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Posts tagged ‘Defiant Land of Venezuela’

Angry families demand facts on deadly Venezuela jail riot

March 29, 2018

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — Distraught families are clamoring for information about detained relatives following a fire that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor says killed 68 people when it swept through the cells of the state police station.

Angry relatives fought with police outside the facility Wednesday after being unable to get any information on casualties from Wednesday’s fire, which townspeople said erupted after a disturbance involving detainees. Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and local officials would confirm only that there were fatalities.

Late Wednesday, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said on his official Twitter account that 68 people were dead and nearly all of them were prisoners. He said the dead included two women who were staying overnight at the station, but he didn’t provide any further details.

Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas. It was one of the worst jail disasters in Venezuela, where human rights groups complain about poor conditions in prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.

With tears streaking cheeks, people waiting outside the station Wednesday said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions and they feared the worst for their loved ones. Some people buried their hands in their faces. Others had to be supported by friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Some wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son the previous day, when she took food to him. “They haven’t told me anything.” Nearby, National Guard troops wearing flak jackets and carrying rifles slung across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside. Unused stretchers leaned against a wall.

A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails and prisons, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.

Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off. Carlos Nieto Palma, director of A Window to Freedom, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address the poor conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout Venezuela, with detainees being kept long past customary brief holding periods before being let go or sent to larger jails to await trial.

“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.” Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what happened.

“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said. Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

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Venezuela AG says 68 dead after riot, fire at police station

March 29, 2018

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s chief prosecutor reported late Wednesday that 68 people died in a fire that swept through the cell area inside a police station, which townspeople said followed a disturbance by detainees being held there.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said on his official Twitter account that nearly all the dead were prisoners. He said two women who were staying overnight at the station were also killed, but didn’t provide any further details.

Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas. It was one of the worst jail disasters in a country where human rights groups complain about bad prison conditions. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.

Local authorities in Valencia had confirmed earlier only that there were fatalities, and said they were working to determine an exact number. They said they were not providing any estimates “out of respect for the families.”

Angry relatives who gathered outside the station said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions at the station and expressed fear that their loved ones were dead. Dozens of men and women demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with police officers in riot gear. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son a day before, when she went to deliver him food. “They haven’t told me anything.” A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.

Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off. A Window to Freedom’s director, Carlos Nieto Palma, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address deteriorating conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout the country as detainees are kept long past customary brief holding periods before being sent to other larger jails before trial or freed.

“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.” Outside the police station, some relatives buried their hands in their faces as tears streamed down their cheeks. Others had to be held up with the support of friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Still others wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

Nearby, National Guard troops wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying rifles across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside, and unused stretchers leaned against a wall.

Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what had happened. “The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said.

Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

Cuba’s Diaz-Canel receives Maduro in first act as president

April 21, 2018

HAVANA (AP) — Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel met with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro Saturday in his first official act as the country’s leader. Maduro is the first president to visit Diaz-Canel since he was selected by outgoing President Raul Castro to lead the island’s government earlier this week.

The Associated Press was told that Castro did not attend the welcome ceremony for the Venezuelan president at the Palace of the Revolution. But in a marked change from the past, Cuban first lady Lis Cuesta was in attendance along with Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores.

Cuba had no first lady during the nearly six decades that the Castro family was in power. Castro was a widower when he took office 12 years ago and his older brother Fidel carefully guarded his private life.

The Cuban government selected 58-year-old Diaz-Canel as the sole candidate to succeed Castro on Wednesday in a transition aimed at ensuring the continuity of the country’s single-party system. The 86-year-old Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, but it is not clear how much power he will wield.

The meeting between Maduro and Diaz-Canel affirms the strong alliance between Venezuela and Cuba, which in essence receives oil for Cuban doctors and technicians who work in public health in the South American country.

But former President Castro has acknowledged that the political and economic crisis in Venezuela is having a negative spillover effect on the island’s economy, and Cuba has sought to strengthen its alliance with China and Russia.

Official media have reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin called Castro and Diaz-Canel to affirm their shared interests, but did not offer further details. On Monday, Bolivian President Evo Morales is expected to greet Diaz-Canel in Cuba.

Ousted Caracas mayor reaches Spain after fleeing Venezuela

November 18, 2017

MADRID (AP) — The ousted mayor of Caracas pledged to spread his protest against Venezuela’s socialist government across the world as he arrived in Spain on Saturday, a day after escaping from house arrest and slipping past security forces into Colombia.

After embracing his wife and two daughters with a Venezuela flag draped over his shoulder, Antonio Ledezma said he was going to continue to fight Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exile. “I am going to dedicate myself to traveling the world, to spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship,” Ledezma said. “Venezuela isn’t on the verge of an abyss, it has fallen into the abyss.”

Maduro, for his part, called Ledezma a “vampire flying around the world.” Ledezma, 62, was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust Maduro. He was one of the leaders of anti-government in protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 that also led to the jailing of other prominent opponents, including his former cellmate Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

Ledezma’s flight from Bogota landed early Saturday in Madrid where besides his family, he was greeted by the former president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, and the former Venezuelan ambassador, Fernando Gerbasi.

Ledezma said he “felt freedom” upon touching Spanish soil and hopes to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy before starting his global tour. He did not say what countries he plans to visit. “Venezuela is completely collapsing. We can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We don’t have any resources left, only our morale.”

Ledezma told The Associated Press on Friday that his decision to flee was driven by threats intended to force the opposition to resume negotiations with Maduro’s government. After slipping past intelligence police officers stationed 24 hours a day outside his residence, he passed through several police checkpoints in a long journey by car to Colombia. Colombian immigration authorities said Ledezma entered the country legally across the Simon Bolivar Bridge.

Ledezma, who thanked both Spanish and Colombian authorities for what he described as their warm welcomes, was elated after his escape. “I’ve lived out a James Bond movie,” Ledemza said. “I made this route of more than 24 hours, passing 29 control points, checkpoints, crossing paths, accepting all the risks, and in every moment I always thought about the value of freedom.”

Venezuela officials: Ruling party wins most governorships

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said candidates for the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won nearly all of the 23 governorships up for grabs in Sunday’s regional elections. Opposition leaders disputed the accuracy of the vote count.

Independent pollsters had projected the opposition would ride a wave of discontent over Venezuela’s economic calamity and win a majority of the state elections for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist rule.

Tibisay Lucena, the pro-government president of the electoral council, said socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered “irreversible” late Sunday. One race was still undecided.

Lucena said 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the elections, far higher than many people had anticipated. Even before the results were announced, opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said there was reason to question the results. He said the opposition’s count would be “very different” from the electoral council’s results.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” Blyde said. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

“There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “I think that’s going to deepen the polarization.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Throughout Sunday, President Nicolas Maduro and socialist party leaders said the election would be proof that Venezuela remains a democracy and not a dictatorship, as a rising number of foreign leaders have begun to call the embattled nation. Few checks and balances remain on Maduro’s rule after the constitutional assembly declared itself superior to all other branches of government and replaced the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor with a socialist ally of the president.

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said in a televised address to the nation during the day. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility.” After results were announced, Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the count and would ask the constitutional assembly to order an audit of the vote in order to extinguish any cries of fraud.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely to lose. The vote was rescheduled for this December, but the constitutional assembly moved it up to October.

Days before the vote, the electoral council announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds, one of several unusual changes before the election. The opposition accused the council of trying to suppress turnout among its base — a significant portion of which has grown disillusioned about the possibility of change and lost faith in leaders they perceive as disorganized and divided.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Socialist candidates had urged Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change. Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed the socialist candidate in Miranda, said he hoped his vote would set Venezuela on the right path.

“I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said.

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuelan socialists claim victory as opposition cries foul

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council proclaimed candidates with the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won a vast majority of the 23 governorships at stake in Sunday’s election, results the opposition immediately rejected and which threatened to further divide the nation.

An hour before results were announced, the opposition’s command centers had been filled with smiles and jubilation. Leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told a room filled with journalists and supporters that while he couldn’t share the preliminary results, they showed a victory of “historic dimensions” for the Venezuelan people.

But shortly before Tibisay Lucena, president of the government-stacked council, declared the results, opposition mayor Gerardo Blyde came out to warn that leaders believed the official count would be off.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” he said. According to the CNE, socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered irreversible. One race was still too close to call a victor. In all, 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the election, far higher than many people had anticipated in a country where many have grown disenchanted and apathetic.

Lucena and others praised the vote as an example of Venezuela’s democracy but Blyde claimed fraud. “Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world buy that story,” he said of the results. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed, ruling with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the CNE’s results but would ask the constitutional assembly to request an audit in order to extinguish any doubts that the results were inaccurate. “A triumphant victory for chavismo!” he proclaimed, referring to the name used for his predecessor’s movement.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely slated to lose. They were repeatedly delayed for a variety of reasons, including a requirement for political parties to “renew” their status with electoral authorities.

Then in May, during the height of opposition protests, Lucena announced the elections were being scheduled for December, after a vote for delegates to a constitutional assembly in July. Opposition leaders blankly refused to participate in the July vote, choosing instead to mount street protests in hopes of pressuring Maduro into canceling the vote. The vote continued as planned and CNE rectors proclaimed that more than 8 million Venezuelans participated in the election for delegates. International voting software company Smartmatic came out days later to assert that Venezuelans electoral officials had deliberately altered turnout results.

The new assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s constitution quickly removed the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor and declared itself superior to all other branches of government. Assembly delegates also decided to move up the delayed gubernatorial elections to October.

Projections by independent pollsters showed opposition candidates would win a majority, if not nearly all offices, while socialist party contenders were expected to claim a small handful of victories.

Still, opposition candidates vying for votes proved to have their work cut out with them. Many young supporters who had participated in the street protests are upset at leaders they perceived and disorganized and unable to unite behind a single strategy on how to loosen Maduro’s grip from power. Others were skeptical any change might happen at the ballot box, given the electoral council’s repeated favoring of the ruling party and accusations of fraud.

Meanwhile, pro-government candidates like Hector Rodriguez waged competitive campaigns, trading the polarizing red shirts identified with the socialist party for neutral colors. Rodriguez’s campaign focused largely on resolving the daily problems of Venezuelans and healing the divisions that have come to define the nation.

It was a message that resounded with voters like Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed Rodriguez. “I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said before getting on a bus to vote Sunday.

Electoral experts voiced repeated concern at several changes made by the CNE in the lead-up to the vote, though many believed that the vote count was likely to be accurate. Unlike the July vote, opposition parties would be on site to compare paper print-out tallies with the electronic ones in the final tally. The CNE was also slated to use Smartmatic software utilized in the 2015 legislative race, the last national electoral faceoff between the government and opposition.

The CNE did not allow the opposition to remove several candidates who lost in a September primary, despite an electoral law permitting political parties to substitute contenders up until 10 days before the vote. Less than three days before voting, the council also announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Attention is now likely to shift to any impact such irregularities might have had. “There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The opposition called for an audit and urged Venezuelans to mobilize on the streets Monday in support. Government supporters called on detractors to respect the results and said the count is proof that the movement started by Chavez remains alive and well, despite Maduro’s low approval ratings.

“The cradle of the revolution doesn’t surrender,” said Argenis Chavez, the late president’s brother and declared winner of the race in Barinas, where Hugo Chavez spent his early years.

Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuela’s Maduro meets Turkey’s Erdogan on European tour

October 06, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is meeting his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for talks on bilateral relations and international issues. Maduro’s visit on Friday comes amid stringent U.S. sanctions on the South American nation and a deepening political crisis in Venezuela, as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages.

The foreign ministers of both countries will also participate in the second meeting of their joint “partnership commissions” aimed at forging cooperation between the two countries, according to the Turkish president’s office.

Maduro’s visit follows a tour to Russia and to Belarus, where he discussed expanding military ties with the ex-Soviet nation. In February 2016, Erdogan visited Chile, Peru and Ecuador to boost trade ties between Turkey and South America.

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