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Venezuelans Seek Joy Amid the Chaos

A night at a bar is interrupted by a power outage, going to a baseball game is prohibitively expensive, and a trip to a nearby beach requires months of savings. But many Venezuelans have not given up on finding ways to smile.

Despite an economic crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicine and has prompted more than three million to emigrate, Venezuelans are seeking ways to have fun and spend time with family in the hope of easing their discomfort.

Still, the increased frequency of blackouts and a political showdown between the socialist government and the opposition has cast a cloud of uncertainty, leaving many Venezuelans bereft of simple pleasures.

Venezuela fell to the 108th place in the 2019 World Happiness Report prepared by the United Nations, down from 102nd place in 2018. In the Western hemisphere, only Haiti was below the oil-rich nation, ranking 147th out of 156 countries studied by the U.N.

The happiness report — which in its first edition in 2012 placed Venezuela in the 19th position — is based on indicators such as gross domestic product per capita, generosity, life expectancy, social freedom and absence of corruption.

Venezuela was plunged into darkness with two massive blackouts in March, generating water shortages and prompting the government to suspend work and school. Earlier this month, the government launched a power rationing plan, and electricity remains intermittent in many parts of the country. 

In search of distraction, Venezuelans from the country’s capital of Caracas have long taken to the nearby seaside state of Vargas to spend weekends with family and friends on the shores of the Caribbean.

“You put your mind in another place,” said Leonel Martinez, a 26-year-old soldier, while relaxing on the sand with his girlfriend while her nephews played nearby. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country.”

But in a country where the monthly minimum wage amounts to just $6 per month, the $15-$20 a day trip to the beach can require months of savings and advance planning.

Martinez, who said he used to take the 40-kilometer (25-mile) trip to the beach frequently, said it was the first time he had gone in a year.

“It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country,” said Martinez.

‘In this world, there is no crisis’

For Venezuelans, queuing for food is a daily ordeal. They also are used to trying multiple pharmacies and hospitals in search of the medicines they need, and more recently have grown accustomed to collecting water from streams.

But that has not stopped Joaquin Nino, a cash-strapped 35-year-old father of two, from taking his kids to an amusement park in southern Caracas.

“We have to work miracles just to have some fun,” Nino said.

At a parade in eastern Caracas celebrating Holy Week, revelers dressed in straw hats topped with flowers sang, banged drums and blew trumpets to tropical beats. With the sun beating down, one marcher who gave his name as Carlos remembers how in past years onlookers would douse those marching with water to cool them down.

“Now, because of the problems with the water, that probably will not happen,” he said.

In central Caracas, a group of men of all ages meet every Sunday to play softball while a handful of their relatives watch. The wire fence that once surrounded the field was long ago stolen. The lights, which once allowed the group to play at night, were also pilfered.

“I always come because my husband plays,” said Delia Jimenez, a 62-year-old industrial designer who jumps up from the stands whenever her husband comes up to bat. “We have fun and we shake off our stress.”

A few blocks away, groups of young people come together to break-dance, which they say is a way to disconnect. But some admitted that they had not been eating enough recently to be able to spend as much time dancing as they used to.

“When we’re out here dancing, we don’t think about the state of the country,” said Yeafersonth Manrique, a 24-year-old drenched in sweat after a long practice. “In this world, there is no crisis.”

Brazilian Court Reduces Sentence of Ex-President da Silva

Brazil’s second-highest court reduced the sentence of incarcerated former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Tuesday, opening the possibility he could be moved to house arrest later this year.

 

The Superior Court of Justice vote was in response to a request by da Silva’s lawyers that it annul the ex-president’s corruption conviction or reduce his sentence. The session’s four judges voted unanimously to uphold the conviction but lower the sentence from 12 years and one month to eight years and 10 months.

 

The shorter sentence opens a pathway for da Silva to get out of a cell later this year.

Under Brazilian law, after serving at least one-sixth of their sentence, prisoners can request to serve the remainder under house arrest or under a “semi-open regime” in which inmates leave for work but sleep in prison. Da Silva was jailed in April 2018 and will have served a sixth of the reduced sentence in September.

 

Da Silva, who was president in 2003-2010, was convicted of corruption and money laundering over a beachfront apartment that prosecutors say he received from a construction company in exchange for lucrative government contracts.

 

Da Silva and his Worker’s Party maintain he is innocent and say he was persecuted by political enemies to prevent him from running for president again. Others believe justice was served for a corrupt politician.

 

The former president is the most prominent figure jailed in an anti-corruption investigation called “Operation Car Wash” that has snared dozens of prominent politicians and business figures in Brazil.

Venezuelan Opposition Envoy Addresses OAS

A Venezuelan opposition envoy addressed the Organization of American States from his country’s seat Tuesday, the first time it has happened in the two decades since a socialist administration rose to power in the South American nation.

 

Gustavo Tarre delivered a speech during a session held by the Permanent Council of the OAS exactly three months after Juan Guaido, leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, declared himself the country’s interim president in an escalating confrontation with President Niclolas Maduro.

 

Ambassadors from at least four Caribbean countries — Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago — left the room before Tarre spoke, showing their opposition to his recognition by the OAS as Venezuela’s representative.

 

The U.S. and most of the regional group’s 34 member states recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader. They say Maduro wasn’t legitimately re-elected last year because leading opposition candidates weren’t permitted to run.

 

Francisco Paparoni was the last Venezuelan representative to the OAS not aligned with Chavismo, the socialist movement associated with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Paparoni stepped down in April 1999, two months after Chavez became president and began two decades of socialist rule.

 

Maduro succeeded Chavez in 2017 started a two-year process to abandon the Washington-based OAS, but Guaido earlier this year asked it to ignore Maduro’s request and designated Tarre as his own envoy.

 

Tarre plans to keep attending OAS sessions and representing Venezuela, even though Maduro’s government announced plans to hold a rally next Saturday to celebrate its departure from the organization.

 

Samuel Moncada, Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations and the only diplomat loyal to Maduro currently on U.S. territory, used to attend OAS sessions representing his country. But the State Department recently restricted his movements to a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius around New York.

 

Tarre, who was recognized earlier this month with the support of 18 countries, said in his speech that he will work to organize free and fair elections in his country and that it once again recognize the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

 

Tarre is considered part of the traditional political class that ruled Venezuela until Chavez was elected president. He served as a congressman in 1979-1999 for the Christian Democratic party.

 

The OAS and the Inter-American Development Bank are the only two multilateral organizations that recognize Guaido as interim president of Venezuela.

Tencent Invests in Argentine Mobile Banking Startup

Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings has invested in Argentine mobile banking service Uala, which also counts George Soros and Point72 Ventures LLC among its investors, the start-up’s founder said.

Uala founder Pierpaolo Barbieri said the company planned to collaborate with the Chinese social media-to-gaming giant to further develop its app. He declined to disclose the amount of Tencent’s investment.

Tencent, one of Asia’s most valuable listed companies, announced last year it would boost investments in a number of “key areas” including digital payment, where its service jostles with rival Alipay, backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Tencent’s own messenger-to-payment app WeChat now has more than 1 billion users in China and has launched in-app services that compete with Apple and Google apps.

“We are proud of their interest in Uala and look forward to collaborating on new products and services. This investment will allow us to grow even faster with our product roadmap,” Barbieri said in an email to Reuters.

Argentine startups face regulatory hurdles in South America’s second largest economy, but the country has spawned some of the region’s most successful tech startups, including U.S.-listed online marketplace MercadoLibre and Internet travel agent Despegar.com.

The country, which has a large unbanked population, is also seeing a boom in digital finance from start-ups like Uala to a new wave of online banks competing with more traditional lenders.

Bishop Critical of Nicaragua’s Ortega Leaves for Vatican

A Roman Catholic bishop who has been outspoken in his criticism of President Daniel Ortega over Nicaragua’s political standoff left the country Tuesday after being called to the Vatican indefinitely by Pope Francis.

Speaking at Managua’s international airport, where no members of the country’s Bishops’ Conference were on hand to bid a farewell, Managua auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez told journalists and supporters that he was leaving with “my heart broken into pieces.”

“It hurts me to leave, but my heart remains here and I will always be following (the situation in Nicaragua) closely,” Baez said. “As many times as may be necessary and as often as Pope Francis asks me to speak with him, I will give him my vision of reality in the most objective manner possible.”

Baez, 60, who celebrated his last Mass in Nicaragua on Sunday, said he would visit relatives in Miami before traveling to Rome.

Baez has received multiple death threats and suffered a cut on his arm when he and other church officials were attacked by a pro-government mob last year in Diriamba. Drones hover over his home, and men on motorcycles have entered its parking area. He changed his phone number four times because of the threats.

When Francis told Baez he was needed in Rome, the pontiff did not say whether the decision was related to an alleged assassination plot that Baez said the U.S. government warned him of several months ago.

His transfer for an undetermined period of time was announced two weeks ago and prompted surprise and concern among the Nicaraguan opposition, as well as celebration by Ortega allies.

Baez acted as a mediator last year during brief, failed talks on resolving the crisis that erupted in April 2018 with large protests demanding Ortega leave office and allow early elections.

Ortega accused his opponents of attempting a coup, and security forces and armed civilian militias launched a crackdown in which at least 325 people were killed, more than 2,000 wounded and over 52,000 fled to exile, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ortega had invited bishops to take part in the talks but later criticized them harshly.

A new round of negotiations with the Church not acting as a mediator but rather as an observer is currently on pause.

The government called on opponents to join talks Tuesday, but the Civic Alliance opposition group said Ortega has not abided by previous agreements on freeing all those considered political prisoners and restoring basic freedoms and rights.

Alliance members met instead with observers of the talks, including the Vatican’s diplomatic envoy to the country and an official of the Organization of American States, and said they would not continue to negotiate unless Ortega fully complies with those accords.

“Instead of listening to promises of implementation, we want actions of implementation,” said Carlos Tunnermann, one of the opposition negotiators.

In a statement, the alliance said people aligned with the opposition continue to be persecuted and detained through paramilitary groups cooperating with police.

At the airport Baez said he wishes for Nicaragua “a society founded in social justice that springs from a true peace, where ideological plurality is not a crime but a treasure.”

He said he had received a letter of thanks on behalf of those who took part in the protests, and added that “the political prisoners have no reason to say thank you, it is us who should thank them for resisting.”

Baez urged the Civic Alliance to remain “firm” but not break off dialogue and called on Nicaraguans to support its efforts.

Death Toll from Colombia Landslide Rises to 28

The death toll from a weekend landslide in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca has risen to 28 people, the country’s disaster relief agency said on Monday.

The landslide, caused by heavy rains, occurred early on Sunday morning in a rural area of Rosas municipality.

“In the last two days we have recovered 28 bodies. Rescue operations will restart in the morning,” the disaster relief agency said on Twitter late on Monday.

At least five people were hospitalized and eight houses were destroyed. A portion of the Pan-American Highway was also blocked by the landslide.

President Ivan Duque visited the area on Sunday evening and said the government would stand with the victims and provide housing and other help.

Landslides are common in mountainous Colombia, especially during rainy season and in areas where precarious informal housing and narrow roadways are constructed on deforested Andean hillsides.

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry Slams ‘Useless’ US Border Delays

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that speeding up the flow of goods on the U.S. border is a matter of urgency and that slowdowns are detrimental to both economies, after bottlenecks have held up trade following a row over migration.

Delays along the U.S.-Mexico border began late last month after U.S. border agents were moved to handle an influx of migrants, slowing the flow of both goods and people.

The staffing shortages came shortly after President Donald Trump threatened to close the border if Mexico did not halt a surge of people seeking asylum in the United States.

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry will present a report to the United States on Thursday detailing the economic costs of the delays, a spokesman said.

“Slowing the flow of goods and the transit of people is a detriment to our economies and for the region’s competitiveness,” the ministry said in a statement.

“There is urgent need to improve the transport of goods, as well as deepen mutual cooperation to ensure the efficiency and safety of our common border.”

The Ministry noted that Mexico overtook China to become the top U.S. trade partner in January and February, amid Trump’s trade wars.

Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, spoke with northern border states on Monday in preparing to demonstrate to Washington the “cost and uselessness” of holding up border traffic, he said on Twitter.

The collective losses for companies that rely on cross-border supply chains have reached into the millions.

Nearly 30 companies in Ciudad Juarez, on the opposite side of the border from El Paso, Texas, reported losses of $15 million in a single week in early April.

Ebrard previously said that U.S. officials pledged to help improve the flow of commercial traffic.

Mexican Police Detain Hundreds of Central American Migrants

Mexican police and immigration agents detained hundreds of Central American migrants Monday in the largest single raid on a migrant caravan since the groups started moving through the country last year.

Police targeted isolated groups at the tail end of a caravan of about 3,000 migrants who were making their way through the southern state of Chiapas with hopes of reaching the U.S. border.

As migrants gathered under spots of shade in the burning heat outside the city of Pijijiapan, federal police and agents passed by in patrol trucks and vans and forcibly wrestled women, men and children into the vehicles. 

The migrants were driven to buses, presumably for subsequent transportation to an immigration station for deportation processing. As many as 500 migrants might have been picked up in the raid, according to Associated Press journalists at the scene.

Some of the women and children wailed and screamed during the detentions on the roadside. Clothes, shoes, suitcases and strollers littered the scene after they were taken away. 

Kevin Escobar, a 27-year-old from Honduras, was one of about 500 migrants who fled onto private property to avoid immigration agents. Sitting on the property, he yelled to them: “Why do you want to arrest me?” 

Escobar vowed that he will never return to his hometown of San Pedro Sula, saying “the gangs are kidnapping everyone back there.”

Agents had encouraged groups of migrants that separated from the bulk of the caravan to rest after some seven hours on the road, including about half of that under a broiling sun. When the migrants regrouped to continue, they were detained. 

Agents positioned themselves at the head of the group and at the back. Some people in civilian clothing appeared to be participating in the detentions. 

After seeing what happened, some migrants began walking in dense groupings and picked up stones and sticks.

Officials from the National Human Rights Commission observed the action from a distance. 

“We are documenting what is happening,” said Jesus Salvador Quintana, a commission official. “We cannot tell authorities in charge what to do, but yes, we are documenting and we will investigate.” 

Mexico welcomed the first caravans last year, but the reception has gotten colder since tens of thousands of migrants overwhelmed U.S. border crossings, causing delays at the border and anger among Mexican residents. 

Last Friday, local media reported a series of detentions of migrants in nearby Mapastepec, where thousands were awaiting normalization of their migratory status.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The National Human Rights Commission said it had interviewed more than 200 people who were detained in Mapastepec and transferred to an immigration center in Tapachula, across the border from Guatemala.

The detentions came as the U.S. has ramped up public pressure on Mexico to do more to stop the flow of migrants. President Donald Trump railed against the government of his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and threatened to shut the entire border down, but then quickly congratulated Mexico for migrant arrests just a few weeks ago. 

Mexico already allows the United States to return some asylum seekers to Mexico as their cases play out. And government officials said in March they would try to contain migrants heading north at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of the country’s south and easiest to control. Pijijiapan and Mapastepec are not far from the isthmus’ narrowest point, which comes in neighboring Oaxaca state. 

In recent months Mexican authorities have deported thousands of migrants, while also issuing more than 15,000 humanitarian visas allowing migrants to remain in the country and work. 

A group of about 10 prominent social organizations recently warned that detentions of migrants and violations of their human rights have risen, blaming immigration agents and federal, state and local police. The groups also said the increased detentions have overwhelmed capacity at the immigration center in Tapachula. The National Human Rights Commission also said the facility is overcrowded. 

In its most recent statement from last week, the Migration Institute said 5,336 migrants were in shelters or immigration centers in Chiapas, and over 1,500 of them were “awaiting deportation.” 

The Rights Commission said Sunday that more than 7,500 migrants were in detention, at shelters or on the road in the southern state. It urged authorities to carry out a proper census of the migrants and attend to their needs, particularly children.

Most of the migrants who have arrived in groups to southern Mexico in recent weeks originated in Honduras. There they joined previous groups of migrants from other Central American countries along with some Cubans and Africans. 

Seeds of Discontent: Argentina’s Farmers Turn Cool on Their Man Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri rode to power in 2015 promising to bolster the farming sector and cut back taxes that had stymied exports. The country’s backbone industry welcomed him with open arms after years of export controls aimed at keeping domestic prices low.

The powerful sector is now cooling on the center-right president, frustrated by revived export tariffs and sky-high borrowing rates that have bruised smaller farmers, a concern for Macri ahead of national elections later in the year.

Argentina’s farming sector, which brings in more than half of the export dollars in South America’s second-biggest economy, is a key barometer for Macri, who has sold himself as a champion of business and industry, none more so than the country’s huge soy, wheat and corn farms.

“We publicly supported the administration in the last elections [mid-terms in 2017] as we believed they were managing the policies farmers needed,” said Carlos Iannizzotto, president of the Confederación Intercooperativa Agropecuaria, one of the country’s four major farming bodies. “Today we cannot do the same.”

Reuters spoke to the leaders at all four associations, who collectively make up the influential “Mesa de Enlace” or liaison committee. They cited Macri’s backtracking on cutting taxes on exports and the high cost of credit with interest rates above 60 percent.

The farm lobbies do not directly sway the votes of a huge proportion of voters, analysts and pollsters cautioned, but said that their weakening support was a sharp warning sign for Macri ahead of the October election, which is expected to be closely fought.

Dardo Chiesa, president of a second lobby, the Confederaciones Rurales Argentinas, said farmers had become “disappointed” with Macri’s performance on the economy, with a tumbling peso and inflation running at over 50 percent.

“The first issue in terms of voting this year is the economy, and the reality is that the government’s economic management has not satisfied the sector,” he told Reuters.

‘I wanted change’

Everything had started so well. 

After Macri’s election in 2015 he eliminated export taxes on corn and wheat and lowered those for soy; he also got rid of limits on corn and wheat exports — gaining cheers from farmers.

However, an acute financial crisis last year forced Macri to take a $56.3 billion lifeline from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in return pledging to balance the country’s deficit — including restarting taxes on exports.

In addition, to deal with inflation and protect the peso currency, the government has hiked interest rates to almost 70 percent, choking off the ability of farmers and other small businesses to obtain funds to expand and buy equipment.

Sales of combine harvesters, tractors and seeding machines plummeted last year, government data showed.

“I voted for Macri because I wanted a change, but Macri has really let us down,” Carlos Boffini, who runs a 400-hectare farm in Colón, in the province of Buenos Aires, told Reuters.

“[Macri] spoke about how the export taxes were unfair. Yet here they are again. He was going to get rid of a lot of things and he did not get rid of anything.”

To be sure, not all farmers are turning away from Macri, who is still viewed by many as the most business-friendly candidate.

Daniel Pelegrina, head of Sociedad Rural Argentina, which generally represents larger farming groups, stopped short of giving his direct support for the president but said the government’s policies were roughly in the right direction.

“Argentina needs to be reintegrated and active globally, it needs to have an export-oriented economy,” he said, adding that there is, however, a need to review the high taxes.

If not Macri, then who?

Macri is facing a split field in the elections that start in October before a potential run-off if there is no clear winner.

Likely rivals include ex-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose populist and interventionist policies made her deeply unpopular with farmers. More moderate members of the Peronist opposition include former economy minister Roberto Lavagna and former congressman Sergio Massa.

Carlos Achetone, president of the Federación Agraria Argentina (FAA), the last of the four main agricultural bodies, said many farmers were looking beyond Macri if there was a “third alternative with substance.”

Analysts and farmers, however, said if the election ended up being between Macri and Fernandez — as many polls expect if she runs — then farmers would have little choice about how to vote.

“There is a consensus of not returning to populism. Argentina cannot return to populism,” said Chiesa, referring to Fernandez’s administration which had introduced export quotas on grains and meat to keep domestic prices low for consumers.

Farmer Boffini agreed, adding the sector’s general dislike of the former leader could well be Macri’s saving grace.

“Do you know what Macri’s advantage is? It’s that we don’t like Cristina and so if Cristina shows up and there are no other options, we will simply vote for Macri so that Cristina does not get in,” he said.

In Venezuela, Women Sell Hair as Another Way to Get By

Valery Diaz covered her eyes and held her breath before looking in a hair salon mirror to see herself without much of the long dark hair that used to frame her face.

The 16-year-old student was paid $100 for the shorn hair, money she’ll use to help her family and buy a cellphone at a time when Venezuela’s sharp economic decline has led to shortages of food and medicine, and hyperinflation has made salaries nearly worthless.

Increasing numbers of women in poor neighborhoods are selling their hair for use in wigs and extensions as the demands of daily survival force them to abandon the kind of self-care long an obsession with a country known globally for its success in beauty pageants. Seven Miss Universe winners have been Venezuelans, as have six Miss Worlds. 

 

Some women are washing their hair with dishwashing liquid because they can’t afford to buy shampoo that costs more than the minimum monthly salary, now equivalent to just a few dollars. Many have to adapt to make personal care products last longer, with no sign of an end to a crisis that has pushed more than 3 million Venezuelans — one-tenth of the population — to leave the country in recent years.

Diaz gazed silently at the mirror and attempted a positive spin on the loss of locks that she had worn since she was a young child. She described herself as feeling “light” and said it had been hard to maintain her flowing hair in the past. 

 

“There are times when you go two or three weeks without washing your hair,” she said, alluding to frequent water shortages in past weeks, caused by nationwide blackouts that shut off water pumps.

Her mother, Yeny Gomez, laughed nervously and tried to buoy her daughter’s spirits.

“You don’t notice it,” Gomez, a 43-year-old teacher, said of the drastic haircut.

Despite sacrificing her hair, Diaz said she still tries to buy cosmetics, using money she earns from making and selling bracelets.

But Gomez said she hasn’t bought lipstick or any other cosmetics for more than a year because she’s saving whatever money she earns to get food for her and her two daughters. Beauty care has become secondary for most Venezuelans, she said.

Carmen Merchani, a 49-year-old hairdresser, knows that well. After decades of cutting and styling hair, she said things have never been worse and she’s had to adapt to maintain her salon on one of the steep hills of Catia, a Caracas district. About a year ago, Merchani said, she started to do barter deals with her clients, getting food in exchange for hair stylings, manicures and pedicures.

Local shops that sell beauty products are also reinventing themselves to stay afloat. International cosmetics brands have disappeared from storefronts, replaced by cheaper goods from China as well as locally made products that use honey and other ingredients.

Diaz said she still dreams of becoming a Miss Venezuela someday, when “my hair grows again.”