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Deepening divisions: Venezuela’s haves and have nots

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The Hotel Humboldt sits atop El Ávila, a national park overlooking Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

At more than 2,000m (6,500ft) above sea level, you have to take a 20-minute trip in a cable car to the top of the mountain to reach it.

From there, a golf buggy drives guests along the ridge to an impressive glass and aluminium structure surrounded most of the day by rolling clouds that suddenly clear to reveal the most astounding view.

The hotel was built in 1956. Finished in less than 200 days, it was the pet project of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled Venezuela from 1950 to 1958.

At a time of great oil wealth, it was a show of pomp and modernity.

National icon

It operated as a hotel for just a few years before falling into disrepair, but it has remained an icon, one that the late President Hugo Chávez wanted to restore to its former glory. After his death in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been intent on finalising the restoration.

“This building means so much for the Venezuelan people,” says Carlos Salas, one of the hotel’s managers.

He shows me around the hotel, which has just started accepting overnight guests after nine years of renovations.

“It’s a representation of a golden era for Venezuela.”

But that golden era is long gone.

The economy is in crisis, oil prices have slumped as has production and around 60% of Venezuelans now live in poverty, according to researchers at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

Financially sound or a folly?

A stay at the Hotel Humboldt costs around $300 (£225) a night.

Clearly a lot of hard work has been put into restoring this architectural jewel but it is not your typical five-star lodgings. Indeed, the classification was awarded by the government which is promoting it, and the hotel is still a bit rough around the edges, despite having been inaugurated a month ago.

The Marriott hotel chain was given the concession to run it in 2018 but it did not stay long as partner. The team now in place is clearly proud of its achievements but in crisis-hit Venezuela, the hotel’s restoration feels like a folly, promoted by a president with his head buried in the sand.

“One banana here costs triple the price [elsewhere],” Mr Salas says, explaining the logistical challenges of getting supplies up the mountain to the hotel.

“My people here, we have to pay them more, the maintenance of the building, water, electricity, it’s really difficult.”

So what, I ask, is the demand for a hotel like this, in a country where the minimum wage is around $2 (£1.50) a month.

He responds without flinching, arguing that five-star hotels are not within everyone’s reach anywhere in the world. Venezuela is no different, he says.

Emerging elite

The hotel is seen by many as a symbol of the rise of a group of newly wealthy Venezuelans, in particular those who have become rich thanks to their close ties to the government.

And Hotel Humboldt is not the only sign of an economic revival in Venezuela.

Faced with US sanctions, rampant hyperinflation and a spiralling economic crisis, President Maduro responded by removing the price controls and easing the capital controls introduced by his predecessor and fellow socialist, Hugo Chávez.

With the local currency increasingly hard to come by due to the sky-high inflation rate – a cup of coffee with milk can set you back almost 1.5m bolivars in Caracas – Mr Maduro also begrudgingly accepted the use of the US dollar.

The result of this easing of economic restraints can be seen across Caracas, where new “bodegas” (shops) have opened up, selling all sorts of imported goods to people long-used to shortages of even the basics.

The Caracas stock exchange is another beneficiary, booming because of an uptick in private enterprise, although it is still comparatively small.

A brighter future?

It has made life a bit more bearable for many, especially in this toughest of years, but not everyone is positive about these changes.

“The government is building on the ashes of this wrecked economic model in a very disorganised fashion,” says economist Tamara Herrera.

“This re-accommodation of the economy is amorphous, disorganised and positive results are difficult to judge. This won’t mend the tragedy that you can see in the population,” she argues.

And there is no doubt that while there may be an emerging class of haves, there are still plenty of have nots – those with little or no access to dollars, or basic services.

In the poor neighbourhood of Catia, on the outskirts of Caracas, I met former housekeeper Diurka González, who is helping out in a soup kitchen. Every day, the kitchen provides lunches for as many as 140 children, including her two-year-old daughter.

“My boss couldn’t keep me on because she was scared of the pandemic,” Ms González tells me.

She did not even earn $2 a month, but now she gets nothing. The soup kitchen allows her daughter to eat one decent meal a day.

Hard realities

A few doors down, Jonathan Fermenal is feeding his two-year-old daughter Samara with the lunch they have just picked up from the soup kitchen. He relies on the free lunches for Samara and his other two children.

Mr Fermenal’s wife, Laila, left to find work in Colombia at the beginning of the year.

The plan was for the rest of the family to follow a few months later, but then came the coronavirus pandemic. They have not been able to see her since.

“At the beginning, it was horrible, horrible,” he says about his wife’s departure. “My youngest was 18 months old, she was still breastfeeding and had to stop suddenly. The first month, I didn’t sleep at all.”

Mr Fermenal has had to learn to play the role of both mother and father. “For my wife it’s also been hard, everything is done by Whatsapp, a photo here, a voice message there, but it’s not the same,” he says.

“And the way I live is how thousands and thousands of Venezuelan families are living,” says Mr Fermenal about the more than five million Venezuelans who have left to escape their home country’s economic hardships over the past six years.

Lives – and hardships – that are far more common than those who invested in the Hotel Humboldt would like to believe.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55364444

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Latin America

Honduras election: Opposition candidate Castro in the lead

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bbc– Honduran opposition candidate Xiomara Castro has a commanding lead in the country’s presidential election, preliminary results suggest.

With half of the votes counted, the left-wing candidate is ahead of the governing party’s Nasry Asfura by almost 20 percentage points.

However, Mr Asfura has not yet conceded defeat.

If she wins, Ms Castro will become the the first female president of the Central American nation.

If her win is confirmed, her presidency will put an end to 12 years in power of the right-wing National Party.

The National Party won the presidential election in November 2009, just months after Ms Castro’s husband, Mel Zelaya, was ousted in a military coup.

Honduras has been led by National Party politicians ever since, first by Porfirio Lobo from 2010 to 2014, followed by Juan Orlando Hernández, whose re-election in 2018 was marred by widespread allegations of fraud.

While President Hernández did not run in Sunday’s election, he and his party gave their backing to the mayor of Tegucigalpa, Nasry Asfura.

The National Party appeared certain of victory before the electoral authorities had even announced the first official results, and convened its supporters to a “victory rally” in the capital.

Later on, Mr Asfura urged his supporters in a tweet to be patient but stopped short of admitting defeat.

There was jubilation at the headquarters of the left-wing opposition Libre (Free) Party, where supporters danced and cheered as Xiomara Castro’s lead was announced.

Writing on Twitter, Ms Castro thanked Hondurans for voting for her and said she would “transform 12 years of tears and pain into joy”.

In a reference to President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been dogged by allegations of ties to the drugs trade after his brother Antonio was jailed for trafficking in the United States, Ms Castro promised during her campaign to “pull Honduras out of the abyss” of “a narco-dictatorship and corruption”.

While President Hernández has denied any wrongdoing, corruption ranked high in the concerns of voters, only surpassed by Honduras’ high unemployment rate.

If she is confirmed as the winner, voters will look to Ms Castro, who describes herself as “a democratic socialist”, to tackle these issues quickly.

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Ecuador prison and armed forces chiefs resign after riots

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bbc– The head of Ecuador’s prison system and the country’s armed forces chief have resigned following a fresh gang fight which left 68 inmates dead in a jail in the city of Guayaquil.

The deadly fight happened at the same prison where 119 inmates were killed in September, also in gang warfare.

It took 900 police officers to restore order after the latest incident.

The spike in prison violence has cast a shadow over the first six months in office of President Guillermo Lasso.

In a BBC interview earlier this month, President Lasso said that prison guards needed to be armed in order to be able to confront highly organised gang members.

“There is no way that prison guards who only carry batons can confront mafias which have drones and explosives,” he said.

  • Ecuador president speaks out about deadly jail riot
  • ‘I saw photo of my son’s dead body online’

The most recent incident happened during a 60-day state of emergency the president had declared inside the prison system.

The state of emergency means that extra funds can be allocated to fight violence inside the jails and also allows the military to assist guards and police in securing the prisons.

Despite the extra measures in place, another deadly fight broke out in the Litoral Penitentiary on Friday night.

Analysts have blamed the spike in prison homicides on the infiltration of Ecuadorean gangs by powerful transnational crime cartels.

They say that the acts of extreme violence – such as decapitations and the use of explosives – seen at Litoral Penitentiary were inspired by the tactics used by Mexican criminal organisations such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.

The local governor said that the most recent fight was triggered by the release of a gang leader which prompted members of a rival gang to try to seize control of one of the prison wings.

“As this section of the prison was without a ringleader after he had been freed by a judge, other gangs tried to surround the wing to carry out a total massacre,” Governor Pablo Arose Mena said.

According to police, the inmates were armed with guns and explosives.

Footage shared on social media appeared to show inmates kicking and burning bodies.

Some of the relatives of those killed said that while the fight may have been triggered by gang rivalry, many of the victims were serving sentences for minor crimes and were not hardened criminals.

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Nicaragua vote: Ortega tightens grip on power in ‘pantomime election’

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bbc– Preliminary results from the Nicaraguan general election suggest that incumbent President Daniel Ortega has won by a landslide.

With almost all the votes counted, Mr Ortega has secured close to 76% of the vote. But as the BBC’s Central America Correspondent Will Grant reports, the result hardly comes as a surprise.

As the Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, stepped back from casting his ballot, his supporters lining the polling station broke into supposedly spontaneous applause.

Holding his thumb in the air to show off the voting ink, he and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, drank in the noise for the state television cameras before being whisked away in a silver Mercedes-Benz.

He might as well have declared himself the victor there and then.

This was an election in which the result was never in question. In fact, the outcome in Nicaragua was decided months before a vote was even cast or counted.

From the moment on 2 June when police appeared at the home of his main rival, Cristiana Chamorro, and placed her under house arrest for alleged money-laundering, it was clear that President Ortega would be re-elected for another five-year term.

In the following days and weeks, there was a slew of further detentions of presidential hopefuls – seven of them in total – including a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US, Arturo Cruz Jr, and Cristiana Chamorro’s cousin, Juan Sebastián Chamorro. Even her brother, Pedro Joaquín, a journalist in his 70s, was arrested for merely voicing interest in running during an interview.

Three hours after uttering those words, the police arrived at his door too.

The clampdown has shocked Latin America for its speed and ruthlessness. Most of the detained candidates and many other Ortega critics have been charged under a controversial treason law.

Addressing the nation after voting, Mr Ortega again likened the round-up of his opponents to the trials in the United States of those who stormed the Capitol on 6 January.

“They have as much right as we do to open trials against terrorists,” he said, adding that the “immense majority of Nicaraguans voted for peace and not terrorism or war”.

Unsurprisingly, the president’s claims did not wash with the exiled Nicaraguans who turned out to protest in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. Instead they urged their compatriots to boycott the election in an effort to further delegitimise the vote.

“This is a consummate fraud, and all Nicaraguans are aware of it,” said Alexa Zamora of the National Blue-and-White Unity group, an opposition alliance.

“We’re calling on the international community not to recognise this vote and on Nicaraguan citizens still inside the country to stay away from the voting stations,” she yelled above the chanting and bullhorns.

Even before polls had closed, the White House issued the kind of statement the protesters were hoping for, calling the vote “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic”.

A vote, then, with no meaningful rivals, no independent election observers or foreign media. At a Costa Rican border crossing of Peñas Blancas, several international journalists, including from the BBC, were denied permission to enter the country to cover the vote.

But while we could not get in, thousands are desperate to leave. Droves of Nicaraguans have fled the Ortega government since the crackdown began, often crossing into Costa Rica via blind spots along the jungled border.

Lionel Hernández charges the migrants a handful of dollars to make the illegal journey across his land. A Nicaraguan, Mr Hernández said he intended to cross back into the country to cast his ballot but was resigned over the outcome.

“Every country in the world has corrupt elections, even the United States. And only God can remove a king,” he shrugs.

For those who no longer want to live as subjects under the reign of Daniel Ortega and his courtiers, their options are limited. Hundreds of Nicaraguans are currently making their way through southern Mexico as part of a migrant caravan slowing heading north.

Among them is Carla – not her real name – who used to work for the Sandinista government. When she became disillusioned and tried to leave the party, she was intimidated by armed pro-Ortega radicals who turned up at her house.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” she said under a thatched roof of a temporary shelter.

“Murders are going up, there are paramilitary groups who kill people. You can hardly go out, you can’t express yourself. If you do, you’ll be killed. Everyone knows these groups are controlled by the government.”

Daniel Ortega is perhaps the last Cold War warrior. As Washington’s nemesis during the Reagan Administration, he was second only to the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

Following Mr Ortega’s return to power in 2007, he has thrown off all the vestiges of his leftist guerrilla past. Behind a façade of pseudo-evangelical language, particularly from Rosario Murillo, there is an iron ruthlessness to the couple’s will to remain in power until the bitter end.

Their supporters will claim another five-year term is somehow the will of the majority of Nicaraguan people. In reality, President Ortega’s rule is increasingly repressive, autocratic and dynastic – and this controversial vote only further consolidates his control over his fiefdom.

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