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Venezuelan military propped up the government for years, but cracks are showing



CARACAS, Venezuela — It was 10 a.m. and the newly promoted lieutenant was already sweating under his plastic face shield and black flak jacket.

A few days before, the 28-year-old who goes by the name of Catire had watched a national guardsman get his arm broken at a protest. A week earlier, a friend collapsed several paces from him on the riot line, shot through the groin. Catire pulled up his visor and chain-smoked by his motorcycle, hoping the day would pass quickly.

Several miles away on the other side of the city, tens of thousands of Venezuelans in white shirts and homemade gas masks gathered to march toward Catire and his unit, part of a bloody protest movement that has seen dozens of deaths in more than two months of turmoil.

Catire’s family suffers along with protesters who skip meals while watching their money become worthless. The lieutenant is unsure whether to blame the government or the opposition for the crisis. What he and other soldiers decide in the coming months could decide the country’s fate.

President Nicolas Maduro has greatly expanded the military’s authority and is leaning on the armed forces as his own grip on power weakens. The military has helped hold up the socialist administration for more than a decade, but never before was it the government’s main crutch. And despite the outward loyalty of top officers, cracks are beginning to appear.

In April, three lieutenants publicly rejected Maduro as commander in chief and sought asylum in Colombia. Another lieutenant in a restive western state cut up his official military ID card as supporters cheered. “Soldiers must not turn their arms on the people,” he said. Days later, he was in military prison.

“The country is unhappy with the situation right now, and the armed forces are no exception. The military has traditionally been on the right side of history here. If they turn, it’s all over for Maduro,” said Cliver Alcala, a retired general who participated in an unsuccessful 1992 coup led by a then-unknown junior officer named Hugo Chavez.

These days, Alcala is a vocal opponent of the socialist government installed by Chavez after he won election to the presidency in 1998. Despite counterintelligence and close surveillance in the barracks, Maduro is unlikely to know an uprising is brewing until it’s already upon him, Alcala said.

Any actual coup would cause an international crisis across a hemisphere profoundly scarred by the bloody military takeovers that marked much of the past century. But most opposition figures are hoping for much more passive support: for soldiers to hold back from attacks on protesters.

More than a dozen military officers were arrested during the first two weeks of the protests and thrown into a military prison on suspicion of rebellion, according to military documents provided to The Associated Press by a third party.

The government has pampered the armed forces as much as an economy in shambles will allow. Before Catire put on his green fatigues, knee-high boots and black body armor before the protest, he sat down to a breakfast of two corn cakes, beans, eggs and coffee with milk — more than many Venezuelans eat in a day.

He gets bonuses in dollars, and his status has allowed his relatives to cut the line for government-subsidized apartments, household appliances and cars. But those perks have not been enough to insulate military families from shortages and crime. In Caracas, Catire, whose name is local slang for blond, feels increasingly hemmed in. Like most other soldiers, he has been confined to barracks since the protests started at the end of March.

Opposition leaders have used social media to broadcast appeals to young soldiers killing time in the barracks. In one recent video, lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares emphasized the potential consequences for soldiers who fire on protesters.

“Captains and lieutenants, we are the same age, we have the same dreams and expectations from life. But you are the ones carrying out orders to repress on the street while your bosses try to figure out how to preserve your special privileges. You’re the ones who risking prosecution,” Olivares said.

Like many leading politicians, the 31-year-old Olivares has been photographed multiple times stumbling away from blooms of tear gas at protests with blood streaming down his face.

The opposition has said it will hold officials to account for human rights violation and the message seems to be getting through. In 2014, the U.S. sanctioned officers involved in a far tamer crackdown on protesters. On a secret recording The Associated Press obtained last month, high-level military officers are heard debating the use of snipers against protesters, with some expressing concerns about possible prosecution should the opposition gain power. The recording’s authenticity could not be verified.

Catire has taken extra precautions since the day he saw a friend collapse next to him as his unit shot tear gas at protesters near an upscale eastern Caracas plaza. A bullet passed through his friend’s upper thigh and punctured his groin, causing rapid blood loss. A teenage protester was killed at the same plaza that afternoon, his chest crushed by a tear gas canister.

While the soldiers inflict more injuries than they receive, Catire is wary of protesters throwing gasoline bombs and rocks. Shots also often come from pro-government militias who ride into the scrum on motorcycles. At least two National Guard soldiers and two policemen have been killed in the protests.

Along with asking soldiers to break up demonstrations, Maduro relies on military tribunals to jail protesters and gives the armed forces a prominent role in his effort to rewrite the constitution. He has invited uniformed military members to appear at televised rallies since the protest movement started, and has promoted waves of officers to general.

Although he lacks the military background of Chavez, his late mentor, Maduro has been at pains to point out he shares soldiers’ working-class background and emphasize that he and many soldiers have browner skin while opposition leaders and elite Venezuelans in general look more European. In May, he appeared before a group of grim-faced young soldiers and told them opposition protesters had burned a bystander to death “just because he had dark skin like you and me.” Witnesses say the bystander was caught stealing.

Catire, who did not give his full name because he was violating protocol by speaking to a reporter, said he feels the country is descending into civil war. He grew up poor near the Colombian border, and joined the military because he liked the idea of bringing order to a chaotic country. He disapproves of the opposition calling on the armed forces to pick a side and believes the military must stay neutral and wait for elections.

By noon on the day of the protest, he and other soldiers were turning back the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.

Toward the day’s end, a group of women approached Catire’s post and shouted, “Lay down your arms and join us!” Some stripped naked and threw their clothes over the 12-foot barricade the soldiers had set up. But the young men stayed immobile and silent. “Take down this wall,” the women insisted.

After a few more hours, both sides went home to cool down and prepare to repeat the whole process the next morning.

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20 cities primed on the Amazon wishlist to be its next HQ



NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon’s second home could be in an already tech-heavy city, such as Boston, New York or Austin, Texas. Or it could be in the Midwest, say, Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Or the company could go outside the U.S. altogether and set up shop in Toronto.

Those six locations, as well as 14 others, made it onto Amazon’s not-so-short shortlist Thursday of places under consideration for the online retailing giant’s second headquarters.

The 20 picks, narrowed down from 238 proposals, are concentrated mostly in the East and the Midwest and include several of the biggest metro areas in the country, such as Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, the only West Coast city on the list.

The Seattle-based company set off fierce competition last fall when it announced that it was looking for a second home, promising 50,000 jobs and construction spending of more than $5 billion. Many cities drew up elaborate presentations that included rich financial incentives.

The list of finalists highlights a key challenge facing the U.S. economy: Jobs and economic growth are increasingly concentrated in a few large metro areas, mostly on the East and West Coasts and a few places in between, such as Texas.

Nearly all the cities on Amazon’s list already have growing economies, low unemployment and highly educated populations.

“Amazon has picked a bunch of winners,” said Richard Florida, an economic development expert and professor at the University of Toronto who helped develop that city’s bid. “It really reflects winner-take-all urbanism.”

Among those that didn’t make the cut were Detroit, a disappointment for those excited about progress since the city came out of bankruptcy, and Memphis, Tennessee, where the mayor said the city gave it its “best shot.” San Diego also failed to advance.

“Getting from 238 to 20 was very tough,” said Holly Sullivan, who oversees Amazon’s public policy. “All the proposals showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.”

Amazon said it will make a final selection sometime this year.

Besides Austin, another Texas city made the cut: Dallas. In the South, Miami and Atlanta are being considered.

Officials in cities that made the shortlist took the opportunity to further tout their locations, with Philadelphia’s mayor noting “all that Philadelphia has to offer” and officials in and around Pittsburgh citing the region’s “world-class talent pool” and other advantages.

Other contenders among the 20 include Denver; Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; Northern Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It’s a long list for a shortlist,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed.

He said Amazon may use the list to pit the locations against each other and get better tax breaks or other incentives. Two metro areas, New York and Washington, have more than one location on the list, increasing the competition there, he said.

“It’s hard to say whether all these places are in play or Amazon wanted to encourage continued competition,” Kolko said.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether locations would be able to change their proposals or offer better incentives, but said in a statement that it will “work with each of the candidate locations to dive deeper into their proposals.”

State and local governments played up the amenities they think make their locations the best choice. Some pulled off stunts to stand out, such as New York, which lit the Empire State Building in Amazon orange.

Some gimmicks didn’t work: Tucson, Arizona, which sent a 21-foot cactus to Seattle, did not make the list. Neither did Birmingham, Alabama, which installed giant replicas of Amazon’s Dash buttons.

The company had stipulated that it wanted to be near a metropolitan area with more than 1 million people, and nearly all of those on the shortlist have a metro population of at least double that.

Amazon also wanted to be able to attract top technical talent; be within 45 minutes of an international airport; have direct access to mass transit; and be able to expand the headquarters to as much as 8 million square feet in the next decade.

But Amazon also made it very clear it wanted tax breaks, grants and any other incentives.

Boston’s offer includes $75 million for affordable housing for Amazon employees and others. Before leaving office Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie approved a measure to allow New Jersey to offer up to $5 billion to Amazon. Newark is also proposing $2 billion in tax breaks.

But many of the state and local governments competing for the headquarters have refused to disclose the financial incentives they offered. Of the 20 finalists, 13, including New York, Chicago and Miami, declined requests from The Associated Press to release their applications. Toronto’s mayor said Thursday that the city offered no financial incentives to woo Amazon.

Several said they don’t want their competitors to know what they’re offering, a stance that open-government advocates criticized.

Amazon plans to remain in its sprawling Seattle headquarters, and the second home base will be “a full equal” to it, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said.

The extra space will give the rapidly growing company room to spread out. It had nearly 542,000 employees at the end of September, a 77 percent jump from the year before. Some of that growth came from Amazon’s nearly $14 billion acquisition last year of the Whole Foods grocery chain and its 89,000 employees.


Associated Press writers Josh Cornfield in Philadelphia, Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report. Rugaber contributed from Washington.

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Tourism still booms in Cuba but Trump’s tougher stance hurting private entrepreneurs



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HAVANA (AP) — On a sweltering early summer afternoon in Miami’s Little Havana, President Donald Trump told a cheering Cuban-American crowd that he was rolling back some of Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba in order to starve the island’s military-run economy of U.S. tourism dollars and ratchet up pressure for regime change.

That doesn’t appear to be happening. Travel to Cuba is booming from dozens of countries, including the U.S. And the tourism dollars from big-spending Americans seem to be heading into Cuba’s state sector and away from private business, according to Cuban state figures, experts and private business people themselves.

The government figures show that 2017 was a record year for tourism, with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the island’s otherwise struggling economy. The number of American travelers rose to 619,000, more than six times the pre-Obama level. But amid the boom — an 18 percent increase over 2016 — owners of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts are reporting a sharp drop-off.

“There was an explosion of tourists in the months after President Obama’s detente announcement. They were everywhere!” said Rodolfo Morales, a retired government worker who rents two rooms in his home for about $30 a night. “Since then, it’s fallen off.”

The ultimate destination of American tourism spending in Cuba seems an obscure data point, but it’s highly relevant to a decades-old goal of American foreign policy — encouraging change in Cuba’s single-party, centrally planned system. For more than 50 years, Washington sought to strangle nearly all trade with the island in hopes of spurring economic collapse. Obama changed that policy to one of promoting engagement as a way of strengthening a Cuban private sector that could grow into a middle class empowered to demand reform.

Cuba’s tourism boom began shortly after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014 that their countries would re-establish diplomatic relations and move toward normalization. U.S. cruise ships began docking in the Bay of Havana and U.S. airlines started regular flights to cities across the island. Overall tourism last year was up 56 percent over Cuba’s roughly 3 million visitors in 2014.

While the U.S. prohibits tourism to Cuba, Americans can travel here for specially designated purposes like religious activity or the vaguely defined category of “people-to-people” cultural interaction.

Obama allowed individuals to participate in “people-to-people” activities outside official tour groups. Hundreds of thousands of Americans responded by designing their own Cuban vacations without fear of government penalties. Since Cuba largely steers tour groups to government-run facilities, Americans traveling on their own became a vital market for the island’s private entrepreneurs, hotly desired for their free spending, heavy tipping and a desire to see a “real” Cuba beyond all-inclusive beach resorts and quick stops on tour buses. The surge helped travel-related businesses maintain their role as by far the most successful players in Cuba’s small but growing private sector.

Trump’s new policy re-imposed the required for “people-to-people” travel to take place only in tour groups, which depend largely on Cuban government transportation and guides.

As a result, many private business people are seeing so many fewer Americans that it feels like their numbers are dropping, even though the statistics say otherwise.

“Tourism has grown in Cuba, with the exception of American tourism,” said Nelson Lopez, a private tour guide. “But I’m sure that sometime soon they’ll be back.”

While Trump’s new rules didn’t take effect until November, their announcement in June led to an almost immediate slackening in business from individual Americans, many Cuban entrepreneurs say. The situation was worsened by Hurricane Irma striking Cuba’s northern coast in September and by a Cuban government freeze on new licenses for businesses including restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Cuban officials say the freeze was needed to control tax evasion, purchase of stolen state goods and other illegality in the private sector, but it’s had the effect of further restricting private-sector activity in the wake of Trump’s policy change.

Cuban state tourism officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump’s policy changes did not touch flights or cruise ships. Jose Luis Perello, a tourism expert at the University of Havana, said more than 541,000 cruise ship passengers visited Cuba in 2017, compared with 184,000 the previous year. Even as entrepreneurs see fewer American clients, many of those cruise passengers are coming from the United States, he said.

Yunaika Estanque, who runs a three-room bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Bay of Havana, says she has been able to weather a sharp drop in American guests because a British tour agency still sends her clients, but things still aren’t good.

“Without a doubt our best year was 2016, before the Trump presidency,” she said. “I’ve been talking with other bed-and-breakfast owners and they’re in bad shape.”

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Experts: North Korea latest ICBM test puts much of US in range



PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea on Friday test-fired its second intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew longer and higher than the first according to its wary neighbors, leading analysts to conclude that a wide swath of the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, is now within range of Pyongyang’s weapons.

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the missile, launched late Friday night, flew for about 45 minutes — about five minutes longer than the ICBM North Korea test-fired on July 4. The missile was launched on very high trajectory, which limited the distance it traveled, and landed west of Japan’s island of Hokkaido.

“We assess that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile, as had been expected,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said in Washington.

Analysts had estimated that the North’s first ICBM could have reached Alaska, and said Friday that the latest missile appeared to extend that range significantly.

David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in Washington that if reports of the missile’s maximum altitude and flight time are correct, it would have a theoretical range of at least 10,400 kilometers (about 6,500 miles). That means it could have reached Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago, depending on variables such as the size and weight of the warhead that would be carried atop such a missile in an actual attack.

Bruce Klingner, a Korean and Japanese affairs specialist at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said, “It now appears that a significant portion of the continental United States is within range” of North Korean missiles. Klingner recently met with North Korean officials to discuss denuclearization, the think tank said.

Washington and its allies have watched with growing concern as Pyongyang has made significant progress toward its goal of having all of the U.S. within range of its missiles to counter what it labels as U.S. aggression. There are other hurdles, including building nuclear warheads to fit on those missiles and ensuring reliability. But many analysts have been surprised by how quickly leader Kim Jong Un has developed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs despite several rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions that have squeezed the impoverished country’s economy.

President Donald Trump has said he will not allow North Korea to obtain an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear warhead. But this week, the Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly concluded that the North will have a reliable ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear weapon as early as next year, in an assessment that trimmed two years from the agency’s earlier estimate.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch a “serious and real threat” to the country’s security.

Suga, the Japanese spokesman, said Japan has lodged a strong protest with North Korea.
“North Korea’s repeated provocative acts absolutely cannot be accepted,” he said.

A spokesman for Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that Dunford met at the Pentagon with the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, to discuss U.S. military options in light of North Korea’s missile test.

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, said Dunford and Harris placed a phone call to Dunford’s South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sun Jin. Dunford and Harris “expressed the ironclad commitment to the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance,” Hicks said, referring to the U.S. defense treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend South Korea.

Prime Minister Abe said Japan would cooperate closely with the U.S., South Korea and other nations to step up pressure on North Korea to halt its missile programs.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile reached an estimated height of 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) before landing at sea about 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) away. It appeared to be more advanced than the ICBM North Korea previously launched, it said.

The “Hwasong 14” ICBM test-fired earlier this month was also launched at a very steep angle, a technique called lofting, and reached a height of more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) before splashing down in the ocean 930 kilometers (580 miles) away. Analysts said that missile could be capable of reaching most of Alaska or possibly Hawaii if fired in an attacking trajectory.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile was launched from North Korea’s northern Jagang province near the border with China. President Moon Jae-in presided over an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, which called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and stronger sanctions on North Korea.

There was no immediate confirmation of the launch by North Korea. The day’s broadcast on state-run television had already ended when the news broke at around midnight Pyongyang time.
July 27 is a major national holiday in North Korea called Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War Day, marking the day when the armistice was signed ending the 1950-53 Korean War. That armistice is yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.

North Korea generally waits hours or sometimes a day or more before announcing launches, often with a raft of photos in the ruling party newspaper or on the television news. Kim Jong Un is usually shown at the site to observe and supervise major launches.

Late night launches are rare. North Korea usually conducts its missile and underground nuclear tests in the morning. It’s likely the North launched the missile at night and from the remote province of Jagang to demonstrate its operational versatility. To have a real deterrent, it’s important for North Korea to prove it can launch whenever and wherever it chooses, making it harder for foreign military observers trying to detect their activities ahead of time.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea, contributed to this report.

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