State controlled oil is at center of political conflict, Venezuelan diplomat says

From the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, Alí Rodríguez Araque attributed the political gridlock in Venezuela to a conflict centered on who controls the oil. 

Rodríguez served under former President Hugo Chávez and now under his successor President Nicolas Maduro he is the ambassador to Cuba.

Before becoming a diplomat, he was the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, the general secretary of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the minister of finance and minister of electric energy. 

“This is an opposition protected by Donald Trump who wants to raise levels of violence to who knows what extremes,” Rodríguez said. 

Venezuelan activists estimate there have been at least 116 deaths linked to the ongoing nearly four months of protests against Maduro, 4,072 arrests and 15,000 wounded. Maduro’s opposition blames the violence on a Cuban-style crackdown.

Protesters face repression from the National Guard and a government-trained paramilitary force known as the “colectivos.” Venezuelan activists in South Florida believe Cuban agents are also involved. 

CHANGE IN U.S. POLICY

President Trump is listening to Cuban-American lawmakers who want Maduro out of office. Earlier this week, Trump threatened to take “strong and swift” economic actions. His decision would be a change from the individual sanctions issued by President Barack Obama’s administration. 

Florida Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) want the Trump administration to ban Venezuelan crude oil imports.

Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. This would hurt Gulf Coast refineries and could lead to higher gas prices in the U.S. The White House’s budget proposal included selling off half of the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the emergency oil stockpile. 

The “risk goes down dramatically when we have increased domestic production like we have,” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the office of management and budget, said during a press conference in May.  

PETRO-SOCIALIST FAILURE

Further pressure on oil prices would worsen the Bolivarian government’s “petro-socialist” strategy. Without healthcare, government jobs, subsidies and education benefits, some loyalists are joining the opposition. 

Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy suffered when oil prices continued to tumble below $30 a barrel.

Venezuelan bonds crashed this week and investors were preparing for the possibility of a default. The government has to pay about $5 billion in debt by the end of this year. The country is also indebted to Russia and China. 

Amid corruption, food and medicine shortages and a triple-digit inflation, the democrats want elections in 2018. This week protesters organized a 24-hour strike Thursday and held a symbolic election involving millions of voters Sunday.  

Maduro’s response has been to push for a July 30 vote to elect the members of the specially assembly tasked with rewriting the 1999 constitution. 

“The Constitutional Assembly is no more than an inquiry of the people to update the constitution, to deepen and expand the achievements of the Venezuelan people and increase their participation,” Rodríguez said.

PARALLEL STATE

In a push for a parallel state, Maduro’s opponents in congress appointed 13 justices and 20 substitute judges to an alternative Supreme Court on Friday.

“The opposition rejects any proposal for dialogue,” Rodríguez said. 

The top court is stacked with socialist loyalists who have sided with Maduro. The nearly four months of protests continued after the Supreme Court took away powers from the democratically-controlled congress and later reversed its decision. 

“We are not backing down! Venezuela will have a Supreme Court of Justice and institutions at the service of the people and not at the service of whatever government is in power,” said Carlos Berrizbeitia, a congressman with the Democratic Unity Table coalition, during a ceremony held at a plaza in Caracas. 

The democratic coalition’s position is that the Supreme Court justices were appointed illegally last year in a move by the socialist party to maintain control of the judicial branch of the government. The appointments were rushed before a 2015 election filled the majority of congressional seats with democrats. 

“Our justice system has been hijacked,” said Sonia Medina, a congresswoman with the democratic Popular Will party.  “It is at the service of the regime. The judges have removed themselves from submitting to the rule of law, from the honor of judicial power, to repress, pursue, torture and jail.”

Jose Mendoza, the president of the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber, accused the democrats in congress of treason. He said the appointment of the judges was illegal, because there weren’t any Supreme Court openings. 

SOUTH AMERICA ON ALERT

Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Argentina were among the South American members of Mercosur that called on Maduro to release political prisoners and asked him to give up on rewriting the constitution. 

During his press conference in Havana Friday, Rodríguez said there is a misunderstanding about the purpose and the way Maduro wants Venezuela to rewrite the constitution.

“We want the solution to be democratic and peaceful,” Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez also said that the effort to rewrite the constitution “is about a little-known model in America, which tries to make the structure of power more horizontal.” 

Maduro deployed some 185,000 troops around the country to make sure the July 30 election isn’t sabotaged. And his opponents were planning a massive protest on Saturday, the 113th day of protests this year.

Local 10 News Andrea Torres contributed to this report from Miami. Weddle contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.  

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24-year-old dies during Thursday strike in Venezuela

Venezuelan authorities were investigating the shooting death of 24-year-old Ronney Eloy Tejera Soler during Thursday protests in Caracas’ Los Teques neighborhood.  

Three others were also wounded in Los Teques. The country’s chief prosecutor reports that at least 94 deaths are connected to the nearly four months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro. 

Democratic leaders called on Venezuelans to participate in a 24-hour strike meant to sabotage Maduro’s efforts to change the country’s constitution. Most businesses were closed in eastern Caracas.

Some subway lines were not in operation and public buses were not functioning. Protesters set up barricades to block traffic at some main streets. Many feared that the clashes between protesters and the riot police officers were going to worsen over night. 

Maduro delivered a speech in response. He promised to continue with a process to rewrite the constitution in an effort that Democratic lawmakers view as a plot to take power away from Parliament and interfere with free elections. 

 

 

 

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Study: Dogs descend from Late Stone Age wolves

Your pet dog — and every other dog in the world — most likely descended from a single population of wolves that lived 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications. The study marks that time frame as the period when dogs and wolves diverged evolutionarily.

Researchers analyzed the whole genome sequence of the fossils of dogs found in Germany that date to 7,000 and 5,000 years ago, as well as that of a dog that lived about 5,000 years ago in Ireland.

The Irish fossil was has been used in previous studies. The skull of the 5,000-year-old dog was found in 2010 in the excavation of a cave in Bavaria, while part of the skull of the 7,000-year-old dog was found by accident when Trinity College Dublin professor Dan Bradley was screening bones dating to the Neolithic period, or the New Stone Age.

These aren’t the oldest fossils of domesticated dogs; one jawbone dating to 14,700 years ago was found in Germany, and older fossils seem dog-like, but lack confirmation.

But they shed light on the fact that domesticated dogs living 7,000 years ago, alongside some of the first European farmers, are the ancestors of the dogs kept as pets around the world today, said Krishna Veeramah, study author and genetics professor at Stony Brook University.

Dogs and humans may have had a similar relationship as far back as 14,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer communities.

About 7,000 years ago, these farming communities had just arrived in Europe, replacing hunter-gatherer societies and creating denser groups of people. This would have probably altered the dogs’ behavior as well, as they adapted to be around more people.

Rather than being kept as house pets, these dogs probably roamed close to or within villages. And food-wise, they may have needed to fend for themselves and scavenge, according to Adam Boyko, assistant professor at Cornell University’s department of biomedical sciences, who was not associated with the study.

Unlike modern dogs, they wouldn’t have yet adapted to eat foods that were rich in starch. But they also wouldn’t have looked like wolves. Some of the same hallmarks we associate with modern dogs were present in these Neolithic dogs, like floppy ears and skulls that were smaller than those of wolves.

The 5,000-year-old dog contained an “additional component” more similar to dogs originating from Central and South Asia, and it was found close to skeletons of people from the migrating Indo-European Corded Ware culture during the Neolithic period. The researchers believe this component is due to the herders bringing their own dogs, which then mixed with the local farming dogs.

The researchers were also able to determine that the genome of a modern dog was very similar to the genome of these ancient dogs, further suggesting this single origin.

The fact that these, as well as the oldest known remains, have all been found in Europe suggests that the location is important for future studies as the researchers try to nail down where domestication took place.

Europe also plays a part in the history of domesticated dogs because most of the breeds we know and love today came about due to selective breeding during England’s Victorian period.

The new study is in contrast to one released last year in the journal Science, in which the genome of the 5,000-year-old Irish dog was sequenced. Combined with other data, the University of Oxford group suggested that dogs were independently domesticated twice from gray wolves during the Old Stone Age, once in Asia and once in Europe. The researchers said that a sub-population of the dogs from Asia moved to Europe during the New Stone Age and replaced the Old Stone Age European dogs but that the ancestry was preserved in the fossil.

“By sequencing two ancient dogs from Germany, one 7,000 years old and one 5,000 years old, and reanalyzing the Irish dog, we found that this claim was not supported,” Veeramah said. “Instead, we found that the dogs present in Europe 7,000 years ago, and perhaps even 14,000 years ago, were essentially same dogs present in Europe today. We found no evidence of a replacement, and instead we found that the current data still support a scenario that dogs were domesticated just once, sometime between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.”

Veeramah and his research team will turn their focus next to what happened to dogs after the New Stone Age and how their relationships with humans evolved.

They also want to know where domestication actually took place. “This is likely to be the big question answered by (University of Oxford professor) Greger Larson’s marvelous project (involved in the 2016 Oxford study), as they are looking to sequence the genomes of much older specimens from other regions such as East Asia and the Americas,” Veeramah said.

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EU to Britain: Figure out Brexit plan

Britain needs to figure out its Brexit plan. Quickly.

The second round of Brexit talks concluded Thursday with a demand from the European Union that Britain clarify its position on key issues.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said more details were needed on how Britain hoped to settle its financial obligations to the bloc and deal with the border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Barnier also warned of a “fundamental divergence” on the question of how to secure the rights of millions of citizens who have settled in Britain or Europe.

The EU has made clear that significant progress must be made on all three issues before talks begin on Britain’s top concern: The future of its trading relationship with its biggest export market.

The forthright assessment from Barnier is likely to fuel worries that the British government is still deeply divided over how to approach the divorce talks.

David Davis, who is leading negotiations for Britain, struck a much more optimistic tone, saying that he was encouraged by the progress made.

But his Conservative Party is still licking its wounds following a devastating election in June.

Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority, throwing her hardline EU exit strategy into doubt.

May has promised to take Britain completely out of the bloc’s common trading area and customs union, and slash the number of people coming from the EU. She even threatened to walk away from Europe without paying a hefty divorce bill or striking a new trade deal.

The stunning election result has weakened her position. Many lawmakers and businesses want to retain closer ties with Europe, and they are heaping pressure on the prime minister.

In a sign of how much has changed since the vote, May was scheduled to meet with top CEOs on Thursday.

Britain will leave the EU in March 2019. But business groups have been pressing for a gradual transition that would allow them to adjust to life outside the bloc.

Economic data is beginning to lend weight to the argument for a different approach.

Consumers, hammered by rising prices and stagnant wages, have snapped their wallets shut in recent months. Political turmoil has caused businesses to put investments on hold. The U.K. was Europe’s slowest growing economy in the first quarter of 2017.

Making progress on the three issues highlighted by Barnier remains the first task, however.

The EU hasn’t put an official figure on the exit bill, but some estimates run as high as €100 billion ($112 billion). Members of May’s cabinet have scoffed at that figure.

The rights of citizens are even more complicated. Roughly 3 million people from other EU countries live in the U.K., while around 1.2 million Brits reside elsewhere in the EU.

Both sides said they want to avoid a “hard border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Free movement across the border was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian conflict.

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Neomar Lander’s struggle continues in Venezuela

Nancy Armas said she watches a video of her grandson Neomar Lander every day. 

The 17-year-old protester was wearing a white helmet to face the Venezuelan riot police officers. He wrote “The Resistence” on the side. He had a gas mask and used a T-shirt to cover his face. 

“I don’t want to leave Venezuela. This is my country. I was born here and I am fighting for it,” Lander said in the video. “The fight of a few is worth the future of many.”

Lander’s words echoed all the way to South Florida. He died during a June 7 protest in Caracas’ municipality of Chacao. A video shot from above shows his body on the ground as a police officer on a motorcycle fires a tear gas canister.

There are conflicted statements about the cause of death. Several witnesses said they saw a police officer fire right before Lander collapsed. His mother, Zugeimar Armas, said the friends who were with him are convinced that the security forces are to blame for his death. 

William Tarek Saab, the national ombudsman, announced a post-mortem investigation revealed a homemade mortar exploded in his hands and not a tear-gas canister as witnesses alleged. The case was with the chief prosecutor’s office. 

Lander suffered “two broken ribs, an exploded left lung with internal bleeding and a burn on his forearm.” The paramedic who treated him confirmed his left lung exploded. 

The street clashes began after riot police officers faced a peaceful march with water cannons, tear gas canisters and tanks in April. The march was meant to protest the Supreme Court’s decision to take power away from Parliament, which Democrats control.

The justices, socialists loyal to the government, later reversed their decision, but the protests continued amid government repression, and food and medicine shortages. Students and young unemployed professionals moved to the front lines. 

For nearly four  months, student protesters have been facing security forces with shields and Molotov cocktails. Some wear tear masks. They are demanding that President Nicolas Maduro step down.

Some of the protesters who were setting up roadblocks on Wednesday in Caracas view Lander and others who have died during the street protests as an inspiration. In Lander’s bedroom, his mother keeps the many drawings and poems that she has received from those who have pledged to continue his fight. 

 

YouTube video in Spanish

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US, China will try to hash out differences on economy

Leaders of the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, will sit down on Wednesday to talk about trade, markets and finance. It’s a sensitive time.

The talks are part of a 100-day plan announced in April, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. The idea is to broker a dialogue and negotiate policy disagreements.

Wednesday’s bilateral talks are expected to touch on trade, investment, financial markets and global development.

U.S. business executives have long expressed frustration with China on a wide swath of issues: intellectual property theft, a ballooning trade deficit, and hefty government subsidies that benefit Chinese companies.

A top official from China prefaced the meetings in an optimistic tone on Tuesday.

“The giant ship of China-U.S. economic trade relations is sailing on the right course,” Vice Premier H.E. Wang said in a speech before the U.S.-China Business Council.

Wilbur Ross, the U.S. commerce secretary, acknowledged that dialogue between both countries has become “more challenging.” But he said the two countries have “shared objectives.”

“This is a good start, but a lot of work remains,” Ross said Tuesday. “There remain serious imbalances that we must work to rectify.” He said, for example, that China puts greater restrictions on inbound investment than the United States does.

The meeting comes as the Trump administration weighs whether to slap big tariffs on shipments of steel from other countries due to national security risks.

Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the European Union and Japan are among the top steel exporters to the United States. China, which Trump has criticized for cheating on steel prices, ranked 11th last year, and trade experts say it is a likely target.

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