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Maduro Accuses US of Attacking Food Aid Program

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Thursday accused the United States of seeking to destroy a food aid program that the government of the crisis-stricken OPEC nation says feeds 6 million families.

Washington is preparing sanctions and criminal charges against Venezuelan officials and others suspected of using the food program to launder money for the Maduro government, sources familiar with the matter said Tuesday.

The measures against the program, known in Venezuela by its Spanish acronym CLAP, are expected to be enacted within the next 90 days, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified.

“(The U.S.) is preparing sanctions to destroy the CLAP system,” Maduro said in televised broadcast, accompanied by the military high command.

“Do what you want to do, Venezuela will continue with the Local Supply and Production Committees,” he said, referencing the full name of the CLAP program.

The State Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Subsidized food

The program sells at subsidized prices boxes of food that include products such as rice, pasta, oil and powdered milk.

Some of the products are imported from countries such as Turkey, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

Maduro launched the plan in 2016 in response to chronic food shortages and spiraling prices, as Venezuela struggled under hyperinflation and a severe economic contraction. Critics call the program a form of social control that is used to pressure its recipients to support the ruling Socialist Party.

Crisis deepening

Venezuela’s political crisis has deepened since opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that socialist Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

The United States as well as most European and Latin American countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

But Maduro retains control of state functions and the support of the military’s top brass, as well the support of allies such as Russia, Cuba and China. He says the country’s economic problems are the result of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington.

Costa Rica Announces Drop in Murders, Increase in Gun Seizures

Costa Rica announced on Thursday a reduction in murders and an increase in the confiscation of illegal weapons as it put into force a law that tightens gun controls.

“Up to today we’ve had 201 murders in the country, which sounds like a lot but if we compare it to last year, we have 47 less,” Security Minister Michael Soto said at a ceremony in the capital San Jose.

“This is great progress,” he said, adding that 67 percent of murders are committed with firearms.

The security ministry has seized 863 guns so far this year, 34 more than in the same period last year.

“These weapons can take someone’s life, they can be used in a crime against property,” said Soto.

The Central American country saw a spike in its murder rate between 2012 and 2017, reaching 12.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the police.

That number dropped slightly to 11.7 in 2018 but that was still more than twice the global average of 5.3 in 2015, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

However, it is considerably lower than the 2017 average of 22 in Latin America and the Caribbean, the most violent region in the world according to an Inter-American Development Bank study from last year.

Soto spoke at a ceremony in which new gun control laws came into effect that increase punishments for the illegal purchase of a weapon and for individuals or businesses that fail to report the theft or loss of a firearm.

“Every effort made to regulate or educate in relation to gun control is a victory for our society,” said President Carlos Alvarado.


Scientists: Chile’s Southern Patagonia Ice Field Ruptured by Climate Change 

Chile’s 12,000 square kilometer (4,633 square mile) Southern Patagonia Ice Field split in two and is likely to continue to fracture amid climate change, according to a team of Chilean scientists who were in the region in March.

Gino Casassa, chief of the Snow and Glacier Division of Chile’s DGA water authority, told Reuters increasing temperatures along the Andes Mountains in southern Chile and Argentina have meant less snow and ice to replenish the region’s abundant glaciers.

“What occurred is a fracture as the ice has retreated, Casassa said.

The chunk of ice that split off from the main glacier was estimated at 208 square kilometers (80.3 square miles), a relatively small part of the ice field.

But Casassa said it may be a sign of things to come.

The ice field, he said, is now “split in two, and we’ll likely discover further divisions to the south,” he said.

Two icebergs broke off the Grey Glacier in southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park earlier this year, adding to fears that such ruptures are becoming more frequent.


UNHCR: People Fleeing Venezuela Need Protection, Must Not Be Deported

The U.N. refugee agency says the majority of Venezuelans fleeing worsening conditions in their country are in need of international protection and must not be forcibly returned home.

Citizens are leaving Venezuela as political, economic, human rights and humanitarian conditions deteriorate. The U.N. refugee agency reports some 3.7 million people have fled the country. Most have gone to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Caribbean countries.

The agency says by the end of last year, some 460,000 Venezuelans had formally sought asylum.

But given the dire conditions back home, UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell said it is clear the majority of the millions of those who have left need international refugee protection.

“This is because of the threats to their lives, security or freedom resulting from circumstances that are seriously disturbing public order in Venezuela,” she said. “UNHCR also calls on states to ensure that Venezuelans, regardless of their legal status, are not deported or otherwise forcibly returned to Venezuela.”

Throssell said so far Venezuelans are not being deported, but warned that might change as more people flee and the refugee load becomes more burdensome.

She said there was a period not long ago when official border crossings into Latin American countries were closed. She notes Brazil’s border with Venezuela was reopened only last week.

“What we have seen is people crossing over regular crossing points, but also, importantly, some people are opting to take irregular routes that are dangerous, putting themselves at risk,” she told VOA. “One of the reasons why we are saying this now is that given the progressive deterioration of the circumstances in Venezuela, we are seeing that Venezuelans who are increasingly vulnerable are leaving the country.”

Throssell said countries hosting the ever-growing number of Venezuelans need international support. She said they are under incredible strain and do not have the financial means to care for the asylum-seekers.

She is appealing to donors to be more generous in their contributions, noting that the U.N.’s $146 million appeal for Venezuela is only 28 percent funded.

WHO Certifies Algeria, Argentina Free of Malaria

The World Health Organization has certified Algeria and Argentina as malaria-free, following three consecutive years where no new cases of the deadly disease have been reported. 

The malaria parasite, which kills more than 400,000 people each year, was discovered in Algeria in 1880. Most of the victims are children under the age of five in Africa.

The World Health Organization reports Algeria is the second country in Africa to be recognized as malaria-free after Mauritius, which was certified in 1973. Argentina is the second country in South America, after Paraguay, to be declared malaria-free.

A combination of many factors has made the achievements possible, according to WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib.

“It is very good news for Algeria and Argentina, but also for the two continents and globally also,” Chaib told VOA. “It means that malaria can be beaten. But the efforts should continue because we need also to enhance surveillance to be able to detect if any cases of malaria are still present in the country.”

WHO says the two countries eliminated malaria by employing a number of basic, well-proven measures, including insecticide-treated mosquito nets. It says both countries improved surveillance, which enabled them to rapidly identify and treat new cases of malaria. In addition, the two countries provided free diagnosis and treatment within their borders.

In the case of Argentina, WHO says cross-border collaboration with its neighbor Bolivia was critical in combating the disease. It says both countries teamed up to spray more than 22,000 homes in border areas and to conduct widespread malaria testing.

WHO says Algeria’s and Argentina’s unwavering commitment, perseverance and success in combating malaria should serve as a model for other countries.

Both Algeria and Argentina have succeeded in ridding themselves of the deadly malaria parasite without the benefit of a vaccine. Health officials are hopeful this task becomes easier with the recent rollout of the first promising malaria vaccine in Ghana and Malawi.

Canada’s Oil-Rich Alberta Takes a Step to Repeal Carbon Tax

Canada’s main crude-producing province, Alberta, introduced a bill to repeal the provincial carbon tax Wednesday, setting up a legal tussle between Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Ottawa.

Premier Kenney and his party swept to power in Alberta last month on a platform that promised to champion the province’s beleaguered energy industry and stand up to the federal government.

Scrapping Alberta’s carbon tax, introduced by the previous government, was a major part of Kenney’s campaign. It will be the first piece of legislation tabled by the new government, but puts the province on a collision course with Trudeau’s Liberals ahead of a national election this fall.

The move will automatically trigger a federal carbon tax aimed at provinces that do not have their own plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Pain no gain

“The carbon tax has been all economic pain and no environmental gain,” Kenney told reporters at a news conference. “If Justin Trudeau’s government then seeks to impose a federal carbon tax in Alberta, we will see him in court.”

Alberta will join Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan when it challenges the federal carbon tax in court. Earlier this month Saskatchewan’s Court of Appeal ruled the tax does not violate the Canadian constitution, marking a victory for Trudeau on one of his trademark policies.

Kenney said his government has a stronger case than Saskatchewan because Alberta will still impose a levy on large industrial carbon emitters.

The Carbon Tax Repeal Act will provide C$1.4 billion in tax relief to Albertans and create 6,000 jobs, the government said in the first legislative session in the provincial capital Edmonton.

Next: corporate tax rate

“Now more than ever Canadians expect their leaders to work together to reduce pollution, not play politics,” said Vanessa Adams, spokeswoman for the Minister of Natural Resources Canada, in an emailed statement. “If Premier Kenney dismantles Alberta’s climate plan, the federal backstop will apply.”

Kenney’s government also plans to table legislation to lower Alberta’s corporate tax rate from 12% to 8%, cut back on regulation and guarantee oil and gas royalty rates, moves aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the energy industry.

Alberta is home to Canada’s vast oil sands but has seen billions of dollars in foreign investment flee the province since 2017 in part because of concerns about market access and regulatory uncertainty.

Venezuelans Barter as They Abandon Worthless Currency

Venezuela’s economy has virtually collapsed, with hyperinflation expected to reach 10 million percent this year, according to the IMF, and shortages of food and medicine are causing a humanitarian crisis of almost unequaled proportions. The situation is so dire in what was once Latin America’s richest nation that people have stopped using the currency and are bartering goods and services to survive. Adriana Nuñez Rabascall filed this report from Caracas, narrated by Cristina Caicedo Smit.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro Wins Key Vote in Congress

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro surmounted a crucial hurdle for his young government on Wednesday by winning approval from disgruntled lower house lawmakers for his move to reorganize the country’s executive branch.

The vote on the first decree he issued the day he took parties in Congress, which is threatening to derail his agenda after months of mutual antagonism.

The decree that reduced the number of ministries to 20, from 29 previously, was due to expire on June 3.

Failure to gain approval would have thrown the government into crisis, forcing a ministry reshuffle and increasing doubts that he can rally support for an ambitious pension reform bill — the cornerstone of his economic agenda — now in the hands of a political class he openly insults.

A former army captain and apologist for Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, Bolsonaro wielded little influence in his three decades in Congress and cast his grassroots campaign as a crusade against the horse trading of Brazil’s “old politics.”

“Bolsonaro despises democracy. We have to isolate his anti-democratic attitude and lack of respect for institutions so this does not paralyze the country,” lawmaker Marcelo Ramos, chairman of the congressional committee on pension reform, told Reuters.

Ramos said Bolsonaro was unable to build a coalition with the 308 votes needed to pass the pension bill, aimed at saving 1.2 trillion reais ($300 billion) in a decade to restore investor confidence and jump-start a weak economy. Ramos estimated the bill could currently only muster 200 votes.

Labor and Pensions Secretary Rogerio Marinho said on Wednesday that between 250 and 270 lower house lawmakers had spoken favorably about pension reform.

Bolsonaro has said he would rather work with issue-focused caucuses than party leaders and has called on his supporters via social media to pressure lawmakers obstructing his agenda.

He attacked the political class on Monday for being the country’s “big problem” and blamed interest groups for impeding him from governing.

Ramos and Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who broke off talks with the head of Bolsonaro’s coalition in the lower house on Tuesday, have said they plan to move ahead with the legislative agenda with or without the government’s help.

Wednesday’s vote was a sign that the center-right parties in Congress intend to do just that, despite their frustration with Bolsonaro’s refusal to reach out to them with government jobs and support for projects in their constituencies.

Brazil Sues Top Tobacco Firms to Recover Public Health Costs

Brazil’s solicitor general’s office is suing the world’s largest cigarette makers British American Tobacco Plc and Philip Morris International to recover the public health treatment costs of tobacco-related diseases over the last five years.

The office, known as the AGU, announced the landmark lawsuit late on Tuesday against the two multinational companies and their Brazilian subsidiaries.

The legal action seeks to recover the cost to Brazil’s public health system for the treatment of patients for 26 illnesses related to smoking tobacco or coming into contact with cigarette smoke, the AGU said in a statement.

The value of the costs the government seeks to recover will be calculated at a later date, should it win the lawsuit filed in the southern city of Porto Alegre, the AGU said.

“Since the profit from this business is sent abroad, it is fair that these multinational companies pay for this responsibility they have left to Brazilian society,” prosecutor Davi Bressler said in the statement.

The AGU said the companies through their subsidiaries, Souza Cruz Ltda, Philip Morris Brasil Industria e Comercio Ltda and Philip Morris Brasil SA, produce about 90 percent of the cigarettes sold in Brazil.

Philip Morris Brasil said it had not been informed of the case and would hold off commenting on the lawsuit. BAT’s Souza Cruz did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit was heralded as historic by groups that advocate in favor of reducing tobacco consumption.

“The suit is the first of its kind for Brazil and a significant step toward holding the two major tobacco companies who do business in Brazil and their parent companies responsible for the enormous financial and health burdens caused by tobacco use,” the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said.

Despite the advancements in tobacco control policies in Brazil, tobacco remains the country’s leading cause of preventable death, the group said in a statement.

Bolsonaro Revises Decree, Bans Brazilians Carrying Assault Weapons

Brazilians will no longer be permitted to carry assault weapons on the street after pro-gun President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday revised an order that enabled millions of civilians to be armed in public.

Eligible “common citizens” will be allowed to carry handguns but not rifles, the government said in a statement, admitting the change was in response to public outcry and legal and political challenges to the decree announced earlier this month. 

Only rural landowners will be permitted to purchase such weapons, provided they are kept at home.

“There were criticisms that there might be some excesses [in the decree] and the government was sensitive to these criticisms,” Justice Minister Sergio Moro said in an interview with Brazilian media on Wednesday. 

“Normally the use of those weapons with the greatest potential for harm is restricted to the security forces,” Moro added.

Assault weapon orders

The controversial decree still enables a wide range of professions, including truckers, politicians, hunters and even some journalists, to carry weapons without having to prove why they need them. 

Brazilian arms maker Taurus said Monday it had received 2,000 orders for its T4 assault weapon that is designed for police and military use following the loosening of restrictions. 

Its shares soared 7.6 percent Tuesday, but on Wednesday had given up more than half of those gains.

The Supreme Court is considering whether Bolsonaro’s decree breaches the constitution after an opposition party challenged the order on the grounds it was “an abuse of power.”

Opposition to decree

The decree also faces political hurdles. 

An open letter signed by the governors of 14 states, including some with high rates of violence, that was published Wednesday criticized the decree for failing to improve security.

“On the contrary, it will increase the amount of arms and ammunition that can supply criminals and also the risk of arguments and fights between citizens ending in tragedy,” they wrote.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has defended the order as honoring the result of a 2005 referendum in which nearly 64 percent of Brazilians rejected a law that included, among other things, a total ban on the sale of firearms. 

But experts warn the loosening of restrictions will fuel gun violence in a country which already has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. 

Brazil recorded 64,000 murders in 2017 — a rate of almost 31 per 100,000 inhabitants, or three times higher than the level the United Nations classifies as endemic violence.