Nerves Fray, Tempers Flare as Venezuela Blackout Hits 4th Day

Furious Venezuelans lined up to buy water and fuel on Sunday as the country entered a fourth day of a nationwide blackout that has left already-scarce food rotting in shops, homes suffering for lack of water and cell phones without reception.

Authorities have managed to provide only patchy access to power since the outage began on Thursday in what President Nicolas Maduro called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage, but critics insist it is the result of incompetence and corruption.

The government on Sunday suspended school and business activities for the following day without providing any information on a likely time frame for resolving the situation, leaving many fretting that it could extend indefinitely.

The country’s worst-ever power outage comes as Maduro faces a hyperinflationary economic collapse and an unprecedented political crisis. Opposition leader Juan Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume the presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.

Angry residents of the Caracas neighborhood of Chacao on Sunday set up barricades along a main avenue and on side streets to protest the continued outage.

“The food we had in our refrigerators has spoiled, businesses are closed, there’s no communication, not even by cell phone,” Ana Cerrato, 49, a merchant, standing in front of a pile of razor wire and debris.

“No country can bear 50 hours without electricity. We need help! We are in a humanitarian crisis!” Lines extended for blocks at fuel stations as drivers queued up for gasoline and busses waited fill up with diesel. Families stood under the sun to buy potable water, which is unavailable for most residents whose homes do not have power.

State oil company PDVSA said on Sunday that fuel supplies were guaranteed. But only around 100 of the country’s 1,800 service stations were in operation due to the blackout, according to gas station industry sources.

Merchants unable to maintain refrigerators working began giving away cheese, vegetables and meat to clients.

Other shops had supplies stolen.

A small supermarket in a working class area of western Caracas was looted on Saturday night after protesters barricaded an avenue and clashed with police, according to neighbors and the shop’s owner Manuel Caldeira.

“They took food, they broke the display windows, they stole scales and point of sale terminals,” said Caldeira, 58, standing on the shop floor littered with glass. “We weren’t here (when it happened), we got here and found all of this destroyed.”

The air in the shop still reeked of tear gas from the night before, when police had fired canisters to disperse the looters.

Two employees were struggling to open protective steel doors that were damaged by the thieves.

‘NO DIAGNOSIS’ Guaido in a Sunday press conference criticized severely the government for failing to explain what was going on.

“The regime at this hour, days after a blackout without precedent, has no diagnosis,” he said.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in televised comments assured that the government was taking care of the situation, without offering technical details on what was causing the continued outage.

“While the promoters of hate, death and violence delight in their destabilization plans, President Nicolas Maduro has ordered a deployment of ministers to ensure the Venezuelan people are attended to,” he said.

Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent. He has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state functions.

Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s envoy for Venezuela, said on Sunday that Maduro is not open to negotiations and seems intent on staying put.

Speaking on U.S. broadcast network ABC’s “This Week,” U.S. National Security AdvisOr John Bolton said Venezuela’s military was having conversations with opposition legislators “about what might come, how they might move to support the opposition.”

At hospitals, the lack of power combined with the absence or poor performance of backup generators led to the death of 17 patients across the country, non-governmental organization Doctors for Health said on Saturday.

Power returned briefly to parts of Caracas and other cities on Friday, but went out again around midday on Saturday.

“One can infer from the delays and the results of the failure that it was a problem in the lines that leave Guri, rather than in the plant itself,” said Miguel Lara, a former president of the state-run entity responsible for the electricity system, referring to the Guri hydroelectric power plant which supplies most of Venezuela’s electricity.

The extend of the blackout’s on the country’s crude oil production – the source of nearly all the government’s export earnings – remained unclear.

Most of the key joint ventures between PDVSA and foreign partners in the Orinoco Belt, the country’s main crude region, run on their own generators. But many fields in western Zulia state depend on the grid.

One source at a foreign company partnered with PDVSA in a joint venture said output was “stable.”

PDVSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Voice of America

Guinea-Bissau Elects a New Parliament

Voting was peaceful and turnout high in Guinea-Bissau Sunday, where voters cast ballots for a new parliament with hopes of ending years of political turmoil.

“No one has been killed, no fights, no coup, without random arrests and without political prisoners,” President Jose Mario Vaz was happy to say. “Instead, there is freedom of expression and the right to assemble. I think that Guinea-Bissau is a champion for freedom.”

Voters chose from a field of candidates from the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cap Verde (PAIGC), and 20 opposition parties.

Final results are expected later this week.

The impoverished West African nation has watched a series of Vaz-appointed prime ministers come and go over the past four years because none were able to gain enough support in the divided parliament.

A group of West African states worked out a deal last year in which Aristede Gomes would serve as interim prime minister until new elections were held.

Guinea-Bissau has been wracked by numerous coups since declaring independence from Portugal in 1973.

Its economy, heavily dependent on its cashew crop, has been in shambles, in part, because of the lack of political stability.

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Voice of America

Iran’s Zarif in Iraq Ahead of President’s Visit

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has arrived in Baghdad to prepare the ground for his country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who will begin his first official visit to Iraq on Monday.

Baghdad has been under pressure from Washington to limit ties with its neighbour, particularly after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and hit Tehran with sanctions.

Speaking in a joint press conference with Iraq’s top diplomat Mohammed Ali al-Hakim, Zarif said Sunday they had held “very good discussions”.

The Iranian foreign minister thanked Iraq for having “refused the injust and illegal sanctions imposed on the Iranian people” in reference to the US measures.

Iraq was given limited waivers to continue buying electricity and natural gas to generate it from Iran, with Washington calling on it to partner with US companies to become energy independent.

After Turkey, Iran is the top supplier of imported goods to Iraq, and Rouhani said his discussions with Hakim covered sectors including trade and health.

Iran and Iraq plan to raise annual bilateral trade to $20 billion from the current level of $12 billion, according to Rouhani. The bulk of the trade balance is tilted toward Iran with gas and energy exports.

During his visit Rouhani is set to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Salih and the country’s chief Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, according to Iran government’s website.

“Rouhani is coming to discuss… trade between the countries (and) the issue of easing trade exchanges in Iraqi local currency and finding other ways, like Germany and Britain, to adopt an alternative European currency to circumvent US sanctions,” Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi told AFP.

“In addition, there are electricity, water and other files,” he added.

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Voice of America

Boeing Likely to Face New Questions After Another 737 Crash

Investigators rushed to the scene of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia on Sunday, an accident that could renew safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.

The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it.

In those circumstances, the accident is eerily similar to an October crash in which a 737 Max 8 flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on the plane.

Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes.

Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem” with the Ethiopian jetliner.

But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes. He said Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation.

By contrast, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO “stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.

“I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far,” he said.

Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane.

The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.

A spokesman for the NTSB said the U.S. agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities. Boeing and the U.S. investigative agency are also involved in the Lion Air probe.

Indonesian investigators have not stated a cause for the Lion Air crash, but they are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate that a plane is about to lose lift, or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall.

The Lion Air plane’s flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed.

Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements.

Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, protested that they were not fully informed about a new system that could automatically point the plane’s nose down based on sensor readings. Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in December that the Max is a safe plane, and that Boeing did not withhold operating details from airlines and pilots.

Diehl, the former NTSB investigator, said the Ethiopian Airlines pilots should have been aware of that issue from press coverage of the Lion Air crash.

The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max is the newest version of it, with more fuel-efficient engines. The Max is a central part of Boeing’s strategy to compete with European rival Airbus.

Boeing has delivered about 350 737 Max planes and has orders for more than 5,000. It is already in use by many airlines including American, United and Southwest.

The Lion Air incident does not seem to have harmed Boeing’s ability to sell the Max. Boeing’s stock fell nearly 7 percent on the day of the Lion Air crash. Since then it has soared 26 percent higher, compared with a 4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.

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Voice of America

Ethiopian plane crash: inquiry to explore how ‘excellent’ pilot was unable to avert disaster

All 157 passengers and crew onboard brand new aircraft on flight ET 302 were killed

Aviation authorities have begun investigating how a new Boeing plane with an experienced pilot crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board.

The destruction of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302, which was on its way to Nairobi, is the second calamity involving a Boeing 737 Max 8, a new model that experienced a similar accident in Indonesia in October.

Continue reading…

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Africa | The Guardian



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