Venezuela Constituent Assembly Elects Cabello as Its New Leader

Venezuela’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly on Tuesday elected as its new leader Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, who is accused by the United States of involvement in the drug trade.

President Nicolas Maduro last year led the creation of the 545-member Constituent Assembly, which the opposition and a broad group of foreign governments have described as consolidating a dictatorship by giving the ruling Socialist Party unchecked power.

“In the name of the people who have hope, I swear to do everything in my power to defend the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” Cabello said following his election.

U.S. authorities in May accused Cabello and Maduro of profiting from illegal narcotics shipments, an accusation Maduro’s government described as a campaign of aggression.

Cabello replaces outgoing Constituent Assembly chief Delcy Rodriguez, who was named vice president by Maduro last week.

The Constituent Assembly’s deputies are all Socialist Party supporters because the opposition boycotted the 2017 election that created it.

Mexico Calls Migrant Children Separation Practice ‘Inhumane’

Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgaray on Tuesday called the separation of children from immigrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border “cruel and inhumane” and urged the United States to reconsider the practice.

Images published this week of children and youths sitting in concrete-floored cages in U.S. shelter facilities have stirred outrage. U.S. officials have defended the measures as a way to secure the border and deter illegal entry.

“This is a clear violation of human rights and puts children, including those with disabilities, in a vulnerable situation,” Videgaray told a news conference in Mexico City.

Videgaray said the Mexican government had made its position clear to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and raised  the issue with senior U.N. officials, including U.N.Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Of some 1,995 cases registered by U.S. authorities, only around one percent of the children affected were Mexican, and most had already been repatriated, Videgaray said.

Among the 21 identified cases of Mexicans separated from their parents was a 10 year-old girl with Down Syndrome who was being held in McAllen, Texas, Videgaray said. The children are being held in shelters managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The girl’s mother was sent to another place, Videgaray said.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be criminally prosecuted under the country’s criminal entry statute.

The policy has led to family separations because when border agents refer apprehended migrants to court for prosecution, parents are held in federal jail to await trial by a judge while the children either remain in border patrol custody or are moved into facilities.

Most of the children are from Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Honduras on Monday called for the United States to end the separations, and El Salvador said the policy puts children’s health at risk and could cause psychological scars. Videgaray said Mexico would be working closely with the Central American governments.

Tensions have run high between Mexico and the United States over the shared frontier ever since Trump ran for office vowing to build a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants.

US-Mexico Border, Then and Now

Immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border has changed a lot under the administration of President Donald Trump. During the last year of President Barack Obama’s term, undocumented immigrants were dealt with under a policy called catch and release. Now, it’s Zero Tolerence: Here’s how the difference plays out on the ground.

Vatican Envoy in Chile: Up to Pope to Release Sex Abuse Report

The Vatican envoy who was sent to Chile to gather evidence of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church said it would be up to Pope Francis to decide on whether to release the report of their findings to the country’s civil authorities.

During a visit in February, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sex abuse investigator, conducted interviews with victims to compile a 2,300-page report which he handed to the Pope. It accused Chile’s bishops of “grave negligence” in handling allegations that children had been

abused and said evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed.

Asked if the Vatican would hand over the report or make it public, Scicluna said the “freedom and autonomy” of the Catholic Church should be respected.

“The report is not mine, it belongs to Pope Francis,” he told journalists in Chile’s capital Santiago as he prepared to depart for Rome. “Every demand and petition must be sent to him who as the leader of the church … has jurisdiction.”

The Chilean authorities have said they would request details of the alleged victims and perpetrators of abuse from the Vatican, according to an interview with the national prosecuting authority’s sex crimes chief in the local La Tercera newspaper.

Scicluna announced the creation of a “listening service,” made up of laity and church officials, that would hear further allegations of abuse. He said he had met “hundreds of people” over the past week, and received letters from others.

He said the Church was committed to finding “justice” for the victims through its own channels and through civil law.

“The invitation to recognize and admit the full truth, with all of its painful repercussions and consequences, is the starting point for authentic healing,” he said. “We must have justice for the good of the country and for that of the Church.”

Scicluna’s arrival last week coincided with a growing tide of abuse allegations against the Catholic Church in Chile.

This week, further allegations arose in the southern Chilean cities of Aysen and Temuco that saw clergy suspended and sanctioned, according to statements from the Chilean Church.

Chilean police and prosecutors launched unexpected raids on Church offices last week, seizing documents relating to allegations of abuse.

Trump: ‘We’re Getting There’ in NAFTA Talks with Canada, Mexico

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday progress was being made in slow-moving talks to update the NAFTA trade accord between the United States, Canada and Mexico, but he held out the prospect of striking bilateral pacts if a three-way deal could not be reached.

“We’re trying to equalize it. It’s not easy but we’re getting there,” he told a group of U.S. small business executives. “We’ll see whether or not we can make a reasonable NAFTA deal.”

Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump called a “disaster” for the United States, was a goal he had set out during his election campaign.

Negotiations to modernize NAFTA started last August and were initially scheduled to finish by the end of December 2017.

That deadline has been extended several times as Canada and Mexico struggle to accommodate far-reaching U.S. demands for change, such as a sunset clause that would allow one nation to pull out after five years. Canada and Mexico reject the idea.

At a news conference in Mexico City, Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray said he expected the next negotiating meeting of ministers to be held in July.

The Canadian government believes a deal to update NAFTA is still possible despite a U.S. move to impose tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday in Ottawa.

Trade frictions between the United States and Canada have been particularly strained in recent weeks, with Trump taking umbrage at remarks by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that were critical of the heavy U.S. tariffs.

Trump said on Tuesday the two nations had a good relationship, but that Americans were being taken advantage of when it came to trade.

“We have to change our ways. We can no longer be the stupid country,” Trump said. “We want to be the smart country.”

US, Amnesty International Call for Justice in Honduras

The United States’ top diplomat and a global human rights group called on the Honduran government Monday to hold members of its security forces responsible for alleged abuses after November’s elections.

 

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez the need to pursue those responsible.

Hernandez, who was re-elected to a second term in elections that opponents called fraudulent, visited Pompeo in Washington.

 

That meeting followed Amnesty International’s release of a report on the post-election protests.

Amnesty said 118 people face charges related to the protests, but no member of the security forces has been charged in any of the 32 deaths.

 

“The security forces employed excessive force to repress peaceful demonstrators, they were locked up in deplorable conditions for months and denied their right to due process and adequate defense,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director.

 

She said that by imposing harsh sentences on those arrested the government is trying to intimidate them against exercising their right to freedom of expression.

 

The wait for election results dragged on for weeks due to irregularities, but the controversy began before votes were cast when Honduras’ top court overturned a constitutional ban on re-election to allow Hernandez to run.

 

“There are no investigations into the deaths nor charges against the law enforcement officers,” the report said.

 

Nauert said Hernandez and Pompeo also discussed combating corruption and drug trafficking and discouraging illegal migration.

South American Trade Bloc Eyes New Deals as EU Talks Drag On

Leaders of South American trade bloc Mercosur pushed for trade deals with Asian and other Western Hemisphere countries during a summit on Monday, as roadblocks remained in talks with the European Union (EU) despite optimism earlier this year.

European officials said earlier this month that talks for a long-delayed trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay were nearing a close.

But Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez, who assumed the bloc’s rotating presidency, criticized delays in negotiations.

“We are not prepared to waste time in eternal negotiations,” Vazquez said in a speech. “Nor are we prepared to sign a watered-down version.”

Vazquez reiterated that Uruguay was keen to sign a free-trade deal with China, its top trade partner, even if it had to sign it alone rather than as part of Mercosur. China is the main market for many of the raw materials the bloc produces, but its manufacturing exports also compete with domestic industries.

The last round of EU-Mercosur talks in April ended with limited progress and finger-pointing about who was holding up a deal. Key gaps remain on how far to open each other’s markets to industrial goods and farm products, such as Latin American beef and EU cars and dairy.

The Mercosur countries emphasized in a joint statement on the need to “have the political support from both parties” to reach a deal.

“We should not abandon the idea of this alliance,” Brazilian President Michel Temer told reporters. “Closing the doors now would impede negotiations which recently have had reasonable success.”

Temer also pushed for trade talks with the neighboring Pacific Alliance countries of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, which are generally far more open to international trade than their Mercosur counterparts. A meeting between the two blocs is scheduled for next month.

In the joint statement, the bloc described recently launched trade talks with Canada and South Korea as an “assertive response against protectionist tendencies.” Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti also called on the bloc to “advance quickly” in talks with Singapore, India and North Africa.

In separate statements, the Mercosur members also condemned violence in Nicaragua, where a wave of anti-government protests have left 170 dead. The bloc also expressed concern about the humanitarian and migrant crisis in Venezuela, which was formerly a Mercosur member but got kicked out last year.

As Venezuela’s Health System Crumbles, Pregnant Women Flee to Colombia

Exhausted but relieved, Yariani Flores lay next to her healthy newborn son, along with four other Venezuelan women who just gave birth in a hospital in Colombia’s border city of Cucuta.

Thousands of Venezuelan women have done the same over the past few years, as the health system in their home country has crumbled. They crossed the border, driven by fear that they or their babies could die.

Early in her pregnancy, Flores sought a pre-natal checkup at a municipal hospital in Venezuela’s frontier state of Tachira only to be told that there was little point.

“The doctor said, ‘Don’t bother coming here, I can’t do much for you,'” said Flores, lying in the 12-bed maternity ward at Cucuta’s Erasmo Meoz University Hospital. “She recommended I come to Cucuta and have the birth here.”

Venezuela’s economic crisis has laid waste to its health system. The numbers of babies and women dying during or after childbirth have soared, while medicines and supplies have become increasingly scarce.

“You have to bring everything to the hospital in Venezuela,” said Flores, a 33-year-old mother of five. “There aren’t even any surgical gloves.”

A March survey of 137 hospitals, led by the opposition-dominated Congress, showed that they often lack basic equipment like catheters, as well as incubators and x-ray units.

Venezuelan hospitals are also plagued by water and electricity outages, and only 7 percent of emergency services are fully operative, the survey found.

Infant mortality in the oil-rich nation rose 30 percent last year, according to latest government data. Maternal mortality – dying during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth – shot up by 65 percent.

Healthcare Overwhelmed

Venezuela’s economic meltdown, including hyperinflation, is now putting a financial strain on the health system in Cucuta and other Colombian cities.

Nearly 820,000 Venezuelans have left their homeland to live in Colombia during the last 15 months, with arrivals expected to continue, according to Colombian authorities.

Cucuta, the largest city along the porous frontier and separated by a bridge that connects with Venezuela, has borne the brunt of the influx.

At the main hospital alone, Erasmo Meoz, about 14,000 Venezuelan patients have been treated in the past three years, most with no health insurance, said Juan Agustin Ramirez, director of the 500-bed facility.

The hospital has debts of about $6 million accumulated to care for Venezuelans, which the Colombian government has yet to reimburse as it promised last year, Ramirez said.

“This has created a financial crisis … and there comes a time when we collapse,” he said.

Until recently, the hospital treated only a few Venezuelans, mostly for road injuries, Ramirez said.

But now, on any given day, up to one in five patients at the hospital is Venezuelan, and its crowded emergency ward is overwhelmed.

Many are children suffering skin diseases, diarrhea and respiratory problems. Others are women who have high risk pregnancies and arrive malnourished, having had few or no pre-natal checkups.

“It’s a sign that something serious is happening with public health in Venezuela,” Ramirez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brother Nation

Ramirez said Colombia has a duty to help Venezuelans.

Colombians often refer to Venezuelans as their “brothers,” as they share close cultural and family ties.

In past decades, it was Venezuela that opened its doors to millions of Colombians fleeing civil war. Many found jobs and cutting-edge medical care in the once prosperous nation, Ramirez said.

“We can’t forget that during all these years of violence in Colombia, four to five million Colombians went to Venezuela where they were given services for free,” Ramirez said. “We have an immense debt with Venezuela.”

In the past year, about 54,500 Venezuelan migrants have received emergency care in public hospitals across Colombia, according to authorities, while nearly 200,000 have been vaccinated, many at border crossings.

But only patients needing emergency care, including pregnant women, get free treatment.

Those with chronic illnesses, like cancer, kidney failure, and HIV/AIDS are turned away because of a lack of resources.

“For those poor people, the situation is catastrophic,” Ramirez said.

Earlier this month, the Organization of American States reiterated its call on Venezuela to allow international aid into the country, to ease what it has described a “humanitarian crisis.”

Many expect the migration to continue following the re-election of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro last month, which the United States called “a sham” and many countries refused to recognize.

“We are not prepared, nor are we going to be prepared, if there’s a bigger exodus of citizens from Venezuela as conditions deteriorate even more,” Ramirez said.

Malnutrition

Another casualty of Venezuela’s crisis was laid bare at the hospital’s children’s ward.

A severely underweight four-month-old baby from Venezuela’s Yukpa tribe slept, hooked up to an intravenous tube to help him recover from malnutrition.

About 200 Yukpas have fled hunger in their ancestral lands.

They now live in ragged, makeshift tents just inside Colombia, near the border crossing.

Across town at a shelter run by the Scalabrini International Migration Network, a Catholic organization for migrant aid, pregnant women are given priority while other Venezuelans sleep on cardboard outside, waiting for a bed and a hot meal.

Keila Diaz, 23, who is heavily pregnant with her second child, came to the shelter with her husband in May. When the contractions start, she said, she will head to the hospital.

“I’m afraid to have my baby in Venezuela. Babies die, mothers die giving birth over there,” said Diaz, gently rubbing her bulging belly. “I have a better chance here.”

Peace, Economy Pose Challenges for Colombia’s New President

Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque has promised to unite a divided country behind his plans to toughen a peace accord with Marxist rebels and rekindle economic growth, but he will face major challenges when he takes office in August.

The right-wing former senator comfortably won Sunday’s election with 54 percent of votes against leftist rival Gustavo Petro, who garnered 42 percent with his pledge to shake up Colombia’s economic model and tackle inequality.

Both the Colombian peso and local Treasury bonds fell Monday due to external factors, analysts said, though in the medium term, investment flows are expected to increase based on support for Duque’s business-friendly policies.

The peso was down 0.95 percent to 2,923.05 per dollar while the yield on local Treasury bonds, known as TES, coming due in July 2024 rose to 6.17 percent from 6.14 percent Friday.

It was the first presidential election since a 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended its part in a five-decade conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.

Duque, 41, pledged in his victory speech to unite the polarized Andean country and tackle corruption, improve security and increase educational opportunities.

“Peace is something all Colombians yearn for, and peace means that we turn the page on the fissures that have divided us,” Duque told cheering crowds at his celebration party Sunday night in Bogota as confetti rained down.

Duque, a protege of hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe, first grabbed attention railing from Congress against the peace deal, which he believes is too easy on former rebel leaders.

Striking a conciliatory tone Sunday, he promised to guarantee justice for victims and the reintegration of rank-and-file rebels into Colombian society.

His aim of revamping the agreement to impose tougher punishment on FARC leaders for war crimes will face considerable opposition from the Constitutional Court and Congress, where most parties favor implementing the existing accord. The FARC has invited Duque to discuss the accord.

“He is going to have a harder time passing reforms to the peace agreement than he would have his supporters believe,” said Sergio Guzman, Colombia lead analyst for consultancy Control Risks, singling out the Constitutional Court, which has already ruled that the deal cannot be changed. The nine-judge court is responsible for deciding whether laws passed by Congress are in line with the constitution.

Duque needs to include politicians from centrist parties in his cabinet if he wants to unite the country, Guzman said. He is likely to reveal the names of some ministers this week.

Duque will face no shortage of security challenges. Crime gangs allied with Mexican drug traffickers, the National Liberation Army (ELN) — the remaining rebel group — as well as FARC dissidents who have refused to demobilize, have moved into territory left behind by the FARC.

Only 19.3 million people, just over half of eligible voters, participated in the election, suggesting some centrists did not like either choice.

‘Safe pair of hands’

Duque has promised to bolster Colombia’s $324 billion economy with tax cuts and support for extractive industries such as oil and coal, the country’s top exports. The government expects the economy to grow 2.7 percent this year.

“With the election of Ivan Duque, the business sector — made up of both local and foreign investment — will see fiscal reforms that will seek a reduction of the tax burden for businesses and the simplification of administrative processes,” said Ciro Meza of law firm Baker McKenzie.

Some economists are concerned that Duque’s proposed tax cuts may worsen the budget deficit and force him to push through unpopular reforms, including a pension overhaul, to preserve Colombia’s investment-grade credit rating.

Ratings agency Fitch said on Monday that Duque’s victory signals a continuation of economic policies but added that a fiscal consolidation and encouraging growth are his government’s key challenges.

While oil has been the main driver for peso movements, the election has added to the currency’s volatility according to Kenneth Lam, a New York-based Latin America foreign exchange strategist at Citigroup.

“Now that we got the [electoral] outcome we expected, oil reverts to be the main driver” for the peso, which has been outperforming other Latin American currencies, he said.

Alberto Carrasquilla, who served as finance minister during Uribe’s first term and was Duque’s economic adviser during the campaign, could reprise the finance minister role, Capital Economics said in a note, and would be “a safe pair of hands.”

Duque has said he will curb ELN attacks on pipelines and invest in state-run oil company Ecopetrol’s refineries to allow exports of more higher-value crude derivatives.

Although Petro, a former M19 rebel, won a majority in only eight provinces and the capital Bogota, the fact that a leftist received 8 million votes, versus 10.3 million for Duque, is historic in traditionally conservative Colombia.

The fractured left has failed for decades to come close to winning Colombia’s presidency, overshadowed by right-wing contenders who promised security. Yet the FARC deal has shifted priorities for many of Colombia’s more than 50 million people.

Voters are interested in tackling inequality, corruption and inadequate social services, which could create opportunities for the left.

“If Duque is not able to get moving on his promises and see concrete results, and if he doesn’t look for reconciliation, the left could win in 2022,” said Andres Pardo, head of investment holding company Corficolombiana.

Vatican, Mexico Lament Children Suffer Most from Migration

The Vatican and Mexico are lamenting how children “are suffering the most” from forced migration, as the Trump administration comes under increasing criticism for its policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

The Vatican on Monday released the conclusions of the second Vatican-Mexico conference on international migration, held last week at the Vatican. The statement made no explicit reference to the separation policy, though it stressed the need to “insist on the centrality of the human person in every political act… reaffirming the inviolability of human rights and the dignity of every human being on the move.”

“Children are the ones who are suffering the most from forced migration. We must respond effectively to the challenges created by these flows, balancing the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and co-responsibility,” the statement said.

 

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.

 

The head of the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops’ committee on migration has condemned the policy as “immoral,” and the issue dominated the U.S. bishops’ recent assembly in Florida.

 

The Vatican-Mexico statement called for a global governance body for migration “to ensure a safe, ordered and regular migration that helps all those involved.”