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U.S. Removes Diplomats From Venezuela Amid Nationwide Power Outages

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  • Power outages in Venezuela have left much of the country in the dark, hindering humanitarian efforts, and killing 21 people.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States will be removing diplomats from Venezuela citing the “deteriorating situation” in the country as a reason.

U.S. to Withdraw Diplomats

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the U.S. would withdraw all diplomats from Venezuela as the country faces nationwide power outages.

Pompeo announced the decision in a tweet, writing, “the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy.”

This move is especially significant because the last line of the tweet could indicate that the U.S. is considering using military force, an option President Trump and his administration have repeatedly indicated is still on the table.

The removal of U.S. diplomats is also a big deal because the U.S. has continually said it will keep essential diplomatic staff in Venezuela. The effort to withdraw diplomatic personnel could indicate that the U.S. government may feel the situation is out of control.

Sweeping Blackouts in Venezuela

Meanwhile, most of Venezuela has been without power for almost a week now.

On Saturday, yet another wave of protests swept Caracas as opposition protestors came out to demonstrate against a nationwide blackout that has left almost all of the country in the dark since last Thursday.

The blackouts reportedly stem from an unspecified problem in Venezuela’s primary hydroelectric power plan, Guri.

Guri is a massive plant, supplying power to 4 out of 5 Venezuelans, and the problem allegedly came from a substation based in the center of the country.

Unsurprisingly, the power outages have made the humanitarian problems in Venezuela even worse.

Water pumps have been affected in parts Caracas, leaving people to fill water bottles at sewage pipes. Long lines of cars and citizens can be seen waiting for gas at the few gas stations that are still open, while transportation networks like subways have been shut down.

Much of Venezuela’s telecommunications networks have been entirely knocked out. Most alarming is the impact on hospitals and medical facilities, which already face medicine shortages, and now are struggling to keep patients alive.

Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who has been declared interim president, stated on Sunday that 17 people had died due to the blackouts, referring to the deaths as “murders.”

Then on Monday, The Guardian reported that at least 21 people, six of whom were babies, had died as a result of the blackouts.

It is still unclear how many people have died and how many people are affected by the blackouts, with contradictory reports of how much power has been restored to different parts of the country.

Unknown Cause

Also still disputed is what exactly caused the outage at the hydroelectric plant.

On Saturday, Nicolás Maduro claimed that the blackout was caused by cyberattacks launched by the opposition with “the support and assistance of the US.” Then, in a speech on Monday, Maduro stated: “The United States’ imperialist government ordered this attack.”

Maduro’s Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez additionally claimed that the blackout was caused by right-wing extremists under the direction of Senator Marco Rubio.

Maduro and his ministers have not provided any evidence for these claims.

Guaidó has disputed this assertion, arguing that blackouts were caused by years of underinvestment in energy infrastructure.

Guaidó’s claim has been broadly supported by energy experts and Venezuelan power sector contractors who have said that in addition to underinvestment, the blackouts are also a result of corruption and brain drain from the energy sector.

Venezuela’s electrical system used to be one of the best in Latin America, but now it is in poor shape after years of improper maintenance and mismanagement.

Venezuelan officials have been accused of stealing government money earmarked for the electrical system. Blackouts have become fairly frequent in Venezuela. However, a blackout of this scale and magnitude has not been seen for many years. Some are even calling the worst blackout in the country’s history.

On Monday, the opposition government declared a state of emergency.

It remains unclear when Venezuela will regain power, especially now as both sides continue to add political charge to the issue.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Guardian) (New York Times)

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2 Million Protest In Hong Kong After Lam Suspends Extradition Bill

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  • After last week’s protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the bill would be suspended.
  • However, many citizens in Hong Kong want the bill fully withdrawn and are calling for Lam to step down from her position.
  • On Sunday, around two million people hit the streets for protests fighting for those conditions, as well as pushing for police to be investigated for using excessive force during the previous protests.

Protest After Bill’s Suspension

Organizers say that around 2 million people in Hong Kong turned out to protest a controversial extradition bill on Sunday after Cheif Executive Carrie Lam said she would suspend it.

Lam announced Saturday that she would suspend – not withdraw – an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. This move followed a previous round of massive protests that gathered as many as one million Hong Kong residents.  

“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind to heed comprehensively different views in society towards the bill,” Lam said in a press conference after announcing its suspension.

However, many thought her actions were not enough. On Sunday, a massive demonstration in Hong Kong saw citizens call for a full withdrawal, along with Lam’s resignation. While organizers claim 2 million people attended the protest, police officers say there were actually about 338,000.

Protesters also referenced last week’s demonstrations, where officers used pepper spray and other tactics to quell crowds. Officers later deemed the protest a riot, which is a crime in Hong Kong. Sunday’s protesters demanded an investigation into the use of police force and called for the “riot” labeling to be rescinded.

Many also honored a man who lost his life protesting on Saturday after he fell trying to hang a banner.

During these protests, police involvement was minimal. Reports say that officers sidelined themselves during the demonstrations and were able to clear the streets by Monday morning.

Lam also issued another statement later on Sunday apologizing for the controversies caused by the bill.

“The Chief Executive apologised to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” the statement read.

Responses After Protests

While the protests have lessened, many in Hong Kong still have the urge to keep fighting. Notably, Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who was released from prison on Monday.

Upon his release, he tweeted similar sentiments to the protesters.

Around the globe, others are also responding to what is happening in Hong Kong. After Lam announced the bill suspension, officials in China made a statement.

“We support, respect and understand this decision,” they said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also told Fox News that the United States is monitoring the situation.

“We are watching the people of Hong Kong speak about the things they value,” he said.

Pompeo added that President Donald Trump would meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit at the end of the month and said the two would discuss the protests then.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (NPR) (TIME)

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Iran Threatens to Violate Nuclear Deal’s Limits on Uranium

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  • Iran announced Monday that it will surpass the amount of uranium it has been allowed to stockpile under the 2015 nuclear deal in 10 days if European nations do not do more to help them mitigate U.S. sanctions.
  • The announcement comes after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday and provided what U.S. officials believed was video evidence of Iranian military officials removing a bomb.
  • Iran has denied the allegations and Germany, as well as the Japanese owner of one of the tankers, have said the video the U.S. claims proves Iran launched the attack does not provide enough evidence.

Announcement

Iran announced Monday that it has significantly ramped up its enrichment of uranium and said it will exceed the amount of uranium it has been allowed to stockpile under the 2015 nuclear deal in 10 days.

While certainly a big deal, Monday’s announcement does not necessarily come as a surprise. On May 8, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the country would stop complying with some of their commitments under the nuclear deal.

Rouhani said Iran would no longer respect certain restrictions under the deal, such as building stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water.

He also said Iran would give the other countries that signed the deal 60 days to help ease the sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Irans oil and banking industries, or Iran would slowly stop their compliance with the deal piece by piece.

While that 60-day period technically does not end for a few more weeks, Iran has made it clear that they are not happy with the progress that has been made.

In a televised speech earlier today, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization specifically targetted the European signatories of the nuclear deal for not doing enough, but said they still had time to save the agreement.

“If it is important for them to safeguard the accord, they should make their best efforts,” Kamalvandi said. “As soon as they carry out their commitments, things will naturally go back to their original state.”

“There is still time for European countries, but if they want more time it means that they either can’t or don’t want to honor their obligations,” he continued later. “They should not think that after 60 days they will have another 60-day opportunity.”

Tanker Attack

Monday’s announcement comes as tensions between Iran and the U.S. have increasingly escalated in recent weeks.

On Thursday, two tankers were attacked just off the coast of Iran in the Gulf of Oman. The attack caused one of the boats to be set on fire and caused both to be set adrift. A few hours later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of attacking the tankers.

In a press conference, Pompeo said attacks were part of a “campaign” of “escalating tension” by Iran. “It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” he said.

U.S. officials also later claimed that Iran had launched a missile at a U.S.-operated drone surveying the area after the attack.

Pompeo did not immediately provide any evidence for Iran launching the attack, but later on Thursday, U.S. Central Command released a video they claimed showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers hit by explosions.

While the administration of Donald Trump, backed by Saudi Arabia, believed that the video clearly proved the IRGC was guilty, others were not so sure.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me.”

Additionally, the Japanese operator of one of the ships that was attacked also disputed the U.S government’s claim. In a statement, the president of the company that operates the ship, Yutaka Katada, said he did not believe there was a mine attached to the ship at all.

“I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship,” Katada said. “Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object.”

Iran for its part has strongly denied the allegations. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the accusations in a tweet, referring to the incident as “sabotage diplomacy.”

Escalating Tensions

The incident on Thursday and the U.S. response is only part of increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

It is not even the first tanker attack that the U.S. has blamed on Iran. Last month, four tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which is close to the Gulf of Oman. Again, the U.S. was quick to blame Iran but did not provide any evidence, and again, Iran denied the accusation.

Over the last few months, numerous world leaders have come forward and called for the U.S. and Iran to de-escalate the situation, with many fearing the situation would lead to an all-out war.

Multiple European governments and leaders have called on the Trump administration to exercise “maximum restraint.”

Response

Currently, it remains unclear what will happen next. In an interview with Fox & Friends on Sunday, Pompeo indicated that the U.S. had not ruled out military action.

“The United States is going to make sure that we take all actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, to achieve that outcome,” he said. In a separate interview with CBS, Pompeo also said the U.S. might tighten sanctions on Iran in response to the country ramping up its nuclear program.

According to reports, Pentagon officials are considering tactical responses to the attacks, including deploying as many as 6,000 Navy, Air Force, and Army personnel to the Persian Gulf.

Last month, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East in an effort to counter Iran.

At the same time, many are skeptical that Trump would send troops to directly engage Iran. Trump has repeatedly said he does not want a war in the Middle East.

During an interview with Fox & Friends on Friday, Trump said Iran did attack the tankers, but also said he was not looking for war. He even went as far as to say he wanted engagement with Iranian leadership.

“I’m ready when they are,” Trump said. “Whenever they’re ready, it’s O.K. In the meantime, I’m in no rush.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (CNN)

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Brazil’s Supreme Court Votes to Criminalize Homophobic Acts

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  • Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of criminalizing homophobia under current legislation until Congress creates a law that specifically addresses the issue.
  • Eight of the 11 justices voted Thursday to treat violent acts and other crimes against gay and transgender people like racism, which was made a crime in Brazil in 1989 with prison sentences of up to five years.
  • President Jair Bolsonaro criticized the justices last month when it became clear that they would likely vote in favor of the move, and he suggested that it was time to appoint an evangelical Christian.

The Vote

Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court voted Thursday to criminalize acts of hate and discrimination against the LGBT community.

Eight of the 11 justices voted in favor of the move arguing that Congress failed to fulfill its constitutional duty by passing similar legislation. According to the Wall Street Journal, the country’s constitution allows the high court to make these types of moves in the event that lawmakers fail to take action.

For now, any acts of violence or other crimes against gay or transgender people will be judged under current antiracism law until Congress passes a specific law that addressed the LGBT community. Racism was made a crime in Brazil in 1989 with prison sentences of up to five years.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to human beings, to the self-determination to decide their own life and seek happiness,” Justice Gilmar Mendes said, according to the court’s Twitter account.

It may take some time for Congress to act further. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that every state should recognize civil unions between same-sex couples. However, Congress has yet to pass legislation for those unions.

Bolsonaro’s Position

President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January, criticized the court last month when it became clear that most justices would rule in favor of criminalizing homophobia. He argued that the court was overstepping and suggested it was time to appoint an evangelical Christian to the Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro himself has been criticized for what many consider a long history of homophobic, racist, and sexist comments.  The social conservative won the October election last year, promising to overturn years of liberal social policies. Many LGBT rights groups feared that he would try to roll back gay rights if elected.

The court’s decision “is a step forward, but it won’t make much of a difference unless we improve education and change attitudes,” Claudia Regina, president of the LGBT Pride Parade Association of São Paulo told the Journal.

“There’s been a subtle worsening of attitudes” since Bolsonaro was elected, she said, adding that he “is encouraging this, indirectly. He inspires his followers to behave this way.”

According to the rights group the Grupo Gay da Bahia, 420 LGBT people were killed across Brazil in 2018 and at least 141 others have been killed so far this year. On top of that, Brazil leads the world in transgender homicides with 171 in 2017, according to the organization Transgender Europe.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Independent)

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