Venezuela

John Paul Rathbone

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House. Getty.

It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.

Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba. They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed. Read more

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  • In Venezuela, a crackdown on the black market in regulated goods – which include eggs, powdered milk, detergent and baby diapers – risks alienating some of the poor Venezuelans who were long loyal to President Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez (Washington Post)

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  • The pragmatists have won out over the radical idealogues in Venezuela’s administration and Nicolás Maduro is starting to take orthodox steps to repair the economy.
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The turmoil in Venezuela
While the crisis in Ukraine has grabbed the headlines, Venezuela, once the toast of the radical left around the world, has also been in the grip of a violent political crisis. In the last three weeks, protests have left at least 20 dead. Gideon Rachman is joined by Latin American editor John Paul Rathbone, and correspondent Andres Schipani to discuss the background to the situation, and where the country goes from here.

John Paul Rathbone

“We could turn Venezuela into Ukraine!” a student protester shouted in Caracas this weekend. It is striking how similar the situations are in the two countries, despite the significant differences.

There have been many tragic deaths in both countries – although about 100 people have died in Ukraine, versus “only” around ten in Venezuela. This difference is one reason why the troubles in Venezuela has not yet captured the same attention as the protests in Ukraine.

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

First protests; then inevitable casualties and recriminations. Life is getting harder on the mean streets of Venezuela’s cities. But that does not mean that a change of regime is in the offing.

The street protests that left three dead on Wednesday after pro and anti-government forces clashed came after a week of scattered gatherings across the country. The trigger was the arrest on Feb 6 of four students in western Tachira state. Since then relatively small gatherings, coordinated by social media under the hashtag #LaSalida, the Exit, have gathered in provincial cities.

Some of these protests turned violent after the National Guard attempted to disperse crowds. Wednesday’s nationwide protests were of a different scale. Rough estimates suggest the crowd in Caracas reached 20,000 people. Reports suggest pro-government motorcycle gangs attacked them. Either way, it was the worst unrest since President Nicolás Maduro won last year’s election by a whisker after his mentor, Hugo Chávez, died. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Edward Snowden is fast becoming a hot potato nobody wants to handle. Russia does not want him – so he can’t leave the legally-grey area of the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on foot. He could fly away – that is Putin’s preferred solution and, indeed, it seems that he now has travel papers, after Ecuador granted him a “safe pass” for temporary travel, according to images of travel documents posted by Spanish language Univision late on Wednesday.

But Snowden’s flight path to the apparent safety of possible political asylum in another country, such as Venezuela (which has offered the possibility) or Ecuador (which has said it would consider it), is blocked by a problem. All commercial flights between Moscow and Quito or Caracas touch down in third countries with which the US has extradition agreements. And that includes Cuba. Read more

News that the US government monitors vast amounts of private communications data has divided opinion at home and caused outrage in Europe. But what lengths do other countries go to in order to keep tabs on their citizens?

UK

It has been a requirement since 2009 for communication service providers to hold information about their customers’ use of communications for at least a year. (CSPs are a broad group that can include telephone companies, Skype and search engines).

The spy base at RAF Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire, England (Getty)

The government proposed further legislation that would require CSPs to collect additional information generated by third-party CSPs based outside the UK in order to access services like Gmail. The communications data bill was rejected by the Liberal Democrats, who were concerned that it would infringe civil liberties.
However, a recent terror attack in Woolwich, London, in which an army fusilier was killed in an apparent attack by Islamist extremists, prompted calls for the coalition government to resurrect its proposals.  Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles protest in front of riot police in Caracas on April 15, 2013 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Henrique Capriles protest on April 15 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I will continue governing the country with its people. Street government.” So tweeted Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday night as Venezuela’s president-elect sought to strengthen his hold on the country amid deadly street clashes, a teetering economy and an angry opposition that has disputed his narrow election victory.

It’s a febrile atmosphere: seven people died in riots overnight, 60 were injured and 170 arrested. Back in Europe, fresh from a recent trip to Caracas, many have asked me: is this country nuts?

One way to imagine yourself into the Venezuelan mindset is to picture yourself in an old fashioned American automobile – a yank tank – cruising along one of the rain-stained concrete flyovers that define Caracas’ cityscape. Towering sky-scrapers, built during the 1970s oil boom and now thick with grime, flit by on either side. You have a full tank of gas (it cost just $3 to fill up). It’s tropical hot, and the car’s air-conditioning is broken and unfixable because the spare parts needed to repair it are imported and thus unobtainable due to currency restrictions. No matter: the windows are open. Other cars are jouncing along at high speed in the adjacent lanes. The atmosphere is exhilarating – although you are just making a regular trip to the airport, a half hour drive down to the coast, and your suitcase is in the back.

When I made that trip on the Friday before the election, our way was momentarily blocked by an accident. Think of what follows as just another regular day in Caracas. To avoid the traffic back-up, a white SUV with blue tinted windows was bucking over the concrete lane divider, and then started heading backwards against the traffic towards a slipway a couple of hundred metres behind. Further on, we passed a turning to Ciudad Caribe, a “socialist new town” where earlier that week two police had accidentally shot a child. A furious mob subsequently lynched one of the police officers.

Later, checking in at the airport, I was pulled aside for a routine security check. A bored young soldier rummaged through my suitcase. He found a DVD set of a hit Colombian soap opera I was watching: “Pablo Escobar, Father of Evil”. The badges on his olive green tunic proclaimed him a member of Venezuela’s “National Boliviarian Guard – anti-drugs unit.” His interest perked up, although not for the reasons I expected.

“You know, for me, Pablo Escobar was one of the greatest of men, ever,” he said fingering the DVDs covetously. Read more

Esther Bintliff

♦ JP Rathbone looks at the fading of Chávez’s political dream in Venezuela, arguing that the results of Sunday’s election represent “no kind of mandate for [Nicolás] Maduro or the radical socialism he espouses.

♦ “Either I bought [the lumber], or I stole it. But I can’t have done both. And actually, I did neither.” Russian blogger Alexei Navalny talks to the FT’s Charles Clover, ahead of the start of his trial on Wednesday.

♦ The Washington Post has the story of a mysterious Iranian-controlled factory in Germany which closed its doors last month. Could it have been involved in a scheme to aid Iran’s rogue nuclear program?

♦ The debate around whether women can have it all has been swirling for a while now, but today psychotherapist Naomi Shragai considers the other side: men who struggle to balance their work with family time.

♦ Guinea-Bissau is considered one of the world’s leading narco-states. Adam Nossiter writes about a long-running US sting operation that managed to snare a former chief of the country’s navy.

♦ Young Turkish people living in Germany are being asked to choose between German or Turkish nationality because they don’t have the right to hold onto both once they reach the age of 23, reports Judy Dempsey in the New York Times.

♦ “The finish line at a marathon is a small marvel of fellowship,” writes Ezra Klein. “Today, the final line of the Boston Marathon is a crime scene.” Also on the subject of yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, the New Scientist has a post on what clues the bomb fragments may yieldRead more