monday with a blessing for the island’s fourth-most populous city from its highest point, Loma de la Cruz, or Cross on the Hill. Pope Francis headed to the hilltop site in the afternoon, where he held a short ceremony to bestow a blessing on Holguín, in the shadow of a large white cross that overlooks the city. A children's choir sang Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in Spanish, as well as two songs by an Argentine composer beloved by Francis. The pontiff praised their talent. “And don't forget to pray for me,” he said to the children.

       Earlier on Monday, Cubans thronged the Plaza de la Revolución in Holguín, enduring sweltering heat but buoyed by faith and hand fans, to join Pope Francis as he celebrated Mass on the last, full day of the pontiff’s visit to the island. Dressed in red vestments, Francis delivered a homily that acknowledged the efforts of Cuba’s Catholic community to practice their faith, and he touched on recurring themes of his papacy, including the frailty of humans, the mercy of God and the power of second chances. At one point, Francis made the kind of reference that could be interpreted as political as well as religious. He was celebrating Mass on the Feast of Saint Matthew, whose story is one of spiritual conversion.

      Christ, the pontiff said, “invites us slowly to overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change.” Was he alluding to politics from, toward or within Cuba? “His speeches always have many dimensions,” said the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “Each one of us has to start to change... Beyond that, naturally, there are many interpretations.” Reporters also asked Lombardi again about dissidents in Havana who said they were detained by state security forces to keep them from attending Francis' events in the Cuban capital on Sunday — even though the pontiff had telephoned to invite them. Lombardi reiterated that while Francis did telephone the dissidents, seeing them was not on his formal schedule: “It wasn't planned and it isn't planned.”

ECUADOR HOSTS SANTOS-MADURO MEETING WITH CELAC ND UNASUR PRESENCE 

      
As part of the National Dialogue on Equity and Social Justice that takes place in Ecuador, this country will host Monday a meeting between Colombian and Venezuelan presidents, Juan Manuel Santos and Nicolás Maduro, on Monday in order to look for a solution to the border crisis between both countries. The Carondelet government palace will be the place for this dialogue, organized by Ecuador as pro tempore president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and Uruguay as president of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).

      Presidents Santos and Maduro will meet in Quito at 14:00, with the presence of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and Uruguayan Tabaré Vasquez, both as representatives of regional organizations. Foreign ministers Ricardo Patiño, from Ecuador, Rodolfo Nin Novoa (Uruguay), María Angela Holguin (Colombia) and Delcy Rodriguez (Venezuela) will also participate. A press conference is expected to take place at 18:00 in the Carondelet government palace. Last Saturday, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa described the invitation acceptance from his Colombian and Venezuelan counterparts as a gesture of “kindness.”

      The Venezuelan decision to close the border was adopted after an incident that left three citizens injured; more than 1,400 Colombians have been deported to date while 20,000 had voluntarily returned to their country. “They have been condescending with Celac and Unasur and we thank them,” Correa said during his weekly report and added that both (Santos and Maduro) have their legitimate expectations and demands (…) and “accepted the invitation with no conditions.” Last weekend, president Santos indicated he will travel to Ecuador on Monday “with the best intentions but without big expectations,” according to what he wrote on his Twitter account, while Maduro declared he will propose to strengthen drug trafficking control in the border. Venezuela demands actions from Colombia to recover the border control, and the revoking of measures that affect their currency and legalize the illegal extraction of food, medicine and fuel.
 

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ TOOK PART IN POPE FRANCIS' MASS IN HAVANA       

     
Argentine president Cristina Fernández took part in Pope Francis' Sunday's mass from Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, as she watched the pontiff in the company of her Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. Sitting next to the Cuban president, Fernández followed Francis' services as he called for society to “protect the most fragile,” in a service witnessed by more than 100,000 worshippers at the Havana landmark.

      This time, the seventh was mostly a protocol meeting, but Cristina Fernandez takes every opportunity possible to join the Argentine born Pope. Raul Castro and Fernandez met on Saturday and discussed the state of bilateral relations and ways of strengthening the relationship. Cristina Fernandez told reporters that she supported Cuba's efforts to end the U.S. economic embargo and considered it “a great honor” to attend the Mass Following the religious service the Pope shook hands with authorities at the event, including Cristina Fernandez.

       This was the seventh time the Argentine president meets with Francis and apparently there will be an eighth opportunity probably in the US or at the United Nations since both leaders are scheduled to address the General Assembly. Argentine diplomacy also advanced that the president might again meet with the Pope, following her attendance to the last G20 meeting scheduled for November in Turkey. Apparently Cristina Fernandez will make a call at the Vatican, probably her last as Argentine president. Castro and Fernandez met on Saturday and discussed the state of bilateral relations and ways of strengthening the relationship. The two leaders also discussed other topics, including integration efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Argentine sources.

September 21, 2015

POPE FRANCIS MEETS WITH CUBAN FORMER DICTATOR FIDEL CASTRO     

     
Pope Francis met with CUBAN FORMER DICTATOR Fidel Castro on Sunday after urging thousands of Cubans to serve one another and not an ideology, a subtle jab at the communist system delivered during a Mass celebrated under the gaze of an image of Che Guevara in Havana's iconic Revolution Plaza. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial, with an exchange of books and discussion about big issues facing humanity, including Francis' recent encyclical on the environment and the global economic system.


     Unlike the 2012 visit of Benedict XVI, when Castro peppered the German theologian with questions, the meeting with Francis was more of a conversation, papal spokesman the Rev. Frederico Lombardi said. A photo provided by Alex Castro, Fidel's son and official photographer, showed the 89-year-old former president and Francis looking into each other's eye as they shook hands, the pope in his white vestments and Castro in a white button-down shirt and Adidas sweat top. Castro appeared to be gripping another, unidentified man for support.

     Francis called on Castro after celebrating Mass in Havana's main plaza on his first full day in Cuba. Believers and non-believers alikestreamed into the square before dawn, and they erupted in cheers when history's first Latin American pope spun through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. Francis didn't disappoint, winding his way slowly through the masses and stopping to kiss children held up to him. While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice their faith and Cuba is the least Catholic country in Latin America. The crowd was not as big as when St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit the island in 1998, but it drew people who seemed to genuinely want to be there and listen to Francis' message.

OAS SECRETARY ALMAGRO BACKS ELECTORAL OBSERVATION IN VENEZUELA

      
Luis Almagro, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), defended himself in an open letter of the criticism made by Venezuelan Minister of Communes and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elías Jaua. The Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, jumped in defense of his appeal to electoral observation in Venezuela and his handling of the Venezuela-Colombia crisis.

     In an open letter released on Thursday evening in his Twitter account and posted on the OAS website, Almagro replied to the criticism made by Venezuelan Minister of Communes and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elías Jaua, who accused him of having an "anti-Venezuelan behavior." Almagro supported his recent trip to Cúcuta on the Colombian border, to observe the situation of displaced Colombians after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared state of emergency three weeks ago and ordered the closure of several border points.

      The National Electoral Council (CNE) published a communiqué rejecting the "interventionist remarks" made by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, on Monday. The electoral body noted that such statements "violated the principles and purposes" of the United Nations (UN), the international law, and Venezuela's Constitution. The CNE added in the communiqué that Almagro had inherited the "longtime discredit and mistrust that organization fuels in free and independent nations." The OAS seeks "to replace Venezuelan legitimate and independent powers," reckoned the CNE.

CUBAN DISSIDENTS ACCUSE RAUL CASTRO OF 'SOCIAL CLEANSING' FOR POPE VISITS       

     
A dissident human rights group today accused the Cuban government of “social cleansing” ahead of a three-night visit by Pope Francis, saying police had rounded up thousands of beggars and homeless people in three cities where the pope will travel. Cuban officials do not comment on police activity. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation expressed its “deep indignation and concern” for the police operation it said was under way in Havana, Holguin and Santiago, where the pope will visit from Saturday to Tuesday.

     “According to our estimates, this has resulted in the internment of thousands of beggars, panhandlers, ragamuffins, the mentally ill and other vulnerable wanderers, most of them homeless,” the commission said in a statement, contending the operation was conducted with approval from Cuba’s highest authorities. “This ‘social cleansing’ intends to remove them from the view of pilgrims, foreign journalists and other visitors” coming to see the pope, the statement said.

     The whereabouts of those picked up were unknown, the commission said. The group publicly asked Pope Francis to intervene and seek the release of those picked up. The commission monitors the arrest or detention of political opponents and common criminals. Its latest annual report said Cuba held 60 political prisoners plus 11 more who were on parole and unable the leave the island. The commission also publishes a monthly report of activists who are temporarily detained for political activity, saying 768 were held in August, the largest single monthly total this year.

September 20, 2015

AN ANXIOUS, BUT HOPEFUL RETURN TO CUBA FOR POPE'S VISIT        

     
When Fidel Castro staged a first, failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, Roman Catholic Archbishop Enrique Perez Serantes pleaded for the rebel leader's life to be saved. After Castro took power, Serantes' support turned to opposition and the prelate's family fled. As they built a new life in Miami, Serantes' family vowed never to return while Castro was in power. Now, as formerly icy relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw, thousands of Cuban-American families are trying to finally put five decades of bitterness behind them. For many, the visit to Cuba of Pope Francis, the man who mediated detente between the two nations, is the moment to return. Hundreds of Cuban-Americans are traveling to the island this week to see Francis, hopeful that the pontiff who shepherded the two countries toward reconciliation can also bring them peace with the past.

      "I keep hearing that I'm going to get sad and have these overwhelming feelings and emotions of despair," said Serantes' great-niece, Frances Serantes Gomez, who flew to Havana on Friday on a trip of 250 mostly Cuban-Americans organized by the Archbishop of Miami. "I hope I don't feel that way. I hope because I'm going with the pope, I see something positive coming out of this." For many, it is an anguished decision, with the plight of parents and grandparents, many now deceased, weighing heavily on their consciences. Fidel Castro is out of power but his brother Raul is president. The recent diplomatic opening and Francis' personal intervention nevertheless provided the final push many Cuban-Americans needed to return. "At the end, I said, these people who were cruel, they do not own my country. That's my country as well. I have a right to go back," said Clara Gonzalez, 69, who is returning with her sister and three children. Her sister has never returned to Cuba. Her children have never been there at all.

     Many of the Cuban-Americans coming with Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski have either spent decades in exile or grew up in the U.S. with only stories and faded photographs as a testament to their connection with the island. For many, the past anguish is still palpable. "There were some really deep psychic wounds, of having lost your country, and in a lot of ways, part of your identity," Wenski said. "That's something you can feel a lot of anger about. And certainly a lot of Cuban exiles do. But I think what the pope is trying to do, and what we're trying to do in going to Cuba, is to help Cuban people build a future of hope. And you can't build a future of hope on a foundation of resentment." Amparo Martinez was 14 when she was sent alone to the United States with thousands of other Cuban children after the revolution in what became known as Operation Pedro Pan. She's going to see the pope in Philadelphia. She said that when her father died in Cuba, she was unable to return. "I didn't see my father. I wasn't able to have a Mass for him. Nothing. And now everything is going to be fine?" said Martinez, 68, who opposes the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.

JAPAN'S PARLIAMENT APPROVES OVERSEAS COMBAT ROLE FOR MILITARY

      
In a middle-of-the night vote that capped a tumultuous struggle with opposition parties in Parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan secured final passage of legislation on Saturday authorizing overseas combat missions for his country’s military, overturning a decades-old policy of reserving the use of force for self-defense. The legislation had been expected to pass; Mr. Abe’s governing coalition controls a formidable majority in the legislature. But analysts said the grinding political battle and days of demonstrations that accompanied the effort could hurt his standing with a public already skeptical of his hawkish vision for Japan’s national security. The debate often doubled as a forum for airing views about Japan’s most important ally, the United States. Many were hostile.

      “If this legislation passes, we will absolutely be caught up in illegal American wars,” Taro Yamamoto, a leader of a small left-leaning opposition party, said in a committee debate on Thursday. The debate ended with lawmakers piled on top of one another in a melee for control of the chairman’s microphone. Lawmakers with the governing party applauded after the legislation on the military was passed Saturday. On Friday, Mr. Yamamoto held up the voting by taking a slow-motion “cow walk” to the podium to cast his ballot. Other opposition groups entered symbolic censure motions against Mr. Abe and officials in his Liberal Democratic Party or made long, filibuster-like speeches, often repeating the conviction that a military with expanded powers would end up being dragged into an unjustified American war.

     “We must not become accomplices to murder,” said Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party. Similar sentiments have been echoed — usually in less provocative terms — by newspaper columnists, political scientists and members of the general public. The opposition’s obstructionist tactics delayed Mr. Abe’s victory until after 2 a.m., but could not prevent it. Mr. Abe’s critics have a variety of grievances against the defense legislation. Not least is the question of its constitutionality: In multiple surveys of constitutional specialists, more than 90 percent have said they believe that it violates Japan’s basic law, laid down by the United States in the postwar occupation, which renounces the use of force to resolve international disputes.

VENEZUELAN SOLDIERS ENTERED COLOMBIA, FIRED WEAPONS       

     
Members of Venezuela's national guard crossed into Colombia on Friday, firing their weapons and setting a motorcycle on fire, the Colombian army said, amid an on-going diplomatic crisis between the two countries. About 15 Venezuelan soldiers entered Maicao municipality in eastern La Guajira province in apparent pursuit of an individual on a motorcycle who had attempted to cross the border into Venezuela, the Colombian army said in a statement. Relations between the South American neighbors have been tense since Venezuela closed major border crossings in recent weeks and deported over 1,500 Colombians in what it calls a crackdown on crime.

     "The Bolivarian National Guard fired shots with long guns and carried out the pursuit in a 4x4 vehicle inside Colombian territory," the statement said, adding that the soldiers went about a kilometer (half-mile) into Colombia. After the individual on the motorcycle entered a home, the soldiers burnt the abandoned vehicle and returned to Venezuela, the army said. Community members said they were mistreated by the soldiers, and shell casings, as well as the remains of the charred motorcycle, were found by Colombian troops, the statement added.

     The army will remain in the municipality and has turned over details of the events to the defense minister. Tensions between Bogota and Caracas rose further last weekend when Colombia said three Venezuelan aircraft had been caught flying in its airspace without permission, a claim Venezuela characterized as "invented." However, after mediations by Ecuador and Uruguay, the presidents of both countries said they would meet on Monday in Quito to discuss the dispute. Earlier on Friday a Venezuelan fighter jet crashed near the Colombian border, killing both pilots aboard. Venezuelan officials said an "illicit aircraft" likely linked to drug trafficking had entered its airspace.

September 19, 2015

UNITED NATIONS WORKING GROUP DEMANDS IMMEDIATE RELEASE OF LEOPOLDO LOPEZ         

     
The United Nations UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged the Venezuelan government to consider its request to visit the country in order to help strengthen the rule of law.

     The United Nations UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged the governmentof Venezuela to release opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was sentenced on September 10 to nearly 14 years in prison. "The sentence was issued after a 19-month long trial conducted behind closed doors and marked by serious irregularities," affirmed Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group.

     Hong noted that due process and fair trial were not respected in López's case. "The basis of the allegations was not published; the accused was not allowed to exercise his right to an adequate defense and the exculpatory evidence he offered was not accepted," he explained. Apart from his release, the UN Working Group reiterated its request to grant Leopoldo López full redress, including moral and material compensation. It also urged the Venezuelan government to consider its request to visit the country in order to help strengthen the rule of law.

PRESIDENT OBAMA TAKES MOVE TO FURTHER LIBERALIZE RULES ON TRADE WITH CUBA

      
The Obama administration on Friday moved to further change U.S.-Cuba trade rules, ushering in what experts called a major development that would significantly open the door to expanded business on the island. The rules will be formally published and take effect Monday. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said they underscore “the administration’s commitment to promote constructive change for the Cuban people.” “A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike,” he added in a statement. “By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba.”

     The rules amend existing ones to boost engagement between American and Cuban people, accelerate the free flow of information to and from Cubans, and ramp up independent economic activity generated by Cubans. Experts who have reviewed the new rules described them as significant and sweeping, as the administration intended. The rules significantly chip away at the embargo that has governed trade with Cuba for some five decades. Still, that doesn’t mean trade between the U.S. and the island will be free and open. For starters, current trade law still restricts major commercial activity between the U.S. and Cuba. And whatever the intent of U.S. rulemakers -- and the hopes of U.S. companies -- actually getting businesses open on the ground in Cuba will require the assent of the Cuban government.

    In a press call with reporters Friday morning, administration officials -- unnamed according to the ground rules of the call -- said that the U.S. has taken major steps. But that’s not all that is necessary to actually establish a business presence on the island. That is beyond our control, in terms of determining what the government of Cuba is going to allow to happen,” a senior administration official said. “But we … have done what we can to lower all barriers to allow U.S. companies to go down there and really figure out how to get this done with the government of Cuba.” By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS LEOPOLDO LOPEZ'S CONVICTION       

     
A Venezuelan fighter jet with two people on board crashed near the Colombian border late on Thursday evening after an "illicit aircraft" believed to be Colombian was found violating airspace, according to the Venezuelan government. It was not immediately clear whether the two pilots on board the Sukhoi-30 aircraft had been killed. The cause of the crash has not been determined. The crash comes amid growing tension between the South American neighbors afterVenezuela closed major border crossings in recent weeks in what it said was a crackdown on crime.

      "Our air force will continue to fight relentlessly ... to guarantee our sovereignty and independence, combating the scourges of narcotrafficking, paramilitarism and other crimes committed on the Colombia-Venezuela border," MinisterHe added that the zone in which the plane illegally entered Venezuela was known to be used by "mafias linked to narcotrafficking." Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has closed border crossings and deported more than 1,500 Colombians over the last month. He blames smuggling for Venezuela's chronic shortages of basic goods. Around 18,000 Colombians have left Venezuela, according to Colombian authorities, some wading across the river border carrying everything from mattresses to refrigerators on their backs.
 
      Tension rose further over the weekend when Colombia said three Venezuelan aircraft were caught flying in its airspace without permission, a claim Venezuela said was "invented." Critics of Venezuela's government see its crackdown as an attempted diversion before December elections. Maduro's popularity remains low amid anger over empty supermarketshelves, high crime rates and annual inflation thought to be in triple digits. Venezuela's strict price and currency controls have created huge discrepancies in the price of goods between it and Colombia, leading to smuggling of everything from toothpaste to gasoline. Venezuela says the value of goods smuggled out of the country amounts to $2 billion per year. Maduro is set to meet his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos on Monday in Ecuador. A rescue mission has been deployed to search for the pilots and an investigation launched, Padrino said.

September 18, 2015

US WARNS NORTH KOREA AGAINST NUCLEAR 'PROVOCATION'         

     
Pyongyang has said it has restarted the long-mothballed Yongbyon reactor, which is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and has threatened to launch a rocket which US officials see as a test-bed for ballistic missile technology. Challenged as to whether Washington could respond credibly to the North Korean moves after earlier striking a deal to allow Iran's nuclear program to continue under international supervision, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted it could.

    "There will be severe consequences as we go forward if North Korea does not refrain from its irresponsible provocations that aggravate regional concerns, make the region less safe, and if it refuses to live up to its international obligations," he said. "Our position is clear: We will not accept a DPRK -- North Korea -- as a nuclear weapons state, just as we said that about Iran." Asked what the United States could do if North Korea continues to flout international agreements not to expand its nuclear and missile programs, Kerry said Kim Jong-Un's regime was already experiencing growing diplomatic isolation.

     "China, for instance, has taken serious steps in the last year, year-and-a-half, since we engaged China on this subject specifically to encourage them to do more, and they have," he told reporters at the State Department. Kerry said he had also spoken to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about North Korean defiance. "So there's a lot happening. And I can assure you that all of these countries remain fixated on the need for North Korea to denuclearize with respect to its weapons program and to live up to its international obligations," he said. North Korea mothballed the Yongbyon reactor in 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord but began renovating it after its latest nuclear test in 2013. When fully operational the reactor is capable of producing around six kilograms (13 pounds) of plutonium a year -- enough for one nuclear bomb, experts say.

VENEZUELA OPPOSITION LEADER JAILING PROMPTS CRITICISM AT HOME AND ABROAD

      
The conviction and harsh sentencing of one of Venezuela’s top anti-government leaders has brought widespread criticism domestically and abroad for what has been condemned as a politically motivated ruling, while opposition parties plot how to channel the indignation into electoral victory. International human rights groups, the United States, United Nations and the European Union decried the lack of judicial independence in the trial of Leopoldo López, found guilty on Thursday of inciting violence in 2014 protests and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison after an 18-month trial. The US government said it was “deeply troubled” by the conviction on what it considers “illegitimate” charges. At a small rally in Caracas on Friday, López’s fellow opposition leaders said the ruling was proof that Venezuela was living in an authoritarian regime under President Nicolás Maduro, and called for peaceful demonstrations on 19 September to protest the conviction.

     During the closed-door trial the court rejected nearly all the defence witnesses while allowing the prosecution more than 100 testimonies. López insists he called only for peaceful protests and his backers blame armed government supporters for much of the bloodshed last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. Government officials said López implicitly encouraged the violence. The demonstration next week will also be the official kick-off of the opposition’s campaign ahead of 6 December parliamentary elections, in which the ruling Socialist party is at risk of losing control of the National Assembly. It would be the first major loss since the late president Hugo Chavez set the country on a socialist path in 1999.

      But while many Venezuelan voters may criticize López’s conviction, most average citizens have more pressing problems, such as scouring supermarkets for cooking oil, corn flour and toilet paper, which are all in short supply, and worrying how to stretch their pay checks in the face of spiralling inflation. “I didn’t follow any of the trial,” said apprentice beautician Emily, 19, in a queue outside a supermarket. “I only have one roll of toilet paper at home. I arrived here at 3 am. This country is a complete disaster,” she told Reuters. If the opposition is to maintain the advantage it has shown in opinion polls, its message will have to shift away from López and towards the everyday problems average Venezuelans face, according to David Smidle, a Venezuela scholar at Tulane University. “They need to take the energy generated by this injustice and turn it into energy for the elections by addressing issues such as crime, shortages, inflation and governance,” he says. According to a recent survey by the Datanalisis polling firm, more than 70% of Venezuelans disapprove of the president’s management of the country and nearly 58% would support opposition candidates in the December elections.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS LEOPOLDO LOPEZ'S CONVICTION       

     
The leader of the European People's Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, denounced López's case at the EP plenary, and urged the European Parliament's President Martin Schulz to file a protest with Venezuela on behalf of the entire EP against López's conviction, which Weber described as "human rights violation"

     The President of the European Parliament (EP) Martin Schulz rejected on Wednesday on behalf of the parliament its rejection of the conviction of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was sentenced to nearly 14 years of imprisonment last week. Schulz said that the EP would send Venezuelan authorities a note of protest against López conviction. He added he had met a few weeks ago with López' wife, Lilian Tintori, to whom he conveyed his solidarity for an "unfair proceeding," Efe reported.

     Earlier, the leader of the European People's Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, denounced López's case at the EP plenary, and urged Schulz to file a protest with Venezuelan authorities on behalf of the entire EP against the sentence, which Weber described as "human rights violation." The EP had issued several resolutions deploring harassment of the Venezuelan opposition. In Venezuela, opposition umbrella group Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) is nominated for the 2015 European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

September 17, 2015

CHILE REJECTS 'MEDDLING' ACCUSATIONS IN LOPEZ'S CASE FROM VENEZUELA     

     
"(...) under no circumstances a respectful statement on human rights and fundamental assurances in another country could be considered as meddling in internal affairs," Chile's Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted in a communiqué.  Chile rejected on Monday "meddling" accusations from Venezuela over the case of dissenter Leopoldo López, who was sentenced last week to nearly 14 years of imprisonment for public incitement, among other crimes. Chile had also called for dialogue in a communiqué. In a new communiqué aired on Monday evening, the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: "Chile, sovereignty, reasserts that under no circumstances a respectful statement on human rights and fundamental assurances in another country could be considered as meddling in internal affairs," Efe reported.

     "Ever since its people defeated the dictatorship, Chile has received statements both from foreign governments and bodies about the situation of human rights in our country, and we have never seen them as meddling in internal affairs," the Chilean foreign office noted. "The historic relations of friendship and cooperation between Chile and Venezuela should lead both countries to observe international rules and maintain mutual respect," Chile's communiqué concluded.
Colombia's Santos: Extending border shutdown prevents solutions
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stressed he was willing to hold a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to make concrete decisions Following the order of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to extend the shutdown of the Colombia-Venezuela border to additional 10 border municipalities, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Wednesday stated that such measure would not contribute to find solutions to the problems in the border area.

     "Extending the (border) shutdowns does not bring closer the possibility of finding a solution to the issues hitting our border. Dialogue based on facts and realities is required," Santos remarked. The Colombian president pointed out that instructing the authorities of both nations to work in close coordination is the only effective way to fight smuggling and criminal gangs on the border. He underscored that the responsibility for that problem lies with both countries.  "I reassert that I am willing to meet with President Maduro so we can make decisions and find concrete solutions allowing for a safe and open border. We are not going to hold a meeting only to have our photograph taken and shake hands, and then let things unchanged," Santos added. Moreover, the Colombian president noted that minimum humanitarian requirements on the border were being met. He also thanked the governments of Ecuador and Uruguay for their efforts to foster dialogue between Caracas and Bogotá.

santos: EXTENDING BORDER SHUTDOWN PREVENTS SOLUTIONS

      
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stressed he was willing to hold a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to make concrete decisions Following the order of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to extend the shutdown of the Colombia-Venezuela border to additional 10 border municipalities, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Wednesday stated that such measure would not contribute to find solutions to the problems in the border area.

    "Extending the (border) shutdowns does not bring closer the possibility of finding a solution to the issues hitting our border. Dialogue based on facts and realities is required," Santos remarked. The Colombian president pointed out that instructing the authorities of both nations to work in close coordination is the only effective way to fight smuggling and criminal gangs on the border. He underscored that the responsibility for that problem lies with both countries.


    "I reassert that I am willing to meet with President Maduro so we can make decisions and find concrete solutions allowing for a safe and open border. We are not going to hold a meeting only to have our photograph taken and shake hands, and then let things unchanged," Santos added. Moreover, the Colombian president noted that minimum humanitarian requirements on the border were being met. He also thanked the governments of Ecuador and Uruguay for their efforts to foster dialogue between Caracas and Bogotá.
 

PENTAGON ALLEGES RUSSIA INTENDS TO BUILD MILITARY BASE IN SYRIA    

     
The Pentagon said Monday Russia's recent military buildup in Syria indicated that it intended to create a military base in Syria. "We have seen indications in recent days that Russia has moved people and things into the area around Latakia (Syria's coastal province) and the air base there that suggests that it intends to establish some sort of a forward air operating base," Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said at the daily briefing.

    Davis said the Pentagon was closely monitoring the buildup, but declined to provide further details regarding the Russian military personnel and equipment being flown to Syria. While calling Russia's military support to the Syrian government "unhelpful and risk," Davis declined to comment on whether the U.S.-led coalition had invited Russia to join the air campaign against the Islamic State (IS). "We have said before that we would welcome Russian contributions to the overall global effort against (the IS)," he said.

    The New York Times reported Monday at least seven giant Russian Condor transport planes had taken off from Russia during the past week to Syria and passed through Iranian and Iraqi airspace, citing U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Under the U.S. pressure, Bulgaria, a NATO member, had already closed its airspace to the Russian planes. However, the Iraqi government had so far yet to take actions and still kept the airspace open to Russian planes despite being urged by U.S. diplomats to follow Bulgaria's example earlier this month.

September 16, 2015

NORTH KOREA WARNS U.S. IT'S READY TO USE NUCLEAR WEAPONS 'ANY TIME'     

     
In its latest bout of saber rattling, North Korea says it is ready to use nuclear weapons against the United States and other foes if they pursue "their reckless hostile policy" toward Kim Jong Un's regime. In a statement carried by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday, an atomic energy official said Pyongyang is improving its nuclear weapons arsenal "in quality and quantity." "If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time," the director of the North Korean Atomic Energy Institute said, using an abbreviation of the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

      North Korea's main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which includes a uranium enrichment plant and a plutonium production reactor, is operating normally, the official told the news agency. North says weapons are for self-defense Notorious for issuing alarming and attention-grabbing statements, Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States in the past. But strong doubts remainover whether it has the missile technology to target the U.S. mainland. In an indication it wants to advance its missile capabilities, North Korea said Monday it was planning more satellite launches. Prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions, such launches are widely seen as a way of testing ballistic missile technology.

      Kim's regime didn't say when the next launch would take place, but observers have speculated that it could launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite in October around the 70th anniversary of North Korea's ruling party. The atomic energy official on Tuesday reiterated the North Korean stance that its nuclear weapons program is a self-defense measure "in the face of the U.S. extreme hostile policy and nuclear threats towards it." U.S. stresses missile defense measures. In an interview with CNN earlier Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert said Washington is constantly working with Seoul "to ensure that other allies in the region as well as the U.S. homeland are protected from threats posed by North Korea."

COLOMBIA DENOUNCES SECOND FLYOVER BY VENEZUELAN MILITARY PLANES  

      
Colombia government on Monday denounced what it said was the second incursion into its territory by Venezuelan military planes in less than 24 hours. Gen. Carlos Bueno, the head of the Colombia's air force, said that a radar unit detected a Venezuelan military aircraft overflying the eastern province of Vichada on Sunday at around 10 p.m.


     He said at a press conference Monday that the pilot remained in Colombian airspace for about 10 minutes, communicating with air traffic controllers that he was obliged to deviate from its course due to bad weather even though the protocol for such emergencies wasn't followed properly.The incident occurred just hours after two planes were sported crossing nearly 3 kilometers (1.8 mile) into Colombian territory near the Caribbean coast.

     The allegations come at a time of tense relations as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closes much of the border between the two countries and has expelled some 1,400 Colombians as part of a anti-smuggling crackdown. Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez on Sunday denied the first incursion, saying it was a made-up allegation to derail a potential meeting between the countries' presidents to resolve the almost month-old dispute. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino on Monday called on Venezuela's military to be on high alert, saying Colombia was seeking to provoke an incident on the border. He also said that some 6,000 troops had been sent to Venezuela's western edge to improve security.

EGYPTIAN FORCES MISTAKE MEXICAN TOURISTS FOR MILITANTS, KILLED 12    

     
Egyptian Army aircraft hunting for militants in the desert mistakenly bombed a convoy of mostly Mexican tourists, killing 12 people and wounding 10, authorities said on Monday. Survivors said their group was bombed from a plane and helicopters. As members of the tourist convoy tried to flee, additional forces on the ground fired on them, Egyptian security sources said. Egypt's interior ministry described the attack in the country's western desert as an accident. Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto said two Mexicans were killed in Sunday's incident, though Egyptian security and judicial sources later said eight Mexicans and four Egyptians were killed. The sources said eight Mexicans and two Egyptians were wounded.

     In Mexico, the sister of a Reiki healer who said her brother was among the dead, said a relative of the group's tour guide had sent her a list of eight Mexicans killed in the attack. The group of 22 had parked their four 4x4 vehicles off-road on Sunday for a barbecue near the Bahariya oasis, a tourist site in the western desert, when army aircraft suddenly began shelling them from above, security sources said. "Unfortunately we have confirmed that two (Mexicans) lost their lives and six more were wounded," Pena Nieto said, condemning the incident. "Mexico has demanded the Egyptian government conducts a swift, exhaustive investigation."

     Mexico's ambassador to Egypt, Jorge Alvarez, said six Mexicans who survived the incident were in stable condition. Alvarez added that the government was still seeking information about six other Mexicans of the 14-strong group still unaccounted for. Alvarez identified the two dead as Luis Barajas Fernandez and Maria de Lourdes Fernandez Rubio. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said an American might be among those injured in the attack. "We've seen reports that potentially a U.S. citizen was injured," Kirby told a daily briefing. "Our embassy in Cairo is making the appropriate inquiries with local police, and of course, they're monitoring it."

September 15, 2015

US CONGRESS CALLS FOR SANCTIONS ON VENEZUELA AFTER HARSH SENTENCE ON OPPOSITION LEADER LEOPOLDO LOPEZ    

     
Reaction to the harsh sentence meted out on Venezuela Opposition LeaderLeopoldo Lopez continues to reverberate around the world. Late Thursday night, a Venezuelan judge found opposition leader and former Mayor Leopoldo Lopez guilty of public incitement to violence and criminal association and sentenced him to 13 years and nine months in prison. Lopez had already been held without bail for 18 months since publicly turning himself in to fight the charges.

     In Washington, leaders called for further sanctions on Venezuela. “The arbitrary and unjust sentencing of Leopoldo Lopez once again shows the Venezuelan government’s willingness to go to the most extreme lengths to silence its political opponents and those who stand in defense of democracy and human rights. Since its start, Leopoldo Lopez’s trial has been a travesty of justice in which fabricated claims and phony evidence were used to destroy any semblance of due process left in Venezuela," said U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, one of the authors of the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, which imposed sanctions on corrupt Chavista officials. "

     As President Maduro and his political cronies resort to increasingly desperate tactics to divert attention from their failed political and economic model, the world must be unequivocal in its condemnation of the Lopez case and the accelerating deterioration of democracy and the rule of law in the country.  “In the wake of Mr. Lopez’s conviction, I will continue to work with my fellow members of the U.S. Congress to push for further targeted sanctions – as mandated under U.S. law - against Venezuelan government officials that have used the country’s legal system to punish free expression,” said Menendez.  Republican Presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubioalso spoke out about the injustice, calling for not only further sanctions but an end to any attempt to repair torn relations with the oil-rich Latin American nation.

COLOMBIa government to protest venezuela for military flyover  

      
Colombia's government will formally protest and seek an explanation from Venezuela after detecting two military airplanes that flew into its airspace late on Saturday, President Juan Manuel Santos said. The two aircraft entered Colombia's northern La Guajira province without permission, flew about 2.9 kilometers (1.8 miles) over the border and then circled above a military unit, Colombia's Defense Ministry said in a statement on Sunday. "I have ordered the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry to present a formal protest tomorrow to Venezuela for violation of our airspace," Santos said on Twitter.

airspace. "We're concerned about the systemic tendency of the Colombian government to invent non-existent incidents," she wrote on Twitter. The incident comes amid a diplomatic row between the conservative administration of Santos in Colombia and the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro closed several major border crossings and deported 1,300 Colombians last month in what he said was a crackdown on smuggling and crime.  As many as 16,000 Colombians have left neighboring Venezuela, according to the United Nations.

     Maduro says he is protecting his country from criminals who smuggle everything from gasoline to flour across the border but his political opponents say he is using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela's economic crisis. Colombians were made to leave their homes in several Venezuelan border towns and forced in many cases to cross rivers and bridges with their belongings on their backs. Foreign ministers from the two nations met on Saturday in Ecuador to try and smooth the way for the two leaders to meet and resolve the spat. Santos has blamed the border crisis on Maduro and said last week that Venezuela's socialist revolution had failed. (Reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Girish Gupta in Caracas.

LAST CHANCE FOR BRAZIL'S DILMA ROUSSEFF TO SAVE MANDATE  

     
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has one last chance to stem a growing political and economic crisis before being forced to step down, one of the country's leading daily newspapers said on Sunday.

     In an unusual front-page editorial, Folha de S.Paulo said Rousseff needs to take "drastic measures" including additional spending cuts and tax hikes to make up for a 2016 budget gap that has cost Brazil its investment-grade rating from Standard & Poor's. Rousseff, a leftist who was re-elected by a thin margin in 2014, is facing impeachment calls as her government struggles with a deep economic recession and a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras that has implicated several of her political allies. In a cabinet meeting on Saturday, Rousseff ordered her ministers to find an additional 15 billion reais ($3.9 billion) in budget savings, daily Estado de S.Paulo reported on Sunday.

      Folha, which tends to lean center-right, said deep budget cuts are needed for the government to gain credibility before demanding more tax hikes that will face strong popular opposition. "The country, however, has no choice" but to accept higher taxes, Folha said. "Neither has President Dilma Rousseff: if she bends under the weight of the crisis, she will have no option other than leaving her presidential duties and, eventually, the position she holds." Folha also called for an end to some pension benefits and economic subsidies, as well as temporary cuts in health and education programs that are currently mandatory. A spokeswoman for Rousseff declined to comment on the editorial.

September 14, 2015

PRESIDENT OBAMA URGES CONGRESS TO TAKE NEXT STEP, LIFT CUBA EMBARGO

     
President Barack Obama urged Congress to follow his decision to reopen the American embassy in Havana by lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. “We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said on Wednesday at the White House. “Americans and Cubans alike are looking to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.” The embassy will reopen on July 20, when Cuba also will reopen its embassy in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to go to Havana to “proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more,” Obama said.  Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and would be the initial envoy heading the reopened embassy, delivered a letter from Obama confirming the plans addressed to Cuba President Raul Castro, according to Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

      The question for Obama is whether he has the political momentum coming off a series of high-profile victories to accomplish the next 
steps in what he said would be a long process of normalization: getting the embargo lifted and a U.S. ambassador to Cuba confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. Obama hasn’t decided whether to nominate an ambassador in the immediate future or keep it operating under DeLaurentis as charge d’affaires, according to an administration official. Critics of Obama’s opening to Cuba quickly denounced his latest move. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement that the administration “is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship.”

     Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a staunch opponent of reestablishing relations with Cuba, accused Obama of trying to burnish his legacy at the expense of the Cuban people. “Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will 
continue to be ignored and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold a policy of brutality,” he said in a statement. “The message is democracy and human rights take a back seat to a legacy initiative.” Cuba also may become an issue in the 2016 presidential contest. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has said he would block any ambassador nominee offered by the White House. Ted Cruz, a Texas senator also seeking the party’s nomination, has echoed that threat. Future talks will deal with U.S. claims over property expropriated by the Cuban government and the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, according to the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The official said Kerry’s ceremonial visit may not come until sometime after the embassy is opened.

MADURO-SANTOS MEETING TO RESOLVE THE BORDER CRISIS EXPECTED IN A FEW WEEKS  

      
The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela are taking the agreements reached in Ecuador to their presidents Nicolás Maduro and Juan Manuel Santos for consideration.  The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela held a successful meeting on Saturday in Quito to prepare a meeting between presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Nicolás Maduro intended to address the border situation between the two countries.

     They vowed to assess the conditions for setting the date of the presidential meeting. Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said "satisfactory progress" was made during the meeting, adding that Ministers of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín of Colombia and Delcy Rodríguez of Venezuela will take the results of the conversation to presidents Santos and Maduro "for consultation, in order to
schedule an upcoming presidential meeting," DPA reported. "Our desire is that the start of talks to be fruitful and lead to a next presidential meeting," Patiño said in a brief statement, in which no questionswere asked.

      "We will 
continue to work for this goal in the coming days," said the Ecuadorian foreign minister, who read a statement about the meeting and was accompanied by his Venezuelan and Colombian counterparts. The meeting, which lasted four hours, took place in one of the halls of the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry and was also attended by Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay Rodolfo Nin Novoa. Patiño and Nin Novoa represented the pro-tempore presidencies of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), respectively.
 

THE ECUADORIAN MEDIA FREEDOM GROUP IS FACING SHUTDOWN

     
THe Correa administration is moving to shut down Ecuador’s
 leading media freedom group, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately end its attacks on the country’s independent human rights organizations. On September 7, 2015, the Communications Ministry opened an administrative process to “dissolve” Fundamedios, an Ecuadorian group that monitors freedom of expression in the country. The government contends that Fundamedios engaged in political activities by publishing tweets with links to blogs or news articles criticizing the government. The arbitrary closure of the group would violate the government’s obligations to respect and protect the fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of association.

     “The Correa administration wants to punish an organization for tweeting articles with news and opinions it doesn’t like,” said 
Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch. “This is an egregious abuse of power and a clear example of this government’s authoritarian practices.” The Communications Ministry’s resolution accuses Fundamedios of “disseminating messages, alerts, and essays with clear political implications” and includes an annex with 57 tweets, most with links to opinion or news articles critical of the government. The ministry contends that these messages violate Fundamedios’ objective of promoting “social development” through the media and its prohibition on its participation in political issues, as outlined in Fundamedios’ own statutes.

     One tweet says “Salvador Quishpe talks about national politics in light of strike” and links to an interview on the web-based research portal Ecuador Review in which Quishpe, an indigenous leader and government critic, discusses an upcoming national protest. Another tweet says “Polls show citizens want consultation” and links to an article in an Ecuadorian newspaper in which the director of a polling company says Ecuadorians want to be consulted on issues ranging from a proposal to remove a constitutional limit on the number of times a president may seek re-election, to the government’s proposals for oil extraction in Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.   Under international law, governments must ensure that human rights defenders are allowed to pursue their activities without reprisals, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, or unnecessary legal obstacles. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights held in 2003 that “[r]espect for human rights in a democratic state depends largely on human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees so as to freely go about their activities.”
 

September 13, 2015

LILIAN TINTORI: MY HUSBAND SAYS -- " I DO NOT REGRET THE DECISIONS THAT I MADE

     
Supporters rallied around the wife of Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, calling for peaceful protests after he got nearly 14 years in prison for his role in deadly anti-government demonstrations. The European Union joined them in denouncing a "harsh" verdict, while Washington said it was "deeply troubled" by the treatment of the US-trained economist. The ruling, which critics say is politically motivated, is expected to fan tensions in Venezuela, where runaway inflation and basic goods shortages fueled last year's protests against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration.

     Lopez, 44, was accused of inciting the violence that led to 43 deaths and some 3,000 people being wounded.  Judge Susana Barreiros found him guilty of "damage and arson, public incitement and conspiracy," the attorney general's office said. Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori gave an impassioned speech before dozens of supporters in an eastern Caracas plaza, calling for people to take to the streets one week from Saturday, as the crowd chanted, "Yes we can!" "I call on you," she said, to come out on September 19 "to build our victory, to take over the streets peacefully and democratically, with strict discipline and no violence." Tintori, who spoke after visiting Lopez in prison, read a letter from her husband in which he said: "I do not regret the decision that I made." "Great causes deserve great sacrifices," he said.

    Lopez wrote that he was "convinced of the goodness" of this cause, "which is none other than the liberation of a people that today suffers the painful consequences of a model that failed economically, politically and socially." The opposition leader will remain at the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, where he has been held since February 2014. In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was "deeply troubled" by the conviction and sentencing. The decision "raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics," Kerry said. The statement came after he called his Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodriguez on Wednesday to discuss steps to fully restore ties. The United States has frosty relations with Venezuela's leftist regime, and the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

NICOLAS MADURO REJECTS JOHN KERRY'S STATEMENT ON THE HARSH SENTENCE GIVEN TO LEOPOLDO LOPEZ

      

MADURO STRONGLY REJECTS JOHN KERRY’S STATEMENT ON THE HARSH SENTENCE GIVEN TO LEOPOLDO LOPEZ

     Nicolas Maduro the United States on Friday of jeopardizing a nascent rapprochement between the two ideological foes with "insolent" criticism of a 14-year jail sentence handed to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.  Coming on top of the outrage of Lopez's family and supporters following his conviction late on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was "deeply troubled" as he called the charges "illegitimate" and urged the release of all jailed government opponents.  "With its insolent meddling, the United States has kicked the timid steps achieved towards regularizing bilateral relations," Venezuela's foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, said via Twitter, accusing Kerry of "aggressions" and "offenses."

     After more than a decade of acrimonious ties and without respective ambassadors, Washington and Caracas this year began a cautious rapprochement by trying to cooperate on issues from Colombian peace talks to Haitian democracy. But U.S. officials have repeatedly raised the case of Lopez and a handful of other jailed activists who oppose President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government. "The United States persists in destabilizing legitimate and constitutional governments, using agents and terrorist violence," Rodriguez added, saying she had communicated those views to Kerry in a telephone conversation.

      Today our comrade Delcy Rodríguez hit Kerry very hard," Nicolas Maduro said. "The US government must learn to respect the Venezuelan people," said the president. Kerry had expressed his concern about the use of the judicial system in Venezuela for, in his view, to silence government critics.  However, Maduro, celebrated Friday the answer given by Chancellor Delcy Rodriguez to John Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States, who referred to the harsh sentence of Leopoldo Lopez. "I'm evaluating everything that involves the conduct of the US government. We will not play on both sides. I am reviewing all that we were doing to begin a new relationship with the government of the United States, a country that is pressing foreign governments to vote against Venezuela, to do things against Venezuela and on the other side you have only smiling faces. Maduro said in a television transmission. He added that the United States "must learn to respect Venezuela and have relationships in terms of equality and transparency."

 

CANCILLER DELCY RODRIGUEZ REJECTS "U.S. INTERFERENCE IN VENEZUELA'S INTERNAL AFFAIRS"

     
Venezuela accused the United States on Friday of jeopardizing a nascent rapprochement between the two ideological foes with "insolent" criticism of a 14-year jail sentence handed to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Coming on top of the outrage of Lopez's family and supporters following his conviction late on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was "deeply troubled" as he called the charges "illegitimate" and urged the release of all jailed government opponents.  "With its insolent meddling, the United States has kicked the timid steps achieved towards regularizing bilateral relations," Venezuela's foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, said via Twitter, accusing Kerry of "aggressions" and "offenses."

     After more than a decade of acrimonious ties and without respective ambassadors, Washington and Caracas this year began a cautious rapprochement by trying to cooperate on issues from Colombian peace talks to Haitian democracy. But U.S. officials have repeatedly raised the case of Lopez and a handful of other jailed activists who oppose President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.  "The United States persists in destabilizing legitimate and constitutional governments, using agents and terrorist violence," Rodriguez added, saying she had communicated those views to Kerry in a telephone conversation. Hardline opposition leader Lopez was convicted of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that led to violence killing 43 people. He was found guilty of provoking arson, violence and damage to public property and condemned to 13 years and nine months in prison.

     "We live under a repressive, anti-democratic regime," said Lilian Tintori, a former champion kite-surfer who has two children with Lopez and has led a well-oiled international campaign to lobby for his release. She called for a protest march on Sept. 19 and read a hand-written letter from her husband defying the Maduro government. "This sentence is not only against me but rather it seeks to destroy the morale of all those of us seeking a better country," it said. A U.N. human rights spokesman criticized the "harsh sentence" and reported trial "irregularities," while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the issue at a meeting with Rodriguez in New York. During the mainly closed-door trial, Judge Susana Barreiros rejected 58 of the 60 defense witnesses, though she allowed the prosecution 108 witnesses, according to Lopez's lawyers, who are appealing. "This trial was not objective," said Diana Quintero, 50, a publicist, weeping in the wealthy Caracas district where Lopez was once mayor. "Maduro sees Lopez as his strongest rival." Maduro says Lopez is a dangerous criminal and pawn of the elite, intent on subverting the government under the guise of peaceful protests. He points to Lopez's attempts to unseat the late Hugo Chavez during a failed coup in 2002.

September 12, 2015

U.S. LAWMAKERS URGE ADDITIONAL VENEZUELA SANCTIONS AFTER HARSH VERDICT

      
Florida lawmakers are calling for a fresh round of sanctions against Venezuela, after opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years, nine months and 12 days in prison for his role in last year’s national protests. Civil rights groups and legal experts said the case was marred by irregularities. On Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential hopeful, called on the Obama administration to fully implement the “Venezuela defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014,” which denies visas and freezes assets of human rights violators. “Leopoldo López’s arrest, incarceration, show trial and prison sentence have all been a sham,” Rubio said in a statement. “The Venezuelan regime is robbing Leopoldo of his freedom, his wife of a husband, his kids of a father and the Venezuelan people of a leader committed to their democratic aspirations.”

      Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also Florida Republican, called on the administration to slap sanctions on the judges, prosecutors and prison officials “involved in this politically motivated sentencing.” “The malicious use of the judicial system as an instrument to punish and persecute dissent is only part of the problem with [President Nicolás] Maduro’s brutal regime that persists on ruling Venezuela with an iron fist,” she said. “I call on all responsible nations to condemn this miscarriage of justice and call for Leopoldo’s immediate, unconditional release.”  López, 44, was jailed in February of 2014 after leading a massive national strike that went on for weeks and left more than 40 people dead amid opposition and pro-regime clashes. The courts gave López the maximum sentence, finding him guilty on charges of arson, inciting unrest, damaging public property, and conspiracy.

      On Wednesday, Venezuela Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said she’d taken a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about improving ties. The State Department said the two also discussed López’s case. Rubio cautioned the administration to not let down its guard. “The Obama Administration has been flirting with rapprochement with the Venezuelan regime,” he said. The López verdict, “should make clear it’s a foolish notion,” he added.    During his closing testimony Thursday, López intended to present an eight-minute video taken on the day he led the demonstration. In it, he’s seen asking followers to remain peaceful and ignore government provocations. It then shows him heading home that afternoon on the subway. Later that day, gunmen on motorcycles fired into a crowd of protesting students killing Basil Da Costa. It was that murder that sparked the ensuing damage at the Public Ministry, the video argues. Even so, López was denied the right to show the tape in court. This case is a complete travesty of justice,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, the fate of López is in the hands of a provisional judge whose ruling is based on a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking him to a crime, and López was not allowed to properly defend himself.”

CUBA PARDONS MORE THAN 3,500 PRISONERS AHEAD OF POPE FRANCIS VISIT

      
The Cuban government said it plans to pardon 3,522 prisoners over the next 72 hours as a "humanitarian" gesture ahead of Pope Francis's visit to the island beginning next week. But the announcement appeared to rule out pardons for at least some of the dozens of inmates that rights groups consider political prisoners. Convicts serving time for crimes against "national security" would not be eligible for release, said the statement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma. Those receiving pardons will include inmates over age 60 or under 20 with no prior convictions and prisoners whose terms are nearing an end, as well as women, the infirm and foreigners whose countries will accept their repatriation.

     The amnesty, ordered by the State Council, the Cuban government's supreme body, will not extend to those serving time for homicide, rape, drug trafficking and other serious offenses in Cuba such as "cattle rustling," according to Granma. The government issued similar amnesties prior to previous papal visits. Nearly 3,000 inmates received pardons before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in 2012, and Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 prompted the release of several hundred others. Francis will arrive in Havana on Sept. 19, and Cuban dissident groups have urged the pontiff to intervene with the Castro government to secure the release of jailed activists.

Amanda Duran, a member of the island’s illegal-but-tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Conciliation, said the group was trying to determine whether any of the 71 inmates on its list of political prisoners would be eligible for the amnesty. “The phone lines are very congested right now,” she said. The Vatican has not confirmed whether the pope will meet with Castro opponents during his four-day, three-city tour of the island before arriving Sept. 22 in the United States. The timing of the Cuban government announcement is notable, as U.S. and Cuban diplomats commence bilateral talks Friday in Havana that mark their first formal meetings since the two nations reopened embassies. A statement issued by the State Department said U.S. negotiators would meet with Cuban officials “to discuss next steps in the normalization process and schedule dates for future discussions on shared priorities.” The statement said the U.S. delegation did not plan to enter into “extensive discussions” in Friday.’

RUSSIAN MILITARY BUILD-UP IN SYRIA 'UNPRECEDENTED,' OFFICIALS SAY

     
U.S. officials are expressing growing concern about Russia's military build-up in Assad-controlled Syria, calling it "unprecedented" -- with one telling Fox News it compares in scope to Vladimir Putin's incursion into Crimea. "It's beginning to look like Crimyria," the official told Fox News.  Two U.S. officials who have reviewed the latest intelligence told Fox News that satellite imagery reveals more flights of massive Russian An-124 "condor" military cargo planes landing in Syria. They are offloading troops, including just under 50 Russian marines, and armored vehicles.  U.S. officials said the Russian activity in Syria is unlike any they've seen since the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago.  "This is definitely a build-up straight out of Russia's military doctrine," said one official. 

      The Russian government is not denying the build-up.  Russia's Foreign Ministry disclosed early Wednesday that Russian military experts indeed are assisting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country's long-running civil war.  Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Reuters that advisers were assisting with Russian arms deliveries to Syrian government forces, which Moscow says are aimed at fighting Islamist militants. The spokeswoman did not give a precise number of Russian military personnel in Syria.  The exact extent of the build-up is unclear, but a U.S. official told Fox News that the Russians have constructed 100 additional housing units at a base near Latakia, a coastal city along the Mediterranean. 

      The Pentagon has not seen evidence that the newly arrived Russian troops are engaged in combat.  But the build-up is escalating despite Secretary of State John Kerry calling his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the weekend to voice "concerns" about Russian military presence.  In a 
statement released Saturday after Kerry's call with Lavrov, the State Department warned that Russia's continued actions could "further escalate the conflict" and "risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria."  The statement appeared to mark a change in policy from last week when the Pentagon and State Department initially welcomed Russia's increased involvement in Syria.  Vladimir Putin's government is aligned with Assad, whom the Obama administration wants out of power. But the administration also is boosting local forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and initially cast the stepped-up Russian involvement as contributing toward that anti-ISIS effort. 
 

September 11, 2015

TRUMP SAYS IT'S 'FINE' FOR U.S. TO PURSUE CLOSER CUBA TIES

      
Visiting Cuban Americans in Miami a decade and a half ago, Donald Trump declared Fidel Castro a “killer” and a “criminal” who shouldn’t be “rewarded.” Now he has come up in support, albeit a little tepid, of President Barack Obama’s push for closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba — a policy Trump characterized as “fine.” Donald Trump receives a brigade pin from Juan E. Perez-Franco, president of the 2506 Assault Brigade, in Miami on Nov. 15, 1999. In an interview published Monday, Trump briefly responded to a single question on his thoughts on the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations: “Do you think that is a good policy, or do you oppose America’s opening with Cuba?”asked the Daily Caller, a conservative-leaning Washington, D.C., publication.

    “I think it’s fine,” Trump said. “I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba —50 years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal.” There was no follow-up question in the published interview. Trump’s campaign did not respond to a requestfrom the Miami Herald for further details. The 2016 Republican presidential front-runner is only the second GOP contender to endorse the Obama Cuba policy, after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Miami’s two hometown candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, have been among its loudest critics. So has Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is Cuban-American as is Rubio.

      For Trump, his latest comments are markedly different from ones he has made in the past on how the U.S. should deal with the Castro regime. In 1999, as he toyed with a presidential run as a Reform Party candidate, Trump wrote an op-ed published by the Miami Herald lambasting doing business with Cuba: “Yes, the embargo is costly. If I formed a joint venture with European partners, I would make millions of dollars. But I’d rather lose those millions than lose my self-respect.” The Cuban American National Foundation invited the real-estate tycoon to tour the Bay of Pigs Veterans’ Library and Museum in Little Havana five months later. He boasted of rejecting the Cuba development deals and expounded on Castro. “He’s been a killer, he’s a criminal and I don't think you should reward people who have done what he has done,” Trump said. At one point, the crowd cheered, “¡Viva Donald Trump!”

IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER: WE OUSTED 'THE SATAN' AND ISRAEL 'WILL NOT SEE THE COMING 25 YEARS

      
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that his country would not enter into talks with the US outside the nuclear deal with world powers as Washington could use other negotiations to "penetrate" the Islamic Republic.

    Khamenei's comments, published on his website, come as enough US lawmakers now support the nuclear deal to block passage of a resolution of disapproval and hand President Barack Obama a major foreign-policy victory. "We approved talks with the United States about nuclear issue specifically," Khamenei said. "We have not allowed talks with the US in other fields and we not negotiate with them." Speaking to a group of people in Tehran, Khamenei reiterated that America remained the "Great Satan." "The Iranian nation ousted the Satan," he said, adding, "We should not let it back through the window to penetrate" Iran.

     On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signaled that Iran was ready to hold talks with the world powers on ways to resolve Syria's civil war, providing such negotiations can secure peace and democracy in the conflict-torn country. Iran supports embattled President Bashar Assad, whom the US opposes. Khamenei also reiterated his hard stance against Israel. "I say that you (Israelis) will not see the coming 25 years and, God willing, there will not be something named the Zionist regime in next 25 years," he said. Iran does not recognize Israel and supports militant anti-Israeli groups like the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah groups. Israel, which repeatedly criticized the nuclear deal, has not ruled out a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

KERRY PHONES RODRIGUEZ TO NORMALIZE US-VENEZUELA RELATIONS

     
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez Tuesday, in an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries, which had become increasingly tense since March, when President Barack Obama ordered unilateral sanctions against Venezuela. The conversation with Kerry was “fluid and at times tense,” Rodriguez said in tweets. She also tweeted that Kerry had requested the talk. “On Secretary John Kerry's request, I received a call today within the framework of the dialogue to normalize our bilateral diplomatic relations,” she wrote.

     She said she “frankly expressed” Venezuela’s position and said she would give more details about the conversation later Wednesday. In late August, Rodriguez called Kerry to ask him to stop interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs, saying U.S. actions were in violation of international law. She told him that relations between both countries must be based on mutual respect. This was in response to Kerry's comments that international observers should be involved in that all “political prisoners” in Venezuela should be freed, so that there would be no “negative impact” on U.S.-Venezuela relations. In that call, Rodriguez asserted, “The times in which the U.S. dictated norms to Venezuela are over, thanks to the anti-imperialist actions of the Venezuelan people.” Kerry’s claims about political prisoners refers to politicians arrested not for their political views but their orchestration of a wave of violence that led to the deaths of 43 people in 2014.

     Venezuela and the U.S. currently have not had ambassadors in each other’s countries since 2010, when Venezuela refused to admit the newly appointed U.S. ambassador because of negative comments he had made about Venezuela’s military during his senate confirmation hearing. The U.S. subsequently expelled Venezuela’s ambassador, Bernardo Alvarez. Ever since, there have been negotiations on and off between the two countries about the exchange of ambassadors. The most recent effort was torpedoed by President Obama’s issuing of an executive order declaring Venezuela an “extraordinary and unusual threat” to U.S. national security and imposed sanctions on several Venezuelan government officials. The action prompted international condemnation that slammed Obama's action as absurd.   Since then, new negotiations have taken place on the initiative of President Maduro, according to State Department adviser Thomas Shannon.

 

September 8, 2015

TRUMP BLASTS JEB BUSH FOR SPEAKING SPANISH ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

      
Mogul-turned-politician says his Republican rival should only use English in the US.  US real estate magnate-turned-politician 
Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized his rival in the race to win the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, Jeb Bush, for speaking Spanish at his public appearances.  “I like Jeb,” Trump said in an interview with Breitbart News. “He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking Englishwhile in the United States.” After eight years as president, people will say I’m a great conservative – far greater than Jeb would ever be” On Tuesday Bush – the son and brother of former US presidents George and George W. Bush, respectively – had used his fluent Spanish to harshly criticize Trump, whose aggressive immigration stance and remarks about Latinos have caused outrage in the Hispanic community, during a meeting with students from La Progresiva Presbyterian school in Little Havana, Miami.

     “He attacks me every day saying terrible things,” Bush said. “Things that are not true. That man is not a conservative. He has been a Democrat longer than he has been a Republican. He’s said that he’s more comfortable being a Democrat. […] I served for eight years as governor. He’s not a conservative.” He continued: “If you’re not totally in agreement with him you’re an idiot, or stupid, or don’t have energy, or blah blah blah.” Bush, whose wife Columba is Mexican-American, also criticized Trump’s proposals to solve
the immigration crisis by building a huge wall along the US-Mexico border and deporting the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented migrants.

      Trump defended himself from Bush’s accusations of not having a conservative record and of formerly aligning himself with the Democrats by comparing himself with former Republican president Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).  “Ronald Reagan wasn’t a conservative,” Trump said. “He became a great conservative. By the time I’m finished, people will say I’m a great conservative. By the time I’m finished with the presidency, after eight years of the presidency, people will say I’m a great conservative – far greater than Jeb would ever have the ability to be.” All the latest polls place Trump 
way ahead of his rivals in the race to win the Republican Party nomination for next year’s US presidential elections. At the same time he is also closing the gap on the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, in a hypothetical face off. Meanwhile, Bush has sunk in the polls, with some placing him in third or fourth place among the other contenders.

COMEDIAN WINS FIRST ROUND IN GUATEMALA'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

      
A 46-year-old Guatemalan comedian has taken the lead in the first round of the country’s presidential election with 25 percent of the vote. As Guatemala grapples with the effects of the civil unrest that led to 
the imprisonment of former President Otto Pérez Molina, Jimmy Morales, armed with an anti-politics message, has taken advantage of this desire for change and an extraordinary voter turnout: 80 percent of the population cast their ballot in Sunday’s election. On October 25, the unclassifiable and explosive Morales will likely compete against former first lady Sandra Torres, who finished just a fraction ahead of millionaire Manuel Baldizón – just 3,000 votes with 97 percent of votes counted.

     These antagonistic forces have one thing in common: both stand far removed from those figures whom the Guatemalan people associate with a system that has filled them with indignation. Torres is a refined example of old politics. A woman with big ambitions, she was catapulted to the political front line after her husband Álvaro Colom was elected president in 2008. 
She tried to present herself as a candidate to succeed him in 2012 and, in an attempt to get around constitutional restrictions on family members of former presidents running, filed for a quick divorce. However, the plan was contested by the courts and so she had to wait another four years. 

     Known as “Doctor Copy and Paste” since it was revealed that he plagiarized a large part of his doctoral thesis, Baldizón is the owner of a vast fortune of unknown origin and the man everyone thought would win before civil unrest broke out. During his long journey to power – he ran in 2011 – he has founded a party, Renewed Democratic Liberty, that has adjusted itself with strict discipline to the 
requirements of the Guatemalan system, a world of political organizations without clear ideologies in which parties only serve as vehicles to bring their leaders to power. Baldizón’s running mate is the controversial Edgar Barquín, ex-director of the country’s central bank. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and the Attorney General’s Office have accused Barquín of taking part in a money-laundering ring.

COLOMBIAN ALONG BORDER WITH VENEZUELA MARCH TO PROTEST FRONTIER CLOSURE

     
Hundreds of Colombians gathered on 
Sunday in the city of Cucuta, near the border with Venezuela, to hold a march protesting the decision of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to close the main border crossing point.  Wearing white and yellow, the colors of the national soccer team, the demonstrators, who carried Colombian flags, balloons and signs, departed from the historic Villa del Rosario church. To the rhythm of drums, the crowd, headed by the governor of Norte de Santander province, where Cucuta is located, Edgar Diaz, began their march behind a sign reading "For the dignity and respect of Colombians."

      Among the protesters were also Venezuelans, including an older woman wearing a garment saying "I'm Venezuela, I'm Colombia." Maduro on Aug. 19 ordered the closure of the bridges connecting Norte de Santander with Venezuela's Tachira state, the main crossing area along the 2,219 kilometers (about 1,376 miles) or frontier between Colombia and Venezuela, as part of a strategy to combat smuggling and alleged paramilitaries operating in the border region. In addition to closing the border, Venezuela also deported at least 1,355 Colombians living there and another 15,000 traveled back to Colombia voluntarily out of fear of being forcefully expelled.

      The massive arrival of Colombians and some Venezuelans who are related to Colombians in mixed families forced Bogota to set up shelters in Cucuta and Villa del Rosario and begin providing economic, employment and social aid to the people affected and help return them to their towns of origin. The Colombian government called the situation a "humanitarian crisis" and asked Caracas to respect the rights of its citizens there.  In addition, Bogota called for the mediation of the international community to halt the deportations and reopen the frontier, at the same time that it is lobbying for direct dialogue with the Venezuelan government.

September 7, 2015

POPE SEES 'HOPE' FOR COLOMBIA-VENEZUELA BORDER SPAT AS BISHOPS MEET

      
Pope Francis said on 
Sunday a meeting between Colombian and Venezuelan bishops was a clear sign of hope in a border dispute that has seen some 16,000 Colombians leave their adopted home. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed several border crossings and deported 1,300 Colombians last month in what he called a crackdown on smuggling and crime on the frontier.

     "The bishops of Venezuela and Colombia have met in recent days to analyse together the painful situation that has sprung up on the border between the two countries," the Argentine pontiff said in Spanish, switching from his customary Italian as he spoke to crowds in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after his regular Angelus address.  "In this meeting I see a clear sign of hope." Francis, the first non-European pope for 1,300 years, invited people to pray for the situation, two days after Brazil's and Argentina's foreign ministers visited Bogota in a bid to get the two sides talking.

      According to the United Nations, 15,000 people have crossed the border voluntarily during the crackdown, many carrying their possessions on their backs. Maduro says he is protecting his country from criminals who smuggle everything from gasoline to 
flour across the border, but his political opponents say he is using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela's economic crisis.

BRAZIL'S PPOLITICAL CRISIS HAS CREATED A BOTTOMLESS PIT FOR ECONOMY

      
Brazil’s political crisis keeps getting surprisingly worse. The vice president, Michel Temer, has basically said he no longer supports his president, Dilma Rousseff, and added that his Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would oppose the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) in the next election. The local currency lost another 2% against the dollar on Tuesday and is trading at R$3.50. Anyone who thought that Brazil was closer to R$2.80 than R$4.00 has to recalculate risk. Year-to-date, weak commodities, a strong dollar, and a political crisis without end, has made Brazil the worst performing BRIC market.  This is as much about politics as it is about the market itself. Brazil does not look attractive for anyone other than long term value hunters, and even those guys today are nervous about a soft coup that continues to dig a deeper hole under Latin America’s largest economy.

     There is no short- or medium-term solution to the crisis because of the judicial uncertainty involving the Petrobras scandal. The oil giant has taken down at least a half dozen major executives at the firm, along with the owners and CEOs of Brazil’s largest conglomerates, like Marcelo Odebrecht. It has also driven a gap between the PT and its most important ally in the congress, the PMDB. The current environment is unsustainable and requires strong, if not radical changes before the overall market sentiment improves. This is particularly true with foreign investors, who may not take their cue from the handful of long-term bulls that exist in the
local market.

        Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her Vice President Michel Temer during a meeting with governors at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. Temer told a gathering at 
Columbia University last month that his PMDB party would likely oppose Dilma’s Workers’ Party in the 2018 election. The power struggle centers around a massive political scandal involving both parties and oil giant Petrobras.  (Photo by WENDERSON ARAUJO/AFP/Getty Images)  Only 7% of the population give Dilma a high grade in her second term. Her immediate successor, Temer, is not the likely choice to lead the nation. PMDB was also implicated in the Petrobras kick-back scandal, with the leader of the lower house of deputies, Eduardo Cunha, receiving over $5 million in bribes, according to the courts.  There are those who believe that Dilma’s impeachment or resignation would be positive, and put an end to the crisis. However, this might be akin to letting the fox guard the hen house.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY EXPRESSES U.S. CONCERNS ABOUT RUSSIAN MOVES IN SYRIA

     
Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. concern about reports of Russia's enhanced military buildup in Syria in a telephone call Saturday with his Russian counterpart, the State Department said.  "The secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria," the department said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that discussions on the Syrian conflict wouldcontinue in New York later this month, the department said.

      The New York Times reported that Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and was taking other steps that Washington fears may signal plans to vastly expand its military support for President Bashar al-Assad.  The Times reported the moves included the recent movement of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control station there. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that his country was providing "serious" training and logistical support to the Syrian army, the first public confirmation of the extent of Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war.   Western governments and human rights groups have accused both Syrian government forces and those of the jihadist Islamic State group of large-scale human rights violations.

      Putin said it was "premature" to discuss possible direct Russian involvement in military operations against IS in Syria, but that Russia was providing Damascus with "very serious support and equipment, and training of military personnel, weapons." On Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Washington was "closely monitoring" reports that Moscow had deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria. "Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive," Earnest said.

September 6, 2015

LILIAN TINTORI MEETS WITH SECRETARY KERRY

      
US Secretary of State John Kerry declared his solidarity with Venezuelan political prisoners and backed respect for human rights in Venezuela.  Lilian Tintori, the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, met on Tuesday with US Secretary of State John Kerry to apprise him of the current status of a lawsuit against the Venezuelan opposition leader and coordinator of Voluntad Popular (People's Will) party.

    Earlier, the closing 
arguments in the trial against López had been presented, where, according to the counsel for the defense, there was no evidence of any links between the defendant and the violent events that occurred in Venezuela in 2014.  Tintori also advocated the release of all Venezuelan political prisoners and respect for human beings. For his part, the US Secretary of State expressed deep concern over the situation of political prisoners and defective court proceedings ahead of the parliament vote of December 6. During the meeting, Tintori explained that the right to free representation has been infringed in Venezuela because a significant number of opposition political leaders have been banned from holding public office, chased and/or imprisoned.

     Meanwhile,  t
he Spanish Senate asked on Wednesday the government of Spain to take steps before Venezuelan authorities to release Venezuelan political prisoners. The plenary session of the upper house passed a motion filed by the parliament group of the People's Party (PP). The vote resulted in 234 senators in favor, one against and five abstentions, Efe reported. In the motion, the Executive Office is requested to express its concern over therepeated use of disqualification of opposition leaders for the next parliament vote on December 6. Senators also urged the government to seek the commission of a delegation of international observers, led by the European Union, to ensure reliable results in the election. The debate of the motion was followed by Mitzy Capriles from the guest stand. The wife of Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma started in Spain atour of Europe to denounce the condition of political prisoners in Venezuela.

BRAZIL'S PROSECUTOR SEEKS A PROBE AGAINST DILMA ROUSSEFF AND LULA DA SILVA

      
Brazil's chief prosecutor requested the Supreme Court authorization to probe President Dilma Rousseff's 2010 and 2014 campaign financing, newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported on Saturday citing unnamed sources.

     The probe would also include former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's 2006 campaign financing. The prosecutor' office declined to comment on the report. According to Estado, the request by prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot was based on the plea bargain testimony from Ricardo Pessoa, head of UTC Engenharia. Pessoa is one of the many executives investigated in the corruption scandal at state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Brazil's largest ever.

Pessoa said Rousseff's and Lula's campaigns received illegal donations originating from the scheme, which involved kickbacks allegedly paid by construction companies to politicians and former executives at Petrobras, as the oil company is commonly known. Rousseff and her Workers' Party have repeatedly denied any wrongdoings.

CHINA GRANTS LOAN TO VENEZUELA TO INCREASE OIL PRODUCTION

     
 Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said late on Tuesday that "a special loan facility amounting to USD 5 billion has been signed(with China) to raise (Venezuelan) oil production gradually over the next few months." Maduro added that Venezuelan oil shipments to China are nearing one million barrels.

     He further reported that "a 10-year term joint 
development plan has been signed," called Joint Development Plan with China 2015-2025. The Venezuelan president also highlighted the signing of an agreement for the establishment of Special Economic Zones. "Based on the experience China has developed in this area, we have developed special economic zones adapted to the Homeland Plan and the vision of territorial development." "An agreement for the development of the country's gold sector has also been signed," he explained.

      After a 
meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two leaders reported on the plans to establish new funding mechanisms aimed at increasing productive development in both countries, in addition to the already existing heavy fund and joint financing fund, Maduro remarked. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping said China wanted to promote practical cooperation and "the use of the existing financial mechanisms." Beijing also wants to help Venezuela to "increase its manufacturing capacity," said the Chinese president

September 5, 2015

"RIGGED" TRIAL LAND LEOPOLDO LOPEZ 14 YEARS IN PRISON

      
J
udge Susana Barreiro is expected to issue her ruling in López’s trial as early as Friday, and could potentially sentence the Popular Will leader to 14 years in prison. On Monday, August 31, Venezuela’s Public Ministry issued a press release indicating they expect a guilty verdict against López. Prosecutors claim they have presented sufficient evidence against López, as well as four other young men tried in the same case, regarding alleged criminal activity during anti-government protests held on February 12, 2014.

       The state seeks a 14-year prison sentence for López on conspiracy charges, as well as additional penalties for public incitement to delinquency, damage to property, and arson.  The press release came as no surprise to Jorge Tricás, a professor of political 
science at Andrés Bello Catholic University. Tricás tells the PanAm Post that the release is meant as a strategy to pressure the judge to rule in the state’s favor.   According to the professor, the prosecution has presented no evidence of López’s guilt, and says the trial against the opposition leader has been “rigged.” Tricás says the case reveals the totalitarian nature of a government that seeks to intimidate citizens who elect to protest the economic, political, and social crisis in Venezuela.

       “We already know that the judge in Leopoldo’s case has not administered justice appropriately; she obeys orders from on high. I don’t find it surprising that she is following a script,” he said. Proceedings are set to 
continue on Friday, September 4, when judge Susana Barreiro is expected to make a final judgment. Tricás believes the government will seek to make an example out of López to “keep citizens in line.” “Nobody knows what will happen, though it must already be more than set in stone,” he says. “If the goal is to intimidate the opposition and other leaders, I think the government will ban him [from elections]. They don’t want him as an active opposition leader.… I wouldn’t be surprised if they banned him for 15 years, to prevent him from becoming a presidential candidate.”

SECRETARY CARTER SAYS IRAN DEAL STRENGTHENS  US MILITARY OPTION 

      
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered assurances Friday that the Iran nuclear deal will leave Washington witH “more effective” military option if that becomes necessary. Carter defended the agreement in an opinion piece in USA Today, arguing it would lead to a more durable outcome. But the Pentagon chief said the military option was still on the table and, if called for, such action would be “more effective” as a result of the agreement. World powers and Iran struck the landmark deal in July after years of negotiations to address
Western concerns that Tehran was developing a nuclear bomb.

      “Its implementation will block the pathways Iran could take to build a nuclear bomb. That long-term outcome is more durable than one a military strike would bring about,” Carter wrote. “While I am responsible for that alternative and know that it would be effective at setting back Iran’s nuclear programme, it would do so with potentially serious second- and third-order repercussions, and the likely need to repeat attacks once Iran sought to rebuild its capability.” But Carter argued the deal also made the option of military action by the US against Iran stronger going forward. “The military option is real today and, as secretary of defense, I will be sure that remains true well into the future,” he wrote.

       “Indeed, the reality is that any prospective military option, if called for, will be more effective under this deal — not less. Iran will have a smaller and more concentrated civil nuclear programme, and the deal’s verification provisions will give us more information with which to plan.” US 
President Barack Obama earned enough backing in Congress this week to make sure the deal is not blocked by lawmakers. The agreement will ease Western sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran curtailing its nuclear programme.  Many Republicans, however, believe the Islamic republic will still seek to cheat its way to developing an atomic bomb. A public relations battle was launched over the agreement, which is to be put to a vote in Congress next week.  Tehran has steadfastly denied the claims it is developing a nuclear bomb and argued that its nuclear capabilities were for civilian use
 

NICOLAS MADURO CALLS "HYPOCRITE" EUROPEAN UNION STANCE OVER BORDER CONFLICT

     
  The Venezuelan government termed "immoral and hypocrite" the communiqué issued by the European Union (EU), which asserted that the order issued by the Venezuelan government to shut down the border between Colombia and Venezuela and the expulsion of thousands of Colombian immigrants jeopardizes the stability of the bordering region.

     "Venezuela rejects the immoral and hypocrite communiqué (...) conveying, with no grounds or evidence, serious accusations against our country in relation with the sovereign decision of adopting measures to fight Colombian paramilitary groups, drug trafficking, and systematic attacks on the Venezuelan economy," said the Venezuelan foreign office in a communiqué.

       The EU had insisted on the need to "find solutions that fully respect human rights and ensure the population's 
wellbeing."  The Venezuela-Colombia diplomatic crisis will be discussed on Monday in the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) and next Thursday in an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in Quito, Ecuador

September 4, 2015

GUATEMALAN PRESIDENT RESIGNED AMID CORRUPTION PROBE

      
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina resigned in the face of a growing corruption scandal after months of public protests and appeared in court Thursday to hear charges against him.  Perez Molina, 64, became the first Guatemalan president to step down when he submitted his resignation at midnight after a judge issued an order to detain him on charges of fraud, illicit association and receiving bribe money.  Guatemala's congress voted Thursday afternoon to accept Perez Molina's resignation and appointed his successor, Vice President Alejandro Maldonado, who was next in line to assume power, according to the country's constitution.

    Maldonado was sworn in as the new leader, but his tenure will be brief because the country is scheduled to hold national elections on Sunday to pick a new president, vice president and members of the congress.  Although Perez Molina maintained his innocence Thursday during an interview with a radio station before turning himself in, many see his resignation as the ultimate victory for a country that has been trying to weed out corruption for a decade.    Adriana Beltrán, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, who has written a book about Guatemala's corruption, said neighboring countries can learn a lesson from what's happened in Guatemala, where the international community, local officials and the public combined to clean up a corrupt government.

      "What you saw is a new generation emerge that said, 'We've had it,' " Beltrán said. "This is a model worth considering. ... The rule of law can prevail, and justice can take place." Maldonado, a conservative lawyer and former Constitutional Court judge, recently became vice president, replacing replace Roxana Baldetti, who resigned May 8 because of the same scandal. She is jailed, facing charges, and also maintains her innocence. More resignations soon followed Baldetti's. The heads of the Ministries of Interior, Environment, Energy and Mines, the tax collection agency, the social security agency and the Guatemalan Central Bank have stepped down amid probes into a wide variety of corruption scandals.  That broad sweep is due in part to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, created by the United Nations in 2006 to help find and remove corrupt officials.  

COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT SANTOS WILLING TO MEET WITH NICOLAS MADURO 

      
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos demanded "minimal conditions" to solve the border conflict, including that the Venezuelan government sets a "human corridor" allowing more than 2,000 children living in Venezuelan bordering Táchira state to "attend school in Colombia" Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asserted on Thursday that he was "willing" to meet with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro, on "some conditions" toaddress the border crisis that has strained the bilateral relation for three weeks.

     "I want to say to president Maduro that I am willing 
to meet (with him); however, the fundamental rights of Colombians need to be respected," President Santos stated in a televised speech, AFP reported. "Conditions" demanded by Santos to meet with Maduro include that the Venezuelan government sets a "human corridor" allowing more than 2,000 children living in Venezuelan bordering Táchira state to "attend school in Colombia."

     In addition, the Colombian president also asked Venezuela to allow 15 trucks to cross the border and enter Venezuela to 
pick up the belongings of 1,300 Colombians deported in the context of the crisis.  The last condition for dialogue is that Venezuelan authorities "abide by the minimal protocols and stop ill treatment against Colombians to be deported from Venezuela."

VENEZUELA MANUFACTURES A DISPUTE WITH NEIGHBORING COLOMBIA

     
  WITH INFLATION and violent crime soaring and supplies of food and medicine shrinking, Venezuela’s populist government appears headed toward a major defeat in legislative elections scheduled for December, if the vote is free and fair. So it’s no surprise that President Nicolás Maduro is resorting to the assaults on the opposition and manipulations of the electoral system that have been a staple of the regime created by the late Hugo Chávez. A number of opposition leaders have been banned from participating in the election, districts have been redrawn and the government-controlled supreme court replaced the leaders of one opposition party with its own nominees.

    
Now Mr. Maduro has resorted to provoking a crisis with Venezuela’s neighbor, Colombia. On Aug. 21 he declared a state of emergency along parts of the border, claiming that an attack on a Venezuelan patrol had been carried out by Colombian paramilitaries at the instigation of former president Álvaro Uribe. This ludicrous charge provided the pretext for a crackdown that has seen Venezuelan soldiers expel some 1,000 Colombian migrants across the border and demolish homes in a frontier city. Another 9,000 Colombians are reported to have fled Venezuela, creating a humanitarian emergency. As these poor and desperate people have tried to rescue their homes and possessions, Mr. Maduro has staged rallies in far-away Caracas to trumpet what he calls “a plan of liberation and sovereignty on our border.”

    
Sadly, the Organization of American States has proved unable to address this outrage: Venezuela’s allies, including Caribbean countries it has supplied with discounted oil, on Monday blocked a motion to convene a foreign ministers’ meeting on the expulsions. The Obama administration, which has recently pursued a diplomatic dialogue with the Maduro government, has limited itself to a tepid expression of “concern” about the “worsening humanitarian situation.”

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