VOA Latin America Interviews Colombia’s Duque 

Colombian President Ivan Duque, interviewed Saturday by VOA’s Latin America Division, discussed the battle against the National Liberation Army in Venezuela and strengthening his country’s ties with Washington. 

Question: So, Mr. President, with a new government in Venezuela, what opportunities do you see in dealing with the issue of ELN (the National Liberation Army) operating in Venezuela? 

 

Ivan Duque: The first thing to say is that the dictatorship in Venezuela was the major supporter of ELN. They harbored ELN, they gave them shelter, they gave them protection, and they also participated in the narco-trafficking activities of that group. Now, that is a direct violation of Resolution 1373 of September 2001 by the U.N. Security Council. That means the Venezuelan dictatorship was in bed with those criminals, and I think a transition (to) Juan Guiado (and) the National Assembly, the reconstruction of Venezuela, the transition to a new institution of order would also help Venezuela and Colombia to share the values of fighting terrorism and putting an end to the operation of those groups. 

So I see … moving toward democracy in Venezuela as a great opportunity to put an end to the dramatic, horrible and criminal violence of ELN. 

 

Question: What is the outcome of this state visit here to the U.S.? What do you take back home with you, Mr. President? 

 

Duque: Well, I’m very happy. I think this was a great visit. I mean, we not only strengthened the bilateral relationship between Colombia and the United States, we also talked about trade, we met business leaders, we hope to have new investments, we participated in a meeting in Wall Street with bankers, investors and analysts from different agencies, and they see Colombia with hope. We expect this year to have not only a primary fiscal surplus of 0.6 percent of GDP, but we also expect our economy to grow above 3.4 percent, which would be the highest growth in recent years. 

 

So I see … from the investors’ community a great confidence towards Colombia. But we also have to say we saw great support, bipartisan support, in Congress, on Capitol Hill, when we met with members of the foreign affairs committees in the Senate and in the House. We also met with (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi. So what we saw this week with the White House, with the strong support of President (Donald) Trump and his team, with the … bipartisan support in Congress, (is) that Colombia is still seen as the most important ally the U.S. has in the Western Hemisphere.

And we also had the opportunity to speak to members of the press. We participated in think tanks. We participated in university discussions.

So I think this visit has been very valuable, and we have also seen that there has been an increase in the help to Colombia in order to be more effective in the humanitarian aid for Venezuela, be more effective in the institutional order to fight the narco-trafficking and terrorism. So I think this has been a successful visit. 

 

Listen to the entire interview in Spanish here.

Far Right to Get Seats in Spanish Parliament, Polls Indicate

Far-right lawmakers are set to be elected to Spain’s parliament for the first time in nearly four decades, two opinion polls showed Saturday, forecasting that no single party would get a majority in a snap election on April 28. 

Spain’s Socialists, who have been in power since June with a minority government, are set to gain more seats than any other party but fall well short of a majority, the surveys showed. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called the early election on Friday after Catalan pro-independence parties who had previously backed him joined opposition parties in defeating his 2019 budget bill this week. 

The far-right party Vox would win up to 46 seats out of 350, according to a GESOP poll published by the El Periodico newspaper, while the GAD3 polling firm for the La Vanguardia newspaper forecast 16 seats. 

Vox is a newcomer on the Spanish political scene, and pollsters had underestimated its score in a regional election in Andalusia in December, where the anti-immigration party won 12 seats. 

Memories of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, meant Spain had long been been immune to the growing popularity of far-right parties in much of Europe. 

The polls show a fragmented political landscape in which the political identity of the next government is yet unclear. 

Sanchez’s Socialist Party would win 115 to 117 seats in the election, according to the GESOP poll. The conservative Popular Party would get 75 to 77 seats. 

With such an outcome, one of the two main parties would need the support of at least another party to secure a majority. 

The center-right Ciudadanos would win 44 to 47 seats, in a tight race with Vox to be the third-largest party. 

The polls were the first published since elections were called.

Haitian Protesters Plan to Return to Streets Sunday  

Life in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and its suburbs slowly began to return to normal Saturday after days of demonstrations against the country’s president and economic problems.

Public transportation was up and running, too, after protest leaders announced a reprieve. But some neighborhoods remained blocked because of leftover makeshift barricades.  

 

Banks, supermarkets and stores were open for business, and residents were out on the streets, according to VOA Creole’s reporters.  People lined up to buy water in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood Saturday morning. 

 

Protest leaders, however, said they would be back in the streets on Sunday to continue pressuring the president to resign. 

 

A schedule sent to journalists listed plans for another week of demonstrations, and indicated protesters would march Sunday to Petionville, and then toward Pelerin, a wealthy suburb where President Jovenel Moise’s private residence is located. They also planned to walk to Peguyville, another wealthy suburb, where former President Michel Martelly has a home.  

 

Ten days of protests under the theme “Operation Lockdown” resulted in several deaths and property damage. Protesters are demanding the president resign because of what they said was his administration’s lack of transparency, its corruption and its ineffective governance. They also decried skyrocketing prices and inflation.  

 

There were reports that a protester set fire to a U.S. flag on Friday, in an expression of anger toward American policies seen as propping up the president and keeping him from resigning.  

 

The opposition “Democratic Sector” issued a statement condemning the action. “The Democratic Sector reiterates its faith in Haitian-American cooperation and thanks the United States for welcoming hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters with open arms,” the statement said.  

​Address to the nation  

 

On Thursday, Moise sought to reassure and calm the public and ask for its support during a nationally televised address. His pleas were largely ignored as protesters on Friday were back in the streets to demand he resign. 

 

“My fellow Haitians, I’m asking you to continue supporting me. I want you to understand our destinies are linked. I know you have been victimized by the system,” Moise acknowledged. “But I’m asking you to open your eyes — I have the determination and courage to continue working to make life better for you, your children and your grandchildren.” 

 

Moise said he had asked Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant to make an announcement on the economic measures he was prepared to take immediately to improve living conditions.

 

But the announcement never materialized Friday, after the prime minister told a local radio station the president had pressured him to resign. Ceant said he had refused.   

 

On Saturday. Ceant tweeted that he planned to make an announcement at 8 p.m. on the national television station TNH. He did not give further details. 

 

White House meeting  

 

In Washington, White House national security adviser John Bolton tweeted that he had met with Haitian Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond at the White House “to express the United States’ enduring support for and friendship with Haiti.”  Bolton said the U.S. urged “all of Haiti’s political actors to respect and protect their democracy, engage in dialogue and put an end to the political violence.”

The tweet made no mention of humanitarian assistance for Haiti, which the Miami Herald reported President Donald Trump was considering.  

 

“While we cannot comment on internal planning processes, the U.S. government remains committed to the people of Haiti and to addressing the food security needs of the most affected people,” a U.S. Agency for International Development spokesperson told the Herald. “USAID-delivered emergency food assistance is intended to help alleviate severe food insecurity among the most vulnerable segments of the population.”

Prior to his meeting with Bolton, Edmond tweeted a photo of himself at the White House, but he has not publicly commented on what was discussed.

 

The State Department was advising against travel to Haiti, putting the warning at Level 4, the most severe, citing crime and violent protests. 

 

Matiado Vilme, Renan Toussaint and Florence Lisene in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report. 

UK Airline Ceases Operations, Blames Brexit

British regional airline Flybmi has gone into administration and canceled all flights immediately, the company said in a statement Saturday, blaming Brexit uncertainty as one of the reasons for its collapse. 

A spokesperson for British Midland Regional Ltd. said the company had made the decision because of increased fuel and carbon costs and of uncertainty arising from Britain’s plans to leave the European Union on March 29. 

The airline, based in the English East Midlands, operates 17 planes flying to 25 European cities. It employs 376 people in Britain, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. 

“We sincerely regret that this course of action has become the only option open to us, but the challenges, particularly those created by Brexit, have proven to be insurmountable,” the company said. 

Spikes in fuel and carbon costs had undermined efforts to move the airline into profit. 

It added: “Current trading and future prospects have also been seriously affected by the uncertainty created by the Brexit process, which has led to our inability to secure valuable flying contracts in Europe and lack of confidence around bmi’s ability to continue flying between destinations in Europe.” 

The airline, which said it carried 522,000 passengers on 29,000 flights in 2018, advised customers with bookings to contact their bank or payment card issuer to obtain refunds. 

China Rebuffs Germany’s Call for US Missile Deal With Russia 

China on Saturday rejected German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appeal to join a Cold War-era arms control treaty that the United States accuses Russia of breaching, saying it would place unfair limits on the Chinese military. 

Fearing a nuclear arms race between China, Russia and the United States after the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the United States is withdrawing from, Merkel made her call for a global treaty. 

“Disarmament is something that concerns us all and we would of course be glad if such talks were held not just between the United States, Europe and Russia but also with China,” Merkel told the Munich Security Conference. 

Russia and the United States are the signatories to the 1987 INF Treaty that bans land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (300-3,400 miles) and which U.S. President Donald Trump started the six-month withdrawal from this month, blaming Russian violations. 

Moscow denies any wrongdoing, but the United States and its NATO allies want Russia to destroy its 9M729 nuclear-capable cruise missile system, which Washington says could allow Russia to strike Europe with almost no warning. 

Merkel’s suggestion of involving China in a negotiation is seen by European NATO diplomats as a potential way out of the impasse because a new treaty could address American concerns about a growing military threat from China and Russia. 

China ‘doesn’t pose a threat’

But China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who spoke on a panel in Munich, said that Chinese missiles were defensive. 

“China develops its capabilities strictly according to its defensive needs and doesn’t pose a threat to anybody else. So we are opposed to the multilateralization of the INF,” he said. 

China’s stated ambition is to modernize its People’s Liberation Army by 2035, improve its air force and push into new technologies including very high-speed cruise missiles and artificial intelligence. 

Its defense budget grew nearly 6 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the London-based International Institute for Security Studies (IISS). 

Retired Chinese Gen. Yao Yunzhu told delegates a new arms control agreement would work only if it included sea- and air-launched missiles, as well as land, because most of China’s military technology is ground-based and the country would not want to put itself at a disadvantage. 

Cheaper to build, more mobile and easier to hide, ground-based rocket launchers are an attractive option to China as it develops its armed forces, experts say, whereas the United States operates more costly sea-based systems to comply with the INF. 

“China is traditionally a land power and the Chinese military is a ground force,” Yao said. 

“If China is to enter into these kinds of negotiations, I think it ought to be more comprehensive to include not only land-based but also air- and sea-based strike capabilities … and that would be hugely complicated,” she said. 

Far-right Activists Stage Torchlit March in Bulgarian Capital

More than 2,000 far-right activists from several European countries staged a torchlit procession through Sofia on Saturday to honor a Bulgarian pro-Nazi general, despite opposition from the Balkan country’s political parties and Jewish groups.

The procession, known as the Lukov March after Hristo Lukov, who led the pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions in the 1930s and early 1940s, went ahead after a court overturned the Sofia municipality’s ban for a second consecutive year. 

Participants, mostly young men in dark clothing, many bearing swastikas and making the Nazi salute, laid wreaths at the former home of Lukov amid heavy police security. Some activists had come from Germany, Sweden, Hungary and elsewhere. 

“General Lukov was a valiant militant officer — a [World War I] hero who has inspired the revival of the Bulgarian army,” said Zvezdomir Andonov, one of the march organizers. 

Ahead of the march, hundreds of people took part in a counterprotest under the slogan “No Nazis on the streets.” 

Police reported no incidents during the protest or the march. 

The World Jewish Congress, other Jewish groups and Bulgaria’s political parties had called for the march to be suspended. 

“It is absolutely abhorrent that in 2019 in Europe, the very place in which the Nazis attempted to wipe out the entire population of Jewish men, women and children, far-rightists continue to parade unfettered through the streets with 

swastikas, SS symbols, and messages of hatred for Jews and other minorities,” said WJC Executive Vice President Robert Singer. 

Lukov’s Union, active from 1932 to 1944, espoused anti-Semitism, anti-communism and a one-party state. 

Lukov served as Bulgaria’s minister of war from 1935 to 1938, fostering close ties with senior Nazi officials in Germany. He also pushed through a law modeled on the 1935 Nuremberg Laws in Germany that stripped Jews of their civic rights. 

Lukov was assassinated by Communist partisans in 1943.

Bulgaria fought in World War II on Germany’s side, though the government of King Boris III refused Adolf Hitler’s demand to deport the country’s Jews to death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and elsewhere. This meant most of Bulgaria’s Jews did not perish in the Holocaust and survived the war. 

Police, Protesters Clash Outside Albanian Parliament

Thousands of opposition supporters clashed with police outside the Albanian parliament on Saturday during an anti-government protest demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Critics have accused the socialist prime minister, in power since 2013, of corruption.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, some of whom tried to enter the parliamentary building in Tirana by forcing their way through the main entrance.

Five police officers and about 10 demonstrators and journalists required hospital treatment, mostly for breathing problems after the clashes, the health ministry said. 

Protesters repeatedly tried to break through police lines.

Several windows were broken as some demonstrators threw smoke grenades and stones toward the parliament building. 

“The situation is out of control,” said Lulzim Basha, an organizer of the protest and leader of the main opposition center-right Democratic Party.

He blamed the police for having let the demonstrators get too close to the building so as to “incite violence” and allow Rama to denounce the opposition.

On Wednesday, Basha told a meeting of his supporters that “the 16th of February will be the last day in power for Rama.”

Saturday’s demonstration in the capital was the latest in a series that Basha has organized.

An opposition coalition of five parties, ranging from the center-right to the center-left, has accused Rama of “collusion with organized crime” and plunging “the country into corruption and poverty.”

They want him to stand aside in favor of a government of technocrats who would prepare early parliamentary elections. 

US Military Planes Head for Venezuela With Aid

The U.S. Air Force has begun flying tons of aid to a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border as part of an effort meant to undermine socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

 

The first of three C-17 cargo planes took off Saturday from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida and landed in the town of Cucuta. It’s a collection point for aid that’s supposed to be distributed by backers of Juan Guaido, the congressional leader who is recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Previous aid shipments came on commercial planes.

Maduro has vowed to block the aid, which he calls unnecessary and illegal. He blames any hunger in the country on U.S. restrictions and his domestic foes.

Saturday’s 180-ton shipment includes food or health packages for more than 25,000 people.

 

Gone in a New York Minute: How the Amazon Deal Fell Apart

In early November, word began to leak that Amazon was serious about choosing New York to build a giant new campus. The city was eager to lure the company and its thousands of high-paying tech jobs, offering billions in tax incentives and lighting the Empire State Building in Amazon orange.

Even Governor Andrew Cuomo got in on the action: “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” he joked at the time.

Then Amazon made it official: It chose the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens to build a $2.5 billion campus that could house 25,000 workers, in addition to new offices planned for northern Virginia. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Democrats who have been political adversaries for years, trumpeted the decision as a major coup after edging out more than 230 other proposals.

But what they didn’t expect was the protests, the hostile public hearings and the disparaging tweets that would come in the next three months, eventually leading to Amazon’s dramatic Valentine’s Day breakup with New York.

Immediately after Amazon’s Nov. 12 announcement, criticism started to pour in. The deal included $1.5 billion in special tax breaks and grants for the company, but a closer look at the total package revealed it to be worth at least $2.8 billion. Some of the same politicians who had signed a letter to woo Amazon were now balking at the tax incentives.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” said New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris and New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Democrats who represent the Long Island City area, in a joint statement.

The next day, CEO Jeff Bezos was on the cover of The New York Post in a cartoon-like illustration, hanging out of a helicopter, holding money bags in each hand, with cash billowing above the skyline. “QUEENS RANSOM,” the headline screamed. The New York Times editorial board, meanwhile, called the deal a “bad bargain” for the city: “We won’t know for 10 years whether the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize,” it said.

Anti-Amazon rallies were planned for the next week. Protesters stormed a New York Amazon bookstore on the day after Thanksgiving and then went to a rally on the steps of a courthouse near the site of the new headquarters in the pouring rain. Some held cardboard boxes with Amazon’s smile logo turned upside down.

In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, protesters hold up anti-Amazon signs during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in New York.

They had a long list of grievances: the deal was done secretively; Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies, didn’t need nearly $3 billion in tax incentives; rising rents could push people out of the neighborhood; and the company was opposed to unionization.

The helipad kept coming up, too: Amazon, in its deal with the city, was promised it could build a spot to land a helicopter on or near the new offices.

At the first public hearing in December, which turned into a hostile, three-hour interrogation of two Amazon executives by city lawmakers, the helipad was mentioned more than a dozen times. The image of high-paid executives buzzing by a nearby low-income housing project became a symbol of corporate greed.

Queens residents soon found postcards from Amazon in their mailboxes, trumpeting the benefits of the project. Gianaris sent his own version, calling the company “Scamazon” and urging people to call Bezos and tell him to stay in Seattle.

At a second city council hearing in January, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, subtly suggested that perhaps the company’s decision to come to New York could be reversed.

“We want to invest in a community that wants us,” he said.

Then came a sign that Amazon’s opponents might actually succeed in derailing the deal: In early February, Gianaris was tapped for a seat on a little-known state panel that often has to approve state funding for big economic development projects. That meant if Amazon’s deal went before the board, Gianaris could kill it.

“I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris said at the time. “I am against the deal that has been proposed.”

Cuomo had the power to block Gianaris’ appointment, but he didn’t indicate whether he would take that step.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s own doubts about the project started to show. On Feb. 8, The Washington Post reported that the company was having second thoughts about the Queens location.

On Wednesday, Cuomo brokered a meeting with four top Amazon executives and the leaders of three unions critical of the deal. The union leaders walked away with the impression that the parties had an agreed upon framework for further negotiations, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“We had a good conversation. We talked about next steps. We shook hands,” Appelbaum said.

An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The final blow landed Thursday, when Amazon announced on a blog post that it was backing out, surprising the mayor, who had spoken to an Amazon executive Monday night and received “no indication” that the company would bail.

Amazon still expected the deal to be approved, according to a source familiar with Amazon’s thinking, but that the constant criticism from politicians didn’t make sense for the company to grow there.

“I was flabbergasted,” De Blasio said. “Why on earth after all of the effort we all put in would you simply walk away?”

Vatican Expels Former US Cardinal McCarrick

The Vatican said Saturday that Pope Francis has defrocked disgraced former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In July of last year, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals following allegations he had sexually abused minor and adult seminarians over a period of decades.

The Vatican said in a statement that in January 2019 it had found McCarrick guilty of “. . . solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” (The Sixth Commandment says ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ and is one of the Ten Commandments the Bible says were given by God.  The Commandments are fundamental to Judaism and Christianity.)

McCarrick appealed the decision expelling him from the priesthood, but it was upheld and McCarrick was notified of the decision Friday. .

The Vatican statement said its decision “is definitive and admits of no further recourse or appeal.”

McCarrick had been a highly respected and longtime ambassador of the Catholic Church was was a confident of popes and U.S. presidents.

The 88-year-old McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958.  His appointments included:  auxiliary bishop of New York, bishop of Metuchen, archbishop of Newark, and archbishop of Washington.  

In 2001, McCarrick became a cardinal.