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Maduro government in desperate hunt for gold, oil buyers

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Venezuela is desperately seeking markets for its resources; Canadian yellow vest protest movement's growing pains; since Crystal Papineau's death, her family has learned much about her life on the streets.

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

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro displays gold bars during a meeting with his economic ministers in Caracas on March 22, 2018. It's estimated that Venezuela sold more than 40 per cent of the country's gold reserves — somewhere in excess of 70 tonnes — to buyers in the Middle East last year. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

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.


  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is desperately seeking new markets for the country's oil and gold.
  • The yellow vest protest movement is gaining momentum in Canada, but some worry its core message is being splintered.
  • In the weeks since she died while trapped in a clothing donation bin, Crystal Papineau's family has learned much about her life and compassion on the streets.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Venezuela sanctions

As U.S. sanctions begin to bite, embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is in a desperate hunt for new markets for the country's oil and gold.

Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, has seen its exports fall by almost 400,000 barrels a day since the Trump administration imposed sanctions on PDVSA, the state oil company, late last month.

And payments for the oil that is still changing hands are being held in escrow, with Maduro claiming that $10 billion US in funds are currently frozen offshore.

Manuel Quevedo, Maduro's oil minister, is in India this week — Venezuela's second-biggest oil customer after the U.S. — trying to persuade refiners to double their imports to 600,000 bpd. Venezuela, he said, would even be open to barter arrangements.

Venezuela's oil minister and president of Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA, Manuel Quevedo, centre, arriving at the Petrotech conference in Greater Noida, India, on Monday. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

The trip has drawn the attention of the U.S. government, and a stern warning from John Bolton, Trump's hawkish national security adviser.

"Nations and firms that support Maduro's theft of Venezuelan resources will not be forgotten," he tweeted yesterday. "The U.S. will continue to use all of its powers to preserve the Venezuelan people's assets, and we encourage all nations to work together to do the same."

Maduro's government is also hoping to extend the loans-for-oil arrangements that have brought in tens of billions in cash from Russia and China over the past decade.

But as international support grows for the competing presidency of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, there are worries about whether Venezuela will pay back what has already been borrowed.

The Russian oil company Rosneft, which loaned PDVSA $6.5 billion over three years, is still owed $2.3 billion. The Chinese government, which has given Venezuela more than $50 billion since 2007, still has an outstanding $20 billion balance.

Today, the Wall St. Journal reports that Chinese diplomats have been engaged in secret talks with Guaidó's representatives to try and ensure that the debt will be respected if power changes hands.

An oil pumpjack and a tank with the corporate logo of state oil company PDVSA are seen in an oil facility in Lagunillas, Venezuela, on Jan. 29. President Maduro says that $10 billion US in payments for Venezuelan oil is currently frozen offshore due to sanctions. (Isaac Urrutia/Reuters)

As pressure builds, Maduro is also turning his attention to gold sales in an effort to keep his regime afloat.

The opposition estimates that more than 40 per cent of the country's gold reserves — somewhere in excess of 70 tonnes — were quietly flogged to buyers in the Middle East last year.

After plans to export a further 20 tonnes, worth around $850 million US, were thwarted by U.S. sanctions, Maduro has been demanding that the Bank of England hand over the Venezuelan gold in its vaults.

In an interview with the BBC yesterday, the Venezuelan leader claimed that his country has 72 tonnes on deposit that "legally" belongs to his central bank, and that he would far prefer that to foreign aid.

"They should send a convoy with the dollars they've stolen from us," Maduro said. "Let it come, the convoy of money, it's our money. With that we could solve our country's problems."

Unlike the oil, Maduro does have a ready market for the gold — Turkey.

Last year, Turkey imported more than $900 million US worth of Venezuelan gold, after having no such purchases at all in 2017.

White House national security adviser John Bolton listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Tuesday. He says the U.S. 'will continue to use all of its powers' to thwart the Venezuelan government's sales of natural resources. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a close Maduro backer, is vowing to make the small Anatolian town of Çorum an even bigger centre for processing the Venezuelan ore, shrugging off warnings from Washington.

The trade has sparked a gold rush in the jungles of southern Venezuela, with as many as 300,000 miners hacking holes in the ground. Reuters reports that Maduro's government has purchased 17 tonnes of gold from the small-scale operations since 2016, paying the workers in rapidly depreciating bolivars, then selling the precious metal abroad for $650 million in hard currency.

It's hard to parse just how much damage Trump's new sanctions are doing to an economy that was already in free-fall. But like Maduro's decision to block foreign aid at the Colombian border, they surely aren't helping Venezuela's suffering citizens.

But for the moment, it seems that an invasion — the other option that Trump has been broadly hinting at — is off the table.

At a hearing in Washington this morning, Eliot Engel, the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made it clear that Democrats have no interest in sending U.S. troops to South America.

"I do worry about the president's sabre-rattling," he said during a televised meeting on the Venezuelan crisis. "I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: U.S. military intervention is not an option."

Canada's yellow vests

The yellow vest protest movement is gaining momentum in Canada, but some worry its core message is being splintered, reporter David Common writes.

As he sees it, Glen Carritt's fire truck is responding to an emergency. And the call is 3,500 kilometres away.

The Innisfail, Alta.-based business owner is heading to Ottawa, part of part of The United We Roll convoy of about 200 trucks he helped organize to send a message to the Trudeau government.

"We need pipelines, we need our Canadian product to get to tidewater as well as the rest of the country," he told me in the garage of his oilfield fire protection business.

Glen Carritt, who operates an oilfield fire protection service in Innisfail, Alta., helped organize The United We Roll convoy of about 200 trucks to take a message to Parliament Hill that Alberta needs pipelines. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Carritt considers himself a "yellow vester." The movement began in France to protest the government's economic policies, and it has been seized upon in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada.

When Carritt and the convoy arrive on Parliament Hill next week, he'd like to deliver a message directly to the prime minister. "I would say, 'you need to get in touch with Canadians.'"

The question, though, is which Canadians — and on what issue?

Some are concerned that the yellow vest movement's core message is becoming lost, and that it's being hijacked by conspiracy theorists and the alt-right.

Before leaving, Carritt stopped his fire truck at a weekend rally of yellow vesters in Red Deer. The signs had a variety of messages — and so did the protesters.

One told us about the dangers of the UN's Global Pact on Migration, a non-binding set of principles agreed to by Canada around immigration: "That is the strategy of the left — they don't throw everything in at once, this is the first step and the next step will be ratification. Part of the pact is you can't criticize people coming in."

(We should note the pact does not limit a country's ability to control who gets in.)

Determined yellow vest demonstrators held a rally in Red Deer, Alta., on Saturday despite -30 C temperatures. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Another explained that she believed we had no intention of covering the rally fairly. "You guys are biased, right? You are paid for by the government, which is our tax dollars, which is totally wrong. You either muddle the truth or leave parts out so it sounds different from what it is."

"They are a distraction to the message," another man at the rally told us. "[What] we are trying to get out to Canada is that we need pipelines."

The main Yellow Vest Facebook group was founded by Tyler Malenfant, for example, who has supported racist rhetoric in the past. Then there's the Canadian Infidels, which identifies with the yellow vest pipeline cause, but made headlines recently for showing up unannounced at a mosque.

"We're not looking for any spotlight in the yellow vest movement, we're hoping it develops on its own with the convoy and that," Infidel president Ty Hunt told us. "What we are trying to do is add to it, like making contact with mosques."

Ty Hunt, president of the Canadian Infidels, says the group is 'not looking for any spotlight in the yellow vest movement.' (David Common/CBC)

Glen Carritt takes issue with groups like the Infidels, but he's reticent to condemn anyone under the yellow vest umbrella. He does acknowledge there are many distractions, though.

"The trouble with Facebook is you get these keyboard warriors, and they are causing problems for the group," he says. "It destroys the message."

As his convoy sets out for the five-day journey to Ottawa tomorrow, he expects to pick up more protesters along the way. More will show up when they arrive. The question is who they'll be — and what the yellow vest movement means to them.

- David Common

  • WATCH: David Common's story on the yellow vest protests in Canada, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

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Remembering Crystal Papineau

In the weeks since her death, Crystal Papineau's family has learned much about her life, reporter Nick Purdon writes.

Crystal Papineau died inside a donation bin in Toronto in the early morning of Jan. 8 — a victim of her difficult life on the streets, and her compassion for others.  

Her father Gerald Kuno, who I visited last week at Crystal's childhood home near Ottawa, told me about the coroner's call to him to explain how the bin's metal jaws strangled his daughter.

"The top came down, got her on the head, and the bottom one got her on the neck," Kuno says.  

"She suffocated in there. She was there long enough she was able to make a phone call, but by the time someone found her she was already dead. Eight minutes."

Crystal Papineau was known on the streets of Toronto for her generosity. She died while trying to get clothing from a donation bin in Toronto in January. (Kuno Family)

Kuno says he hadn't heard anything from Crystal in two years.

"You can't believe that she's gone, you know," he says. "Because we always got her calls — 'Hello, how are you? I am good,' or 'I am going to jail,' or 'I am in rehab,' or something. She always let us know what was going on. But she didn't want to come home."

In the past weeks, Kuno and Crystal's stepmom Evelyn Simser haven't only learned the details of Crystal's terrible death. From the people closest to their daughter on the streets of Toronto, they've learned about the 35-year-old's life as well.

A tribute to Crystal was held in Toronto yesterday, and her name is being added to a homeless memorial in the city.

"I learned that my daughter was loving and caring, and that's all I hoped her to be," Simser says. "She cared for other people, that's amazing. And she was strong."

A memorial was held for Crystal in Toronto on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Crystal left home when she was 15 and went to Toronto. On the streets, where she lived for 20 years, what she was known for was her generosity.

Crystal often went inside donation bins to get clothes to hand out to other people on the street.

That's what she was doing the night she died.

"I am so proud of her, that she was able to take care of herself," Simser says. "And what she's done for the other people."

- Nick Purdon

  • WATCH: Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja's story about Crystal's life, and her parents' difficulty making sense of her death, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

Old friends.

Quote of the moment

"People should know that the line has been crossed."

- Maria Ressa, the chief executive of Philippines-based news website Rappler that has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, reacts to her arrest today on a charge of "cyber libel."

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, centre, is surrounded by the press as she is escorted by a National Bureau of Investigation agent at the NBI headquarters after her arrest in Manila on Wednesday. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • Toronto police won't charge former RCMP doctor over 30 allegations of sexual assault (CBC)
  • Ex-Canadian gymnastics coach acquitted of sex-related charges (CBC)
  • Michael Bloomberg's $500 million anti-Trump moonshot (Politico)
  • Cameroon's opposition leader formally charged with 'rebellion' (Africanews)
  • Despite El Chapo's conviction, his powerful Sinaloa cartel marches on (CBC)
  • Tesla rushes Model 3s to China before trade war truce expires (South China Morning Post)
  • Instagram removes gay Muslim comics after Indonesia warning (Japan Times)
  • Amazon's streamlined plastic packaging is jamming up recycling centres (LA Times)
  • Apple, Google urged to remove app that lets Saudi men track wives (Al Jazeera)
  • Assman, denied licence plate, displays name across truck's backside (CBC)

Today in history

Feb. 13, 1981: Telidon - 'knowledge at your fingertips!'

This two-way TV technology was still in its "experimental" phase, but it sure sounded like the future. Weather reports and sports scores available at any time, day or night. Plus the potential to do your banking, buy a movie ticket or read the latest Peanuts strip. There's even a mock-up page for electronic news. "It could drastically change newspapers as we know them," predicts a federal bureaucrat.

A Canadian interactive TV system is heralded as the next big thing in communications. 2:09

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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.