Top US diplomat in Venezuela under fire for tough comments

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The head of Venezuela's government-controlled assembly on Thursday accused the top U.S. diplomat in Caracas of promoting a coup and threatened to take "corresponding diplomatic measures" against him but stopped short of saying he would be expelled. National Constituent Assembly president Delcy Rodriguez issued a series of tweets targeting U.S. charge d'affaires Todd Robinson. They follow the release of an interview he gave a local online publication critical of the Venezuelan government. Relations have long been tense between the United States and Venezuela, an oil-rich country in a deepening political and economic crisis. Robinson told the publication RunRunes that it is possible Washington could ratchet up sanctions against Venezuela's critical oil sector, on top of sanctioning dozens of key government officials, such as President Nicolas Maduro. "Everything is on the table," Robinson said. "Undoubtedly, the sanctions have been effective so far at identifying members of the regime who are corrupt or those who have played a role against Venezuela's institutions and Constitution." Robinson criticized the electoral process ahead of presidential elections on April 22, when Maduro will seek a second term. He said Venezuela's military has a large influence on the country's future, but he walked a fine line adding that as a diplomat he will "never support a coup." Pushing back, Rodriguez said the National Constituent Assembly will evaluate Robinson's comments before adopting "corresponding diplomatic measures in defense of the sovereignty and dignity of Venezuelan's people." She accused Robinson of violating international law and said he's guilty of being ignorant of Venezuela. She stopped short of stripping Robinson's diplomatic credentials — action taken in recent dust-ups with key diplomats from Canada, Brazil and Spain. The U.S. State Department declined a request by The Associated Press for comment Thursday. In his long Continue Reading

US diplomat: Utah man jailed in Venezuela blocks dialogue

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press In this July 13, 2016 file photo, Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Joshua Holt, who has been jailed in Venezuela, at her home in Riverton, Utah. Related Links Trump again calls for release of Utahn held in Venezuelan prison 'A continual nightmare': A year after capture, Utahn still in Venezuelan prison Utah mother of Venezuelan prisoner feeling hopeful CARACAS, Venezuela — The Trump administration's top diplomat in Venezuela pressed for the release of a jailed Utah man Thursday, saying the case is the main obstacle to improving strained relations between the two countries. Todd Robinson told the Associated Press it is a "tragedy" that Joshua Holt has been imprisoned the past 19 months on what the U.S. considers trumped-up charges. The diplomat said he is holding Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza personally responsible if anything happens to Holt while in jail. "I believe he can and he must resolve the situation," Robinson said of Arreaza. "If he truly wants to talk about the other important issues between the United States and Venezuela, we can do that, but only after Joshua Holt is free." Holt, of Riverton, has languished in a Caracas jail cell since June 2016 when he was arrested on weapons charges during a visit to Venezuela to get married. Holt met his wife, Theresa Caleno, in an online website for Spanish-speaking Mormons. She also remains jailed as an alleged accomplice. Venezuela authorities allege Holt used his wife's apartment in Caracas to stockpile weapons and have linked him to unspecified attempts by the U.S. to undermine President Nicolas Maduro's rule amid deep economic and political turbulence. Holt's family says an assault rifle and a grenade found in the apartment were planted. The case has become a major thorn in relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, which were already tense from previous U.S. administrations. The Trump administration has slapped sanctions on dozens Continue Reading

Venezuela forces take down fugitive group in deadly shootout

Members of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Intelligence Service arrive to the Junquito highway during an operation to capture Oscar Perez, according to officials, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Venezuelan special forces exchanged gunfire Monday with the rebellious police officer who has been on the run since leading a high-profile attack in Caracas last year, officials said. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press) CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan special forces on Monday captured five members of a band led by a rebellious police officer who has been on the run since stealing a helicopter and launching grenades at government buildings in the capital last year, officials said. It wasn’t clear if the renegade officer, Oscar Perez, himself had been killed or captured in a deadly gunbattle after more than six months on the lam. Two officers were killed and five seriously wounded during a shootout with Perez and his comrades, the Ministry of Interior Relations said in a statement. “The members of this terrorist cell who conducted armed resistance were taken down and five criminals captured and detained,” the statement said. President Nicolas Maduro in a televised address Monday night claimed the group was preparing a car bomb to use against an embassy, without giving details.Earlier Monday, Perez, 36, posted video clips showing blood dripping across his face as gunshots rang in the background. Perez said officers were firing at the group and wanted to kill him instead of permitting his surrender. “We’re going to turn ourselves in!” Perez shouted. He holed up with at least two other men in what appeared to be a home in mountains outside Caracas. He urged Venezuelans in the video clips to fight against the socialist government. “I want to ask Venezuela not to lose heart — fight, take to the streets,” he said. “It is time for us to be free, and only you have the power now.” Perez leaped into the Continue Reading

Top US diplomat in Venezuela speaks out on Utah man’s case

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela urged authorities Friday to ensure transparency in the case of a jailed American whose trial has become another sore spot in relations between the two nations. Newly appointed charge d'affaires Todd Robinson told The Associated Press he reminded Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in a recent meeting of his "responsibility to guarantee transparency" in the case of Joshua Holt. Robinson, a former ambassador known for candidly expressing his views, also pressed for U.S. consular access to the 25-year-old Utah man whose mother recently voiced concerns about his health. The former head of the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela before Robinson's arrival was denied access to a preliminary hearing in December. "Without the ability to talk with him it's difficult to know exactly what is happening," Robinson said after attending the opening of the opposition-controlled National Assembly's 2018 session. Holt traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met online and was jailed with his wife soon after. A judge ruled in December that he will have to stand trial on weapons charges, dashing the hopes of his family in Utah that he would be released and united with them for Christmas. Holt's case has become another thorn in relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, which have grown increasingly prickly since President Donald Trump took office. Dozens of Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury, including four current and former military officers announced Friday. The U.S. issued economic sanctions intended to further weaken President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power in August. In a statement Friday, Venezuela's government accused the U.S. of harboring plans to destabilize the nation "which they intend to advance from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas." Since arriving last month, Robinson has made himself a visible presence in Caracas, announcing in a video that he hoped to promote the return Continue Reading

Incredible photos from space reveal the biggest news stories on Earth in 2017

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Leopoldo López Is Not Venezuela’s Savior

Roberto Lovato has just published a great investigative essay in Foreign Policy on Leopoldo López, the jailed darling of Venezuela’s opposition. López is celebrated in the US press as a cross between Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He is handsome, like King, and, like Gandhi, occasionally shirtless. Newsweek blushes over López’s “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones.” He is, apparently, a “revolutionary who has it all”: an “attractive and supportive wife, two children who get along with each other and impossibly adorable Labrador puppies.” Everything except a revolution. Drawing on WikiLeaked cables, Lovato reveals how López over the years has been handled by the US embassy in Caracas. (Roberto told me that 15 minutes after a colleague of his posted the FP article on social media, someone from the US embassy e-mailed and said, “You should really come to me when it comes to Venezuela.”) Despite this support, though, López remains a divisive figure within Venezuela, and Lovato’s piece helps explain why the opposition can’t get its act together, despite opportunities offered by serious economic problems and rampant corruption. A few years ago, not long after Hugo Chávez’s March 2013 death and the razor-thin election of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, López was at the center of a middle-class putsch attempt, protests that resulted in numerous deaths. It was as if all the rich, white gentry from LA’s Beverly Park started building barricades and stringing steel wire from lamppost to lamppost to decapitate motorcycle taxi drivers (as what happened to Venezuelan Elvis Durán), with the US media reporting on events as if it were Selma 1965. Following these protests, López was arrested “on charges of arson, public incitement, and conspiracy.” His arrest got international attention, but, Lovato Continue Reading

Two U.S. Embassy officials shot in Caracas, Venezuela, strip club after fight

CARACAS, Venezuela — Two officials from the U.S. Embassy suffered gunshot wounds early Tuesday in an altercation at a strip club in Venezuela's crime-ridden capital, police and U.S. State Department officials said. Their injuries were not considered life-threatening. The circumstances of the shooting were unclear, with conflicting reports over whether it happened inside or outside the Antonella 2012 nightclub. Police said the two U.S. officials were shot following a brawl inside the club, which is in the basement of a shopping center in the upper-middle-class Chacao neighborhood. The club's Twitter account features racy photos of nude or scantily clad women pole dancing, posing inside cages or reclining on beds. The text under one photo invites visitors to come and watch the club's "sexy show." "Apparently it was a fight originating in a nightspot where these people were attacked and shots were fired at them and they suffered gunshot wounds," police spokesman Douglas Rico told TV channel Globovision at the health clinic where the victims were taken. He said one was shot in the leg and abdomen and the other was shot in the abdomen. A police official identified one of the victims as military attache Roberto Ezequiel Rosas. She said he was shot in the right leg during an argument outside the night club in Chacao, which is east of the city center. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to release the information publicly, said she had no information on suspects. In Washington, State Department spokesman William Ostick confirmed that "two members of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas were injured during an incident early this morning." "Medical staff inform us that their injuries do not appear to be life-threatening," Ostick said. "Embassy security and health unit personnel are at the hospital and have been in touch with the two individuals and their families." Patrick Ventrell, another State Continue Reading

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accuses US of trying to kill him — again

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday alleged that U.S. intelligence agencies were behind a purported assassination plot that prevented him from visiting El Salvador. Chavez had planned to attend the inauguration of leftist President Mauricio Funes in the Central American nation on Monday, but said he canceled his trip due to the alleged plot. "I don't doubt that the intelligence organizations of the United States are behind this," Chavez said, accusing them of plotting with Cuban militant Luis Posada Carriles to murder him. He said Venezuelan intelligence services have "very precise information" that they were planning to launch rockets at the Cubana de Aviacion plane he was going to travel in. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas couldn't immediately be reached for comment. The U.S. State Department has denied similar accusations by Chavez in the past. Venezuela has asked the U.S. to extradite Posada, a former CIA operative and opponent of former Cuban president Fidel Castro who is accused of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane off Barbados that killed 73 people on board. The 81-year-old Posada is accused of plotting the bombing while living in Venezuela but denies involvement. Chavez has previously accused the U.S. of plotting to overthrow him or invade Venezuela, but Tuesday was the first time he has made such accusations since warmly greeting President Barack Obama at an April summit in Trinidad and Tobago. "I'm not accusing Obama," he said. "I think Obama has good intentions, but beyond Obama there's an empire — the CIA and all its tentacles: Terrorists and paramilitaries." Chavez also repeated a demand for the U.S. to turn over Posada to stand trial in Venezuela, saying: "Send us that murderer." Posadas was arrested on immigration-fraud charges in Miami in 2005, and held at an immigration jail in El Paso, Texas. An immigration judge in El Paso ordered that Posada should be deported in 2005, but said Continue Reading

Be Our Guest: The big, bad bully in our backyard

Last week, while most of the world banded together to condemn Russia's thuggish invasion of little Georgia, another oil-fueled villain was busy patting the aggressor on the back. We speak of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, all but forgotten in recent weeks as other international bad guys have hogged the headlines. Chavez urged the Russians, with whom he recently concluded a multibillion-dollar arms deal, to go all the way and topple Georgia's democratically elected government. When Chavez was still in elementary school, his hero Fidel Castro, brought the world to the nuclear brink. Now, armed with our petrodollars, he's "Castro on steroids" - boasting that "If Russia's armed forces want to be present in Venezuela, they will be given a warm welcome." The man is proving himself to be far more than a nuisance. He is an increasingly ambitious menace. The two men vying to be the next President must not let him out of their sights. This year alone, Chavez will rake in a staggering estimated $50 billion in oil revenues from American pockets. Here's what he is doing with it: • Ramping up Venezuelan-Iranian collaboration. Chavez has paid frequent visits to Iran, where he has made high-profile pronouncements that "God willing, with the fall of the dollar, the deviant U.S. imperialism will fall as soon as possible." In conjunction with $17 billion in "joint development projects," Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen have traveled to Venezuela to share their technological know-how on al-Fateh Iranian missiles. Venezuela was the only country to vote "no" on a 2006 International Atomic Energy Agency resolution condemning Iran for "failures and breaches of its obligations to comply" with its treaty commitments not to develop nuclear weapons. Adding to the concern: Colombia's government, which Chavez wants to topple, recently seized 30 kilograms of uranium from a jungle lab operated by Chavez-allied FARC terrorists. • Abetting Mideast and Continue Reading

Radicalism heating up in the Caribbean

WASHINGTON - From Argentina to Haiti, the rise of radical Islam in the Caribbean and Latin America is alarming U.S. counterterror officials and leaders in the region, who say the JFK bomb plot should be a wakeup call. All four suspects in the plot had ties to the region. Two were arrested in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, including ex-Guyanese lawmaker Abdul Kadir. Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials confirmed fears that Islamists in Trinidad and Tobago could turn the nation "into another Mogadishu," referring to the Somali capital ruled until last year by Islamic fundamentalists with Al Qaeda ties. "Trinidad and Tobago have been a high concern for us since the late 1980s," said Michael Scheuer, who created the CIA's Osama Bin Laden unit in 1996. Scheuer said the Caribbean is not home to major terror groups aside from Trinidad's Jamaat al Muslimeen, but a "loose-knit" confederation of extremists have found it easy to move around the tourist-friendly islands. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the Caribbean is a region "of increasing concern to us. It's an area we should take a closer look at." "What happened in New York was very educational," a former Caribbean leader told the Daily News. Muslim extremists in Trinidad and Tobago pose a "growing danger" to Prime Minister Patrick Manning's government, he noted. But it is strife-torn Haiti that is considered "the weakest point in the area," said the former leader, who asked not to be identified. Before 9/11, intelligence services reported that Palestinians possibly involved in terror strikes against Israel used Haiti to lie low, he said. And suddenly, in recent years, a surprising number of mosques have sprouted up in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Haiti is predominantly Catholic. "We don't understand why there are so many mosques in Haiti," the former leader said. In Latin America, most attention of U.S. counterterror agents is Continue Reading