Trump asks Colombia’s help to end Venezuela political crisis

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he intends to work closely with his Colombian counterpart to find a solution to spiraling violence in Venezuela.

Sitting side by side with President Juan Manuel Santos in the Oval Office, Trump said he will seek Colombia’s help in pressuring neighboring Venezuela to address the near-daily protests and violence that have shaken President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power.

At least 40 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests that erupted after Venezuela’s supreme court issued a ruling in late March stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last remaining powers. The ruling was later partially reversed amid a storm of international criticism.

The meeting came as the Trump administration rolled out new sanctions Thursday on members of Venezuela’s supreme court for alleged human rights violations.

“A stable and peaceful Venezuela is in the best interest of the entire hemisphere,” Trump said at a joint news conference. “We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem. It is a very, very horrible problem.”

Driving the latest outrage is a decree by Maduro to begin the process of rewriting Venezuela’s constitution. The opposition rejects that plan as another attempt by the president to tighten his grip on power, and opposition leaders are calling on Venezuelans to continue to take to the streets in protest.

Santos is the third Latin American leader to meet with Trump since he took office, after the leaders of Peru and Argentina. The president’s bullish policies toward illegal immigration and his proposed border wall with Mexico have incensed many across Latin America who say they are being unfairly targeted. The dispute led Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel his trip to Washington weeks after Trump took office.

Santos has been among the critics of Trump’s proposed wall, though he avoided outwardly criticizing the plan during their joint remarks.

Trump defended his proposed border wall Thursday, saying, “Walls work, just ask Israel.”

Santos is looking for Trump’s support on a number of domestic issues. His government signed a peace accord last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ending one of the world’s bloodiest and longest-running armed conflicts. The rebel group agreed to turn over 30 percent of its arsenal of assault rifles, machine guns and explosives.


The Trump administration is also looking to work with Colombia to stem the flow of drugs into the U.S. from Latin America. “We have a problem with drugs, and you have a very big problem with drugs,” Trump said to Santos at the start of their meeting.

Santos said he is committed to working with the United States and other countries in Latin America “to fight the other links in the chain,” saying they will join forces to “seize cocaine in transit.”

Santos is a graduate of the University of Kansas and holds a master’s degree from Harvard University.


Venezuela’s anti-government protesters show no signs of backing down

The crisis in Venezuela is only getting worse. On Wednesday, just as on every previous day for the past six weeks, anti-government protests hit various parts of the country. We’re almost getting inured to the images: smoldering barricades arrayed against riot police, security forces launching fusillades of tear gas, bloodied demonstrators being rushed out by volunteer medics.

Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is grimly clinging to power. He recently announced plans to scrap the country’s constitution and implement a new system that would further entrench his rule. His opponents — roused in March when the pro-government supreme court attempted to strip the opposition-dominated legislature of power — seek fresh elections, the release of political prisoners and other concessions. Maduro, the unpopular inheritor of a socialist revolution, shows no sign that he will heed those calls.

“Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making,” Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group wrote last month. “After years of using elections as plebiscites, confident that oil revenue and the charisma of the late strongman Hugo Chávez would always ensure victory, the government can now — with Chávez gone — neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote.”

And so the protests continue. Dozens have perished in clashes, and hundreds have been injured. A small minority of demonstrators have resorted to violence as Maduro mobilized armed gangs of loyalists, known as “colectivos,” to counter the uprising.

The security forces, my colleagues report, “appear increasingly determined to choke the protest movement with brute force, including the use of copious amounts of tear gas. Several protesters have been killed or severely injured by gas canisters fired into crowds or allegedly dropped from government helicopters. Last week, a young man was injured when he was run over by an armored police vehicle that plowed through a melee.”

In response, protesters have adopted some unusual tactics. Many sport armor and helmets retrofitted from household goods. And, after being confronted by countless rounds of tear gas, some came to the streets Wednesday with a nasty new weapon: fecal matter. According to a Reuters report, some protesters were making “poopootov cocktails” — plastic or glass jars filled with a mix of water and human excrement.

“The kids go out with just stones. That’s their weapon. Now they have another weapon: excrement,” a 51-year-old dentist said to Reuters while preparing containers of feces in her home.

This revolting state of affairs is in part the consequence of a rolling economic crisis and recession. Since Maduro took office in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has cratered, inflation has soared and Venezuelans have endured food shortages and blackouts that shuttered hospitals. As we wrote earlier, whole swaths of the population are reporting acute weight loss and a cutback in their daily meals. This week, the Venezuelan government published shocking new data: The country’s infant mortality rose 30 percent last year, maternal mortality shot up 65 percent and cases of malaria jumped 76 percent.

As Maduro extends the crackdown and even hauls civilians before military tribunals, there’s a growing sense that external pressure is needed to ease the crisis. All eyes are on a meeting of the Organization of American States, or OAS, expected this month, where Venezuela will be at the forefront of the agenda. Maduro has threatened to pull out of the regional alliance, which is headquartered in Washington. If he follows through, it would make Venezuela only the second country after Cuba not to belong to the hemispheric bloc.

“Venezuela is drowning in an economic, financial, social and humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions,” said Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the OAS, in a recent interview with Bloomberg News. “There is a dictatorship in Venezuela, and Venezuela needs elections. The only institutional exit for the country is a general election.”

Maduro has seen the erosion of his government’s base, with many of Venezuela’s poor — once uplifted by “chavista” populism — suffering amid the wreckage of a collapsing state. But he may now fear fractures within the ruling party and the waning support of the security services that guarantee his power.

“Maduro’s plans for a new constitution will depend on the continued support of Venezuela’s armed forces,” my colleague Nick Miroff wrote. “It is not clear how the proposal will be received by other members of the ‘chavista’ movement — Chávez loyalists — who have becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Maduro government’s more radical turn.”

In the meantime, protesters will keep turning out in the streets of the country’s divided cities. Thankfully, it’s not all ugly. Wuilly Moisés Arteaga, a violin-playing dissident, became a viral sensation when he was filmed playing strains of the national anthem as rocks and tear gas canisters fell around him. He has since repeated the act.

“People sing the anthem, listen to my music, and are reminded that Venezuela is a country that is worth loving,” Arteaga said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “I was not afraid in that moment. My goal was to create an atmosphere of hope.”

Venezuela Protests and Economic Crisis: What Is Going On?


Venezuela is in the grip of a major crisis. For the last month hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating against the government of President Nicolas Maduro have been met by riot police almost daily. At least 37 people have died in the fierce crackdown by security forces, according to the Associated Press, some 700 wounded and more than 1,000 arrested.

NBC News breaks down what led to the turmoil, what could come next, and why it matters to America.

Why are people protesting?

The economy is a mess.

Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela is suffering from a deep recession and hyper-inflation. Prices rose by 800 percent in 2016, with the International Monetary Fund predicting inflation could hit 2,200 percent by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the economy shrunk by 18.6 last year, according to Reuters.

Image: A man walks down the aisle of a destroyed grocery store
A man walks down the aisle of a destroyed grocery store in the capital Caracas. Miguel Gutierrez / EPA

At the same time, food and medicine shortages are creating a humanitarian emergency. Shoppers, forced to wait in long lines to buy basic supplies, are often met by empty grocery shelves. Hospitals are suffering from acute shortfalls of everything from antibiotics, to basic sanitation equipment like medical gloves and soap.

The current protests were triggered by a Supreme Court decision to strip power from the National Assembly, the opposition-held Congress — a move widely thought to be aimed at concentrating power in the hands of Maduro’s increasingly unpopular government.

For the last month people — from students to housewives and retirees — have taken to the streets to express their outrage, confronting National Guard troops armed with tear gas and water cannons. On Thursday, footage emerged of an armored car rolling over a defiant crowd.

Roberto, a 51-year-old Caracas resident who owns his own electrical supplies business, explained why his fellow Venezuelans were taking to the streets.

“It is common to find people scavenging for food at garbage dumps and everywhere people are eating off garbage cans,” said the father-of-one who spoke on condition that his last name was not used out of fear of government reprisal. “People are starving. You see misery everywhere.”

He said he sells “20 times less” than he used to and is just living off savings, which he fears may run out soon. Despite being tear gassed at recent demonstrations, he said he will continue to march because he has no choice.

“A lot of people have left the country, those that can have gone overseas. But for those like me that are still here, all we can do is fight,” said Roberto. “We are fighting for free and honest elections, we want to recover democracy.”

Gustavo Arnavat, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told NBC News that these conditions “have produced a political and constitutional crisis that are precipitating the complete collapse of the state.”

“Even former supporters of Hugo Chavez are starting to turn against the government and policies of president Maduro,” he added, referring to the current president’s predecessor and father of “Chavismo” —a Latin American left-wing ideology following the principles of Simon Bolivar who fought for colonial independence from Spain.

What happened to Chavez?

For decades, the country was controlled by a small elite and there was extreme disparity between the rich and poor. Late president Chavez was elected in 1999 on the promise that he would share Venezuela’s immense oil wealth with the poor — the country derives 95 percent of its export earnings from petrochemicals.

Fueled by high oil prices that went from $10 barrel when he took office, to over $100 when he died of cancer in 2013, Chavez enacted a series of policies aimed at redistributing wealth. His government nationalized parts of the country’s economy — from oil rigs to telecommunications firms to banks — forcing many companies to flee the country.

As the self-proclaimed leader of the “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez frequently railed against the U.S. — famously calling President George W. Bush “the devil” during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006.

Image: President Nicolas Maduro stands next to a placard depicting late leader Hugo Chavez
President Nicolas Maduro stands next to a placard depicting late leader Hugo Chavez during a rally on May Day in Caracas. CARLOS BECERRA / AFP – Getty Images

Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, was elected by a thin margin in 2013, but came to power as oil prices plummeted by more than 50 percent.

“After Chavez’s death, Maduro has just continued and accelerated the authoritarian and totalitarian policies of Chavez,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies at Council on Foreign Relations.

To analysts, the current emergency can be attributed to the economic crisis brought on by the fall in crude oil prices — which today are trading at about $46 a barrel — coupled with the gradual undermining of the country’s democratic institutions.

“If oil was still at $100 barrel, we would not be having this conversation,” said Arnavat.

What Maduro has chosen to do with the country’s reduced income precipitated the current troubles, according to O’Neil.

“There has been a conscious choice by the government to use the money it has to pay off international debts and not to pay for food and medicine,” she said.

How is Maduro hanging onto power?

This week Maduro called for an assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.

Opposition leaders say this is just a bid to stay in power by putting off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential vote in 2018. Opinion polls have suggested the socialists would lose both.

“You wanted your elections,” Maduro said mockingly of the opposition while announcing the constitutional rewrite on Wednesday. “Here are your elections.”

Maduro has also moved several prominent military officers into positions of power within the government, a move O’Neil says is meant to “solidify their support so they don’t turn on him.”

The government has also steadily curtailed democratic freedoms — restricting the free press, imprisoning opponents and preventing them from running for office.

Why should Americans care if Venezuela becomes a failed state?

For one thing, the Venezuelan crisis could spill over its borders and undermine neighboring countries and the continent as a whole.

“One of the successes of the Western Hemisphere is that almost all the countries — Cuba excepted — are democracies. And that’s a model Americans believe in,” said O’Neil.

“That matters to the U.S.,” she added.

A disintegration of the government will also reverberate economically and in terms of security.

“A collapse of the state in Venezuela will produce financial, economic, regional and security risks for the United States,” said Arnavat, who also served as U.S. Executive Director at the Inter-American Development Bank, the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean, during the administration of President Barack Obama.

FROM MAY 1: Protesters Clash With Police in Caracas May Day Violence 1:18

There could also be a huge impact on oil prices in the U.S. If the government truly collapses, it could negatively impact oil production in Venezuela, a founding member of OPEC, which in turn could mean higher prices at the pump in the U.S. and worldwide.

There is also a fear that if there is a power vacuum, the country could become a safe harbor for terrorists and drug traffickers — which could have a destabilizing effect in the region and potentially even create a migration crisis in neighboring countries.

“From a humanitarian perspective, and given the presence of several hundred thousand residents in the U.S. of Venezuelan origin, the vast majority of which Iives in Florida, there will be an urgent call for action for the U.S. to step in and provide assistance,” said Arnavat.

What’s the U.S. stance on Venezuela?

The U.S. State Department condemned the dissolution of Venezuela’s National Assembly as “a serious setback for democracy” and the Trump administration is looking to put pressure on Maduro by considering stronger economic sanctions.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators also introduced a bill this week that would provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to the country, require the State Department to coordinate a regional effort to ease the crisis, and ask American intelligence to report on the involvement of government officials in corruption and the drug trade.

“It may be tempting to note that the administration has more important domestic and foreign priorities, but if Venezuela collapses, it will become a major priority,” said Arnavat. “And the ability of the U.S., as the world’s and region’s leader, to manage the crisis will establish a precedent and be part of President Trump’s legacy.”

How bad can it get?

“So long as the economic crisis and human suffering remains unabated, and no political solution is reached, things can only get worse,” said Arnavat.

Image: A demonstrator catches fire during clashes with police
A demonstrator catches fire during clashes with police at a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in the capital Caracas. Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP – Getty Images

Dr. Jennifer McCoy, a professor at Georgia State University who specializes in Latin American politics, also said the situation could get “much worse” and warned that “things could spiral very quickly if people don’t see significant electoral change.”

She pointed out that while the country has historically been very peaceful, Venezuelans are very well armed — particularly because of the violent crime wave that hit the country in recent years. The U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which aims to create effective security communication between American private sector interests worldwide and the U.S. State Department, called it “one of the deadliest countries in the world” in its 2017 Crime and Safety Report.

What’s next?

What happens now will depend on the people on the streets, “but also on the military,” said McCoy.

She added that Maduro’s call for a constitutional rewrite “looks like a gambit by the president to calm the current unrest in the streets and postpone elections that he fears he will lose.”

“The next step will depend on how big of an outcry there is in Venezuela and if the military continues to support the president or if there is international outcry.”

CFR’s O’Neil warned that a spiral downward could come swiftly.

“It’s a slow moving crisis — which can last longer than you think, but when they end, they end quickly,” she said.

Venezuela Says It Will Leave Pro-Democracy Organization

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Venezuela said Wednesday that it would pull out of the Organization of American States, which has long been critical of President Nicolás Maduro’s unyielding accumulation of power at the expense of the country’s democratic institutions.

The move increases Venezuela’s isolation while its government is struggling to put down mass street protests demanding new elections. And it shows that the country — which, through anticapitalist rhetoric and oil largess, once aimed to challenge the United States as a power in Latin America — is becoming something of a pariah in its own region.

On Wednesday evening, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez said Mr. Maduro had instructed her to break ties with the organization because of what she described as “intrusive, arbitrary, illegal, deviant and crude actions.” She added, “A faction of governments from the region had eyes on our sovereignty and tried to intervene and lecture our country, but this, fortunately, will not happen.”

The O.A.S., whose charter promotes democracy among member organizations in the Western Hemisphere, has become the principal body through which Venezuela’s neighbors have exerted pressure as concerns mount regarding the country’s stability.

Experts called the decision to leave unprecedented.

“It is evidence of an authoritarian character of the government, especially in the case of the O.A.S., whose pillars are to defend democracy and human rights,” said Félix Arellano, an international relations professor at the Central University of Venezuela. He added that this was the first time a country had pulled out of the organization.

The decision came amid a month of huge protests against Mr. Maduro’s rule that have involved looting and attacks on demonstrators and security forces. At least 26 people have died, according to human rights groups, including a 20-year-old man who the authorities say was killed during a demonstration on Wednesday.

Last year, the O.A.S. invoked its Democratic Charter against Venezuela, citing an “alteration of the constitutional order” there. The move was a rebuke of the country’s ruling leftists, whom the organization accused of stifling opponents, holding political prisoners and ruling by decree.

In the months that followed, Mr. Maduro’s powers increased, and the organization’s demands became louder.

On March 29, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, controlled by loyalists of the president, moved to dissolve the National Assembly and assume lawmaking powers for itself. The ruling was described by the O.A.S. secretary general, Luis Almagro, as “a self-inflicted coup.”

After an international outcry, Mr. Maduro quickly told the Supreme Court to roll back much of the ruling, but legislators say they remain essentially powerless.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Mr. Almagro — who had warned that Venezuela faced suspension from the organization — said that in order to withdraw, the country would have to wait two years and pay a debt of $8.7 million under O.A.S. rules.

David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the two-year departure window meant the organization could continue to discuss Venezuela, regardless of whether it was planning to quit. He noted that the rupture came after years in which Venezuela accused the O.A.S. of being a pawn of Washington and tried to undermine it by establishing alternative regional bodies.

“But symbolically, this is important,” Mr. Smilde added, saying it showed that Venezuela’s neighbors were losing patience.

For years, Venezuela was bolstered by friendly leftist governments throughout the region. But now, old stalwarts like Brazil and Argentina are governed by right-of-center leaders, and Cuba, once Venezuela’s closest ally, has opened diplomatic relations with the United States.

Venezuela opposition plans silent procession, road sit-ins

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s energized opposition is planning sit-ins on roads, silent marches in white to commemorate the dead and other nontraditional protests as it tries to build on the momentum of recent street demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the South American country again Thursday to demand elections and denounce what they consider an essentially dictatorial government. They were met by curtains of tear gas and rubber bullets as they tried to march to downtown Caracas.

Later in the day, opposition leaders gathered in a show of unity at an outdoor news conference in the eastern Caracas neighborhood that has been at the heart of three weeks of near-daily protests. Some residents came out on balconies to cheer as the politicians urged supporters to don white and march silently through Caracas on Saturday to commemorate the eight people killed in the demonstrations. The opposition is planning Monday sit-ins to block highways.

“Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born,” opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara shouted.

General Motors announced early Thursday that it was closing its operations in Venezuela after authorities seized its factory in the industrial city of Valencia, a move that could draw the Trump administration into the escalating chaos engulfing the nation.

The plant was confiscated Wednesday as anti-Maduro protesters clashed with security forces and pro-government groups. The seizure arose from an almost 20-year-old lawsuit brought by a former GM dealership in western Venezuela.

Hundreds of workers desperate for information about their jobs gathered at the plant Thursday to meet with government and military officials as well as representatives of the dealership that brought the lawsuit. The neglected factory hasn’t produced a car since 2015, but GM still has 79 dealers that employ 3,900 people in Venezuela, where for decades it was the market leader.

The State Department said Thursday it was reviewing details of the GM case but called on Venezuelan authorities to act swiftly and transparently to resolve the dispute.

A number of major Latin American governments, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, called on Venezuela to take steps to increase democratic order and halt the violence that has been swirling around the protests. Across the country, clashes have been intense as protests grow in size and fervor.

The unrest was sparked by a Supreme Court decision last month to strip Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress of its few remaining powers, a move that was later reversed amid a storm of international criticism. But the initial ruling reinvigorated Venezuela’s fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.

Opponents are pushing for Maduro’s removal through early elections and the release of dozens of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections that the opposition was heavily favored to win and it cut off a petition drive aimed at forcing a referendum seeking Maduro’s removal before elections scheduled for late next year.

But the government hasn’t backed down.

Already drawing criticism for the GM seizure, Maduro announced late Thursday that he wanted an investigation into cellphone operator Movistar for allegedly being part of the “coup-minded march” organized by his adversaries Wednesday. That march was the largest and most dramatic the country has seen in years. He said the subsidiary of Spain’s Telefonica “sent millions of messages to users every two hours” in support of Wednesday’s protests.

As tensions mount, the government is using its almost-complete control of Venezuela’s institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone, 565 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal assistance to detainees. It said 334 remained in jail Thursday.



Venezuela has been at the end of its rope for a long time. Between the food shortages, sky-high inflation, record levels of crime, and a rapid decline of their standard of living, the people of Venezuela can’t take much more. And it appears that their breaking point may have finally been reached last month, when President Maduro tried to strip the powers of the opposition led parliament, which would have made him a full-blown dictator.

Since then, the parties opposing him have promised to lead the “Mother of all Protests,” which began today. The event was preceded by two weeks of protests that saw the deaths of five people, and hundreds of injuries at the hands of riot police. One was a 14-year-old boy who had been shot in the abdomen by government supporters.

Three more protesters were killed today, as tens of thousands of people confronted the police and government supporters throughout the country. Graphic images of one protester who had been shot in the head have surfaced, as well as several photos of mob violence and police confrontations. At least 30 people have been arrested.

Because the country is on the verge of collapse, opposition leaders are calling for an early election, which they believe will oust Maduro. They’re also calling for the release of opposition politicians who have been arrested in the past. It appears the only thing standing between the protesters and Maduro is the military and police, both of which have been called to the streets to quell the protests. The military remains the last institution that is still fiercely loyal to the Maduro regime.

Venezuela’s opposition (Spic Freemasons) seeks to keep pressure on Maduro

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s opposition is looking to keep up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro by taking to the streets again Thursday hours after at least two people were killed and hundreds arrested in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.

Tens of thousands of protesters demanding elections and denouncing what they consider increasingly dictatorial government were met by a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets as they attempted to march to downtown Caracas on Wednesday. Dozens even had to slide down a concrete embankment and into the Guaire River to escape the noxious fumes.

Across the country the clashes were intense. Pro-government militias, some of whose members were armed, were blamed for the two deaths, including that of a teenager in Caracas who was heading to a soccer game with friends. In several cities, protesters described being terrorized by militia members, some of them armed and circling the protesters in motorcycles.

As night fell, a group of youths tore down signs and billboards to build barricades from which they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at riot police.

The two killings bring to seven the death toll since protests began three weeks ago over the Supreme Court’s decision to strip the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers, a move that was later reversed amid a storm of international criticism.

As protesters with burning eyes headed home the opposition called for another round of street demonstrations Thursday.

“If today we were millions tomorrow even more of us need to come out,” said opposition governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who last week was barred from running for office for 15 years.

The Supreme Court’s decision has energized Venezuela’s fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.

Opponents are pushing for Maduro’s removal through early elections and the release of scores of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections the opposition was heavily favored to win and cut off a petition drive to force a referendum seeking Maduro’s removal before elections late next year. The opposition sees the government measures as turning Venezuela into a nearly full-blown dictatorship.

But the government has shown little interest in backing down.

Maduro, addressing supporters at a much smaller but still large countermarch of mostly state workers, said he was “anxious” to see elections take place sometime “soon” and repeated his call for dialogue, something many in the opposition see as a stalling tactic.

“Today they attempted to take power by force and we defeated them again,” said Maduro, adding that in recent hours authorities had rounded up several armed opponents seeking to carry out a coup.

He didn’t provide any evidence to back up the coup claims, and the opposition rejected them as desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.

As tensions have mounted, the government has used its almost-complete control of Venezuela’s institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone more than 500 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local NGO that provides legal assistance to detainees. It was unclear how many remained in custody.

Foreign governments are also warning about the increasingly bellicose rhetoric coming from the government. The U.S. State Department said those who commit human rights abuses and undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions would be held accountable.

“We are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in ways that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Wednesday.

Opposition marchers included Liliana Machuca, who earns about $20 a month holding two jobs teaching literature. Although she doesn’t expect change overnight, she said protesting is the only option the opposition has against an entrenched, increasingly repressive government.

“This is like a chess game and each side is moving whatever pieces they can,” said Machuca, her face covered in a white, sticky substance to protect herself from the effects of tear gas. “We’ll see who tires out first.”

Venezuela plunged into turmoil as top court muzzles congress

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans have been thrust into a new round of political turbulence after the government-stacked Supreme Court gutted congress of its last vestiges of power, drawing widespread condemnation from foreign governments and sparking calls for protests.

Governments across Latin America on Thursday condemned the power grab, with the head of the Organization of American States likening it to a “self-inflicted coup” by socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s “regime” against the opposition-controlled congress.

In a surprise decision, the magistrates ruled late Wednesday that as long as lawmakers remain in contempt of past rulings, the high court, or an institution it designates, can assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for nearly a year and a half.

The ruling and one earlier in the week limiting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution capped a feud that began when the long-marginalized opposition won control of the legislature by a landslide in December 2015 and then mounted a campaign to force Maduro from office. The leftist leader, who has seen his approval ratings plunge amid widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation, responded by relying on the Supreme Court to unseat several lawmakers and then routinely nullify all legislation voted there.

“This isn’t any old sentence. It marks a point of no return on the road to dictatorship,” said Freddy Guevara, the No. 2 leader in congress.

Peru’s government immediately recalled its ambassador in protest of what it called “a flagrant break in the democratic order.” Chile’s left-of-center president, who has been reluctant to openly criticize Maduro, said she was deeply worried by the ruling and ordered her ambassador to return home for consultations.

The U.S. State Department reiterated its call for Maduro to free political prisoners and hold immediate elections to resolve the crisis, saying the court decision to “usurp” the National Assembly’s powers represented a “serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”

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OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro called for an emergency meeting of the regional group, which held two angry sessions on Venezuela earlier this week. That meeting ended with 20 governments led by the U.S. and Mexico voicing deep concern about the Venezuelan situation but no concrete actions to hold Maduro accountable.

Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster, said that while the ruling completely “pulverizes the separation of powers,” Venezuela long ago stopped operating like a normal democracy with a clear rule of law and independent institutions. He sees the government hardening its position in the face of mounting economic woes and international pressure, further dashing hopes for dialogue and an electoral solution.

“It’s perfectly predictable that the government is going to keep radicalizing,” he said.

The main opposition alliance said it was holding around-the-clock meetings to determine its next steps, but some leaders were already calling for protests as early as Saturday. Meanwhile, some hard-liners called for the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela and an important crutch for Maduro, to intervene.

While the capital was generally quiet Thursday, as night fell a few people in wealthier eastern Caracas gathered on balconies and in front of homes banging pots and pans and shouting “Get out Maduro!”

“The 30 million Venezuelans need to take to the streets and confront the dictatorship,” said Daniela Tani, a coordinator for one of Venezuela’s opposition groups who joined about 50 people briefly blocking one of major roadways in Caracas. The protesters waved flags and stopped traffic until being surrounded by police trying to clear the street.

But it was not clear if critics of the government were in the mood for another street fight after past attempts fizzled or ended in bloodshed with little to show. Weeks of unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 deaths and dozens of arrests, while a mass protest last September was followed by authorities a few days later cancelling a recall petition campaign seeking to force Maduro from office before his term ends in 2019.

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The Supreme Court’s ruling stemmed from congress’ refusal to authorize Venezuela’s state-run oil company to form joint ventures with private companies, including Russia’s Rosneft. State media said the ruling was not seeking to supplant congress but rather to guarantee the rule of law so long as legislators remains obstructionist by refusing to sign off on a budget and key economic decisions.

Maduro kept out of the debate, appearing twice Thursday on state TV but leaving to his aides to denounce his critics.

“We denounce the conspiracy by the region’s right-wing to attack Venezuela’s democratic system,” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said on Twitter.


Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press photographer Fernando Llano in Caracas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

US bars entry to Venezuelan VP accused of Hezbollah, Iran ties

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Trump administration imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.

El Aissami, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and ties to Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, has been barred from entering the United States. The executive decree issued Monday is the result of a years-long investigation.

One confidential intelligence document links El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and IDs that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to Hezbollah, reported CNN.

There was no immediate reaction from the Venezuelan government or El Aissami, who has long denied any criminal ties. He was tapped as the South American country’s vice president by President Nicolas Maduro in early January.

“Not only implicated in drug trafficking and relations with the Colombian terrorist FARC movement, El-Aissami has inherited ex-President Hugo Chavez’s hatred of Israel and Jews and can now pursue Maduro’s anti-Semitism, further threatening Jewish lives in Venezuela,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s representative in Latin America, Ariel Gelblung, said in January.

He added: “Indeed, El-Aissami may transform anti-Semitism into state policy and further the transplantation of the Middle East conflict to South America.”

According to the Wiesenthal Center, Aissami’s name has appeared as an intermediary between Iran and Argentina in the plan to camouflage Tehran’s alleged complicity in the 1994 Buenos Aires AMIA Jewish Center bombing, which killed 85 and injured 300. No one has been brought to justice for the bombing.

Last month, nine Venezuelan Jewish converts were permitted to immigrate to Israel after their initial request was denied. The indigenous Venezuelans converted to Judaism in 2014 under the auspices of a Conservative rabbinical court and will need to undergo a second conversion described as “symbolic.”

A recent Washington Post article said about 6,000 to 9,000 Jews remain in Venezuela, which has a general population of approximately 30 million. Just 15 years ago there were 20,000 Jews living in the South American nation.

Citing Israeli government data, the paper reported that 111 Venezuelan Jews moved to Israel in 2015 – more than double the number from three years earlier.

U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Venezuela’s Vice President, Calling Him a Drug ‘Kingpin’

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Trump administration announced sanctions against Venezuela’s vice president on Monday, calling him a drug “kingpin” in its first moves against the country’s leftist government that President Trump railed against during his campaign.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami, according to a Treasury Department statement, was being sanctioned for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.” The sanctions mean that Mr. El Aissami, 42, will be blocked from financial dealings with Americans and will have any American assets frozen.

Such actions against officials in the government of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela are nothing new in a long and fraught relationship between Washington and Caracas. But the accusation that Mr. El Aissami, the next in line for the presidency, was a drug trafficker was certain to set a new, more hostile tone in relations.

“This can be seen as the opening salvo of the Trump administration in dealing with Latin America’s deepest crisis,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. “It is hard to imagine that, with this decision, Washington will now be inclined to offer many carrots to the increasingly authoritarian regime.”

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has come under increasing pressure by both Republicans and some Democrats to take a tougher stance on Venezuela, which has suffered an economic collapse punctuated by food and medicine shortages and soaring crime, even as its government has taken a harsher stance against dissent.

In a letter on Feb. 8, 34 members of the United States Congress urged the president to “take immediate action to sanction regime officials.”

The Treasury Department document contained wide-ranging accusations against Mr. El Aissami, the result of years of investigation, officials said.

“Power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” said John E. Smith, the acting director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “Denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the U.S. financial system from abuse remain top priorities of the Treasury Department.”

Venezuelan officials had no immediate public comment on Monday evening. Mr. Maduro did not mention it during a television address.

In its announcement, the Treasury Department said Mr. El Aissami’s history of drug trafficking went back years through his previous political positions, which included a state governorship and establishing a national police force at the Interior and Justice Ministry.

Mr. El Aissami “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” the department said.

Additionally “he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States,” according to the statement. It did not specify what kinds of drugs were involved.

The department also said Mr. El Aissami had protected accused drug traffickers, including the Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled García and the Colombian kingpin Daniel Barrera Barrera. The accusations linked Mr. El Aissami to shipments destined for the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico.

The department also said a Venezuelan businessman, Samark López Bello, had assisted Mr. El Assami, and now faced similar sanctions.

The sanctions come as Mr. El Aissami has been consolidating power in Venezuela. He was appointed as vice president by Mr. Maduro on Jan. 4 after rising from a job as a rural student leader. David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Institute on Latin America, an advocacy group, said he was seen as the front-runner for the leftist candidacy in the 2018 elections.

Since appointing Mr. El Aissami to the post, Mr. Maduro has granted him expanded powers, including over the economy and expropriating businesses.

Mr. El Aissami also heads a newly formed “commando” unit, meant to root out dissidents that the government accuses of plotting coups. The group has so far arrested at least five people.

Mr. El Aissami does not have a good history on human rights, Mr. Smilde said, adding that while he was governor of the state of Aragua “he presided over a police force that came to be one of the most violent and abusive in the country.”