US Imposes Sanctions on Venezuela After Maduro Win

The United States imposed economic sanctions Monday on Venezuela for what it said was the country’s “fraudulent” re-election of President Nicolas Maduro to a second six-year term.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned Americans from oil transactions with Venezuela, once one of the world’s top oil producers.

A senior White House official told reporters “today’s executive order closes another avenue for corruption that we have observed being used. It denies corrupt Venezuelan officials the ability to improperly value and sell off public assets in return for kickbacks.”

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Maduro’s re-election “an attack on constitutional order and an affront to Venezuela’s tradition of democracy. Until the Maduro regime restores a democratic path in Venezuela through free, fair and transparent elections, the government faces isolation from the international community.”

Pompeo declared, “The United States stands with democratic nations in support of the Venezuelan people and will take swift economic and diplomatic actions to support the restoration of their democracy.”

Maduro hailed his re-election as a “historic record” after officials said he won 68 percent of the vote, far ahead of the 21 percent won by his closest rival, ex-army officer Henri Falcon. But with months of economic turmoil in Venezuela, marked by food and medicine shortages, and violent unrest, a historic 52 percent of voters abstained from voting, and the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition boycotted the election as a “farce.”

Maduro faced growing international protests about the vote, with Argentina, Brazil and Canada all recalling their ambassadors from Caracas.

Pompeo said, “Sunday’s process was choreographed by a regime too unpopular and afraid of its own people to risk free elections and open competition. It stacked the Venezuelan courts and National Electoral Council with biased members aligned with the regime. It silenced dissenting voices. It banned major opposition parties and leaders from participating.”

The top U.S. diplomat said as of a week ago, “more than 338 political prisoners remained jailed, more than in all other countries in the hemisphere combined.”

He said the Maduro regime “stifled the free press. State sources dominated media coverage, unfairly favoring the incumbent. Most contemptible of all, the regime selectively parceled out food to manipulate the votes of hungry Venezuelans.”

Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver, was expected to win despite a deepening crisis that has made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production plummets.

Former state governor Falcon was Maduro’s main challenger, but his chances were hurt by the presence of a second anti-Maduro candidate in the race, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.

“We do not recognize this electoral process as valid, as true,” Falcon said Sunday.”For us, there were no elections.We have to have new elections in Venezuela.”

Bertucci also called for a new vote.

Falcon condemned the government’s placement of red tents near polling stations around the country, where Venezuelans were asked to scan their “fatherland cards” after voting in the hope of receiving a prize.The state-issued cards are used to receive benefits, including food boxes. Critics said the scheme amounted to vote-buying.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the election as a “sham, neither free nor fair.”

“The illegitimate result of this fake process is a further blow to the proud democratic tradition of Venezuela,” Pence said in a statement Monday. “America stands against dictatorship and with the people of Venezuela. The Maduro regime must allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela and must allow its people to be heard.”

Maduro’s victory could trigger more sanctions and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.

Maduro, the self-described “son” of Hugo Chavez, said on Saturday that he is battling a U.S. “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.

On Friday, the Trump administration added a key Maduro ally to a growing list of top officials targeted by financial sanctions, accusing socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of drug trafficking and embezzlement.

Maduro’s opponents said the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent. Polls also show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles.

More than 1 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years for a better life abroad, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that is almost impossible to find.

VOA’s Spanish Service contributed.

British Foreign Secretary Honors Falklands Soldiers

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson laid a wreath to honor Argentine soldiers killed while fighting the British in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict.

Johnson, who is in Buenos Aires for a Group of 20 meeting, visited the Monument of the Fallen Soldiers on Sunday along with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie.

Argentina, which has claimed the South Atlantic islands since Britain established its rule in the 19th century, invaded them in 1982, sparking a two-month war that ended with Argentina’s defeat and withdrawal from the archipelago.

Johnson is only the second senior British official to pay tribute to the 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers who died during the 74-day conflict.

Prince Charles visited so at the same monument during a visit in 1999.

Britain and Argentina are both keen to strengthen ties and recently held talks over fishing rights around the islands, 500 kilometers off Argentina’s southern coast.

The two nations don’t even agree on a name for the islands, with Britain referring to them as the Falklands and the Argentines calling them Malvinas.

 

Company in Cuba Plane Crash Had Received Safety Complaints

The Mexican charter company whose 39-year-old plane crashed in Havana had been the subject of two serious complaints about its crews’ performance over the last decade, according to authorities in Guyana and a retired pilot for Cuba’s national airline.

Mexico’s government said late Saturday that its National Civil Aviation Authority will carry out an operational audit of Damojh airlines to see if its “current operating conditions continue meeting regulations” and to help collect information for the investigation into Friday’s crash in Cuba that left 110 dead.

The plane that crashed, a Boeing 737, was barred from Guyanese airspace last year after authorities discovered that its crew had been allowing dangerous overloading of luggage on flights to Cuba, Guyanese Civil Aviation Director Capt. Egbert Field told The Associated Press on Saturday.

The plane and crew were being rented from Mexico City-based Damojh by EasySky, a Honduras-based low-cost airline. Cuba’s national carrier, Cubana de Aviacion, was also renting the plane and crew in a similar arrangement known as a “wet lease” before the aircraft veered on takeoff to the eastern Cuban city of Holguin and crashed into a field just after noon Friday, according to Mexican aviation authorities.

A Damojh employee in Mexico City declined to comment, saying the company would be communicating only through written statements. Mexican authorities said Damojh had permits needed to lease its aircraft and had passed a November 2017 verification of its maintenance program. They announced a new audit late Saturday.

Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez told reporters Saturday afternoon that Cubana had been renting the plane for less than a month under an arrangement in which the Mexican company was entirely responsible for maintenance of the aircraft. Armando Daniel Lopez, president of Cuba’s Institute of Civil Aviation, told the AP that Cuban authorities had not received any complaints about the plane in that month. He declined to comment further.

Yzquierdo said it was routine for Cuba to rent planes under a variety of arrangements because of what he described as the country’s inability to purchase its own aircraft due to the U.S. trade embargo on the island. Cuba has been able to buy planes produced in other countries, including France and Ukraine, but has pulled many from service due to maintenance problems and other issues.

“It’s normal for us to rent planes,” he said. “Why? Because it’s convenient and because of the problem of the blockade that we have. Sometimes we can’t buy the planes that we need, and we need to rent them.”

He said that with Damojh, “the formula here is that they take care of the maintenance of the aircraft. That’s their responsibility.”

He said Cuba didn’t have pilots certified to fly the Boeing, so it had hired the Mexican crew with the expectation that they were fully trained and certified by the proper authorities.

Yzquierdo also said the jet’s “black box” voice recorder had been recovered and that Cuban officials had granted a U.S. request for investigators from Boeing to travel to the island.

Eyewitness and private salon owner Rocio Martinez said she heard a strange noise and looked up to see the plane with a turbine on fire.

“It had an engine on fire, in flames, it was falling toward the ground,” Martinez said, adding that the plane veered into the field where it crashed, avoiding potential fatalities in a nearby residential area.

Field told AP that the Boeing 737 with tail number XA-UHZ had been flying four routes a week between Georgetown, Guyana, and Havana starting in October 2016. Cubans do not need visas to travel to Guyana, and the route was popular with Cubans working as “mules” to bring suitcases crammed with goods back home to the island, where virtually all consumer products are scarce and more expensive than in most other countries.

After Easy Sky canceled a series of flights in spring 2017, leaving hundreds of Cubans stranded at Guyana’s main airport, authorities began inspecting the plane and discovered that crews were loading excessive amounts of baggage, leading to concerns the aircraft could be dangerously overburdened and unbalanced. In one instance, Guyanese authorities discovered suitcases stored in the plane’s toilet.

“This is the same plane and tail number,” Guyanese Infrastructure Minister David Patterson said. He and other Guyanese authorities said they did not immediately know if the crew suspended last May was the same one that died in Friday’s crash. Damojh operates three Boeing 737s, two 737-300s and the 737-201 that crashed Friday, according to Mexican officials.

Ovidio Martinez Lopez, a pilot for Cubana for over 40 years until he retired six years ago, wrote in a post on Facebook that a plane rented from the Mexican company by Cubana briefly dropped off radar while over the city of Santa Clara in 2010 or 2011, triggering an immediate response by Cuban aviation security officials. As a result, Cuban officials suspended a captain and co-pilot for “serious technical knowledge issues,” and Cuba’s Aviation Security authority issued a formal recommendation that Cubana stop renting planes and crews from Damojh, Martinez wrote.

“They are many flight attendants and security personnel who refused to fly with this airline,” Martinez wrote. “On this occasion, the recommendation was overlooked and they rented from them again.”

Contacted by AP in Havana, Martinez confirmed his Facebook account but declined to comment further.

Mexican officials said the Boeing 737-201 was built in 1979.

Mexican aviation authorities said a team of experts would fly to Cuba on Saturday to take part in the investigation.

Human Rights Defenders Killed in Guatemala

The U.N. human rights office reports the recent killing of several human rights defenders in Guatemala shows an alarming deterioration in the rule of law as threats increase against those working on behalf of indigenous and minority rights.

During the past 12 days, three human rights defenders working with indigenous and peasants rights organizations in Guatemala were killed. The activists were trying to secure land rights for indigenous people under an agreement worked out with the Government.

U.N. Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says human rights defenders in the country are operating within a climate of fear, harassment and intimidation.

“We call on the authorities to promptly investigate these murders and other attacks and threats against human rights defenders, and to ensure that those found responsible are held accountable. We also urge the State to adopt all necessary measures to ensure a safe, enabling environment for human rights defenders to be able to carry out their work free from threats and attacks,” she said.

Shamdasani says the Government must do more to strengthen the rule of law.She says the rights to freedom of expression and judicial independence are under threat. She says this hinders efforts to fight impunity and corruption, which threaten all levels of civil society.

She says human rights monitors report with growing concern on what they see as an escalation of smear campaigns against independent journalists and media, judicial officials, civil organizations and others working to end corruption and impunity.

Amid Protests, Venezuela’s Maduro Poised to Win 2nd Term

Voter turnout in Venezuela for the country’s presidential election was sparse by mid-morning on Sunday, as incumbent Nicolas Maduro was widely expected to win a second-six year term.

Sunday’s election is being boycotted by the opposition as the “coronation” of a dictator and condemned by much of the international community.

Venezuelans expats protesting what the see as an unfree election in their homeland were joined by Nicaraguans and Bolivians, among others, in the U.S. capital Washington, D.C., Sunday.

Maduro, 55, a former bus driver, is expected to win despite a deepening crisis that has made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production plummets in one of the world’s once top producers.

Former state governor Henri Falcon is Maduro’s main challenger, but his chances are hurt by the presence of a second anti-Maduro candidate in the race, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.

A Maduro victory could trigger more sanctions, including oil sanctions from the U.S. government, and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Venezuela’s “so-called elections today are not legitimate.”  “The United States stands with democratic nations around the world in support of the Venezuelan people and their sovereign right to elect their representatives through free and fair elections,” she said on Twitter.

 

The self-described son of Hugo Chavez, Maduro said Saturday that he is battling a U.S. “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.

On Friday, the Trump administration added a key Maduro ally to a growing list of top officials targeted by financial sanctions, accusing socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of drug trafficking and embezzlement.

Maduro’s opponents say the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent. Polls also show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles.

More than 1 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years for a better life abroad, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that is almost impossible to find.

Venezuela Accuses US of Sabotaging Election

Venezuela on Saturday accused the United States of using new sanctions against its government’s top officials to sabotage a controversial presidential election on Sunday, which the country’s opposition says has been rigged.

The U.S. ramped up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro’s government on Friday, accusing him of profiting from illegal narcotics shipments and imposing sanctions against the No. 2 official in the ruling Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello.

The United States has already imposed sanctions against Maduro for human rights abuses and blamed him for Venezuela’s current economic and political crises. But Friday marked the first time that Washington publicly linked Maduro to the drug trade.

In a statement, Maduro’s government called the sanctions part of “a systematic campaign of aggression” by President Donald Trump’s administration and said they had no legal basis.

“It’s not surprising that on the eve of a new vote, when the Venezuelan people will come out to defend their democracy against the imperialist aggressions that try to derail it, once again the U.S. regime tries to sabotage the elections,” it said.

The U.S. Treasury on Friday imposed sanctions against Cabello; his wife, Marleny Josefina Contreras, who heads the country’s tourism institute[ and his brother, Jose David.

Opposition challenger

Maduro is expected on Sunday to fend off a challenge from opposition candidate Henri Falcon, who is breaking the mainstream opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, which it says is rigged to assure Maduro wins a second term.

The hardline opposition party Popular Will on Saturday reiterated its call for Venezuelans to boycott the election and described it as an “electoral sham that seeks to validate the dictatorship in Venezuela and the world.”

Maduro insists the election will be free and fair, and accuses the opposition of refusing to participate because it knows it cannot win.

However, his government was forced to turn to observers from allied countries to monitor Sunday’s vote. It had invited the United Nations and other international bodies to send observers, but the U.N. believes the conditions do not exist to guarantee a democratic process.

The United States, Canada, the European Union and several countries in Latin America said they would not recognize the results of the polls on the ground that they are not transparent or fair.

Cuba in Mourning After Jet Crash; 110 Confirmed Dead

Cuban authorities said the fiery crash of an aging Boeing passenger jet on Friday shortly after takeoff from Havana had killed 110 people, 99 of whom were Cuban, making it the Caribbean island’s deadliest air disaster

in nearly 30 years.

Flags flew at half-staff in Cuba on Saturday, marking the start of two days of national mourning while authorities worked to identify the crash victims. Fifteen have been identified so far.

Authorities told reporters Saturday at Havana airport that three of the passengers killed on the domestic flight to Holguin were foreign tourists — two Argentines and a Mexican — while another two were Sahrawi

residents in Cuba.

The six Mexican crew members aboard the nearly 40-year-old Boeing 737, leased by Cuban flagship carrier Cubana from a small Mexican company called Damojh, were also killed.

Three Cuban women survived the crash but were still in critical condition, said the head of the hospital where they were being treated.

Distressed relatives cried and hugged one another outside a morgue, where they gave information on loved ones to authorities to aid in identification.

“This is a very unexpected death. She didn’t deserve it. My grandmother was a strong person,” said Katherine Lucia Martinez, an 18-year-old student, bursting into tears and clinging to her father. She was waiting with other relatives of the deceased at a Havana hotel for updates from authorities.

President’s visit

President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Saturday visited the morgue, a day after reviewing the site of the crash, the first big test of his presidency after taking the reins from Raul Castro last month.

Cuban investigators worked overnight at the site of the crash, an agricultural area 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Havana, sifting through the burned wreckage for evidence, officials said.

So far they had recovered the cockpit voice recorder, in “good condition,”  Cuban Transport Minister Adel Yzquierdo said Saturday. They were still looking for the flight data recorder.

“The plane was on fire, it flipped and then nosedived,” said Marino Perez Alvaredo, a farmer who works near where the plane crashed.

The Mexican transport department said on its website: “During takeoff [the plane] apparently suffered a problem and dove to the ground.”

Mexico also said it would send a team of investigators from its Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics on Saturday. 

Most aircraft accidents take months to investigate.

The crash was the worst in Cuba since a Soviet-made Ilyushin-62M passenger plane crashed near Havana in 1989, killing all 126 people on board and another 14 on the ground.

“For the love of God, I never thought I would see this,” said Caridad Miranda, 45, whose sister and niece died in the crash. “They should have checked that plane well.”

Nicaraguan Protesters Refuse to Back Sown as Ortega Talks Continue

Nicaraguan officials began a second day of talks with students and business leaders on Friday to try to resolve weeks of tension with increasingly unpopular President Daniel Ortega that has sparked nationwide clashes.

At least 49 people have been killed, mostly students, in demonstrations that began late last month over discontent with a new law that raised worker and employer social security contributions while cutting benefits.

The protests mark the most sustained crisis of Ortega’s 11-years in power. The former leftist guerrilla leader has delivered steady growth in the poor Central American nation, despite criticism he has turned it into a family dictatorship.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights said on Friday it was too early to deliver conclusions from a five-day investigation into allegations of murder and disappearances. But it would continue meeting with officials and citizens, including mothers of those allegedly murdered in the protests.

“We reiterate our condemnation of the dead, disappeared, aggressions and arbitrary detentions of protesters, activists and journalists,” said Antonia Urrejola, the group’s Nicaraguan delegate.

Dozens of flag-waving demonstrators chanted “Murderer!” outside a Catholic seminary on Friday, the second day of an unprecedented forum for students, business leaders and others to air grievances with government representatives.

Ortega appeared not to be present at Friday’s talks. He was, however, there on Wednesday, when university students publicly berated him and called for his resignation.

“In one month you have ruined the country,” a university student, identified by local media as Lesther Aleman, told Ortega at the time, before breaking down in tears.

Despite Ortega’s absence on Friday, protesters showed no signs of giving up.

“We support the mothers of the fallen,” said Carla Patricia Gomez, 46, wearing a Nicaraguan flag as a headband. “They even killed a 6-year-old child,” she added, speaking among a crowd of protesters brandishing photos of youths they said died in the clashes.

Nicaraguan Protesters Refuse to Back Down as Ortega Talks Continue

Nicaraguan officials began a second day of talks with students and business leaders on Friday to try to resolve weeks of tension with increasingly unpopular President Daniel Ortega that has sparked nationwide clashes.

At least 49 people have been killed, mostly students, in demonstrations that began late last month over discontent with a new law that raised worker and employer social security contributions while cutting benefits.

The protests mark the most sustained crisis of Ortega’s 11-years in power. The former leftist guerrilla leader has delivered steady growth in the poor Central American nation, despite criticism he has turned it into a family dictatorship.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights said on Friday it was too early to deliver conclusions from a five-day investigation into allegations of murder and disappearances. But it would continue meeting with officials and citizens, including mothers of those allegedly murdered in the protests.

“We reiterate our condemnation of the dead, disappeared, aggressions and arbitrary detentions of protesters, activists and journalists,” said Antonia Urrejola, the group’s Nicaraguan delegate.

Dozens of flag-waving demonstrators chanted “Murderer!” outside a Catholic seminary on Friday, the second day of an unprecedented forum for students, business leaders and others to air grievances with government representatives.

Ortega appeared not to be present at Friday’s talks. He was, however, there on Wednesday, when university students publicly berated him and called for his resignation.

“In one month you have ruined the country,” a university student, identified by local media as Lesther Aleman, told Ortega at the time, before breaking down in tears.

Despite Ortega’s absence on Friday, protesters showed no signs of giving up.

“We support the mothers of the fallen,” said Carla Patricia Gomez, 46, wearing a Nicaraguan flag as a headband. “They even killed a 6-year-old child,” she added, speaking among a crowd of protesters brandishing photos of youths they said died in the clashes.

Airliner Crashes on Takeoff From Havana

A Cuban airliner with 113 people on board plummeted into a yuca field just after takeoff from Havana’s international airport on Friday. There was no immediate word on casualties, though residents told The Associated Press they saw at least some survivors being taken away in ambulances.

A military officer who declined to provide his name to reporters said that there appeared to have been three survivors in critical condition from the Cubana flight, but other officials declined to confirm that figure.

Firefighters rushed to extinguish flames engulfing the Boeing 737, which was meant to be on a short jaunt to the eastern Cuban city of Holguin when it went down just after lift off from Jose Marti International Airport.

The plane lay in a field of yuca-root plants and appeared heavily damaged and burnt. Firefighters were trying to extinguish its smoldering remains. Government officials including President Miguel Diaz-Canel rushed to the site, along with a large number of emergency medical workers.

Relatives of passengers were heading to the scene, among them a man who said that his wife and niece had been on board. He declined to provide his full name before he was taken to an airline terminal where relatives were being asked to gather. Reports said that 104 passengers and nine crew members were on board.

The plane was rented by Cubana, which has taken many of its aging planes out of service in recent months due to mechanical problems. Cuba’s First Vice-President, Salvador Valdes Mesa, met Thursday with Cubana officials to discuss improvements in its heavily criticized service. The airline is notorious among Cubans for its frequent delays and cancellations, which Cubana blames on a lack of parts and airplanes due to the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

The crash Friday was Cuba’s third major accident since 2010.

Last year, a Cuban military plane crashed into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing eight troops on board. In November 2010, an AeroCaribbean flight from Santiago to Havana went down in bad weather as it flew over central Cuba, killing all 68 people, including 28 foreigners, in what was Cuba’s worst air disaster in more than two decades.

The last Cubana accident appears to have been on Sept. 4, 1989, when a chartered Cubana plane flying from Havana to Milan, Italy, went down shortly after takeoff, killing all 126 people on board, as well as at least two dozen on the ground.

Cubana’s director general, Capt. Hermes Hernandez Dumas, told state media last month that Cubana’s domestic flights had carried 11,700 more passengers than planned between January and April 2018. It said that 64 percent of flights had taken off on time, up from 59 percent the previous year.

“Among the difficulties created by the U.S. trade embargo is our inability to acquire latest-generation aircraft with technology capable of guaranteeing the stability of aerial operations,” Hernandez said. “Another factor is obtaining parts for Cubana’s aircraft.”