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      Venezuela Is Not a ‘National Security Threat’ After All, Obama Says

       Venezuela Is Not a ‘National Security Threat’ After All, Obama Says  Venezuela Is Not a ‘National Security Threat’ After All, Obama Says  Venezuela Is Not a ‘National Security Threat’ After All, Obama Says
      Photo by Fernando Llano/AP

      Americas

      Venezuela Is Not a ‘National Security Threat’ After All, Obama Says

      By Alicia Hernández

      Never mind, President Barack Obama said ahead of the annual Summit of the Americas in Panama City on Friday, Venezuela is no longer a threat to "national security."

      Obama reversed a White House position made in March that had inflamed the Chavista spirit of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, in which he called the socialist South American nation a threat as it announced sanctions against seven Venezuelan government officials.

      Maduro responded by gathering 10 million signatures with the help of other nations for a petition calling on the US to reverse its stance on Venezuela.

      "We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor is the US a threat to the Venezuelan government," President Obama told the EFE news agency on Thursday, before traveling to Panama City.

      The presidential sanctions against the Venezuelan officials came for their alleged role in human rights abuses that occurred during the 2014 anti-government protests.

      According to the US president, the sanctions launched in March, which froze any US assets of the seven officials and implemented travel restrictions, were meant to dissuade the "violation of human rights."

      But the move emboldened Maduro and his rhetoric against American "imperialism."

      He responded by launching a campaign to gather millions of signatures to deliver to Obama at the Americas summit.

      Signing stations were set up on the steps of public offices, at public plazas, and on beaches. After signing the petition in Caracas, one person told VICE News that several stations had also offered the option to join an officialist party militia, "to defend the homeland if the US invades."

      Cuba said it would show "unconditional" support for Venezuela after the sanctions, and several other Latin American countries joined in criticism against the White House move.

      According to Venezuelan state press agency AVN, Cuba collected three million signatures for Maduro's goal of 10 million.

      'I went to another table and said that I had signed. I asked them to take a photo of me, simulating the signing.'

      But reports quickly emerged that government employees in Venezuela were being pressured to sign the petition.

      "We have received complaints of harassment, bullying, and even firings — from officials, autonomous institutions, and state-run companies — of people who don't want to sign the list," Inti Rodríguez, a spokesperson for Venezuelan human rights organization Provea, told VICE News.

      According to Rodriguez, Provea has received complaints against Venezuela's ministry of "Supreme Social Happiness," Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company PDVSA, and the state-run mining company Carbonorca, among others.

      The first confirmed firing caused by refusal to sign Maduro's petition came from Carbonorca, just two weeks ago.

      "They asked [the employee] to be a part of the operation to collect signatures, and to sign," Rodriguez said. "He refused to do either and was later fired."

      A young woman, who asked to be referred to by her first name Ana, works at a government office in Caracas. She told VICE News she managed to keep her job, in spite of her refusal to sign, by tricking the government's watchers.

      "I got out of signing [the petition]," she said. "I went to another table and said that I had signed. I asked them to take a photo of me, simulating the signing."

      "I told them it was so I could have a reminder, but it was actually to have a safety net," Ana said. "They have asked me many times if I have signed. When that happens I say yes and show them the photo."

      President Nicolas Maduro, right, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, hold boxes of signatures from supporters meant for US President Barack Obama. (Photo by Fernando Llano/AP)

      On Thursday, the Maduro administration announced it had managed to gather the signatures — and then some.

      Surrounded by a huge crowd of supporters, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, the head of the campaign — which is being called "Venezuela Is Not a Threat, We Are a Hope" — said that more than 10.4 million signature had been collected.

      According to the head of the national electoral council, Tibisay Lucena, 98 percent of the signatures have been verified, although authorities did not elaborate on how.

      Maduro still only enjoys a 22 percent approval rating. In the last presidential elections, which he won, Maduro obtained less than 7.5 million votes.

      On Thursday, the Venezuelan leader accused Obama of committing "the biggest mistake in international politics in his six years as president."

      "We could open a new door together, to begin historic relations between the United States and Venezuela," he said.

      Behind closed doors, that may already be happening.

      On Wednesday, Thomas Shannon, a counselor to US Secretary of State John Kerry, met discreetly with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez in Caracas, in what could be considered one step closer to improving diplomatic ties.

      Despite shifting his approach, Obama did reiterate his concern over "the Venezuelan government's efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents ... and the continued erosion of human rights" in the country. In mid-March, an opposition activist jailed on weapons charges apparently hanged himself instead of being transferred to a general-population prison in Caracas.

      "Nothing and no one will stop us, not even Obama's decree," Maduro said in a nationally televised address this week. "I'm telling the president of the US that the issue is not about one man [Maduro], rather the people who have decided to be free."

      Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter: @por_puesto.

      Topics: americas, summit of the americas, barack obama, nicolas madura, us, venezuela, cuba, evo morales, caracas, protests, diplomacy, john kerry, white house, national security threat, petition

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