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Venezuela braces for election as social tensions build

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Venezuela braces for weekend election; Princess Diana made a point of stomping on stigma, now Harry is following in her footsteps; Egypt's economy has a baby problem — there are still too many of them

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A woman holds up a sign Wednesday that says 'Hey Nicolas, no fear' during a protest against the upcoming presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Whoever wins Venezuela's election this weekend faces a growing mountain of economic and social problems
  • Princess Diana made a point of stomping on stigma, and now Prince Harry is following in her footsteps 
  • Egypt's economy has a baby problem — there are still too many of them
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Venezuela votes

The outcome of Sunday's presidential election in Venezuela doesn't seem to be in doubt. Strongman Nicolas Maduro is poised to win another six-year term.

Not due to his popularity, but rather because most of the opposition is boycotting the vote — due to the widely held suspicion that the fix is in regardless.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his wife, first lady Cilia Flores, during a campaign event in Charallave, Venezuela, on Tuesday. He is expected to win the election, with most of the opposition boycotting the vote and accusing the government of fixing the polls. (EPA-EFE)
This week, 14 countries, including Canada, the United States, Mexico, Spain, Chile, Brazil and Argentina, issued a joint statement denouncing the election as "illegitimate and lacking in credibility."

Ottawa has now gone a step further, blocking the Venezuelan embassy and consulates from setting up polling places for the country's 5,000 expats living in Canada.

But world opinion is the least of the problems facing Maduro and Venezuela's beleaguered public.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, accompanied by her counterparts from Peru, Mexico, and Argentina, addresses the media Monday after a 'Lima Group' meeting in Mexico City to discuss the widely criticized polls in Venezuela. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)
The country's economy has all but collapsed. Inflation is running at more than 14,000 per cent and there are shortages of food and basic goods, with 90 per cent of citizens reporting that they don't get enough to eat.

Unemployment, which hasn't been officially tallied since 2016, is believed to be upwards of 30 per cent.

Crime is rampant. There is a shortage of doctors and medical supplies. And close to a million people have left the country seeking better opportunities.

People wait in line Wednesday for subsidized food staples, such as beans, rice, tuna and powdered milk, provided by a government program. Some residents say the government has rigged the upcoming May 20 presidential vote, employing food as a political weapon. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)
All of which suggests that there is a long road ahead for what was once South America's richest country.

The oil industry — the source of all that former wealth — is in no position to help Venezuela bounce back. Production has been crippled by international sanctions, the pullout of foreign companies, and a brain-drain as experienced workers head abroad.

The country is pumping around 1.4 million barrels a day — a 33-year low and less than half its 2013 output. Experts predict that production could drop another 500,000 barrels by the end of 2018.

Opposition supporters protest against upcoming presidential elections in Caracas on Wednesday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
The situation has become so dire that Venezuela is now buying foreign oil to meet the demands of one of its few remaining allies. This week Reuters reported on internal documents from Venezuela's state-run oil company showing $440 million worth of foreign crude purchases that were shipped directly to Cuba.

The island's communist regime sometimes pays cash, but more often provides Maduro's government with goods and services in exchange. Either way, it appears that the deal is a net money-loser for the Venezuelans, who have been paying up to $12 more a barrel than what they received in return.  

Maduro's government may be able to keep its grip on power by sidelining opponents, but keeping a lid on the growing public dissatisfaction will be harder.

Members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) stand guard next to a banner with the images of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and late President Hugo Chavez, outside a detention centre in Caracas where a riot occurred Wednesday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) reports that there were an average of 31 anti-government demonstrations a day in April, up 25 per cent from the same period a year ago.

And yesterday, inmates rioted and seized control of a Caracas prison where Venezuela's secret police hold dissenters and Maduro opponents.

They issued messages via social media asking the public to resist and rise up along with them.

Adrienne Arsenault on assignment

Martin was so ill. Closer to death than maybe even he realized.

It was 1989, and in the photo his smiling but scarred face is turned towards Diana, Princess of Wales. Beaming at him, her hand was confidently, extraordinarily, clutching his. His thinness and the Kaposi's sarcoma wounds that sometimes accompanied AIDS made for a picture that didn't need any explaining back then.

This was Princess Diana stomping on stigmas with her stilettos.

The moment happened at the Mildmay Clinic in London, a centre for people struggling to survive with HIV and at times full-blown AIDS. This was early in the crisis, when fear made some so cruel.

The Princess of Wales and AIDS patient Martin at London's Mildmay Clinic in 1989. The photo of Diana clasping Martin's hand was extraordinary, because a poor understanding of the disease at the time meant many shunned contact with patients who had AIDS or HIV. (Mildmay Clinic)

It was a time when, as Mildmay's Kerry Reeves-Kneip puts it, "bricks were being thrown through our window because we'd taken people with HIV. The local barbers wouldn't cut anyone's hair that worked at Mildmay hospital. The local bank didn't want to take our money."

While others recoiled in panic, Diana wandered in with hugs.

Millions around the world saw that picture. Martin's mother saw it.

That's key, because Martin became estranged from his parents when he got sick. The Mildmay staff say he was forever writing his parents letters that would come back "return to sender." But when his mother saw her son with Diana, she reached out.

Finally, they reunited. The picture did that. Diana did that.

Martin died a few weeks later. Diana had written him a thank-you letter and signed a photo for him. He never saw it.

The picture and letter were offered to Martin's mother. She didn't want them. Progress doesn't come that fast.

But that visit mattered. Julian La Bastide was a nurse at Mildmay at the time.

"I've been on the ward when, say, Diana had been here. And, you know, I'm not saying sick people walked or anything like that, but it has an impact. You know, they're talking about it the next day, they're talking about it the next week, and in these really early days you're talking about it the next month."

Julian La Bastide worked as a nurse at Mildmay Clinic in London and met Princess Diana several times in the late 1980s early '90s when she visited the facility. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)
Diana's visits weren't always with cameras. She went there at night, often alone.  

And now, so does her son Prince Harry.

The world of HIV is so mercifully different today. Lives are being lived. But the frosting on the windows of Mildmay suggests the stigma lingers.

La Bastide says patients are still afraid of "being outed" as having HIV.

The staff say that when Harry shows up he asks lots of questions, ones his mother would be proud of, and a lot about her. To the staff: "What was she like when she was here?" To a young woman who managed to survive, who'd met Diana as a very ill little girl and sat on her lap: "What did my mother say to you? What was it like to be with her?"

"She was gentle," the woman replied. "She spoke softly."

"I remember that," Prince Harry responded.

Come his wedding day, a small band of revellers from Mildmay will be cheering him on. They won't be watching as strangers from afar, but as people who've seen how much a moment, or a legacy of moments, can do.

The National's Adrienne Arsenault talks to staff at the Mildmay HIV clinic in London about Princess Diana's visits in the late '80s early '90s, and how Prince Harry has gotten involved with that same clinic to continue his mother's courageous work. 0:49

Watch Adrienne Arsenault's story "The Shadow of Diana," about how Prince Harry is carrying on his mother Diana's work, tonight on The National on CBC television and streamed online

The hand that rocks Egypt's cradle

Egypt's economy has a baby problem — there are still too many of them.

At least that's the message that Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the country's president, delivered at a Cairo youth conference yesterday.

"The birth rate isn't appropriate," he told the audience. "This is something you know well."

A baby has Egypt's national flag drawn on her face on a street in Cairo ahead of a soccer match. The number of babies born in Egypt has fallen substantially over the past couple of years, from 6.68 million in 2015 to 2.55 million in 2017. (Tarek Mostafa/Reuters)
The number of babies born each year in Egypt has fallen substantially over the past couple of years, from 6.68 million in 2015 to 2.55 million in 2017. Proof that an aggressive government campaign to promote birth control in rural areas is working.

But while Egypt may be on track to meet its long-term goal of limiting its population growth to 112 million people by 2030, instead of the previous track of 128 million, that's not much help to the country's existing 94 million citizens.

Even the current healthy rate of economic growth — forecast to hit 5.8 per cent this year — isn't enough to keep up with the birth rate, el-Sisi said yesterday, adding that the economy needs to expand by at least 7.5 per cent a year to lift the standard of living.

Such birth rate warnings are becoming a familiar theme for Egyptians as the government frets that all the babies are undermining efforts to remake the economy.

The government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is trying to limit the nation's population growth. (Mark Schiefelbein/Reuters)
In the fall of 2016, el-Sisi struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund for $12 billion US in new loans. But the funds were contingent on a host of reforms and spending cuts.

The first step was letting the Egyptian pound float free on currency markets, which caused it to lose half its value overnight and pushed inflation up above 30 per cent. Since then the government has brought in a value-added tax (VAT) and cut subsidies on fuel, food and consumer basics, with further reductions scheduled for this summer.

The transition has been hard on the public. The price of a pack of disposable diapers, for example, has more than doubled, going from 57 pounds ($4 Cdn) to 135 pounds ($9.65).

Last week there were street protests in Cairo over a decision to more than triple subway fares from 2 pounds (14 cents) to 7 (50 cents). It was a direct challenge to a government that banned "unauthorized" demonstrations involving more than 10 people under a 2013 law. (Twenty-one people at the subway protest were arrested.)

A nurse looks after a baby inside an incubator at a hospital near Cairo. Egypt now has the world's 40th-highest birth rate, at 29.6 births per 1,000 population. (Nasser Nuri/Reuters)
Not everyone is hurting, however.

A new Reuters investigation details how dozens of companies owned by Egypt's military are flourishing under the new rules — mostly by being exempt from them.

For example, the army doesn't pay the VAT on the goods, equipment, services or raw materials it needs for "national security" — a concept that has been stretched to include renting out banquet halls and setting up a baby formula factory.

Egypt now has the world's 40th-highest birth rate, at 29.6 births per 1,000 population. That's well behind most other African nations, including the leaders Angola and Niger, tied with 44.2 births/1,000.

But Egypt has a long way to fall if it hopes to rank alongside developed countries like Sweden (12.1/1,000), Canada (10.3/1,000) or Japan (7.7/1,000).

All of which ensures at least a few more years of el-Sisi playing father of the nation by preaching against children.

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Quote of the moment

"I think there was always this question of: 'Mars? Really? There isn't enough air.' And then you get the analytical models that say you can do it and … it looks like you can do it."

- Mimi Aung, a project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the space agency's plans to fly a mini helicopter on Mars in 2020.

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Today in history

May 17, 1960: Tiny Seymour, WWI vet, recovers rum crocks he buried in 1916

On the eve of a 1916 battle in Belgium, Tiny Seymour buried two jugs of rum for safekeeping as his battalion moved out. Forty-three years later he went back and dug them up. One jug was consumed during a London stop-over on the way back to Vancouver. But the other made it into his old regiment's museum — after he paid the duty and sales tax on the well-aged booze.

Guildford "Tiny" Seymour talks about the rum he buried in Belgium in 1916. 8:57

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.