Italy Tilts Trump‘s Way, Refusing Safe Haven to Child Migrants Saved From Drowning

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who seems ready to vie even with his hero Donald Trump in cruelty toward the most vulnerable, declared victory on Monday in his campaign to defy international law by refusing to accept more than 600 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean this weekend.

Salvini, who is also Italy’s new deputy premier, put his Trump-inspired “Italians First” campaign slogan into practice over the weekend by closing the country’s ports to a rescue ship, the Aquarius, which is carrying 629 migrants saved from drowning, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 babies and seven pregnant women.

The migrants were left stranded at sea, with no idea where they might land until Spain’s new socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, intervened on Monday to offer the migrants safe haven in Valencia.

Spanish journalists on board the rescue vessel have reported on the increasingly desperate plight of the migrants over the past 24 hours.

Valencia, however, is 800 nautical miles away from the point between Italy and Malta, where the ship has been stranded, and took on emergency rations of food on Monday.

Malta’s prime minister, who had resisted Italian pressure to take the migrants, thanked Spain’s new government for defusing the crisis.

Since Italy’s navy had coordinated the initial rescue effort, and even transferred some of the migrants its own navy had saved to the rescue ship staffed by volunteer aid workers, it was obliged by international law to ensure their safety.

But Salvini, who channeled Trump last week by telling reporters at a refugee camp in Sicily that Tunisia “isn’t exporting gentlemen, it seems more often they’re exporting convicts,” responded defiantly to calls for mercy, even from the Vatican. On Sunday evening, he posted an image of himself on Twitter with his arms crossed above the message “we are closing the ports” rendered as an Italian hashtag.

Salvini’s nationalist Lega party has promised to expel the 600,000 undocumented immigrants who have arrived in Italy since 2014, mostly from Africa, but he was only able to close the country’s ports with the support of his coalition partners in the populist Five Star Movement, which leads Italy’s new coalition government.

As the crisis was unfolding over the weekend, the Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio, shared a tweet from Trump in which he praised the coalition’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

While Trump was alienating America’s other close allies at the Group of 7 meeting in Canada this weekend, Conte had echoed the American president’s call for Russia to be readmitted to the club it was suspended from for seizing Crimea and fomenting war in Ukraine.

Salvini, who met with Trump during the 2016 campaign, has also called for an end to sanctions on Russia.

After his party made a strong showing in the March elections, Salvini posted an image of himself on Twitter beaming in front of a bookshelf adorned with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a photograph of Vladimir Putin.

Also on the shelf was a copy of a book about the cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party that Salvini signed in Moscow last year on behalf of his own far-right party. While the details of that agreement were not made public, Salvini told Russians at the time that his goal was to work “so that Italy has real parliamentary elections, just as open as in your country.”

The post Italy Tilts Trump‘s Way, Refusing Safe Haven to Child Migrants Saved From Drowning appeared first on The Intercept.

Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion

Darling was up at 4:30 a.m. on a warm and windy April morning, breastfeeding her 1-year-old baby in the one-bedroom house she shared with her three children and her sick mother, in the El Junquito slum in western Caracas, Venezuela. From the top of her hill, she could see the city sparkling in the distance, its streets deserted since sunset. People rarely dared to venture out into the darkness anymore, in a city that has become notorious for being the most violent capital in the world.

Darling dropped her three sleepy children at her father’s house right below hers, climbed the hundreds of steps and steep dirt path leading to the main road, jumped in a bus, rode the subway, and finally, at 7:10 a.m., entered the waiting room of a private clinic in the upscale neighborhood of Sabana Grande, in central Caracas. At 8 a.m., doctors would cut a four-inch incision in her stomach and remove a piece of her fallopian tubes, sterilizing her for life at 21 years old. A 30-minute surgery, which would last forever. But at least Darling knew she wouldn’t end up like her sister Jennifer, just 23 and with five children and no food to feed them.

An increasing number of young Venezuelan women are going to extreme lengths not to give birth to another child. They are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage. Their determination illustrates the depth of Venezuela’s economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, and its disproportionate impact on women.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during his second-term sworn in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018. (Photo by Federico Parra / AFP) (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures during his second-term swearing-in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018.

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

On May 20, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won a second term in an election that was boycotted by most opposition parties and denounced by a coalition of other Latin American countries. The minimum wage is currently 1 million bolivars per month, or the equivalent of $0.56, and inflation has skyrocketed an estimated 13,779 percent over the last 12 months, according to the opposition-led National Assembly (the government stopped giving an official figure last year.) For most Venezuelans, that means contraception — and nearly everything else — has become either unavailable or unaffordable.

Women in Venezuela are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage.

“Women’s power to decide whether they become mothers or not is violated,” said Magdymar León, psychologist and coordinator at AVESA, a local NGO focusing on sexual health. “It’s some sort of forced maternity.”

There are shortages of between 80 to 95 percent of all medications nationwide, according to local NGO Médicos por la Salud, and contraceptives are especially affected. “Contraceptive methods are not considered essential medicines. So, in the crisis, the ministries and providers favor other kinds of medicines, like antihypertensives or cancer treatment,” León explained. “We consider that contraceptive methods should be included as well, because sexuality is now being pushed to the margins of public policies, which has a direct impact on women’s lives.”

So far, Maduro has consistently refused to open a humanitarian aid channel or recognize the depth of the crisis, condemning instead an “economic war” waged by the United States though sanctions. Indeed, President Donald Trump has issued sanctions that ban U.S. entities from buying bonds from the Venezuelan state or its oil company, PDVSA. There are concerns that since oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue, which is in turn used to import goods like food and medicine, oil-related sanctions only increase the suffering of the population.

The government’s positions on reproductive health are contradictory. On one hand, it offers stipends to pregnant women and for every new child born, even as Venezuela holds the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. Inflation has rendered these already small stipends minuscule – 700,000 bolivars ($0.39) per pregnancy and 1 million bolivars ($0.56) per newborn — but León argues that they have contributed to a culture that encourages motherhood at any age. “It’s a cultural thing, more accentuated in lower-income areas: Maternity is not a choice, but part of your fate,” she said.

On the other hand, the government also funds periodic national campaigns for free sterilization days in public hospitals. There are no publicly available statistics on these campaigns or on the rates of sterilizations, but all factors indicate a rise in demand. Dr. Wilson Torrealba, surgeon and chief of the obstetrics and gynecology service at Altagracia de Orituco hospital in Guárico state, was supervising the campaign in his hospital when it started in April 2017. ”We knew it was a political move but even so, we participated because we were going to help many patients who had a large amount of children,” he said. “We were solving a social problem.”

Before the crisis started, sterilizations in Torreabla’s hospital were only made available for women over 35 with three or more children, or for younger women suffering from an illness that made pregnancy a risk. The sterilization campaigns were supposed to follow those guidelines, but Torrealba said that at his hospital, it quickly spiraled out of his control.

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened.”

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened,” he said. For these reasons, Torrealba said he gave up coordinating the campaign after four months, during which he estimated around 400 to 500 women were sterilized.

Catherin, a medical student who interned in a public maternity clinic and the gynecology department of a public hospital for six months in 2017, said that she had to screen girls as young as 14 who were asking for a spot in the free sterilization days. It had become their only solution: “We wouldn’t have 18 year olds asking to get sterilized if they weren’t desperate,” Catherin said. (She asked that her real name not be used out of concerns it could jeopardize her career.)

Doctors in private clinics also noticed an increase in demand. Rhayza Martinez, a gynecologist who worked in four different private clinics all over Caracas, said that five of the 15 patients she received every day asked for sterilization.

“I am scared and I think about a lot of things, like the fact that later on, I would like to have another son,” said Krisbell, a 27-year-old mother of two girls who was planning on getting sterilized. (The Intercept is using only the first names of the women who spoke to us about their ordeals for this story, for their privacy and safety.) “But those are decisions that you have to think through, and given the current situation, it’s better to give comfort and security to the kids you already have than to think about having another one that you could be bringing into the world to suffer.”

Still-3-1-1528479815

Natalie, 31, lost a child because she could not pay for medicine.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

Krisbell’s fears are well grounded: a recent government report showed that infant mortality rose by 30 percent in 2016.

Natalie, 31, had just been through what the other women were doing all they could to avoid. She lived with her five children in a house on the edge of the “Punta Brava,” or “crazy hill,” a part of the Antímano slum that owed its nickname to regular shootings. Before the crisis, Natalie could feed her five children, but by the time her sixth child was born in the summer 2017, the situation had deteriorated. “CLAP boxes” filled with subsidized food that Maduro introduced in 2016 had started arriving much more sporadically than they used to, and without essentials like milk or beans. Sometimes, Natalie ended up selling some of the sugar in the box to buy cigarettes to sell, and then buy a little more food from that money — often just chicken skin, bones, bananas, and yucca. But it wasn’t enough, and her children often went to bed hungry.

In the fall of 2017, her baby got asthma. He started swelling and had a hard time breathing, becoming so weak that he couldn’t even cry. She tried to find medicine, but the treatment was too expensive and too intermittent. Not long after he was hospitalized, Natalie’s baby had two heart attacks and died at 9 months old. “My son died because I didn’t have the money for his medicines,” Natalie said. Beyond the grief, Natalie was scared for two of her other children, who had also developed respiratory infections.

Because of equipment shortages, many public hospitals and maternities have also stopped offering sterilization days for now, local sources said. Women who can afford it go through PLAFAM, the country’s main family planning organization, or pricier private clinics. Krisbell and her husband saved up for three months in order to afford the 13 million bolivars (then $19) that the surgery would cost at PLAFAM, the equivalent of more than a year at minimum salary. They work as “bachaqueros,” an often derogatory term that designates people who buy food and medical supplies at the government-controlled price to then sell it at an inflated price on the black market. Like most Venezuelans and even more so because of her occupation, Krisbell spent a big part of her days standing in lines to buy food or medicine. There, she met Darling and other young women who bonded over their fear of getting pregnant and sharing tips on where to get sterilized.

On the day of Darling’s sterilization, Krisbell came along, relaxing the atmosphere with her wit and energy. Her own sterilization was meant to take place a week later, but as Darling’s anesthesia started wearing off in the clinic’s windowless room and she vomited on the floor, Krisbell wasn’t so sure anymore. “I’m gonna shit myself,” she said matter-of-factly to Darling’s stepmother Maria. In the corner of the room, the sectioned pieces of Darling’s fallopian tubes had been thrown in a plastic bottle split in half, releasing a pestilential smell. Later, Maria would carry the bottle back home to Darling’s father.

Darling’s sterilization at a private clinic cost 78 million bolivars, she said, the equivalent of $118 at the time of the operation, and a fortune for most Venezuelans. She had received the money from family in Peru, and although her and her sister’s children barely had enough to eat, her family considered the operation to be a priority investment. “It’s much better for her. She won’t have the same problems I’m going through with the baby, not having diapers, not having milk or money to buy it,” said her sister Jennifer. She had gotten sterilized as well, right after she gave birth to her fifth child. The newborn was malnourished, as the lack of nutritious food during Jennifer’s pregnancy meant that her breast didn’t produce milk, and she could rarely find baby formula.

still-2-1-1528479841

Cytotec pills, used in dangerous home-induced abortions.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

For women who don’t have the kind of support Darling had and can’t afford sterilization, a last, and far more dangerous, option exists: home-induced abortion.

Venezuela, where 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, has among the strictest abortion laws in Latin America. Abortion is forbidden even in the case of incest or if the fetus displays life-threatening malformations, and punished by six months to two years in prison. (Because of those penalties, The Intercept has changed the names of the women who shared their stories of illegal abortions.)

“There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do? If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Despite this, Anna, a 27-year-old single mother of two who was a month-and-a-half pregnant, had decided to go through with it. “Imagine if I have another baby now in these conditions. There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do?” she said. “If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Anna went to her neighbor, Janine, who had been through an abortion herself and had been dedicated to helping other young women. Janine had instructed her on what to buy: four Cytotec pills — originally meant to treat stomach ulcers but widely used for abortions — for a total of 8 million bolivars ($12 at the time) on the black market, as well as rue herb and a malt soda.

“If the government’s help is not enough, then who is going to help these girls? It’s not ideal and I don’t agree with it, because it’s murder, since a baby in the womb is a life already. But when you think about it, the baby would suffer,” said Janine, as she put the rue herb and the soda to boil. Once the mix was ready, Janine instructed Anna to drink four cups of it, along with two pills of Cytotec, and to insert the two remaining pills in her vagina.

The procedure wasn’t only illegal, it was also risky. “Most of them induce their abortions using pills like Cytotec or introducing foreign objects in the vagina,” said Torrealba, the hospital doctor. “We quite frequently get patients with severe hemorrhages that get their hemoglobin levels so low that they need blood transfusions.”

If anything went wrong, Anna said she would rather endure the pain at home than go to a hospital; she had heard stories of about doctors mistreating women who had attempted abortion or refusing them care. (Torrealba denied this, saying that all emergency cases are treated as though they were spontaneous abortions, meaning the fetus died for some other reason.)

Magdymar León, the AVESA coordinator, said that many women shared Anna’s fear. “It’s not an isolated perception. Effectively, this happens and obviously since women think it will, they’d rather not go,” she explained. The consequences of not going to the hospital could be grave. “These insecure abortions add to maternal death rates,” added León. Ministry of Health bulletins indicate a 65.8 percent increase in instances of maternal mortality from 2015 to 2016.

Those numbers are a stark reminder that women have born the brunt of Venezuela’s crisis. As she was waiting for Darling to wake up from her surgery, her stepmother Maria remarked, “We women suffer for everything. Having children, and stopping having them.” That sparked laughter from Krisbell. “Men couldn’t take this,” Krisbell said. “They really couldn’t.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The post Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion appeared first on The Intercept.

Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion

Darling was up at 4:30 a.m. on a warm and windy April morning, breastfeeding her 1-year-old baby in the one-bedroom house she shared with her three children and her sick mother, in the El Junquito slum in western Caracas, Venezuela. From the top of her hill, she could see the city sparkling in the distance, its streets deserted since sunset. People rarely dared to venture out into the darkness anymore, in a city that has become notorious for being the most violent capital in the world.

Darling dropped her three sleepy children at her father’s house right below hers, climbed the hundreds of steps and steep dirt path leading to the main road, jumped in a bus, rode the subway, and finally, at 7:10 a.m., entered the waiting room of a private clinic in the upscale neighborhood of Sabana Grande, in central Caracas. At 8 a.m., doctors would cut a four-inch incision in her stomach and remove a piece of her fallopian tubes, sterilizing her for life at 21 years old. A 30-minute surgery, which would last forever. But at least Darling knew she wouldn’t end up like her sister Jennifer, just 23 and with five children and no food to feed them.

An increasing number of young Venezuelan women are going to extreme lengths not to give birth to another child. They are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage. Their determination illustrates the depth of Venezuela’s economic crisis, the worst in the country’s history, and its disproportionate impact on women.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during his second-term sworn in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018. (Photo by Federico Parra / AFP) (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures during his second-term swearing-in ceremony, at the Congress in Caracas on May 24, 2018.

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

On May 20, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won a second term in an election that was boycotted by most opposition parties and denounced by a coalition of other Latin American countries. The minimum wage is currently 1 million bolivars per month, or the equivalent of $0.56, and inflation has skyrocketed an estimated 13,779 percent over the last 12 months, according to the opposition-led National Assembly (the government stopped giving an official figure last year.) For most Venezuelans, that means contraception — and nearly everything else — has become either unavailable or unaffordable.

Women in Venezuela are in an impossible bind, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of contraceptive pills costs the equivalent of up to 10 months’ salary at the minimum wage.

“Women’s power to decide whether they become mothers or not is violated,” said Magdymar León, psychologist and coordinator at AVESA, a local NGO focusing on sexual health. “It’s some sort of forced maternity.”

There are shortages of between 80 to 95 percent of all medications nationwide, according to local NGO Médicos por la Salud, and contraceptives are especially affected. “Contraceptive methods are not considered essential medicines. So, in the crisis, the ministries and providers favor other kinds of medicines, like antihypertensives or cancer treatment,” León explained. “We consider that contraceptive methods should be included as well, because sexuality is now being pushed to the margins of public policies, which has a direct impact on women’s lives.”

So far, Maduro has consistently refused to open a humanitarian aid channel or recognize the depth of the crisis, condemning instead an “economic war” waged by the United States though sanctions. Indeed, President Donald Trump has issued sanctions that ban U.S. entities from buying bonds from the Venezuelan state or its oil company, PDVSA. There are concerns that since oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue, which is in turn used to import goods like food and medicine, oil-related sanctions only increase the suffering of the population.

The government’s positions on reproductive health are contradictory. On one hand, it offers stipends to pregnant women and for every new child born, even as Venezuela holds the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. Inflation has rendered these already small stipends minuscule – 700,000 bolivars ($0.39) per pregnancy and 1 million bolivars ($0.56) per newborn — but León argues that they have contributed to a culture that encourages motherhood at any age. “It’s a cultural thing, more accentuated in lower-income areas: Maternity is not a choice, but part of your fate,” she said.

On the other hand, the government also funds periodic national campaigns for free sterilization days in public hospitals. There are no publicly available statistics on these campaigns or on the rates of sterilizations, but all factors indicate a rise in demand. Dr. Wilson Torrealba, surgeon and chief of the obstetrics and gynecology service at Altagracia de Orituco hospital in Guárico state, was supervising the campaign in his hospital when it started in April 2017. ”We knew it was a political move but even so, we participated because we were going to help many patients who had a large amount of children,” he said. “We were solving a social problem.”

Before the crisis started, sterilizations in Torreabla’s hospital were only made available for women over 35 with three or more children, or for younger women suffering from an illness that made pregnancy a risk. The sterilization campaigns were supposed to follow those guidelines, but Torrealba said that at his hospital, it quickly spiraled out of his control.

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened.”

“Some patients got sterilized at 18 or 19 years old with only one child, which shouldn’t have happened,” he said. For these reasons, Torrealba said he gave up coordinating the campaign after four months, during which he estimated around 400 to 500 women were sterilized.

Catherin, a medical student who interned in a public maternity clinic and the gynecology department of a public hospital for six months in 2017, said that she had to screen girls as young as 14 who were asking for a spot in the free sterilization days. It had become their only solution: “We wouldn’t have 18 year olds asking to get sterilized if they weren’t desperate,” Catherin said. (She asked that her real name not be used out of concerns it could jeopardize her career.)

Doctors in private clinics also noticed an increase in demand. Rhayza Martinez, a gynecologist who worked in four different private clinics all over Caracas, said that five of the 15 patients she received every day asked for sterilization.

“I am scared and I think about a lot of things, like the fact that later on, I would like to have another son,” said Krisbell, a 27-year-old mother of two girls who was planning on getting sterilized. (The Intercept is using only the first names of the women who spoke to us about their ordeals for this story, for their privacy and safety.) “But those are decisions that you have to think through, and given the current situation, it’s better to give comfort and security to the kids you already have than to think about having another one that you could be bringing into the world to suffer.”

Still-3-1-1528479815

Natalie, 31, lost a child because she could not pay for medicine.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

Krisbell’s fears are well grounded: a recent government report showed that infant mortality rose by 30 percent in 2016.

Natalie, 31, had just been through what the other women were doing all they could to avoid. She lived with her five children in a house on the edge of the “Punta Brava,” or “crazy hill,” a part of the Antímano slum that owed its nickname to regular shootings. Before the crisis, Natalie could feed her five children, but by the time her sixth child was born in the summer 2017, the situation had deteriorated. “CLAP boxes” filled with subsidized food that Maduro introduced in 2016 had started arriving much more sporadically than they used to, and without essentials like milk or beans. Sometimes, Natalie ended up selling some of the sugar in the box to buy cigarettes to sell, and then buy a little more food from that money — often just chicken skin, bones, bananas, and yucca. But it wasn’t enough, and her children often went to bed hungry.

In the fall of 2017, her baby got asthma. He started swelling and had a hard time breathing, becoming so weak that he couldn’t even cry. She tried to find medicine, but the treatment was too expensive and too intermittent. Not long after he was hospitalized, Natalie’s baby had two heart attacks and died at 9 months old. “My son died because I didn’t have the money for his medicines,” Natalie said. Beyond the grief, Natalie was scared for two of her other children, who had also developed respiratory infections.

Because of equipment shortages, many public hospitals and maternities have also stopped offering sterilization days for now, local sources said. Women who can afford it go through PLAFAM, the country’s main family planning organization, or pricier private clinics. Krisbell and her husband saved up for three months in order to afford the 13 million bolivars (then $19) that the surgery would cost at PLAFAM, the equivalent of more than a year at minimum salary. They work as “bachaqueros,” an often derogatory term that designates people who buy food and medical supplies at the government-controlled price to then sell it at an inflated price on the black market. Like most Venezuelans and even more so because of her occupation, Krisbell spent a big part of her days standing in lines to buy food or medicine. There, she met Darling and other young women who bonded over their fear of getting pregnant and sharing tips on where to get sterilized.

On the day of Darling’s sterilization, Krisbell came along, relaxing the atmosphere with her wit and energy. Her own sterilization was meant to take place a week later, but as Darling’s anesthesia started wearing off in the clinic’s windowless room and she vomited on the floor, Krisbell wasn’t so sure anymore. “I’m gonna shit myself,” she said matter-of-factly to Darling’s stepmother Maria. In the corner of the room, the sectioned pieces of Darling’s fallopian tubes had been thrown in a plastic bottle split in half, releasing a pestilential smell. Later, Maria would carry the bottle back home to Darling’s father.

Darling’s sterilization at a private clinic cost 78 million bolivars, she said, the equivalent of $118 at the time of the operation, and a fortune for most Venezuelans. She had received the money from family in Peru, and although her and her sister’s children barely had enough to eat, her family considered the operation to be a priority investment. “It’s much better for her. She won’t have the same problems I’m going through with the baby, not having diapers, not having milk or money to buy it,” said her sister Jennifer. She had gotten sterilized as well, right after she gave birth to her fifth child. The newborn was malnourished, as the lack of nutritious food during Jennifer’s pregnancy meant that her breast didn’t produce milk, and she could rarely find baby formula.

still-2-1-1528479841

Cytotec pills, used in dangerous home-induced abortions.

Still: Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier

For women who don’t have the kind of support Darling had and can’t afford sterilization, a last, and far more dangerous, option exists: home-induced abortion.

Venezuela, where 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, has among the strictest abortion laws in Latin America. Abortion is forbidden even in the case of incest or if the fetus displays life-threatening malformations, and punished by six months to two years in prison. (Because of those penalties, The Intercept has changed the names of the women who shared their stories of illegal abortions.)

“There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do? If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Despite this, Anna, a 27-year-old single mother of two who was a month-and-a-half pregnant, had decided to go through with it. “Imagine if I have another baby now in these conditions. There aren’t even diapers or anything. I don’t work. What can I do?” she said. “If the situation was different, I would have my baby.”

Anna went to her neighbor, Janine, who had been through an abortion herself and had been dedicated to helping other young women. Janine had instructed her on what to buy: four Cytotec pills — originally meant to treat stomach ulcers but widely used for abortions — for a total of 8 million bolivars ($12 at the time) on the black market, as well as rue herb and a malt soda.

“If the government’s help is not enough, then who is going to help these girls? It’s not ideal and I don’t agree with it, because it’s murder, since a baby in the womb is a life already. But when you think about it, the baby would suffer,” said Janine, as she put the rue herb and the soda to boil. Once the mix was ready, Janine instructed Anna to drink four cups of it, along with two pills of Cytotec, and to insert the two remaining pills in her vagina.

The procedure wasn’t only illegal, it was also risky. “Most of them induce their abortions using pills like Cytotec or introducing foreign objects in the vagina,” said Torrealba, the hospital doctor. “We quite frequently get patients with severe hemorrhages that get their hemoglobin levels so low that they need blood transfusions.”

If anything went wrong, Anna said she would rather endure the pain at home than go to a hospital; she had heard stories of about doctors mistreating women who had attempted abortion or refusing them care. (Torrealba denied this, saying that all emergency cases are treated as though they were spontaneous abortions, meaning the fetus died for some other reason.)

Magdymar León, the AVESA coordinator, said that many women shared Anna’s fear. “It’s not an isolated perception. Effectively, this happens and obviously since women think it will, they’d rather not go,” she explained. The consequences of not going to the hospital could be grave. “These insecure abortions add to maternal death rates,” added León. Ministry of Health bulletins indicate a 65.8 percent increase in instances of maternal mortality from 2015 to 2016.

Those numbers are a stark reminder that women have born the brunt of Venezuela’s crisis. As she was waiting for Darling to wake up from her surgery, her stepmother Maria remarked, “We women suffer for everything. Having children, and stopping having them.” That sparked laughter from Krisbell. “Men couldn’t take this,” Krisbell said. “They really couldn’t.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The post Lacking Birth Control Options, Desperate Venezuelan Women Turn to Sterilization and Illegal Abortion appeared first on The Intercept.

UAE Says It Can’t Control Yemeni Forces — Even as It Hands Them Bags of Cash

On the edge of the village of Al Buqa in the Yemeni governorate of Hodeidah last month, Yemeni fighters dressed in a mix of military fatigues and mawaz – the wraparound skirt traditionally worn by men here – stood in a loose formation along the main highway near the bright blue waters of the Red Sea.

The fighters, known as the Yemeni National Resistance, included members of the sandal-clad Tihama Resistance, gaunt and war-weary after years of fighting, as well as the more recently deployed Guards of the Republic led by the nephew of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president of 33 years. Along with southern Yemenis, ultraconservative Sunni Muslim Salafis, and Sudanese troops, they are America’s de facto allies in a fight against the Houthis, an Iran-allied rebel group that, since 2015, has been fighting a U.S.-backed coalition of 10 nations led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Yemeni coalition-allied fighters have advanced rapidly since the UAE stepped up support for them after Saleh was killed in December. A longtime U.S. and Gulf ally, Saleh had aided the Houthi takeover of Yemen’s capital in 2014. But at the end of 2017, he switched sides again, declaring loyalty to the coalition and sparking a battle with the Houthis that ended in his death at their hands.

Fighters from the Tihama Resistance move towards the village of Al Buqa, Hodeidah

Fighters from the Tihama Resistance move north into the Houthi-controlled village of Al Buqa, Hodeidah, on May 15, 2018.

Photo: Iona Craig for The Intercept

A few remaining Saleh loyalists, including his nephew Tareq, escaped Houthi territory. Whether seeking revenge or out of political expediency, Tareq joined the coalition’s fight against the Houthis, bringing fresh troops, including a small contingent of soldiers from Saleh’s old Republican Guard, a military unit that the U.S. has previously supported. The UAE has been training new recruits and also provided a significant supply of armored personnel carriers and shiny new tanks to break the stalemate on Yemen’s western front line.

“We take our orders from the Emiratis, of course,” a field commander told The Intercept before leaning in through the open door of his pickup truck to grab a radio so he could call for air support as his men trundled toward Al Buqa flanked by the new Emirati military vehicles.

In the last two weeks, the Yemeni proxy fighters have gained another 50 miles, only slowed by thousands of land mines laid by retreating Houthis who otherwise put up little resistance. By this week, they were in Ad Durayhimi, within 10 miles of their ultimate goal: the port city of Hodeidah, which has been under Houthi control since 2014.

The Yemeni National Resistance fighters aiming to take Hodeidah cannot possibly do it alone. Time spent with the fighters on the front lines makes it clear that they depend on air power from the Saudi-formed coalition, as well as UAE ground support. A former senior White House official told The Intercept that multiple U.S. officials have indicated that the UAE said it would not attack Hodeidah without U.S. backing.

“Those forces cannot succeed against the Houthis without the UAE, and the UAE cannot succeed against the Houthis without the American green light and support,” said Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa program director.

So far, the U.S. has been unwilling to back such an invasion, but recent reporting suggests that may be changing. “We have folks who are frustrated and ready to say: Let’s do this. We’ve been flirting with this for a long time. Something needs to change the dynamic, and if we help the Emiratis do it better, this could be good,” an unnamed senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal.

That cavalier tone belies the potentially disastrous consequences of such an attack. The port of Hodeidah has been crucial to getting humanitarian supplies and commercial food imports into the country despite severe restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia that have included a ban on containerized cargo entering Hodeidah’s ports. The United Nations’s humanitarian office estimates that 340,000 people are likely to be displaced if fighting reaches Hodeidah city, adding to the 3 million already internally displaced since the Saudi coalition intervention in Yemen began in March 2015.

“Any disruption to this critical lifeline could be a death sentence for millions of Yemenis,” said Abdi Mohamud, Yemen country director for Mercy Corps. “The humanitarian needs are already overwhelming. The disruption of Hodeidah port could effectively kill any hope of averting a greater humanitarian catastrophe.”

Civilians flee fighting as Saudi/UAE coalition supplied armored personnel carriers flank Yemeni Resistance fighters battling for control of the village of Al Buqa, Hodeidah, Yemen 15 May 2018.

Civilians flee fighting as Saudi/UAE coalition supplied armored personnel carriers flank Yemeni Resistance fighters battling for control of the village of Al Buqa, Hodeidah, on May 15, 2018.

Photo: Iona Craig for The Intercept

Success for Saudi-UAE-supported forces in any attempt to take Hodeidah is far from certain. According to a U.S. military analysis reviewed by The Intercept, the Yemeni forces’ “lack of will” coupled with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which runs from mid-May to mid-June and involves fasting from sunrise to sunset, may slow the assault. Forces on the front lines on the eve of Ramadan told The Intercept that they were reluctant to fight through the Muslim holy month.

The military document viewed by The Intercept also highlights recent setbacks for the UAE-backed Yemeni fighters when they attempted to push east toward the city of the Taiz, which remains partially controlled by the Houthis. “The [UAE Presidential Guard] indicated operations east of Mukha did not go as planned and suffered numerous casualties,” the document notes. It also mentions a 2017 attack against the Houthis in the same area of the Red Sea coast by the UAE’s elite forces. The Emiratis came under fire and suffered “weapon employment issues and malfunctions”; they later described the battle as “hellish,” according to the document.

Although the UAE pledged not to make the final push on Hodeidah without U.S. approval, Emirati officials have claimed that they have no control over the actions of its surrogate forces, raising concern that Yemeni anti-Houthi resistance fighters may advance on the city without authorization.

But that contradicts the scene on the front line last month, which suggested that the Yemeni fighters do not move without Emirati orders. Soldiers told The Intercept that their salaries are also paid by the UAE, with additional daily cash handouts for some resistance fighters arriving in plastic bags on the front line. More than a half-dozen field and brigade commanders acknowledged taking their orders from the UAE, including from Emirati senior officers stationed on the Red Sea coast. The strength of the Emirati chain of command is important because the notion that the U.S. and UAE don’t really control the fighters gives those countries “plausible deniability” in case of an attack, Hiltermann said.

Any final military push on Hodeidah now appears to rest on the success of the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who arrived in the Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a on June 2 for a four-day visit. Griffiths is making a crucial attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to avert the looming battle by reaching an agreement with the Houthis for their withdrawal and acceptance of a proposal to place the port under U.N. or international supervision.

With forces on the outskirts of the city, pressure is mounting. On Thursday night in Hodeidah, residents witnessed a heavy presence of Houthi trucks in several parts of the city and artillery fire from nearby fighting could be heard from downtown. A deal between the two sides would open the way for further political negotiations, while failure could result in a long and devastating struggle for control of Hodeidah. But for these political efforts to succeed, both sides must be convinced that this is an unwinnable war militarily, Hiltermann noted. Hours after Griffiths left Yemen, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile into neighboring Saudi Arabia. A separate U.N. peace plan, yet to be unveiled, reportedly includes a call for the Houthis to give up their ballistic missiles in exchange for an end to the Saudi-UAE led coalition airstrikes, as well as a proposal for a transitional government following a ceasefire. Griffiths is due to present a Yemen proposal by mid-June.

Saudi Arabia established the coalition in March 2015 and launched an aerial bombing campaign in Yemen to push back the Houthis, who seized control of the capital in September 2014. Since 2015, the UAE has been responsible for much of the ground war, particularly in the south and west of the country.

More than 22 million Yemenis, three-quarters of the population, are already in need of humanitarian assistance, compounded by restrictions on imports imposed by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and a complete blockade on humanitarian aid last November in response to the Houthis firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials claim Iranian missiles are being smuggled into Yemen via Hodeidah despite a U.N. monitoring system for vessels entering the port.

Military commanders on the front lines in Hodeidah governorate told The Intercept that their troops planned to cut off supply lines and besiege Houthi forces in the city, rather than fight their way in, though the UAE has also said this could change “if there is an attack on them or some sort of provocation from inside the city.” Any claim of incitement would likely be impossible to verify in the ensuing battle.

The conflict in Yemen has killed an estimated 28,033 people since January 2017 and pushed 8.4 million to the brink of famine. Some 50,000 Yemeni children are estimated to have died last year from hunger and preventable disease as a result of what U.N. aid agencies describe as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

“Hodeidah isn’t a political pawn to be traded and bargained with. It is a lifeline that millions of ordinary Yemenis are depending on for survival,” warned Mercy Corps’s Mohamud. “Grandstanding and hyperbole will not feed the people if the aid deliveries dry up.”

Reporting contributed by Mohammed Ali Kalfood

Top photo: Yemeni Resistance Fighters in Al Hayma the day after pushing Houthi rebels out of the seaport.

The post UAE Says It Can’t Control Yemeni Forces — Even as It Hands Them Bags of Cash appeared first on The Intercept.

Jordan’s Prime Minister Ousted Amid Demonstrations — but Protests Against Austerity Continue

For the past week, Jordan, a country frequently touted by the West as a haven of stability in a chaotic region, found itself amid an uncharacteristic tumult. Protests erupted on May 30 with the announcement of International Monetary Fund-backed austerity measures, including a steep hike on taxes for Jordan’s cash-strapped, underemployed populace. After five days of widespread strikes and marches, Jordan’s King Abdullah II dismissed Prime Minister Hani Mulki on Monday. In the past, such symbolic moves have been enough to placate dissent, but this time, Jordanian protesters appear determined to hold out for more systemic change.

Hours after Mulki’s dismissal, thousands of demonstrators returned to the streets, calling for a full rollback of the proposed austerity measures. Among them was Mustafa al-Khalili, a 29-year-old engineer living in Amman. This week, as a first-time protester, al-Khalili has found common cause with Jordanians across socioeconomic, tribal, and geographic divides. “People from every part of society are out together,” he told The Intercept in a phone interview. “We are united by one thing: We love our country and we are fed up with corruption.”

Last Wednesday, al-Khalili and his co-workers received an email from union leaders alerting them that their government was considering a new bill to raise taxes. Al-Khalili was outraged. As a young father in Amman, one of the Middle East’s most expensive cities, he was already struggling to make ends meet. The new law — which would raise income taxes on individuals by at least 5 percent and on companies by 20-40 percent — would surely push him, and many of his fellow citizens, over the brink. “So many of us are working full time jobs and still just trying to meet our basic needs,” he said. “And many of us are were getting desperate even before this new bill.”

“It was actually a beautiful moment, because there were Jordanians from all different classes, all different professions, and women as well as men.”

News of the proposed tax increase spread swiftly, igniting outcry on social media across socioeconomic classes. Many protesters accused the government of corruption and failing to protect Jordanians from the interest of foreign bodies like the IMF, which is seeking to reform Jordan’s deeply indebted economy. Within hours, over 30 labor unions had called for a strike, and thousands of workers walked off the job in protest. Al-Khalili joined the hundreds who took to Amman’s busy streets to demonstrate. “It was actually a beautiful moment,” said al-Khalili, “because there were Jordanians from all different classes, all different professions, and women as well as men. It was the love of Jordan that brought us out to the streets.”

The initial strike gave way to a campaign of nightly protests, centered in Amman’s Fourth Circle neighborhood, calling for a reversal of the austerity measures and the resignation of Mulki, who was widely seen as corrupt. Yet the problem runs deeper than any one person, said al-Khalili, who has continued to protest night after night. “The Parliament does not reflect the needs of the people,” he said. “They are more interested in enriching themselves than innovating and trying to fix our economy. And we make the mistake of electing these people again and again. Well, now we are saying: Enough!”

Jordanian gendarmes and Jordanian security forces are on high alert in the capital of Amman, early Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Jordan's King Abdullah II on Monday accepted the resignation of his embattled prime minister and reportedly tapped a leading reformer as a successor, hoping to quell the largest anti-government protests in recent years, which are also seen as a potential challenge to his two-decade-old rule. (AP Photo/Raad al-Adayleh)

Jordanian gendarmes and Jordanian security forces are on high alert in the capital of Amman, in the early hours of June 5, 2018.

Photo: Raad al-Adayleh/AP

So far, security forces have generally shown restraint while containing the crowds, Hiba Zayadin, acting researcher for Human Rights Watch in Jordan, told The Intercept. Scattered arrests are usually followed by quick releases. “There have been a few shows of force here and there, and a few people have lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen in the crowd, but so far, the demonstrations have been largely peaceful,” she said.

The restraint may go both ways. Despite some chants that include calls for the government to fall, many protesters are adamant that they are not aiming to create “another Syria or Libya or Iraq,” says al-Khalili. Demonstrators tended to focus their anger on the parliament, the IMF, and other outside forces, stopping short of denouncing the monarchy. “The king is very important to stability, to uniting the different tribes and families. But he wants to work with us to stop corruption,” said al-Khalili. “What we need is representatives and a prime minister who are actually serious about fixing the economy, and who don’t get pushed around by lenders like the IMF.”

News of Mulki’s resignation gave a morale boost to protesters, but it did not bring any resolution on the issue of the austerity measures.

News of Mulki’s resignation gave a morale boost to protesters, but it did not bring any resolution on the issue of the austerity measures. Union leaders have called for a nationwide strike on June 6 and announced Monday that the planned strike would continue despite the prime minister’s ouster. Demonstrators vowed to continue protesting until the government walks back the austerity measures for good. “The message is much bigger than any one person, or even one bill,” Eyad Omari, a Jordanian investment banker who has attended the protests, told The Intercept. “Jordanian people are telling the parliament that things have changed. Now, if you want to be in our government, you have to serve our interests. We want them to know we are watching them.”

Many outlets have reported that Abdullah has tapped Omar Razzaz, the current education minister and former World Bank officer, to replace Mulki. For the moment, however, there is no clear word as to the fate of the austerity bill. Omari is hopeful: “Razzaz is a well-educated man, and I think there’s a chance he could really bring some good solutions.” Other protesters have their sights set on more drastic change in Jordanian leadership. On Monday night, chants of “No to Mulki, no to Razzaz” could be heard.

As thousands gear up for Wednesday’s full-day strike, al-Khalili hopes this week’s political flurry stirs his compatriots toward more sustained political engagement. “It’s something totally new for many of us,” he said. “We stood up to the government, and we made the government do something it didn’t want to do. Now, suddenly, people see they have power. They can draw the line.”

Top photo: Protesters gather for a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office in Amman, early on June 5, 2018.

The post Jordan’s Prime Minister Ousted Amid Demonstrations — but Protests Against Austerity Continue appeared first on The Intercept.

Massive Truckers’ Strike Exposes Political Chaos as Brazil Gears Up for Elections in October

It’s rush hour in Brazil’s largest cities. But the traffic, which is nearly always chaotic, is flowing smoothly. It’s as if the inhabitants have fled some lethal epidemic: The main universities are closed; basic items like eggs and tomatoes can’t be found in grocery stores; and nearly half of the city buses sit idle in their garages. Worse yet, most of the gas stations in the country have no fuel to sell — the shortage prompts the closing of 10 major airports. In a country that exports more beef than any other, only two of the 109 meat-packing plants with export licenses are operating.

On May 21, a Monday, disorder seized Brazil, owing to a work stoppage by the country’s truckers, who were protesting the high price of diesel fuel. A large part of the fleet of 1.6 million tractor trailers, responsible for moving more than 60 percent of the goods transported throughout the country, were parked at 600 strategic locations on federal highways. Trucks blocked lanes and prevented the any type of cargo vehicle from making it through. Meat, eggs, and vegetables went undelivered. Organ transplants went unperformed. And livestock reportedly died in the fields after the feed ran out.

The strike that paralyzed the nation’s economy forced average Brazilians to pay attention to what was previously a high-level political affair: the battle over the oil company Petrobras, Brazil’s largest state-operated corporation. During the administration of President Dilma Rousseff, which ended in her impeachment and removal from office in August 2016, the oil giant was used as a means of controlling inflation. Fuel prices were subsidized, and although the price of a barrel of oil increased on the international market, the Brazilian government did not allow that increase to be fully reflected in the pump prices in the country.

The artificially low prices for gasoline and diesel put the company in debt and depleted its coffers, causing it to lose market value. The state of affairs after the subsidies compounded the effects of the sprawling “Car Wash” corruption scandal — which revealed a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme within Petrobras, benefiting executives and politicians from several parties — that has plagued its reputation and put a wrench in its operations since 2014.

View of the empty Brazilian family farmers' stall at Brasilia's Central Food Supply (CEASA), on May 25, 2018. - The CEASA is supplied daily by more than 3000 trucks, but due to the nation-wide truckers' strike, it is receiving less than 50 trucks per day, causing severe food shortages in Brasilia, as well as the rocketing in the prices of fruits and vegetables in some places up to 400 percent. (Photo by EVARISTO SA / AFP) (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

View of the empty Brazilian family farmers’ stall at Brasília’s Central Food Supply, CEASA, on May 25, 2018. CEASA is supplied daily by more than 3,000 trucks, but due to the nationwide truckers’ strike, it is receiving less than 50 trucks per day, causing severe food shortages in Brasília, as well as the rocketing in the prices of fruits and vegetables in some places up to 400 percent.

Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

After Rousseff’s removal, her vice president Michel Temer assumed office and rewrote the rules — one of many radical, pro-market changes he implemented. Temer established a new pricing policy for Petrobras that allowed international market fluctuations to dictate pump prices in Brazil. The company’s stock rallied on the São Paulo and New York exchanges, which thrilled investors. However, the change also resulted in the price of diesel changing 121 times in just two years — previously, readjustments had been made on a monthly basis, which provided transporters with greater predictability when negotiating contracts. In the month leading up to the truckers’ strike, the price of diesel changed 16 times and rose by 38.4 percent.

The economy has shown statistical signs of recovery — but a weak one, much slower than after past crises.

A few weeks ago, Temer declared himself triumphant on Twitter: “Two years ago, I took the helm of the Brazilian government with a tough mission: to rescue the country from its most severe recession, to stamp out unemployment, to return to fiscal responsibility, and to maintain social programs. In fact, I have done all of that.” But to the majority of Brazilians, Temer lives in a parallel universe. The economy has shown statistical signs of recovery — but a weak one, much slower than after past crises. Yet the shifts have yet to materialize in the lives of ordinary people. Temer even tried to sell new data showing an increase in the unemployment rate as a positive, but was contradicted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau. With political disillusionment and economic anxiety raging, the high price of fuel was merely the spark that ignited a powder keg.

Forty-eight hours after the protests began, the price of food had already created an enormous crisis. Two weeks ago, the price of a sack of potatoes was less than $11. By Thursday last week, it had reached nearly $80 in some places. By the third day of the strike, potatoes began to disappear from markets because they could not be transported from the countryside to the cities.

Soldiers take part in an operation to clear highway Regis Bittencourt, 30 km from Sao Paulo, on May 30, 2018 as a truckers' strike against rising fuel costs in Brazil that has left much of the country paralyzed is now over. - Brazilian oil sector workers began a three-day strike Wednesday in at least eight refineries, as the country reeled from the truckers' protest. (Photo by Nelson ALMEIDA / AFP) (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Soldiers take part in an operation to clear highway Regis Bittencourt, about 20 miles from São Paulo, on May 30, 2018, as a truckers’ strike against rising fuel costs in Brazil that has left much of the country paralyzed is now over.

Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

The government cannot claim to have been taken by surprise by the truckers’ strike. Last Friday, The Intercept Brasil published a document proving that Temer and six of his ministers had been alerted at least a week in advance that truck drivers were planning a strike to begin on May 21 if their concerns weren’t addressed. The drivers called for an emergency meeting with the president to avoid the chaos that would inevitably ensue, but the government ignored them. So they shut off their engines.

The strike has a novel component for Brazil: Rather than being led by union representatives crowded into trucks with bullhorns leading the marches, the strike emerged out of a haphazard process organized through WhatsApp groups. In those groups, interspersed with self-help messages and pornography, political videos began to appear that inflamed protesters’ sentiments, sometimes offering hearty helpings of “fake news,” upping the octane of the revolt. Eventually, marching orders began to appear, and the protest movement emerged from the digital chats into the real world.

Despite a lack of clear leadership, the picket lines were ruthlessly enforced.

Journalists gained access to the WhatsApp groups in an attempt to make sense of the movement’s structure. They found few real leaders and instead, got a peek into a movement with disputes in every corner of the country — as if some strikers attempted to settle petty feuds while watching Rome burn. Despite a lack of clear leadership, the picket lines were ruthlessly enforced: Truckers that tried to ignore the blockades risked being beaten, some trucks were pelted with rocks or even set on fire.

The federal government reacted with panic. Officials tried to corral the discontent by handing some measure of political power to unions and businesspeople in the trucking sector, with whom they tried to negotiate. But fewer than 10 percent of the truckers belong to a union; no labor leader reigns over the WhatsApp republic. The government and the unions drew up two truces that never materialized.

The strike saw the redrawing of some of the traditional lines between labor and management and an alliance rarely seen in movements in Brazil emerged. Bosses and employees seem to have joined forces to call for a reduction in the price of diesel — a type of coordinated work stoppage considered a lockout and prohibited by law. Federal authorities quickly began investigating this supposed collusions, and one businessperson was arrested and charged. The precariousness of the workers in the industry — who are often owner-operators that bear the cost of fuel, tolls, repairs, and heavily financed vehicles — helped make that possible.

Outside pressure groups leveraged the popularity of the strike — a survey conducted by the Datafolha Institute last Tuesday showed that 87 percent of Brazilians supported the truckers, and 56 percent believed that the strike should continue — to try to call attention to unrelated interests. The image of a mass of useful, desperate people with reasonable demands and relatable complaints was too good to pass up. The most visible of these outside interests was the seemingly growing minority of Brazilians who long for the return of the military regime, which have tried to hitch a ride on the popular support for the strike. Those pushing a military coup had the support of some truckers, but how much of the movement would back a putsch remains unclear.

Members of the Brazilian Military Police and Sao Paulo's traffic police, stand beside a truck with its windscreen reading "military intervention", during an operation to clear blocked "Rodoanel Mrio Covas" road, in the city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, some 25 kilometres from Sao Paulo, Brazil on the sixth day of a truckers' strike protesting rising fuel costs, on May, 26, 2018. - The strike over a hike in diesel prices has caused widespread fuel shortages that have shut down urban transportation systems, crippled industries and sent prices of food and fuel soaring. In a televised address Friday, President Michel Temer declared he had "mobilized the security forces" to clear the roads. (Photo by MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of the Brazilian Military Police and São Paulo’s traffic police stand beside a truck with its windscreen reading “military intervention” during an operation to clear blocked “Rodoanel Mrio Covas” Road, on May 26, 2018, in the city of São Bernardo do Campo, some 15 miles from São Paulo, Brazil, on the sixth day of a truckers’ strike protesting rising fuel costs.

Photo: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

After a week, the truckers lost control of the situation. The strike had ballooned into a full-blown political crisis.

The militarists were quick to seize onto the chaos. A contingent of merchants, businesspeople, professionals, and middle-class people — long fed up with corruption, high taxes, ineffective governance, and rampant crime — saw in the tumult a golden opportunity to take to the streets and demand the army to seize power. That the army had subjected the country to a 20-yearlong military dictatorship — during which it tortured and killed hundreds of people and censored any news about its own rampant corruption — seemed a barely perceptible background fact.

 Normally garrulous types who seek attention at almost any cost, Brazilian politicians fell mute.

While the militarists flung themselves headlong into the crisis to make their fine-tuned propaganda points, national politicians seemed to do the opposite. Normally garrulous types who seek attention at almost any cost, Brazilian politicians fell mute — flitting in any direction that would allow them to avoid taking a firm position. Without clearly defined enemies to attack, members of Congress bravely absconded from Brasília, some within the first days of the strike, fearing that a shortage of jet fuel would isolate the city and force them to take public positions at the insistence of journalists.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who leads the polls for the upcoming presidential election despite being in prison on a controversial conviction for corruption — has long been known as an astute political observer. Yet he declared himself “perplexed” by the strike, according to politicians who visited him in his prison cell in Curitiba. Jair Bolsonaro, the reactionary Army Reserve captain who polls second, behind Lula, initially called for the people to take to the streets, inciting protesters and declaring his support for the stoppage. Days later, frightened, he radically changed his position and said that it was “time to end” the revolt.

The anemic state of Lula’s Workers’ Party was the same as that of other candidates of the Brazilian left, who also failed to capitalize on the protest. The Workers’ Party, which historically had the ability to speak to the masses, hardly garnered any notice. With no ties to the truckers, the party seemed to be speaking to itself on social networks. The same was true of other candidates who have tried to pass themselves off as moderates but are, in fact, representatives of conservatism, such as Geraldo Alckmin, the establishment’s main contender for the presidency.

The politicians’ temerity has recent precedent: protests against bus fare hikes in June 2013. State and local governments were slow to react to discontent and a protest movement popped up, led by small groups initially focused on public transportation fares. The movement quickly blossomed into gigantic popular demonstrations that, when the government realized they could not be contained, were met with police violence. In the wake of 2013, new extremist movements emerged and haven’t left the streets since. These groups, like the Free Brazil Movement, were instrumental in bringing down Rousseff.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - MAY 29: Drivers await the arrival of fuel to supply motorcycles and cars during the trucker's strike on May 29, 2018 in San Paulo, Brazil. The queues to fuel the vehicles are reaching kilometers in the few gas stations that have fuel. Only 5% of the city's gas stations are operating due to the truckers strike. The strike is on it's eighth day and reaches almost every state in the country. Financial losses already exceed 10 billion dollars. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

Days after concessions from the federal government brought a partial end to the strike, drivers await the arrival of fuel to supply motorcycles and cars during the truckers’ strike on May 29, 2018 in São Paulo, Brazil. Queues to fuel vehicles stretched for kilometers as tanker trucks trickled into the major cities.

Photo: Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

Last Sunday, during the country’s highest-rated television show, Fantástico, Temer announced a series of measures to appease the protesters. Among them, he pledged to lower the price of diesel and repeal the international price policy he had created — without saying who was going to cover the multibillion-dollar losses for Petrobras. Truckers began to start up their rigs again. But many were unable to get off the road, hindered by violent groups who had, by then, taken over many of the roadblocks. Temer called on the military and the police to disperse the holdouts.

Last week, even after their demands were met by the government, some truckers were still blocking highways. Worse yet, those who wanted to go home were not allowed to leave. One trucker who tried to cross the picket line was stoned to death.

The government says the strike has ended, but trucker WhatsApp groups are abuzz.

Journalists covering tensions in various parts of the country brought grim reports. The escalating violence had been promoted by groups that the government is calling “infiltrated militias.” These militia members, authorities say, are not truck drivers and are threatening the dissidents. However, the television program Profissão Repórter showed that many of them are, in fact, truck drivers. Those who manage to get out of the demonstrations say that the pickets have become havens of banditry and violence.

So even if vegetables are back in the supermarkets and the gas stations have been replenished, the strike continues, more or less. The government says the strike has ended, but trucker WhatsApp groups are abuzz trying to build support for a new stoppage this week.

It’s still not clear what is keeping the violent protesters on the streets and if they are acting alone or at the behest of more powerful interests. The social and economic impact remains a mystery. Will we remember this moment as the flashpoint that provoked an enormous change or just a temporary panic? What is clear, however, is that the truckers’ strike has shed light on several Brazilian realities: the palpable and almost universal rancor toward the government; the fragility of the supply chain and democratic system; the ineffectiveness of the entire political class; the fraud of the supposed economic recovery Temer tries to hock every change he gets; and the fear and despair that permeates a society that, panicked, even clamors for a return to the tragedy of a military government.

Brazil’s elections will take place in October. Until then, it will be a long and winding road, semi-trucks or not.

Top photo: Aerial view of Brazilian truck drivers blocking the BR-262 highway with their trucks, during the fifth day of strike to protest against the diesel fuel price-rise, in Juatuba, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, May 25, 2018.

The post Massive Truckers’ Strike Exposes Political Chaos as Brazil Gears Up for Elections in October appeared first on The Intercept.

U.S. Airstrikes Violated International Law in “War of Annihilation” in Raqqa, Syria, Says Amnesty International

As the battle for Raqqa, Syria, raged last October, a family in the Harat al-Badu neighborhood bunkered down in their home in an attempt to survive the fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State militants. Mohammed Fayad, a man in his 80s, had lived in the same home in Harat al-Badu for the past 50 years. When the fighting began, Fayad refused to flee the property that he had put a lifetime of labor into, remaining in the home with his daughters and other relatives. As coalition airstrikes began pounding the city, Fayad’s home also became a refuge for other terrified neighbors and their families seeking safety from the attacks.

Their safe haven would not last. On the night of October 11, a coalition airstrike hit Fayad’s home. As Ali Habib, a local man who had been sheltering his family with Fayad, later told researchers from Amnesty International:

I was sitting on a chair holding my little boy and the women were sitting on the floor, huddled together. … I felt the roof of the house collapse on me. I could not move and my little boy was not next to me anymore. … I called my wife, my mother, my daughter, but nobody answered. … I realized that everybody was dead. Then my boy, Mohammed, called out and that gave me the strength to free myself from the rubble and go to him. He had been thrown some 10 meters away by the explosion. We were both injured.

250663_Fayad-family-victims-_Raqqa_-1528135778

From top,Mohammed Fayad and his daughters Wafa’, Fadda and Tamam; Ammar al-Faris; Reem al-Maddad, Yusra Abd-al-Aziz, and baby Razqiya Habib; Jasim Hamal and Salem Hamad. They were among the 16 civilians killed in coalition airstrikes on Oct. 12, 2017, in Raqqa, Syria.

Photo: Courtesy of Amnesty International

Sixteen people were killed in the strike that hit Fayad’s home, including Fayad, his three daughters, and 11 other relatives and acquaintances.

Fayad’s story is one of many contained in a new report by Amnesty International, an appraisal of the coalition’s four-month anti-ISIS campaign and its impact on civilians living in the city. The report, entitled “War of Annihilation,” builds on earlier work by Amnesty International and others that has found that U.S.-led airstrikes have caused massive civilian casualties, and it asks whether the destruction was necessary in order to defeat the Islamic State.

For this latest report, researchers spent two weeks visiting more than 40 locations where coalition strikes took place and interviewing over 110 witnesses and survivors of these attacks. Based on these findings, the report’s authors write that there exists “prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” adding that “Coalition forces did not take adequate account of civilians present in the city and failed to take the precautions necessary to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects.”

There exists “prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law.”

The exact number of civilians who died in coalition strikes on Raqqa last year remains unknown. The independent monitoring group Airwars has estimated that the death toll was at least 1,800, though the true figure may be considerably higher. During the height of the fighting last August, the United Nations issued a statement criticizing the coalition for the “unacceptable price” that its attacks were inflicting on civilians in the city. A U.N. humanitarian mission that traveled to the city this April said they were “shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.”

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Mohammed Aswad looks down into the basement of his family’s building, where his brother and seven other civilians were killed in a coalition strike on June 28, 2017. The building was completely destroyed.

Photo: Courtesy of Amnesty International

The Amnesty International report documents numerous cases in which entire families were wiped out by coalition air and artillery strikes that hit residential areas of the city. While thousands fled the city during ISIS rule, and many more in advance of the coalition offensive, thousands also remained to protect their homes and property from looting by militants. These individuals found themselves caught in the crossfire between the coalition, its allied ground forces, and ISIS fighters seeking to use residents as human shields.

One airstrike documented in the report took place last June, in the working-class Jezra intersection area of western Raqqa. That strike killed eight members of the Othman Aswad family, including five children between the ages of 8 and 17. The family had been sheltering in a cellar on their property and were killed when a coalition attack leveled the building.

The battle to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State resulted in the near-total destruction of the city, with an estimated 11,000 buildings destroyed or damaged during the fighting. The U.S. military admitted to the use of “annihilation tactics” during the campaign, and Defense Secretary James Mattis rationalized civilian casualties as a “fact of life.” But for many, the most galling aspect of the battle for Raqqa was that, after many months of fighting, the coalition ultimately allowed safe passage for ISIS fighters to leave the city. This negotiated withdrawal raised serious questions about whether the campaign needed to be waged as brutally as it was.

“Many people in Raqqa are asking why the coalition deemed it necessary to kill so many civilians and destroy the entire city, only to ultimately let the ISIS fighters it was targeting leave,” said Donatella Rovera, a researcher for Amnesty International who conducted field interviews in the city. “If the coalition had deemed it necessary to take certain risks that would lead to them killing civilians, but deemed those necessary risks to target ISIS fighters, why, in the end, did they decide to let the ISIS fighters withdraw from the city with impunity, taking their weapons along with them?”

A picture taken on September 5, 2017 shows smoke billowing out following a coalition air strike in the western al-Daraiya neighbourhood of the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqa. / AFP PHOTO / Delil souleiman (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on Sept. 5, 2017, shows smoke billowing out following a Coalition airstrike in the western al-Daraiya neighborhood of Raqqa.

Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

A statement announcing the withdrawal last October attempted to distance the coalition from the agreement, attributing it to the efforts of local tribal leaders seeking to reduce civilian casualties.

“Many people in Raqqa are asking why the coalition deemed it necessary to kill so many civilians and destroy the entire city, only to ultimately let the ISIS fighters it was targeting leave.”

Rovera says the level of destruction in the city, coupled with the unwillingness of the coalition to carry out serious investigations of its strikes — including site visits and interviews of the types that independent researchers have conducted — casts doubt on U.S. claims that they take pains to minimize civilian casualties during their operations. The concerns are not limited to Raqqa. U.S. authorities have justified airstrikes in other parts of Syria and Iraq that were alleged to have caused widespread civilian casualties, but in each case, there’s no evidence that the military actually interviewed witnesses and survivors.

“Because the coalition is unwilling to share details of operations and are also unwilling to conduct investigations in a serious manner, it’s impossible to evaluate what decisions caused this massive loss of civilian life and whether it was proportionate,” said Rovera.

“U.S. military officials travel in and around Raqqa, and they meet with local officials regularly,” she added. “There is nothing preventing them from carrying out on-the-ground site visits at places where their strikes took place and interviewing witnesses and survivors. That’s absolutely crucial and that’s what we’d like to see them to do.”

Top photo: Syrians walk amid the debris of destroyed buildings in Raqqa on Jan. 11, 2018, after a huge military operation, led on the ground by Kurdish fighters and in the air by U.S. warplanes, defeated jihadists from the Islamic State group but also left the city completely disfigured.

The post U.S. Airstrikes Violated International Law in “War of Annihilation” in Raqqa, Syria, Says Amnesty International appeared first on The Intercept.