New US Bill Would Offer Temporary Status to Venezuelans

Amid a deepening crisis and mass exodus from Venezuela, bipartisan legislation was unveiled Thursday to provide temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelan nationals in the United States.

The Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, introduced by U.S. Representatives Darren Soto (D-FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), cites “an unprecedented economic, humanitarian, security, and refugee crisis.”

“During [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro’s tyrannical rule, Venezuela’s economy has deteriorated at alarming rates, causing a scarcity of basic foods and medicine in the country,” Representative Soto stated. “Hyperinflation, drastic shortages, and egregious human rights abuses have forced many Venezuelans into exile, and the conditions in Venezuela remain too perilous for them to return,” added Representative Diaz-Balart.

TPS designation is granted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to citizens of certain countries suffering from ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters, or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.”  

If enacted, TPS would protect Venezuelan nationals from deportation and permit employment authorization documents for an 18-month designated period. 

​TPS terminations

Since September 2017, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and her predecessor, John Kelly, have ended TPS for more than 300,000 beneficiaries from six countries, Sudan, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Nepal, and Honduras. DHS also extended TPS for nationals of Syria, Yemen and Somalia through next year.

Last October, a federal court in California barred DHS from ending TPS for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador.

The injunction, which will last while a class action suit makes its way through the court, shields more than 200,000 people from deportation.

In his ruling, Judge Edward Chen wrote, “There is evidence that the administration may have violated the Constitution when it made decisions to end TPS [for the four countries]. There is also evidence that this may have been done in order to implement and justify a pre-ordained result desired by the White House.” 

‘Fastest escalating’ crisis

In response to VOA’s request for comment on the Venezuela TPS Act, DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton wrote, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending legislation.”

It is unclear how many Venezuelan nationals would benefit from TPS, if enacted. 

The Migration Policy Institute has designated the Venezuela crisis as “the fastest-escalating displacement of people across borders in Latin American history,” with estimates of displaced Venezuelan nationals varying from 1.6 to 4 million people as of early 2018.

Suicide Truck Bombing in Colombia Kills At Least 21

A suicide truck bombing on a police academy Thursday in Colombia killed at least 21 people and wounded at least 68.

Colombian President Ivan Duque canceled a meeting that was to have been held in western Colombia and rushed back to visit the blast site near Bogota.

“This is an attack not only against the young, the security forces or the police. It’s an attack against society,” Duque said. “This demented terrorist act will not go unpunished.”

Kimberley Breier, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Latin America, also condemned the attack and said the U.S. sends its condolences to the victims and their families.

The pickup packed with explosives crashed through the gate of the officers’ school south of the capital, despite the entrance being surrounded by armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Colombian prosecutors have identified the driver, but no group has claimed responsibility.

But the ELN rebel group has increased attacks on police since peace talks stalled when the rebels refused to heed the government demand that it free all hostages.

ELN is now the country’s largest armed rebel group since FARC disbanded and turned into a political party as part of a peace deal with the government.

Despite a long history of guerrilla violence in Colombia, major terrorist bombings in the country have been rare.

US Considering Allowing Lawsuits over Cuba-confiscated Properties

The Trump administration is considering allowing a law that has been suspended since its creation in 1996 to go into effect, allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies and individuals over property confiscated from them by the Cuban government.

The so-called Title III rule forms part of the Helms-Burton Act, which codified all U.S. sanctions against Cuba into law 23 years ago. It has been waived by every president ever since, Democrats and Republicans alike, due to opposition from the international community and fears it could create chaos in the U.S. court system, analysts say.

However, the administration of President Donald Trump on Wednesday suspended it for just 45 days rather than the customary six months and said it would take a fresh look at allowing it to go into effect.

“This extension will permit us to conduct a careful review of the right to bring action under Title III in light of the national interests of the United States and efforts to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba,” the State Department said in a statement.

“We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.”

Dash foreign investment

If Title III went into effect, it would likely dash foreign investment that Cuba has been seeking to drum up to support its beleaguered state-dominated economy.

In the first official Cuban response to the news, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez wrote on Twitter that the decision to suspend Title III for just 45 days was “political blackmail” and a “brutal attack against international law.”

U.S.-Cuban relations have nosedived since Trump became president, partially rolling back the detente initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama and reverting to Cold War rhetoric, albeit maintaining re-established diplomatic relations.

Cuba hardliners

Analysts say changes to the administration over the last year, including the appointment of Cuba hardliners to top posts, suggest the Trump government could further toughen its stance on Cuba.

John Bolton, who became Trump’s national security adviser last April, called Cuba and its top allies Venezuela and Nicaragua a “troika of tyranny” in November.

The right to sue over property confiscated by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution is one of the long-standing claims of older generations of Cuban-Americans.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the administration to ensure that … the victims receive the justice which is long overdue,” said Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart on Twitter.

Move could backfire

However, analysts said such a move could backfire.

“It would cause an enormous legal mess, anger U.S. allies in Europe and Latin America, and probably result in a World Trade Organization case against the U.S.,” said William Leogrande, a professor of government at American University.

The State Department estimated in the past that allowing Title III to go into effect could result in 200,000 or more lawsuits being filed, he said.

‘Sowing havoc’

Even U.S. businesses could get caught in the crossfire, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

U.S. airlines and cruise companies started operating in Cuba following Obama’s detente, paying fees to Havana’s airport and port, properties that may have been confiscated.

“Legitimate property claims need to be resolved, but in the context of a bilateral negotiation,” said Bustamante. “Those backing the enforcement of Title III seem most intent on sowing havoc rather than achieving a positive good.”

 

12 Charged in Detention of Venezuelan Opposition Leader

Venezuelan authorities say 12 officials with the country’s intelligence agency will be tried for their role in the brief detention of an opposition leader whose confinement sparked international outrage as he ramps up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro. 

Authorities announced Wednesday that a court in Venezuela’s capital had decided to keep the agents with the feared SEBIN intelligence police under arrest as they await trial on charges that include “illegitimate detention” and “abuse of functions.” 

 

National Assembly President Juan Guaido was forced out of a vehicle on his way to an anti-government rally Sunday and released within an hour.  

Guaido has catapulted himself into the limelight after becoming the leader of the only branch of government controlled by the opposition. The assembly passed a resolution Tuesday accusing Maduro of “usurping” power. 

Supermodel Gisele Fires Back at Criticism from Brazil Farm Minister

Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen on Wednesday rejected critiques by the country’s farm minister that questioned her knowledge about Brazil’s conservation efforts.

Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias on Monday said that Bundchen should not be saying bad things about Brazil, for example by calling the country a deforester, without knowing the facts.

Bundchen, who is married to U.S. football star Tom Brady, in November blasted a proposal by President Jair Bolsonaro to merge the environment ministry with the agriculture ministry. That did not happen, but the Bolsonaro government has stripped Brazil’s environment ministry of oversight of areas such as water resources and eliminated its secretariat on climate change.

Bolsonaro, who counts on powerful farmers as part of his core supporters, has said he wants to end an “industry” of environmental fines, which activists say is a major tool for ensuring rules are followed. He has also suggested Brazil could exit the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Twitter response

“It surprised me to see my name mentioned in a negative way for defending and speaking in favor of the environment, because I’ve been supporting projects and involved in socio-environmental causes since 2006,” Bundchen wrote on Twitter.

“I’m always looking for knowledge through reading and contact with scientists, researchers, farmers, cooperative and environmental organizations.”

The post did not mention Dias or the agriculture ministry by name.

Dias responded by thanking Bundchen on Twitter for her message and saying they should work together to combat illegal deforestation.

Offer to get involved

In Monday’s radio broadcast, Dias said that Bundchen should be promoting Brazil’s sustainability efforts, arguing that the country’s preservation of two-thirds of its native vegetation is a major environmental accomplishment, rather than criticizing Brazil.

The minister later tweeted that she would soon invite Bundchen to be an ambassador for Brazil’s efforts to feed the world while preserving nature.

Bundchen did not indicate whether she had received an invitation or whether she would accept.

“I believe that agricultural production and environmental conservation need to go together, side by side,” she said in her posting.

US Says China’s Death Sentence Against Canadian Political

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday China’s death sentence on a Canadian man is “politically motivated.”

The statement from U.S. deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke Tuesday and “expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals.”

A Chinese court resentenced Robert Schellenberg to death in a sudden retrial of a drug-smuggling case on Monday.

Freeland and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been talking to world leaders about Schellenberg’s case and the cases of two Canadians arrested in China in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Canada arrested the daughter of Huawei’s founder at the request of the U.S., which wants her extradited to face charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran. Palladino said the Meng case also came up.

“They noted their continued commitment to Canada’s conduct of a fair, unbiased, and transparent legal proceeding,” the statement said.

Canada has embarked on a campaign with allies to win the release of ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, who were detained 10 days after the Meng arrest on vague allegations of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China.

“Led by the prime minister, our government has been energetically reaching out to our allies and explaining that the arbitrary detentions of Canadians are not just about Canada — they represent a way of behaving which is a threat to all countries,” Freeland

Freeland said the detained Canadians will be at the top of her agenda when she visits Davos for the World Economic Forum next week.

Earlier Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing “isn’t worried at all” about facing opposition from the international community, according to an English transcript of her remarks that was published on a Chinese government website.

“Actually, you can count by the fingers of your hand the few allies of Canada that chose to side with it on this issue,” Hua said.

“For serious crimes posing great harm to the society like drug smuggling, I believe it is the international consensus that such crimes shall be strictly handled and punished,” she added.

Asked about Hua’s comments, Freeland said, “I would just point to the fact that the EU alone, which has issued a statement, is a union of 28 countries.”

The UK, Australia and other countries have also issued statements in support. The White House called the detentions “unlawful” in a statement after Trudeau called U.S. President Donald Trump last week about it. But Trump has not talked about the detained Canadians.

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, said the U.S. and other allies need to take a stronger public stance supporting Canada.

“A statement is a statement but it only has strength in value if there are consequences for behavior,” Heyman said. “A threat to Canadians is a threat to the United States. That’s what’s missing here. That’s what you do with allies and your best friend. Canada has always been there for the United States in a time of need.”

Heyman said a lack of American leadership from the Trump administration has empowered countries like China and Canada is suffering the consequences.

“We are seeing behaviors around the world by countries who feel that they have a license to do things because the U.S. is behaving entirely differently,” he said. “We should be there protecting our allies.”

 

After Crossing into Guatemala, Migrants Set Sights on Mexico

More than 1,000 Hondurans were walking and hitchhiking through Guatemala on Wednesday, heading toward the Mexico border as part of a new caravan of migrants hoping to reach the United States.

Guatemala’s migration authority said just over 1,300 people were able to register at the border and pass through frontier controls under the watchful eyes of about 200 police and soldiers at the Agua Caliente crossing. Some migrants told The Associated Press that they crossed informally elsewhere.

Miria Zelaya, who left the Honduran city of Colon and was traveling with 12 relatives, said she did not know what sort of work she hopes to find in the United States but was not dismayed by tougher immigration policies under President Donald Trump.

“That does not discourage me,” Zelaya said. “The need is greater.”

Migrants leaving Central America’s Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala routinely cite widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and rampant gang violence as their motivation.

Many in the group registered for 90-day visas in Guatemala, saying they felt it would offer peace of mind on the 300-mile (540-kilometer) trek to Mexico’s southern border.

Hector Alvarado, a 25-year-old announcer, said he had been shut out of job opportunities for belonging to the political opposition and felt forced to leave to find work. He learned about the caravan on Facebook, said goodbye to relatives and hit the road.

“My loved ones have already cried over of my leaving,” Alvarado said. “Now I have to press on.”

Previous caravans

The latest trek north comes as Trump has been working to convince the American public that there is a crisis at the southern border to justify construction of his long-promised border wall. Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to that end has resulted in a standoff with Congress that has forced a partial government shutdown.

The fate that awaits the migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border is uncertain. Previous caravans that were seized upon last year by Trump in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election have quietly dwindled, with many having gone home to Central America or put down roots in Mexico. Many others — nearly half, according to U.S. Border Patrol arrest records — have sought to enter the U.S. illegally.

About 6,000 Central Americans reached Tijuana in November amid conflict on both sides of the border over their presence in the Mexican city across from San Diego. As of earlier this week, fewer than 700 remained at a former outdoor concert venue in Tijuana that the Mexican government set up as a shelter to house them.

Mexico has issued humanitarian visas to about 2,900 migrants from last fall’s caravan, many of whom are now working legally there with visas.

Hope amid dangers

Also Wednesday about 100 migrants set out as a group from the capital of El Salvador, hoping to join the larger group from Honduras. Their numbers represent less than a third of the estimated 350 migrants who leave El Salvador each day.

“I can’t stay. I’m leaving because the gangs have threatened me — either I join them, or they’ll kill me,” said Adonay Hernandez, 22, who was carrying just $20 in his pocket but was confident he will make it to relatives in North Carolina. “God is my shield.”

Others hoped to find a better life in Mexico, where they have options for applying for refuge and work permits.

“I know that in Mexico they are helping us,” said Franklin Martinez, a 34-year-old traveling with his partner and their 2-year-old daughter. “We are going to ask for refuge and we are going to stay and work. After we have saved enough, perhaps we will go to the United States, but our goal is to make it to Mexico.”

Liduvina Margarin, vice minister for Salvadorans abroad, met with the migrants before they left a downtown plaza to warn them about the dangers of the northward route. She told them that more than half the Salvadorans who left in caravans have returned to the country.

“Our duty is to say to you that you are never going to be better off than in your homeland, in your communities of origin,” Margarin said.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday that Mexico has been monitoring the latest caravan closely.

He said the best option is for Central American governments to persuade their citizens to stay. Those who don’t will be allowed to enter Mexico in an orderly fashion and presented with options, and their human rights will be respected, Lopez Obrador added.

Street Singer Gives Voice to Venezuela’s Growing Diaspora

A year ago, Venezuelan migrant Reymar Perdomo was singing for spare change on jammed buses, struggling to make ends meet while building a new life in Peru’s capital.

But her life took a turn when she wrote a heartfelt reggae song about leaving her homeland that went viral on the internet and has brought tears to hundreds in the Venezuelan diaspora that has spread around the globe. Now Perdomo combines her street performances with appearances at concerts and on TV programs, and her song has become the unofficial anthem of Venezuelans who have fled their country’s economic implosion.

“This song gives me goosebumps” said Junior Barrios, a Venezuelan migrant who listened to Perdomo perform her song “Me Fui” — Spanish for “I Left” — recently at a busy plaza in Lima. “Leaving your home from one day to the next day isn’t easy, and this just makes a whole bunch of emotions surface at once.”

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015 as food shortages and hyperinflation became rampant in what was once a wealthy oil-exporting nation. By the end of 2019 that number is expected to grow to at least 5.4 million.

“Me Fui” is Perdomo’s retelling of how she left Venezuela reluctantly with her “head full of doubts,” pushed by her mother, who insisted there was no other way for her to make something of her life.

The song, which the 30-year-old plays with a ukulele after her similar-sounding Venezuelan “cuatro” broke while busking, talks about how she was robbed and faced other hardships as she had to cross four countries to reach Peru, pressing on while “speaking softly and crying along much of the way.”

“I had lots of mixed feelings about having to leave Venezuela, and felt a lot of pain. And I just needed to express that in order to move on with life,” Perdomo said in an interview after performing on the streets of Lima’s wealthy Miraflores district.

Her nostalgic song has had more than 2 million views on YouTube thanks to a passer-by who recorded Perdomo singing and posted the video online. It’s also gotten a wave of attention on radio and television, helping Perdomo get noticed by famous pop artists around South America who have asked her to be the opening act at their concerts. She has also produced a slicker version that has had 1.2 million views on its own.

In December, Perdomo was invited to Colombia by a popular satirist and Youtuber who had her sing on a bus, surprising her by bringing along Latin Grammy winner Carlos Vives and Andres Cepeda.

Perdomo said she almost fainted as Vives, who was wearing a hat and fake moustache, threw his disguise away and started to sing the chorus of her song.

“That happened exactly a year to the date after I left Venezuela” Perdomo said. “And for me to be there, performing with one of my favorite singers, singing my song, just felt like proof that God exists.”

Perdomo, who used to be a music teacher at a public school in the rural state of Guarico and once participated in a televised talent show. Although she says she never voted for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, as a public employee she was required to sing at pro-government rallies, something a few online critics have held against her.

Though becoming something of a symbol of the Venezuelan exodus, she still struggles to get by.

Her mother, brother, sister-in-law and year-old nephew have joined her in Peru and all share a small rented apartment in one of the city’s working class districts. Only Perdomo’s brother has found a permanent job, working as a bouncer at a nightclub, so the street performer works long days to help sustain her family.

Still, social media fame is opening new doors.

Perdomo says that Vives has invited her to perform on a regular basis at his nightclub in Bogota and that she is speaking with organizations in Colombia about the possibility of recording an album focused on the plight of migrants.

These opportunities have her thinking about moving yet again — this time to Colombia’s capital.

“This has been a tough year, but it also been amazing” Perdomo said. “I think that to help people and do what you love, you don’t need a lot of money. You just need to believe in yourself and be willing to work real hard.”

Report: Sex Trafficking That Starts in South America Largely Stays There

Women and girls in South America are more likely to become victims of sex trafficking inside their own or neighboring countries than to be trafficked across continents, officials said Tuesday, urging cooperation among regional governments.

The sexual exploitation of women and girls remains the most common form of human trafficking in South America, and most victims identified in the past two years came from within their own country or region, according to latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“The trend nowadays is that there’s an increase in trafficking within the region of South America, to neighboring countries, especially with those that we share land crossings,” said Gilberto Zuleta, project coordinator for the UNODC in Colombia.

“Countries in the region have to coordinate efforts to strengthen their capacity to identify victims and prosecute,” he told reporters in Bogota.

Venezuelans targeted

In Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela, local criminal networks running sex-trafficking rings are increasingly targeting destitute Venezuelan women and girl migrants fleeing their homeland, according to state prosecutor Mario Gomez.

“Sex slavery can’t be the only way to survive for these people,” Gomez said.

“The number of [victims] is very big in places where there is a lot of sex tourism and at the border. However, there’s no census that allows us to determine the number of people involved.”

Over the past year, local authorities have found dozens of Venezuelan women forced into prostitution living in “inhumane conditions,” often in basements in Colombia’s tourist cities, with little food and their documents seized, Gomez said.

So far about three million Venezuelans have fled economic collapse and food and medicine shortages in their homeland.

The mass exodus of people is likely to continue after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for another 6-year term last week amid global criticism that his leadership is illegitimate due to a last year’s disputed election.

“This continued migration of Venezuelan women and teenagers, we have to confront it by giving opportunities,” Gomez said.

Women luring women

Venezuelan women were also being lured into sexual exploitation in Colombia by their friends, often those already forced to work as recruiters and prostitutes by criminal gangs.

“It’s the Venezuelans themselves who are roping in other women,” Gomez told Reuters.

Gomez said he was also concerned about Colombian and Venezuelan women being lured by false promises of earning big salaries abroad — only to be trafficked into forced prostitution in nearby Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago.

Adriana Herrera, a children’s rights expert at Colombia’s inspector general’s office, said growing numbers of teenage girls from Colombia and Venezuela were working as prostitutes along motorways in parts of the country.

“Truck drivers pay for and sexually abuse underage girls along the highways,” said Herrera, who called on truck driver associations to help combat the problem. “We know it’s a practice that goes on and we’re working on it.”

Drug Trafficker Tells of Bribe to Ex-President of Mexico

A Colombian drug trafficker testified that Mexican cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman boasted about paying a $100 million bribe to the former president of Mexico.

Alex Cifuentes spoke about the alleged bribe to President Ernesto Pena Nieto during his testimony Wednesday in Guzman’s trial in New York.

Cifuentes first spoke with prosecutors about the bribery allegation when he began cooperating with U.S. authorities in 2016.

A spokesman for Nieto called the bribery claim “false and defamatory” when it first came up earlier in the trial. Nieto left office last year.

Under questioning from Guzman’s lawyer, Cifuentes said he wasn’t sure exactly what year the bribe was delivered.

Ciefuentes has testified that he lived with Guzman for a period of time at one of the kingpin’s hideaways in Mexico.