- The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
- The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
- The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.
The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.
FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.
“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning
“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.
“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.”
The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.
According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”
He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel.
U.S. Ramps Up Efforts
Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.
While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.
First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.
Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.
The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.
That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.
The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.
The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether.
Venezuela & the Coronavirus
While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.
Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.
But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.
Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.
Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence.
“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.
“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”
Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced.
“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)
South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys
The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.
The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.
The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.
At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.
The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.
Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.
Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.
BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.
Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.
The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.
Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.
See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)
Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall
The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.
Trapped in a Flood
The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.
Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.
The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.
Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.
In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.
Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.
Long Recovery Ahead
The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.
Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.
In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.
Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.
It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.
See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)
Toyota Largely Pulls Olympic Sponsorship Ads Amid Calls for Games To Be Canceled
Locals in Japan are particularly worried about the spread of COVID-19 among athletes at the densely packed Olympic village, something that has already happened despite assurances that it wouldn’t.
Tainted View on Olympics
The Olympic Games continued to face controversy Monday after Toyota, one of the event’s largest sponsors, announced that it would not air any commercials featuring the Olympics in Japan.
The news may come as a surprise since companies often view their ties to one of the world’s largest sporting events as a major selling point and public relations win. However, Toyota’s decision to distance itself instead highlights a growing trend among brands and locals who view the Games as a semi-toxic subject, especially in Japan where most of the population would like the Games canceled or postponed.
The controversy around the Olympic Games largely revolves around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to host the Games despite rising cases in Japan, concerns about new variants of the virus, and low vaccination rates due to a slow rollout.
Despite Toyota’s recent decision, the company has provided invaluable support to organizers of the Games, including over 3,000 vehicles to transport athletes, crews, and staff. Additionally, the company continues to showcase individual Olympic athletes that it directly sponsors in competitions on its website.
Cardboard “Anti-Sex” Beds
Growing COVID concerns have many on edge, often causing jokes to be taken seriously and spread as misinformation. One such case involved the decision by organizers to use cardboard beds for athletes. Paul Chelimo, from the United States’ track and field team, joked on Twitter, “Beds to be installed in Tokyo Olympic Village will be made of cardboard, this is aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes.”
“Beds will be able to withstand the weight of a single person to avoid situations beyond sports. I see no problem for distance runners, even 4 of us can do.”
While many understood the statement to be a joke, outlets quickly ran with the sentiment that the beds were actually designed to prevent sex between athletes. Headlines from publications like the New York Post, for instance, read, “Athletes to sleep on ‘anti-sex’ cardboard beds at Olympic Games amid COVID.”
The situation was largely put to rest after Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan posted a video jumping on the beds to prove they were perfectly suited for any activity. Officials at the Games went on to clarify that the decision to use cardboard was because it was a cheap, sustainable option that was easy to dispose of after the games without creating much waste.
The fact that the cardboard beds might prove awkward for athletes to use for sex could be a happy accident for the Olympic organizers, as they’ve made it clear that they don’t want attendees having sex to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’ve even gone so far as to threaten athletes who have sex during the games with penalties.
In an effort to further dissuade athletes from hanging outside of their dorms or with others, the use of alcohol has largely been banned. Athletes are allowed to have it in their rooms but are supposed to enjoy it while alone.
For many, proof that the Games can’t be protected against COVID-19 has already presented itself, despite assurances from organizers like IOC president Thomas Bach — who said there was “Zero” risk of transmission between athletes and Japanese staff. At least 61 people at the Olympic village have reported contracting COVID since arriving, including at least one U.S. athlete and Japanese workers at the village.
Non-political Games Rocked by Political Tit-for-Tats
The Games have also been rocked with other problems, especially involving Japan and its neighbors.
Korea was forced to take down flags that it had hung from its Olympic Village dorms that read “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.” The phrase was borrowed from Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who said, “I still have 12 battleships left,” prior to a lopsided 16th-century naval victory against Japan in the Imjin War.” The phrasing drew outrage from right-wing Japanese groups who asked the International Olympic Committee to have Korea remove the quasi-political statement.
Korea agreed, but only if Japan agreed to use the Rising Sun flag, a standard used by Imperial-era Japan and the Japanese Navy. It’s also one that is often viewed by many East Asians as a symbol as controversial as the Nazi flag is for Westerners.