After daring escape, former Caracas mayor is on his way to Spain

Antonio Ledezma, a prominent Venezuelan political prisoner since 2015, managed to escape from Venezuela and was on his way to Spain Friday.

After crossing the treacherous border with Colombia, Ledezma decided to talk to reporters in Cúcuta, a Colombian city at the Venezuelan border. 

He said his secret “odyssey” included crossing 29 police checkpoints and he apologized to his wife and daughters for not telling them about his plan to escape. 

“I am going to defend the liberty of Venezuela,” the 62-year-old Venezuelan attorney said. “I’m more useful to Venezuela in the street.”

The former mayor of Caracas had been held on house arrest without trial since 2016 on accusations that he had supported an attempted coup. When the government suspected his plot to escape in August, they raided his apartment and interrogated him.  

Ledezma flew from Cúcuta to Bogotá, where he boarded a flight to Europe to be reunited with his family. El Nacional, a Venezuelan newspaper, reported Ledezma’s relatives had also escaped the country.

Armed security officials stood outside Ledezma’s apartment complex in Caracas, as authorities investigated how his escape took place. Jose Castillo, one of Ledezma’s neighbors, questioned the efficiency of the government’s security. He said he had noticed police officers often spent the day distracted on their cell phones. 

According to the Foro Penal, a human rights group in Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is still holding 342 political prisoners. 

Leopoldo López, a former presidential candidate who has been a political prisoner since 2014, was also under house arrest. He was accused of inciting violence during anti-government protests. Venezuelan officials stopped his pregnant wife, Lilian Tintori, from leaving the country, and seized her passport.  

The U.S. and the European Union continue to impose sanctions on the oil-rich county. Diplomats have been citing human rights violations, and hold Maduro responsible for the treatment of political prisoners. Maduro consolidated power by establishing an assembly that overwrites congressional powers. 

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Socialist policies can’t satisfy barbecue dreams in Venezuela

Strict food rationing policies and price controls continue to challenge Venezuelans like Maria Joya in the kitchen. “Arroz con Pollo” or “Carne Mechada” are a luxury on their dining table now. 

As the oil-rich country’s devastating inflation spiked meat sector prices, the socialist government started to enforce a price ceiling on beef and chicken. Now Venezuelan consumers can’t find it at all. Yuca and plantains are their main dish.

After the government forced butchers to reduce prices about 30 percent, the handwritten signs saying they were out of beef covered their refrigerated display cases. Aul Landai, a meat vendor at a market in downtown Caracas, said some haven’t been able to stay in business. 

“The butchers are the ones losing,” Landai said. 

Consumers and butchers aren’t the only ones hurting. Restaurateurs and street vendors depend on their providers. Some are opting to risk buying from the black market. Others are having to modify their menus with skyrocketing prices. Burgers have become a luxury for most. 

To stay in business, some entrepreneurs are finding it more profitable to sell “bajo cuerda,” meaning they are choosing to sell to those who are willing to pay more in the black market. They are creating fraudulent receipts to deal with the increased scrutiny from law enforcement, the Venezuela Al Dia reported

Similar policies in the agricultural sector plummeted production and fueled black markets.

Ana Lucrecia Rojas, 33, works at a hair salon in Miami-Dade. She is among the exiled Venezuelans in South Florida who regularly ship food to relatives. Last week, she was getting ready to send boxes to Maracaibo and Caracas in time for Christmas.  

“I send them dry goods, corn flour, beans, rice, sugar, dog food and cans,” Rojas said. “The shipping companies in Doral are basically just sending food. They killed food production and there is a humanitarian crisis.”

 The Venezuelan government denies there is such a crisis. During a recent interview in French media, Delcy Rodriguez, the head of the constituent assembly, said Venezuela rejected child malnutrition aid from the United Nations, because admitting that there is a humanitarian crisis would have paved the way for U.S. intervention.

“It’s a reality that Venezuela is under a U.S. military threat,” Rodriguez said. 

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Venezuelan government censors social media with new law

Socialist legislators passed a new law Wednesday making journalists’ stories that incite “hate and intolerance” illegal. Those in violation could face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years or hefty fines.

Venezuelan’s socialist legislative super body, or constituent assembly, passed the new legislation to censor private media outlets and social media users who reported on protests against President Nicolas Maduro and his administration — amid shortages of food and medications. 

Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez said their decision to pass the new legislation was in memory of those who died during the protests. Instead of promoting war, Rodriguez said, the media should be promoting “messages of peace.”

The new law also enforces 30 minutes of weekly programing to “promote peace and tolerance” and gives digital content managers six hours to remove content that is in violation of the new law. The new law is also applicable to political parties that promote “fascism, intolerance or national hate.”

The Venezuelan government banned CNN, RCN and Caracol. 

The attacks against freedom of expression in Venezuela also include targeting reporters who are in any way critical of the government. The most recent example was the kidnapping of Jesus Medina, who said he was tortured and left on the side of the road Nov. 7, after he and two foreign correspondents tried to report on the lack of safety in prisons.  

According to the Penal Forum, a human rights organization that tracks political arrests in Venezuela, there are at least 114 political prisoners. The organization warns that the level of repression in the oil-rich country continues to rise. 

 

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Venezuelan government censors social media with new law

Venezuelan’s socialist legislative super body, or constituent assembly, passed a new legislation Wednesday censoring social media and threatening journalist with private media outlets with hefty fines and prison sentences of up to 20 years. 

The socialist loyalists say the law bans messages of “hate and intolerance.” Social media posts about protests against President Nicolas Maduro and his administration — amid shortages of food and medications — are included. 

Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez said their decision to pass the new legislation, she said, was in memory of those who died during the protests. The Venezuelan government has already blocked CNN, RCN and Caracol for being critical of the government.

Instead of promoting war, Rodriguez said, they should be promoting “messages of peace.”

The new law also enforces 30 minutes of weekly programing to “promote peace and tolerance” and gives digital content managers six hours to remove content that is in violation of the new law. The new law is also applicable to political parties that promote “fascism, intolerance or national hate.”

The attacks against freedom of expression in Venezuela also include targeting reporters who are in anyway critical of the government. The most recent example was the kidnapping of Jesus Medina, who said he was tortured and left on the side of the road Nov. 7. 

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Venezuelan National Guard members arrested on suspicion of cocaine trafficking

After 140 bricks of cocaine coming from Venezuela turned up in Santo Domingo, a high-ranking socialist loyalist indicted on charges that he took bribes from drug traffickers touted the arrests of several subordinates.

Five members of the Venezuelan National Guard were facing charges Saturday after a cocaine trafficking operation was foiled in the Dominican Republic.

Gen. Néstor Reverol, commander of the Venezuelan National Guard and one of President Nicolas Maduro’s top loyalists, told reporters during a news conference Friday that four sergeants and a lieutenant were trafficking cocaine out of the Simón Bolívar de Maiquetía International Airport.

Reverol said the goal was to “dismantle the entire gang until getting to the leaders, bosses, of this organization.”

Four pieces of luggage with the cargo left on a Láser Airlines flight to the Dominican Republic. Authorities in Santo Domingo believe the U.S. was the intended final destination of the cocaine. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigators believe Venezuela has long served as a trafficking route for cocaine out of Colombia.

Despite accusations from the U.S. that Reverol was part of the “Cartel of the Suns” involving high-ranking members of the Venezuelan military who were protecting cocaine shipments from Colombia, Maduro promoted him last year.

The 53-year-old former head of the Venezuelan anti-drug agency is now the minister of the people’s power for interior relations and justice of Venezuela. 

In 2016, U.S. prosecutors unsealed a Jan. 1, 2015, indictment against Reverol on charges that he was accepting bribes to help drug traffickers. Two of his nephews — Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efraín Antonio Campo Flores, 29, — were convicted in a conspiracy to import cocaine to the U.S. They were arrested in Haiti.

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Hospital clowning program aims to bring hope to Venezuelan hospitals

A pair of big shoes, a red nose, an oversized suit, long mismatched socks, a colorful tie and a funny lab coat help Alejandro Ledezma to connect with pediatric patients in Venezuela. He is a specialist in therapeutic clowning.

Ledezma, better known as Dr. Sonrisa, or Dr. Smiles, recently visited Alicia, a pediatric leukemia patient. She deals with headaches, weakness, shortness of breath and usually feels cold. Her mother is struggling to get her the chemotherapy that she so desperately needs.

The scene of suffering and scarcity is not uncommon in the room’s of public hospitals in Caracas. Alicia said specially trained “clown doctors” visit her regularly to try to lift her spirits. Some of them wear big jester hats and messy wigs. 

“They make me laugh a lot and others always come and make me laugh too,” the 14-year-old cancer patient said. “And I feel well after.” 

Amid medicine shortages. Ledezma’s 8-year-old hospital clowning program is a ray of light in a country where the public health care’s budget crisis translates into sadness, anger and frustration for many families and hospital staff. 

“Sometimes they don’t want to eat, and they eat with us,” Ledezma said about the patients he visits. “Sometimes they are not in good spirits, and with us they get out of bed.”

Frustration also fills the hallways of public children’s hospitals. Doctors and nurses say they feel powerless over what they have reported as inaction by the Venezuelan health ministry. Without antibiotics, bacterial infections are a challenge.

Activists who say President Nicolas Maduro is in denial about the humanitarian crisis have been protesting the shortage of functional operating rooms. Some complain about a lack of even basic supplies such as gloves and masks.

Ledezma and his team of “clown doctors” are trying to address the increasing psycho-social needs. They are doing their part to make doctors, nurses and patients smile once a week. They are trying to comfort parents and make patients feel less alone, but he wants to do more. 

“This is my life,” said Ledezma who has also trained “clown doctors” in Argentina and Puerto Rico.

The “clown doctors” use magic tricks, storytelling and music to help pediatric patients deal with fear. His program is one of many “clown doctor” programs operating worldwide. 

Hospital clowning started with Patch Adams’ The Gesundheit Institute in the 1970s. Michael Christensen’s The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit program was inspired by Adams’ work and raised awareness about the methodology in the late ’80s. 

The benefits of therapeutic play to control pain and suffering in pediatric oncology continue to be studied. The integration of pharmacological and non-pharmacological methods even include the use of virtual reality computer games now. 

Ledezma believes in the power of human interaction. He has many volunteers who share his passion and plenty of ideas to expand his program. He is already collecting toys to give away this Christmas. 

For more information about how to support his program’s foundation, like his page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or donate now on his GoFundMe account

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