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U.S. prepares sanctions, pressure on Nicaragua after election -officials

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November 5, 2021

By Matt Spetalnick and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration is prepared to impose further sanctions and ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government following elections set for this Sunday, senior U.S. officials said.

Escalating U.S. criticism of Ortega as he is firmly favored to win a fourth consecutive term, a senior State Department official said on Friday that Washington sees the vote as ushering in a “dictatorship” in the Central American nation.

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Since the last election in 2016, Ortega has abolished presidential term limits, expanded his family’s business empire and piled pressure on independent media. In recent months, he has jailed opposition contenders, activists, journalists and business leaders. Other critics have gone into exile.

The United States will maintain its diplomatic presence in Nicaragua despite regarding the election as the end of Ortega’s democratic mandate, the official told reporters.

But President Joe Biden’s administration will limit certain trade “interactions” with Managua and uses its vote in international financial institutions to discourage lending to a “corrupt government.”

Biden is likely to add his voice to condemnation of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, by issuing a statement on Sunday, a senior administration official said.

Biden also intends to sign legislation to increase pressure on Ortega, who has arrested opponents and cracked down on critical media, all but guaranteeing his re-election, the official said.

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“You’re going to see broad international rejection of fraudulent elections,” the administration official told reporters.

Reuters reported last week that Washington was readying targeted sanctions for after the election. This would add to the punitive measures already rolled out, including on Ortega family members.

The State Department official confirmed more sanctions were in the works, though earlier actions have not deterred Ortega. Many analysts are skeptical, with sanctions having done little to effect change in Cuba and Venezuela.

U.S. officials hope to gain leverage by coordinating sanctions with others, such as the European Union and Canada, even as Nicaragua’s neighbors have resisted going beyond tough words.

“We’re prepared to focus our attention through sanctions and diplomacy on imposing costs on those involved in repression in Nicaragua,” the State Department official said.

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Ortega, the longest-serving leader in the Americas, has said that sanctions would not deter him and his government was upholding the law by arresting people conspiring against him.

The State Department official said the Organization of American States is expected to send a “strong message” when it meets this month. Seven nations – including Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala and Honduras – abstained in October on a resolution expressing alarm at Ortega’s actions.

U.S. options appear limited. The State Department official said Washington would be very careful about hitting sectors of Nicaragua’s economy that “might impact the population.” This would appear to leave only individuals, security units and government-controlled companies as future targets.

Washington has begun a review of Nicaragua’s membership in the Central America free trade agreement. But the administration is mindful that Nicaragua’s suspension could hurt its struggling economy and possibly spur further migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The State Department official said the administration was willing to study what additional measures could be taken under CAFTA-DR, which gives preferential treatment for regional exports, but stopped short of saying it would consider Nicaragua’s suspension.

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(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Alistair Bell)

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Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

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November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

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Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

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There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

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November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

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Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

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Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

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Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

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November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

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The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

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Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

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