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PostPosted: Wed Nov 08, 2017 7:50 pm 
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Venezuela teeters on brink of default
by Maria Isabel SANCHEZ
8 November 2017

CARACAS (AFP) - Longstanding fears of a Venezuela debt default crystallized Wednesday, as the political crisis engulfing the sinking OPEC state deepened with a meeting set at the UN Security Council and the EU eyeing an arms embargo.

Investors were bracing for what looked to be an inevitable "credit event" that analysts said could arrive within days -- before a "refinancing and restructuring" of the debt called for by President Nicolas Maduro.

While the country's isolation means the risk of contagion to international financial markets is limited, a default could trigger a global rush to seize assets owned by the Venezuelan government and its state oil company PDVSA, and plunge the struggling nation into a full-blown humanitarian emergency. Already, its 32 million citizens are suffering shortages of food, medicine and other essentials as their money, the bolivar, is decimated by hyperinflation and recession reigns. Hundreds of thousands have left the country to survive, and many, many more could follow.

The United States, which has slapped successive sanctions on Venezuela and its ability to issue new debt on US markets, called for a UN Security Council meeting next Monday to discuss the crisis, particularly its political aspect. "What we have today in Venezuela is a state of non-democracy with many violations of human rights and political rights," Argentine President Mauricio Macri said in New York after meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He told the Financial Times the US should impose "a full oil embargo" on Venezuela. Such a move would have "broad support" across Latin America, he said.

The US and several Latin American nations, including Argentina, call Maduro a "dictator" for his quashing of dissent, especially sidelining the opposition-held parliament and seeking to arrest opposition figures. National Assembly number two Freddy Guevara has taken refuge in the Chilean ambassador's residence in Caracas to avoid arrest after the Supreme Court, loyal to Maduro, stripped him of his parliamentary immunity.

Recent regional elections that declared a victory for Maduro's Socialist Party have done nothing to reverse international condemnation of the president's perceived autocracy. European Union countries backed an arms embargo on Venezuela as part of a sanctions package also set to include a blacklist of Venezuelan individuals, diplomatic sources said. "The political aim remains to force the government to get round the negotiating table with the opposition and contribute to getting out of the current political crisis," one diplomatic source said. "It's a gradual, flexible and reversible tool."

The only bright spot for Venezuela was Russia saying Caracas had agreed to its terms for restructuring the part of the debt it holds, with an accord to be signed within a week. "Venezuela has confirmed the conditions that were agreed and so the process will move to a final phase," minister Anton Siluanov told the Interfax news agency.

Venezuela's official debt to Moscow stood at $2.8 billion as of 2016, with another $6 billion owed to oil giant Rosneft, which is closely allied with the Kremlin. That, however, is just a fraction of Venezuela's total debt mountain, estimated at $150 billion. Around $45 billion is sovereign debt, another $45 billion is owed by PDVSA, and $23 billion is owed to China, according to estimates by private consultancies.

For a country with the world's largest proven oil reserves -- nearly 300 billion barrels, worth more than $15 trillion -- such debt normally should be bearable. But decades of mismanagement, destruction of Venezuela's private sector, big spending on social programs, lack of infrastructure investment, rigid currency controls and the fact that oil exports are now essentially debt repayments rather than income all conspire to shove Venezuela to the edge of the precipice.

The country has just $9.7 billion in hard currency reserves, yet debt payments due in 2018 total $8 billion. Major credit rating agencies Fitch, Moody's and Standard & Poor's have all downgraded Venezuela's standing and say default is all but certain.

One market analysis firm, Capital Economics, says default could happen as early as this weekend. Other analysts say Venezuela will try to stave that off beyond Monday, when foreign creditors have been invited to Caracas to hear the restructuring proposal. Some suggest a default would allow Maduro to spend money currently diverted to creditors to allow more imports of food and medicine ahead of a possible re-election bid in 2018. "A default would free up resources to pay for imports, giving Maduro in the short-term political boost for re-election," said Risa Grais-Targow, Venezuela analyst for the Eurasia Group. Such spending could "lower the risk of protests," agreed Diego Moya-Ocampos, of IHS Markit.

Yet a default would likely see investors suing to get hands on Venezuelan and PDVSA assets -- oil shipments, tankers, bank accounts, and the US refinery subsidiary Citgo. That would rob Venezuela of much of its capacity to sell its all-important oil.

Source: AFP

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 25, 2017 10:51 pm 
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Mugabe to get $10m payoff and immunity for his family
By Jason Burke in Harare
25 November 2017

Robert Mugabe and his wife will receive a “golden handshake” worth many millions of dollars as part of a deal negotiated before the resignation of the ageing autocrat last week.

The exact sums to be paid to the former president and his wife Grace are still unclear, though one senior ruling party official with direct knowledge of the agreement said the total would not be less than $10 million. The official said that Mugabe, who has been granted immunity from prosecution and a guarantee that no action will be taken against his family’s extensive business interests, would receive a “cash payment of $5 million” immediately, with more paid in coming months.

The 93-year-old’s $150,000 salary will also be paid until his death. The 52-year-old first lady, reviled for her extravagance and greed, will then receive half that amount for the rest of her life.

Mugabe’s 37-year rule left Zimbabwe with a worthless currency, massive debts, an impoverished population and an estimated unemployment rate of more than 80%. Roads are rutted, many rural communities have no electricity, education is basic and healthcare almost non-existent. A life expectancy of 60 is one of the lowest in the world.

The first couple will be able to remain in their sprawling mansion known as the Blue Roof, in Harare. The state will pay for their medical care, domestic staff, security and foreign travel.

A second official defended the agreement, made early last week after protracted negotiations between senior politicians close to the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and representatives of Mugabe. Mnangagwa was sworn in on Friday in a colourful ceremony before tens of thousands of people in Harare’s main stadium. The 75-year-old stalwart of the ruling Zanu-PF party promised a new era for his country, and said that he would govern for “all Zimbabweans”.

Opposition politicians have criticised the agreement with the former president. “We are not privy to any deal reached with Mugabe, and if there is any deal on money or anything else it is unconstitutional,” said Douglas Mwonzora, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party. “In terms of the constitution Mugabe is a retired president and does not have immunity to criminal or civil wrongdoing committed while in office. In Zanu-PF, they can grant each other immunity, but the law does not authorise that.”

Themba Mliswa, an independent MP, said “there was no country which would like to see a former president in a state of poverty”, but that leaders must understand they were accountable. “There must be a good precedent. You can’t see a president come in looking to loot and plunder and thinking he will be allowed to keep it,” Mliswa said.

Grace Mugabe was called “Gucci Grace” in Zimbabwe for her lavish spending. The former secretary, who married the president in 1996, recently bought millions of dollars worth of property and luxury cars in South Africa. Her eldest son, 25-year-old Bellarmine Chatunga, recently enraged Zimbabweans by posting a clip on social media taken in a well-known Johannesburg nightclub showing him pouring a £200 bottle of champagne over a £45,000 watch on a night out in South Africa, boasting that “daddy runs the whole country”.

The deal also extends to the Mugabes’ wide business interests, which include a series of dairy farms, and those of his extended family. “None of this will be [seized] or in any way molested,” said the official involved in the negotiations. The difficulties of drawing up a list of the many assets to be covered by the agreement contributed to the delay in Mugabe’s resignation, which had been widely expected as early as last Sunday, he said.

Grace Mugabe’s oldest son, Russell Goreraza, 33, from her first marriage, is reported to have a substantial stake in Zimbabwe’s lucrative mining industry. He imported two Rolls-Royce limousines in September. One relative of Mugabe confirmed on Saturday that he was “covered” by the deal and that he would not be leaving Zimbabwe. “I was worried about what the changes would mean for me personally … but I am now reassured that I can live on in my country,” said the relative, who lives in Harare and has a large farm in western Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa, who was a loyal aide of Robert Mugabe for decades, has urged the country’s citizens not to undertake any form of “vengeful retribution” and in his inaugural speech praised the “immense contribution” made by the former president.

Though there is still much residual respect for Mugabe, based on his record as a leader in Zimbabwe’s wars of liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, there is little affection for his wife. It was her bid to succeed her husband that triggered the events leading to his overthrow. The first lady and prominent members of her G40 faction engineered the firing of Mnangagwa as vice-president. The army then took over to allow the former spy chief to return to Zimbabwe to take power.

Those not covered by the deal with the Mugabes may face harsh punishment for picking the wrong side. The former finance minister Ignatius Chombo who was among those detained by the military when it seized power, appeared in court on Saturday to face corruption charges. Chombo’s lawyer, Lovemore Madhuku, had said that his client was admitted to hospital on Friday with injuries sustained from beatings he received while in military custody. Chombo is accused of having stolen $3.6 million.

An early indication of Mnangagwa’s style of government will come with his selection of a new cabinet, possibly as early as Sunday. There are widespread hopes – not least among western diplomats – that officials from the MDC and other opposition parties will be included in the new government. Mnangagwa has also pledged to respect the constitution and hold elections by next August. “The people’s voice will be heard,” he told the jubilant crowd of tens of thousands who packed the Harare stadium.

Source: The Observer UK

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 04, 2017 10:56 pm 
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Thousands rally over vote count ‘fraud’ in Honduras
4 December 2017

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Electoral authorities in Honduras seemed poised to hand the president a second term on Monday even after tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest protests yet over suspected vote count fraud since last week's disputed election.

U.S.-backed President Juan Orlando Hernandez called for his supporters to wait for a final count as protesters from the opposition flooded streets across the country to decry what they called a dictatorship. As night fell Sunday, the sound of plastic horns, honking cars, fireworks and beaten saucepans echoed over the capital Tegucigalpa, challenging a military curfew imposed to clamp down on protests that have spread since last week.

TV star turned opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, addressing a giant rally in the capital earlier in the day, called on the armed forces to rebel against orders to enforce the curfew, and encouraged supporters to walk out on a national strike starting Monday. "I call on all members of the armed forces to rebel against your bosses," Nasralla told a cheering throng of supporters who booed nearby troops. "You all over there, you shouldn't be there, you should be part of the people." Nasralla accuses the government of trying to steal last week's election. TV images showed similar protests in other major cities.

While there were no reports of violence during Sunday's demonstrations, hundreds have been arrested and at least three people killed in recent days. The government imposed a military-enforced curfew on Friday that expanded powers for the army and police to detain people and break up blockades of roads, bridges and public buildings.

Early last week, Nasralla, a former sportscaster and game show host, appeared to have pulled off an upset victory over Hernandez, gaining a five point lead with nearly two-thirds of the vote tallied. After an unexplained pause of more than a day, the sporadic vote count started leaning in favor of the incumbent. "It was a gigantic change," said Mark Weisbrot from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. "The chances of this occurring, had the first 57 percent been drawn as a random sample of tally sheets, is next to impossible."

The electoral tribunal, which is led by a member of Hernandez's party, began a partial recount, which was projected to stretch into the early hours. Early Monday, Hernandez had nearly 43 percent of the vote while Nasralla had just under 41.4 percent, with more than 97 percent of votes tallied, according to the tribunal's website. Earlier, authorities said they would announce a winner soon. Nasralla demanded the recount be widened to include thousands more polling stations, but electoral officials have not agreed to expand the review. The Organization of American States on Sunday said Nasralla's demands were doable.

Pope Francis prayed for a peaceful resolution to the political crisis, while the U.N.'s human rights office urged authorities to respect citizen's right to protest. Venezuela's president accused the United States of backing vote fraud in the country, while the top official at the U.S. embassy praised Sunday's peaceful protests and the "orderly" final count under way.

The Central American country struggles with violent drug gangs, one of world's highest murder rates and endemic poverty, driving a tide of Hondurans to migrate to the United States. "We cannot continue with this president. We are afraid to leave our houses. We want to study and have a future that is not just going to the United States or being killed by gangs," said Marilyn Cruz, a 27-year old law student, who joined the protests on Sunday.

Hernandez, 49, implemented a military-led crackdown on gang violence after taking office in 2014. He has been supported by U.S. President Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, since Kelly was a top general in the previous administration. The 64-year-old Nasralla is one of Honduras' best-known faces and is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009.

Since late last week, three people have been killed as soldiers broke up protesters' blockades of rubble and burning tires. There were also reports that between four and five more had been shot dead in the north of the country on Friday.

Source: Reuters

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 07, 2017 5:41 pm 
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Ukraine under pressure from West over corruption
by Dmitry ZAKS
7 December 2017

KIEV (AFP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is facing mounting pressure from the West for his failure to fight high-level corruption that helped drive pro-EU protests and topple a Russian-backed government in 2014.

The fear in Brussels and Washington is that Kiev will follow the failed course of a similar revolution in 2004-2005 and dissolve into political infighting between vested interests tied to powerful ministries and tycoons. That era ended with the election in 2010 of a Kremlin-backed leadership that quickly realigned the former Soviet republic with Russia.

Scrutiny of Poroshenko is also growing because of the security service's attempt on Tuesday to arrest former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili -- an anti-corruption campaigner who is leading protests against the president.

The ruling party's desire to defang the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) by giving parliament the right to remove its leaders appeared to be the final straw for Kiev's chief Western backers. IMF chief Christine Lagarde on Wednesday said she was "deeply concerned by recent events in Ukraine that could roll back progress that has been made in setting up independent institutions to tackle high-level corruption".

The US State Department and European Union issued similarly blunt statements this week. The World Bank and British Foreign Office have also rallied to NABU's defence. The new agency has won numerous enemies by targeting people who seemed untouchable to law enforcement in the past. These have included the powerful interior minister's son and three senior defence officials.

Poroshenko's party bowed to Western pressure by withdrawing the NABU bill from a debate planned for Thursday and agreeing to rewrite the legislation. But analysts said they expected the attacks to continue. "We have won this battle but the war goes on," Vitaliy Shabunin of Kiev's non-profit Anti-Corruption Action Centre told AFP.

The International Monetary Fund believes that corruption is a $1.8-billion (1.5-billion-euro) problem that accounts for two percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product. But its true extent may be far greater because the handful of billionaires who control most of Ukraine's prized assets prefer to conduct their business through shell companies.

The extent of Western disenchantment with Poroshenko was encapsulated by Michael Carpenter -- a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense who is also a senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. "If (parliament) votes to dismiss the head of the Anticorruption Committee (Yegor Sobolyev) and the head of the NABU, I will recommend cutting all US government assistance to #Ukraine, including security assistance," Carpenter tweeted. "This is a disgrace."

Lawmakers agreed to remove Sobolyev hours after Carpenter posted his comments. Sobolyev said after his ousting: "The former and present corrupt elite have colluded. Their plan is to break the independence of anti-corruption bodies and replace them with fake ones."

Conflict-riven Ukraine has relied on various sources of Western support to climb out of a dire 2014-2015 recession that nearly emptied the central bank. Now those funds are drying up. The European Commission last week decided against sending a 600-million-euro tranche payment of a 1.8-billion-euro assistance programme because of Ukraine's foot-dragging on institutional changes.

Poroshenko appeared to try Thursday to reassert his reformist credentials by vowing to introduce legislation supporting NABU's work with special anti-corruption courts. But many remain unconvinced. "The attacks against the anti-corruption agency will continue," Transparency International Ukraine chief Yaroslav Yurchyshyn told AFP. "The question is whether the remaining clean members of the ruling elite can withstand pressure from the corrupt ones."

Source: AFP

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