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Venezuela's 'pork leg' politics highlight Russian influence –



Everyone seems to be talking about pork legs in Venezuela, demanding to know where they are being sent, from where they’re being imported, and who is ultimately getting them. The intrigue surrounding this particular cut of meat highlights the intersection of forces shaping Venezuelan life in 2020: a battle for control of parliament, severe undernourishment, United States sanctions, and Russia’s growing influence in the South American country.

Carmen Graffe is a retired public school teacher. In December, she was hoping to snag some of the pork that President Nicolas Maduro promised his people for their end-of-year celebrations, but getting the free meat was not easy.

“It’s humiliating how [we the] retired who are already over 70 must queue for hours to get food,” Graffe told Al Jazeera. She was one of about 500 people who stood in line for up to 11 hours at a distribution centre on December 11, hoping to get meat imported from Russia. The scene underscores the severity of the country’s economic and food crisis.

Undernourishment has significantly increased in Venezuela in recent years, according to the United Nations, with the portion of the Venezuelan population that is undernourished rising from 6.4 percent between 2012 and 2014 to 21.2 percent between 2016 and 2018.

“You attend without knowing what they will give you, but you have no other choice because with the money [that the state] gives [me] monthly after 30 years of working, I can’t even buy two kilos of meat,” Graffe said as she cooked the rice, beans and fried bananas that she felt grateful to have because so many people have far less.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, attends a protest march against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela on November 16, 2019 [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

After Graffe’s three-decade career as a teacher, her monthly state pension is only equivalent to about $8 – barely enough for her to buy sufficient amounts of the pork that is such a central part of big family gatherings in Venezuela.

The “pork battle”, as this chapter of Venezuela’s crisis is known by its people, is only one of several challenges facing Maduro’s government.

Dozens of countries recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Just this month, the 36-year-old was re-elected president of the National Assembly of Venezuela for a second one-year term. All this comes despite Maduro loyalists trying to physically block the US-backed Guaido from entering parliament so that his former ally Luis Parra could be sworn in as congressional chief. The US punished Parra and other Maduro loyalists for their role in this attempted shake-up with a fresh round of sanctions directly aimed at the politicians.

Pork as a political tool

Maduro’s administration started giving away holiday pork about three years ago as part of a promise to deal with chronic hunger and undernourishment, but securing and paying for the pork proved very difficult. While the president’s promise offered hope to hungry Venezuelans, some years, many were left wondering “Where is my pork?”.

Maduro reuters

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro started giving away pork legs about three years ago as part of a promise to deal with chronic hunger and undernourishment [File: Carlos Barria/ TPX]

At first, a private Portuguese company supplied the meat. But it refused to do so in 2017. Maduro accused the Portuguese of sabotaging the pork giveaway. For its part, the meat supplier claimed it had to stop making deliveries because the Venezuelan government never paid the 40 million euros ($44.6m) it was owed for the 2016 shipment.

In late 2017, the Venezuelan regime promised to distribute 2,000 tonnes of pork for the holiday season – enough to feed only about 20 percent of the population. But the meat never arrived. Maduro’s regime blamed the Colombian government for the shortage, saying it had closed off the two countries’ shared border so the imports could not come through.

The 2018 pork giveaway was also disappointing. Not only was the meat sparsely distributed, but it was also of low quality. This is when Moscow stepped in.

In November 2019, a new deal with Russia made it possible for Maduro to commit to distributing some 13,500 tonnes of pork at a cost of almost 12 million euros ($13.4m). It was enough meat to feed everyone who wanted to eat a holiday meal.

“I approve [those funds] immediately to guarantee the people a balanced December, with their pork legs, and whatever our people need,” Maduro told the country in a televised address.

Russian deals circumvent US sanctions

In August 2019, the US issued an executive order placing Venezuela on its Office of Foreign Assets Control list. “President Trump has sanctioned Maduro’s financial lifelines, including the Venezuelan Central Bank, the Venezuelan Development Bank, and Petroleos de Venezuela,” read a statement issued by the US Department of State.

During the past two years, Venezuela has paid $5bn to Russia, and that is the only debt that has been honoured.

Angel Alvarado, member of the National Assembly of Venezuela

US sanctions against Venezuela are designed to “isolate Maduro’s regime from the global financial system”, according to a statement issued by Trump’s government. The US can do this because its banks and currency play central roles in global finance, facilitating cross-border transactions for governments, businesses, assorted entities and individuals.

By ordering its banks not to process Venezuelan transactions, the US drastically reduced the country’s options for trade, which increased the value of the Latin American nation’s relationship with Russia.

In April 2019, Yomana Koteich, Venezuela’s Minister of International Trade, told state-owned news channel Russia Today that the two countries were halting transactions in US dollars and moving to local currencies and the euro.

By October 2019, Moscow and Caracas had signed 264 cooperation agreements across 20 different strategic areas. They also struck $4bn in economic, technological, and military deals.

Angel Alvarado, an opposition leader and member of the National Assembly, the country’s legislative body, said Russia’s support has played a key role in helping Maduro’s regime stay in power despite the wide recognition that Juan Guaido has around the world as the country’s interim president.

It is because transactions between Caracas and Moscow bypass the US that Maduro was able to get around the sanctions and pay for the pork.

“During the past two years, Venezuela has paid $5bn to Russia, and that is the only debt that has been honoured [by the regime],” Alvarado told Al Jazeera.

“Out of these billions of dollars, the payment of the pork legs is something almost marginal,” he said. “The reality is that Venezuela is still in a deep nutrition and healthcare crisis.”

Holiday pork is unlikely to solve the country’s food, economic and health crises. Yet that’s what makes the pork battle all the more significant. It speaks to the need to influence voters who are not only angry and anxious, but also weakened by hunger.

Sergio Held contributed to this story out of Bogota, Colombia.

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Don’t exploit migrants for politics, pope says on Lesbos visit –



Pope Francis has denounced Europe’s fear and indifference to migrants on his second visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.

Pope Francis has blasted Europe’s indifference to the plight of migrants as the “shipwreck of civilisation” during a visit to a refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesbos.

On Sunday, the leader of the Catholic Church arrived at the Mavrovouni camp, where nearly 2,200 asylum seekers currently reside. He is on the second day of a five-day-long visit to Greece and Cyprus dominated by the issue of migration.

“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,” he said. “Please, let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation.”

Using latin terms, he called for the Mediterranean Sea to remain a bridge between cultures.

“Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum),” he said.

He also condemned the exploitation of migrants for political purposes, lamenting that Europe had entered “an era of walls and barbed wire”.

Pope Francis has criticised the indifference and self-interest shown by Europe towards migrants [Alessandra Tarantino/AP]

The pope last visited Lesbos in 2016, when more than one million people crossed from Turkey into Greece and the island became one of the busiest crossing points. On that occasion, Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugees home with him aboard the papal plane.

No such transfers were announced this time around, but the visit to the camp nonetheless raised hopes among its residents, some of whom have given birth to children while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed.

Enice Kiaku, from Congo, gave birth to Guiliain two years ago. He was born on the Greek island but has no identity documents.

“The arrival of the pope here makes us feel blessed,” Kiaku told The Associated Press. “We have a lot of problems here as refugees, a lot of suffering.”

Francis was greeted upon arrival by a group of African women who sung for him. He patted the heads of children and babies as he toured the camp and posed for selfies.

Pope Francis greeted children in Mavrovouni camp on the Greek island on Lesbos. [Vatican Media/­Handout via Reuters]

He was accompanied by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas.

Greece has recently built a steel wall along a section of its border with Turkey and is intercepting boats transporting migrants from the Turkish side.

It denies allegations that it is carrying out summary deportations of migrants reaching Greek territory but human rights groups say numerous such pushbacks have occurred.

Francis also listened to the camp’s residents, among whom was Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three, who thanked the pope for his show of solidarity and for his appeal to Europe.

The refugee said he lost track of his wife and their third child in their journey and was hoping his visibility with the pope might reunite them.

Mavrovouni is a temporary holding centre pending the construction on the island of a “closed controlled facility”.

These new closed camps, which are funded by the European Union, are already running on three other Greek islands, Samos, Leros and Kos.

Amnesty International has said that new EU-funded detention camps on Greek islands are in violation of Athens’ commitments to provide international protection to those in need.

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Sudan’s al-Burhan says army will exit politics after 2023 vote –



Top general says Sudan’s military will not participate in politics after a civilian government is elected in 2023.

Sudan’s military chief says the army will leave politics after elections that are scheduled for 2023.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan offered the assurance during one of several interviews he gave to international news agencies on Saturday.

The general had led a military takeover in late October, upending Sudan’s transition to civilian-led democracy, but a deal struck on November 21 has reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to lead a technocratic Cabinet until elections in July 2023.

“When a government is elected, I don’t think the army, the armed forces, or any of the security forces will participate in politics. This is what we agreed on and this is the natural situation,” al-Burhan told the Reuters news agency.

The coup, which ended a partnership with civilian political parties after the toppling of long time ruler Omar al-Bashir, drew international condemnation after the detention of dozens of key officials and crackdowns on protesters.

Neighbourhood resistance committees and political parties have called for the military to exit politics immediately and have rejected any compromise, including the deal with Hamdok. At least 44 people have died during demonstrations, many from gunshot wounds from security forces, according to medics.

“Investigations regarding the victims of the protests have begun to identify who has done this … and to punish the criminals,” al-Burhan said, adding that security forces had only dispersed non-peaceful protests.

Al-Bashir has been jailed since his overthrow on corruption and other charges. Along with several other Sudanese suspects, he is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged war crimes in Darfur.

The civilian government dissolved in the coup had approved al-Bashir’s handover, but the military has yet to agree.

“We have understandings with the International Criminal Court for the appearance [of suspects] before the judiciary or before the court,” al-Burhan said. “We have remained in dialogue with the court on how to do right by the victims.”

In the aftermath of the coup, many civilian bureaucrats were dismissed or transferred and replaced with al-Bashir-era veterans in decisions Hamdok has sought to reverse.

Al-Burhan said on Saturday that al-Bashir’s former ruling party would have no role in the transition.

“We will work together so that the National Congress Party will not be a part of the transition in any form,” he said.

Sudan is in a deep economic crisis, though an influx of international economic support had begun to be felt before much of it was suspended after the coup.

Al-Burhan said he expected the backing to return once a civilian government is formed, indicating that the country would not reverse reforms enacted over the past two years by reinstating subsidies or returning to printing money.

“The international community including the African Union is watching what will happen in the coming days,” he told the AFP news agency.

“I believe there are positive indicators that things will return [to how they were] soon. The formation of a civilian government will put things back in order.”

Though Western nations and the African Union have spoken out against the coup, diplomats say Russia, which is seeking to develop a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, has been cultivating ties with military leaders.

A deal for the base has yet to be finalised, al-Burhan told Reuters.

“We hope that our relations [with Russia] will become stronger with the signature of this agreement,” he said. “Consultations are continuing and we are working on the agreement until it becomes acceptable and legal.”

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Biden and Putin to hold video call on Tuesday, will discuss Ukraine



U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a video call on Tuesday to deal with military tensions over Ukraine other topics.

Biden wants to discuss U.S. concerns about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border, a U.S. source said on Saturday, as well as strategic stability, cyber and regional issues.

“We’re aware of Russia’s actions for a long time and my expectation is we’re going to have a long discussion with Putin,” Biden told reporters on Friday as he departed for a weekend trip to Camp David. “I don’t accept anybody’s red lines,” he said.

The two will also talk about bilateral ties and the implementation of agreements reached at their Geneva summit in June, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

“The conversation will indeed take place on Tuesday,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. “Bilateral relations, of course Ukraine and the realisation of the agreements reached in Geneva are the main (items) on the agenda,” he said.

More than 94,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Friday that Moscow may be planning a large-scale military offensive for the end of January, citing intelligence reports.

Biden will reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. source said. The exact timing of the call was not disclosed. The White House declined to comment.

The U.S. president on Friday said he and his advisers are preparing a comprehensive set of initiatives aimed at deterring Putin from an invasion. He did not give further details, but the Biden administration has discussed partnering with European allies to impose more sanctions on Russia.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up. It has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions that it is preparing for an attack on its southern neighbor and has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.

U.S. officials say they do not know yet what Putin’s intentions are, adding while intelligence points to preparations for a possible invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear whether a final decision to do so has been made.

U.S.-Russia relations have been deteriorating for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and U.S. intelligence charges of meddling in the 2016 election won by now-former President Donald Trump.

But they have become more volatile in recent months.

The Biden administration has asked Moscow to crack down on ransomware and cyber crime attacks emanating from Russian soil, and in November charged a Ukraine national and a Russian in one of the worst ransomware attacks against American targets.

Russia has repeatedly denied carrying out or tolerating cyber attacks.

The two leaders have had one face-to-face meeting since Biden took office in January, sitting down for talks in Geneva last June. They last talked by phone on July 9. Biden relishes direct talks with world leaders, seeing them as a way to lower tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russian Foreign Minister ” Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm earlier this week that the United States and its European allies would impose “severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.”

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in WashingtonEditing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

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