BRASILIA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with Venezuelan migrants in Brazil this week, U.S. and Brazilian officials said on Tuesday, as Washington bids to step up pressure to oust Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro.
The meeting on Friday in the Brazilian city of Boa Vista, near the border with Venezuela, is part of a Sept. 17-20 regional tour in which Pompeo will also visit and hold talks with the leaders of Colombia, Suriname and Guyana, the State Department said.
The whirlwind visit to Venezuela’s neighbors comes as international efforts to advance democratic change in the country appear to have stalled and Maduro has asserted his grip on power despite political and economic upheaval that drove 5 million Venezuelans to flee.
The trip will “highlight the United States’ commitment to defend democracy,” the State Department said. In Boa Vista, Pompeo will visit “Venezuelan migrants fleeing the manmade disaster in Venezuela,” it said in a statement.
Pompeo is scheduled to make a nearly 3-1/2-hour stop in Boa Vista on Friday afternoon. He will visit a triage center for receiving Venezuelan migrants and meet with Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, the Brazilian government said.
“They will talk about the Venezuelan refugees who have been so badly treated in their country,” U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Todd Chapman, said on CNN Brasil. “It is time for the illegitimate Maduro regime to go,” he added, praising Brazil’s humanitarian effort in receiving 250,000 Venezuelans.
Brazil’s border with Venezuela has been closed since March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the flow of migrants crossing into Brazil has dropped from an average of 600 a day to a handful of Venezuelans who walk along cross-country trails.
U.S. sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil industry have slashed Caracas’ crude exports to the lowest in decades, but they have failed to loosen Maduro’s grip on power.
With the Nov. 3 U.S. election approaching, and leading Maduro critic President Donald Trump battling for a second term, Washington is expected to toughen its stance, especially with more sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil and gold industries.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Richard Chang and Tom Brown)
California braces for power shutoffs and warm, windy weekend
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Firefighters and officials at California’s largest utility company braced for hot, dry and windy weather in northern and central areas of the state this weekend that may fan the flames of several major wildfires or ignite new ones.
Pacific Gas & Electric warned Friday it may cut power from Sunday morning to Monday, potentially affecting 97,000 customers in 16 counties, during which forecasters said a ridge of high pressure will raise temperatures and generate gusts flowing from the interior to the coast.
PG&E initially warned that approximately 21,000 customers in three counties would lose power beginning Saturday evening but expanded the potential shutoff when the forecast changed.
The utility is tracking the weather to determine if it would be necessary to shut off power to areas where gusts could damage the company’s equipment or hurl debris into lines that can ignite flammable vegetation.
When heavy winds were predicted earlier this month, PG&E cut power to about 167,000 homes and businesses in central and Northern California in a more targeted approach after being criticized last year for acting too broadly when it blacked out 2 million customers to prevent fires.
PG&E equipment has sparked past large wildfires, including the 2018 fire that destroyed much of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Firefighters battling the state’s largest wildfire braced for the change in weather by constructing fuel breaks on Friday to keep the flames from reaching a marijuana-growing enclave where authorities said many of the locals have refused to evacuate and abandon their maturing crops.
The wildfire called the August Complex is nearing the small communities of Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Law enforcement officers went door to door warning of the encroaching fire danger but could not force residents to evacuate, Trinity County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Nate Trujillo said.
“It’s mainly growers,” Trujillo said. “And a lot of them, they don’t want to leave because that is their livelihood.”
As many as 1,000 people remained in Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, authorities and local residents estimated Thursday.
Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger U.S. wildfires to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because climate change has made California much drier. A drier California means plants are more flammable.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region announced Friday that it is extending the closure of all nine national forests in California due to concerns including fire conditions and critical limitations on firefighting resources.
The threatened marijuana growing area is in the Emerald Triangle, a three-county corner of Northern California that by some estimates is the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region.
People familiar with Trinity Pines said the community has up to 40 legal farms, with more than 10 times that number in hidden, illegal growing areas.
Growers are wary of leaving the plants vulnerable to flames or thieves. Each farm has crops worth half a million dollars or more and many are within days or weeks of harvest.
One estimate put the value of the area’s legal marijuana crop at about $20 million.
“There (are) millions of dollars, millions and millions of dollars of marijuana out there,” Trujillo said. “Some of those plants are 16 feet (5 meters) tall, and they are all in the budding stages of growth right now.”
Gunfire in the region is common. A recent night brought what locals dubbed the “roll call” of cannabis cultivators shooting rounds from pistols and automatic weapons as warnings to outsiders, said Post Mountain volunteer Fire Chief Astrid Dobo, who also manages legal cannabis farms.
Hundreds of migrant workers typically pour into the area this time of year to help trim and harvest the plants, but it’s uncertain whether that population dwindled due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Julia Rubinic, a member of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, which represents licensed cannabis growers.
Mike McMillan, spokesman for the federal incident command team managing the northern section of the August Complex, said fire officials plan to deliver a clear message that ”we are not going to die to save people. That is not our job.”
“We are going to knock door to door and tell them once again,” McMillan said. “However, if they choose to stay and if the fire situation becomes, as we say, very dynamic and very dangerous … we are not going to risk our lives.”
A firefighter was killed and another was injured on Aug. 31 while working on the fire. Diana Jones, a volunteer firefighter from Texas, was among 26 people who have died since more than two dozen major wildfires broke out across the state last month.
A memorial service was held Friday for a veteran firefighter, Charles Morton, 39, a squad boss with the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew who died Sept. 17 while battling the El Dorado Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles.
“I know that Charlie was a very skilled, in fact extraordinary, firefighter and a fire leader,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told the gathering at The Rock Church in San Bernardino.
“He committed himself, often for weeks and months on end, to protecting lives, communities and natural resources all around this country in service to fellow Americans.”
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office on Friday released the identity of another of the 15 people killed in a rampaging forest fire earlier this month. The remains of Linda Longenbach, 71, of Berry Creek, were found on Sept. 10 in a roadway about 10 feet from an ATV, close to the body of a man previously identified as Paul Winer, 68.
A relative told investigators the victims were aware of the fire and chose not to evacuate.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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House Republicans Call on Attorney General Barr to Investigate Recent Spike in Anti-Catholic Hate Crimes
A group of House Republicans led by Representative Jim Banks (R., Ind.) on Friday called on attorney general William Barr to investigate a recent rise in anti-Catholic hate crimes.
There have been 70 instances of anti-Catholic violence in North America this year — with 57 crimes being reported since May alone — according to a letter sent to the attorney general by Banks and 15 other House Republicans.
By contrast, in all of 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the FBI reported 53 incidents of anti-Catholic hate crimes in the U.S.
“Bigoted criminals are threatening Catholics and undermining America’s core ideal of religious liberty,” Banks said in a statement. “The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division exists to combat spikes in targeted violence. It needs to fulfill its duty, determine who is behind this pattern of attacks and bring them to justice.”
Beginning in early July, reports of “horrific and brutal attacks on Catholic and Church properties” spiked, the letter says, including in Boston where a statue of the Virgin Mary at Saint Peters Parish Church was set ablaze.
One day earlier, the letter says, a man in Florida allegedly drove a van into a church with parishioners inside before spilling gasoline in the church’s foyer and attempting to set it on fire.
That same day, San Gabriel Mission in California was burned down. The letter calls the issue “ongoing,” citing an incident in September where a man was videotaped toppling an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue in Coney Island, N.Y.
“As in any other instance of a rapid spike in hate crimes targeted at a specific group, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has an obligation to investigate the perpetrators of this violence and any organizational or ideological connections between them,” the letter states.
“Crimes like these aren’t just targeted at individuals and their property; they are targeted at American society as a whole,” it continues. “They are motivated by a destructive impulse to harm property and persons, but also the equally warped desire to undermine America’s constitutionally guaranteed rights and social trust within our communities.”
The Republicans’ call to investigate concludes in saying the attacks threaten the physical safety of Catholics as well as the integrity of the American system, and saying the Department of Justice has an obligation to uphold both.
The letter was co-signed by Representatives Andy Harris (R., Md.), Greg Steube (R., Fl.), Ted Yoho (R., Fl.), Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.), Doug Collins (R., Ga.), Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), Rick Allen (R., Ga.), Pete Olson (R., Texas), Glenn Grothman (R., Wisc.), Chuck Fleischmann (R., Tenn.), Ron Wright (R., Texas), Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.), Mike Kelly (R., Pa.), Ken Buck (R., Colo.), and Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas).
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