Venezuela’s Maduro eyes second term despite economic woes

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, gestures during a meeting with the international observers for the upcoming May 20 election, at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on May 18, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 May 2018
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Venezuela’s Maduro eyes second term despite economic woes

  • Aware of the popular mood, Maduro Saturday promised an “economic revolution” if re-elected
  • Maduro, with a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, faces a bitterly divided opposition which has called for a boycott

CARACAS: Venezuelans, reeling under a devastating economic crisis, began voting Sunday in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community but expected to hand deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro a new mandate.
Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of once wealthy oil producer Venezuela’s economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked growing discontent and violent unrest among Venezuelans.
However the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to easily defeat his main rival Henri Falcon, a former army officer and state governor who has failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition leaders, and an evangelical candidate, Javier Bertucci.
Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a “Chavista,” the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station along with his wife Cilia Flores and trusted officials and claimed to be the first person to cast a ballot.
After voting, Maduro called the election a choice between “votes and ballots,” and pledged to respect “the will of the people.”
Maduro, who has a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, faces a bitterly divided opposition which has called for a boycott.
“Low enthusiasm will likely reduce voter turnout and enable Maduro to control the outcome without major social backlash,” said analyst Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group.
Teresa Paredes, 56-year-old housewife, said that “for the first time in my life I am not going to vote because we are living a dog’s life, without medicines, without food.”
Alvaro Toroa, 64-year-old retiree from the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, said he cast his ballot because “this has to be ended. Falcon is able to bring disaffected Chavistas and the opposition.”
Aware of the popular mood, Maduro on Saturday promised an “economic revolution” if re-elected, while Falcon promised to dollarize the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez, and allow humanitarian aid, something the president rejects.
Some 20.5 million people are eligible to vote in a single-round election to choose a president for a six-year term that will begin in January 2019.
Presidential elections are traditionally held in December, but they were moved up this year by the country’s all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition off-guard.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition, increasingly pinning its hopes for change on outside pressure forcing the socialists to remove Maduro, has won support from the United States, the European Union and 14 countries of the Lima Group who have called for the vote to be postponed.
Maduro is accused of undermining democracy, usurping the power of the opposition-dominated legislature by replacing it with his Constituent Assembly, and cracking down hard on the opposition. Protests in 2017, still fresh in the collective memory, left around 125 dead.
The MUD’s most popular leaders have been sidelined or detained, the boycott their only remaining weapon.
Washington has dismissed the vote as a “sham” to keep Maduro in power, and has slapped sanctions on Caracas in a push to isolate his regime.
Maduro pushed back after casting his ballot.
“Venezuela is a country at peace that deserves respect,” he told reporters. “To the world I say enough — end this ferocious campaign to twist our identity, our reality.”
With this election Venezuela “is on the path to a period of political stability.
“Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination. Your vote decides, come out to vote,” Maduro said.
Despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves, the country faces ruin, with the IMF citing a drop of 45.0 percent in GDP since Maduro took over in 2013.
The crippled oil industry lacks investment and its assets are increasingly prey to debt settlements as the country defaults.
And worse, the US threatens an oil embargo on top of the sanctions that have hit Venezuela’s efforts to renegotiate its debt.
“The most likely scenario is greater international isolation and economic deterioration,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos of IHS Markit analysts.
“The key factors will be the economy and the army,” added US analyst Michael Shifter. “The country is a powder keg and something could provoke unrest that would be difficult to contain.”
At the Vatican, Pope Francis told thousands of Catholic faithful gathered for mass at Saint Peter’s square that he wanted to dedicate “a special remembrance to my dear Venezuela.”
He then asked that the Holy Spirit grant Venezuela’s “governors and people” the “wisdom to find the path toward peace and unity.”
He also prayed for the inmates who died in a Venezuela prison riot on Thursday.
Polls opened at 6 am (1000 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. (2200 GMT). Some 30,000 police and armed forces personnel were deployed to maintain security.


UN: Record 68.5 million people displaced worldwide

Updated 10 min 11 sec ago
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UN: Record 68.5 million people displaced worldwide

  • The current figure is equivalent to the entire population of Thailand
  • Most people flee within their own country, and are defined as internally displaced people

GENEVA: A record 68.5 million people have been forced flee their homes due to war, violence and persecution, notably in places like Myanmar and Syria, the UN said on Tuesday.
By the end of 2017, the number was nearly three million higher than the previous year and showed a 50-percent increase from the 42.7 million uprooted from their homes a decade ago, according to a report by the UN refugee agency.
The current figure is equivalent to the entire population of Thailand, and the number of people forcibly displaced equates to one in every 110 persons worldwide, it said.
“We are at a watershed, where success in managing forced displacement globally requires a new and far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this alone,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
But around 70 percent of that number are people from just 10 countries, he told reporters in Geneva ahead of the report’s launch.
“If there were solutions to conflicts in those 10 countries, or in some of them at least, that huge figure, instead of rising every year, could start going down,” he said, calling for more political will to halt the crises driving so many from their homes.
The report showed that 16.2 million people were freshly displaced last year, and included those forced to flee for the first time as well as those who had been previously displaced.
This equates to some 44,500 people being pushed out of their homes every day — or one person every two seconds, UNHCR said.
Most people flee within their own country, and are defined as internally displaced people, or IDPs.
By the end of 2017, there were some 40 million IDPs worldwide, down slightly from previous years, with Colombia, Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo accounting for the greatest numbers.
Another 25.4 million people — more than half of them children — were registered as refugees last year.
That is nearly three million more than in 2016, and “the highest known total to date,” it said.
Syria’s seven-year conflict alone had, by the end of last year, pushed more than 6.3 million people out of the country, accounting for nearly one-third of the global refugee population.
Another 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced.
The second largest refugee-producing country in 2017 was Afghanistan, whose refugee population grew by five percent during the year to 2.6 million people.
The increase was due mainly to births and more Afghans being granted asylum in Germany, UNHCR said.
South Sudan meanwhile saw the largest increase last year, with the number of refugees fleeing the world’s youngest nation soaring from 1.4 million at the beginning of the year to 2.4 million at the end.
Grandi said South Sudan was experiencing “a very bad emergency” which had apparently escaped the notice of both the government and the opposition who did not appear to be “taking seriously the desperate situation of their own people.”
Refugees from Myanmar more than doubled last year to 1.2 million, as a brutal army crackdown forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to pour across the border into Bangladesh.
Tuesday’s report also highlighted large-scale displacements in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and DR Congo among others.
And as Israel marks 70 years of independence, there are some 5.4 million Palestinians still living as refugees, it said.
Despite the focus on migrant numbers arriving in Europe and the United States, a full 85 percent of refugees are living in low- and middle-income countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda, Grandi said.
Turkey was hosting by far the largest number of refugees, with 3.5 million registered there by the end of 2017, most of them Syrians.