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Mr. Maduro in His Labyrinth

A line to buy basic goods in Caracas, Venezuela CreditJorge Silva/Reuters

Framed portraits of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez were propped up at various stops of President Nicolás Maduro’s recent whirlwind trip abroad, as the man at the helm of the nation with the world’s largest oil reservesbegged for bailouts.

Posters of his predecessor also abounded when Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver, arrived home to a carnival-like welcome, as he drove the lead coach of a convoy that snaked through crowds of supporters.

Last week, in a speech before lawmakers, Mr. Maduro, whose approval rating has slipped to 22 percent as the Venezuelan economy teeters on the brink of collapse, again invoked his mentor in predicting a landslide victory in upcoming parliamentary elections. “I have no doubt that Chávez’s nation will deliver a great victory in the memory of Hugo Chávez in elections that are being held this year,” he said.

Since he was voted into office in April 2013 by a minuscule margin after Mr. Chávez’s death, Mr. Maduro has leaned heavily on the legacy of his predecessor, a populist who governed poorly but had magnetic charisma and shrewd political instincts. Woefully lacking on both fronts, Mr. Maduro has become increasingly erratic and despotic in a quest for political survival that seems more daunting by the day. Healthy oil export revenue allowed Mr. Chávez to build a robust network of patronage and create generous welfare programs during his 14 years in power. Those are becoming increasingly paltry on Mr. Maduro’s watch.

The tumbling price of oil, which accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, has nearly destroyed an economy that has been managed dismally for years. Inflation rose to 64 percent last year. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund predicted that Venezuela’s economy would contract 7 percent in 2015, which could force Mr. Maduro’s government to default on its loans or significantly curtail the subsidized oil his country provides to allies in the Caribbean, including Cuba.

Mr. Maduro has been vague about the type of painful economic measures his government has been willing to embrace, yet he bafflingly has promised to expand social programs and raise salaries. Far from acknowledging responsibility for the crisis, he and his loyalists have blamed the revenue shortfalls on political opponents they accuse of enabling an international conspiracy.

They have jailed one of the most prominent figures in the opposition, Leopoldo López, since last February on trumped up charges of stoking violent protests a year ago. During Mr. López’s Kafkaesque trial, which is still in process, prosecutors have argued that he instigated bloodshed through subliminal messages.

Last month, the authorities in Venezuela charged another opposition leader, María Corina Machado, with plotting to assassinate Mr. Maduro — a ludicrous, unfounded allegation against another inspiring challenger.

The crackdown on the opposition, unobstructed by a weak and compromised press, appears to be an effort to divert attention from Venezuelans’ deteriorating quality of life. Security forces have been deployed to maintain order outside supermarkets, where people line up for hours to scrounge whatever is left on depleted shelves.

On a recent afternoon, a Venezuelan woman who had been waiting in line since 4 a.m. showed a television journalist from Al Jazeera English her forearm, where someone had written the number 413 with a black marker to establish her place in line. “Now we are like cattle,” the woman lamented. “This must end.”

Hours later, Mr. Maduro’s government responded with its standard effort to find a scapegoat for the national calamity. The head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, in a televised address, called the journalist, Mónica Villamizar, an American spy.

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All Alone: Maduro’s Witch-Hunt Diplomacy

Hard-Liner Rodríguez’s Appointment Signals More Bullish Rhetoric

Nicolás Maduro

Since taking office in 2013, Nicolás Maduro’s foreign policy has been characterized by confrontation and radical measures, surpassing even his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

For Maduro, there’s always an enemy to attack, and his posturing reached new levels in 2014. In February, his administration cheerfully — and without evidence — labelled peaceful student protests a “coup orchestrated by the opposition with foreign backing.” He then proceeded to ignore calls from world leaders, governments, and international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS), to seriously investigate the 40 dead, thousands jailed, and hundreds of Venezuelans tortured by law enforcement.

During the first three months of 2014 alone, Maduro blamed former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for Venezuela’s own problems; expelled three US embassy employees for allegedly meddling in the country’s internal affairs; broke diplomatic and commercial relations with Panama; and accused Ricardo Martinelli’s “lackey” administration of promoting an invasion of Venezuela through the OAS. Problems with other countries like Spain followed, and go on to this day.

Maduro, of course, saved his most venomous political attacks for the United States, Venezuela’s largest consumer of its oil. The aggression towards the United States continued even despite the announcements in December from Barack Obama and Raúl Castro of thenormalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Immediately following this historic event, Maduro toned down his anti-imperialist hyperbole, but it didn’t last long. When the US Congress and President Obama signed a targeted sanctions law against Chavista functionaries responsible for human-rights violations, the confrontation reached new heights.

A reduction in financial largesse and diplomatic outreach also marked Venezuela’s 2014 international performance. Dwindling income resulting from the cheapest oil prices in decades put the country’s own budget at risk, and the Maduro administration was forced to cut back on international trips and its once generous aid to other nations.

Nevertheless, the Venezuelan president kept right on spending money during the few visits he did take abroad. In September, Maduro took 175 people — relatives, journalists, ministers, military members, bodyguards, and state officials — to the UN assembly in New York.” As of September 2014, Maduro  wasted over US$14 million in public funds on trips and travel allowances, while the Venezuelan people suffer a deep economic crisis,” denounced opposition Deputy Carlos Berrisbeitia.

That same month, the president appointed the prominent Chavista Rafael Ramírez as Foreign minister, after 10 years of leading state-run PDVSA and the oil ministry. This move was widely understood as the beginning of a new kind of diplomacy, less ideological and confrontational, and an attempt to calm creditors and investors in the oil sector. In fact, his four months in office — almost wholly devoted to representing Venezuela before OPEC — have been more moderate than his predecessor’s, Elías Jaua.

On October 16, 2014, after years of lobbying, Venezuela obtained a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Gaining 181 out of 193 votes from the general assembly, it was a great victory for the ruling PSUV party. This marked the fifth time Venezuela had gained access to the UN’s highest deliberative body, after a resounding failure in 2006 when it competed with Guatemala. In the end, neither country managed to secure a seat, however, after 47 rounds of voting.

November, on the other hand, represented a major setback for Chavista foreign policy. Maduro unsuccessfully pushed for a production cut at an OPEC meeting in order to ease the plummeting price of oil, which accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s exports.

The year ended with a sudden change: the recently appointed Ramírez was shipped to the United Nations as Venezuela’s representative on the Security Council, and Maduro ushered in Delcy Rodríguez Gómez to the Foreign Ministry.

Rodríguez, unlike the pragmatic technocrat Ramírez, signals a return to radicalization and ideological rhetoric. The woman now in charge of the country’s diplomatic relations is none other than the daughter of the legendary Marxist politician Jorge Rodríguez, founder of the Socialist League party, and sister of Libertador mayor Jorge Rodríguez, a high-rankingChavista official.

This new designation will undoubtedly isolate Maduro’s regime from the international community even further. If Maduro continues on this course — one that is, ironically, lesspragmatic than even Raúl Castro’s —  he is bound to reap disastrous political defeats like the one at the OAS on December 22. During the meeting, Maduro could not even manage to secure the support from Petrocaribe nations to sign a declaration against the US sanctions.

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Maduro’s Prisoner-Swap Deal Ignites Fury over Arbitrary Detention

Growing Alliance Condemn Political Persecution of Leopoldo López

Representatives for Leopoldo López have said they will not accept anything less than his immediate release, arguing he has been imprisoned without due process.

President Nicolás Maduro has once again stirred controversy both inside and outside of Venezuela. On Monday, January 5, he offered to release jailed opposition leaderLeopoldo López if the US government would agree to a prisoner swap for Puerto Rican nationalist Óscar López Rivera.

Freddy Guevara, national coordinator for opposition party Popular Will, argues that in doing so Maduro has unwittingly confirmed López’s status as a political prisoner. The Venezuelan government formally charged the 43-year-old former mayor in February 2014 with “incitement of crime, criminal association, arson of a public building in the second degree, and damage to public property.”

“It is clear that Nicolás Maduro kidnapped Leopoldo López.”

Popular Will leaders further argue that Maduro’s actions reinforce the ruling from the UNWorking Group on Arbitrary Detentions and the European Parliament that the prominent opposition leader has been jailed arbitrarily and should be freed immediately.

Human-rights NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have also voiced their concerns over López’s incarceration. HRW chief José Miguel Vivancos has stressed that “the swap is not an option; the only way out is his immediate release.”

Ever since the UN Working Group ruled in October 2014 that López should be freed, the dissident politician has refused to appear before a Caracas court, contesting its legitimacy and arguing that it must comply with the international body’s ruling.

López’s attorneys have formally filed a request for his release with the Appeals Court, but it has yet to respond. Following a series of postponements, the most recent on Monday, January 5, the next hearing in his case has been scheduled for January 13.

On Sunday, before leaving for an international lobbying tour of Russia, China, and OPEC nations, President Maduro revealed part of a conversation held with US Vice President Joe Biden on January 1 in Brazil, during President Dilma Rousseff’s inauguration ceremony.

Maduro said Biden requested López’s release, to which he replied: “The only way I’d use my presidential powers to free López is if we exchange him, man for man, for the Puerto Rican nationalist Óscar López Rivera, put him on a plane, and send him to the United States.”

The Venezuelan president referred to López as the “monster of Ramo Verde,” a reference to the military prison where the opposition leader is held in almost total isolation. In the past, Maduro has also referred to López as a “murderer” for allegedly spurring the protests on February 12, 2014, that left three students dead. López, however, has not been charged with homicide, while two police officers are currently under investigation in connection with the killings.

The 12-F protest was the climax of over three months of student demonstrations that left 42 people dead, most at the hands of armed Chavista paramilitary groups. Over 100 people still remain in police custody as a result of the protests, and 2,000 others face criminal charges.

According to reports from several human-rights NGOs, the Venezuelan government arbitrarily arrested over 3,000 protestors, and violated human rights in 157 instances. This led to the approval of targeted sanctions by the United States directed against Venezuelan officials accused of human-rights violations.

Following Maduro’s recent statements, the opposition alliance group, the Democratic Unity Rountable and López’s own Popular Will party, have condemned the proposed prisoner exchange. They claim that Maduro’s comments not only acknowledge López is a political prisoner but also reveal his desire to exile one of the country’s most popular politicians. Opinion polls demonstrate López holds double the approval rating of Maduro, whose popularity is currently lower than any president since 1999, when Hugo Chávez launched the Bolivarian Revolution.

Repercussions Within and Abroad

“Leopoldo López’s swap has become international news,” said Leopoldo Castillo, one of Venezuela’s most influential journalists, to his 1.3 million Twitter followers. “If Maduro thought he was being funny, it came out as an insult.”

“If Maduro thought he was being funny, it came out as an insult.”

Lilian Tintori, López’s wife and spokesman, has rejected the possibility of López leaving Venezuela.

“Maduro, this isn’t about a swap deal; this is about justice,” Tintori responded.

Freddy Guevara of Popular Will adds that he believes this ordeal reveals López has been “kidnapped” and “Maduro is a kidnapper.… If anyone had any doubts that Leopoldo was a political prisoner … it became clear for everyone yesterday, when Maduro proposed exchanging him for another political prisoner.”

However, López’s defense attorney, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, left the door open to consider the unlikely deal. “If the United States were to accept the offer, we’d be willing to evaluate it,” said Gutiérrez. He added that from a legal standpoint, however, the arrangement would be “openly unconstitutional.”

Despite the attorney’s response, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki put the speculation to rest, responding within 24 hours by rejecting any possibility of such an arrangement.

“There’s no comparison in our view between these cases,” she stated. “It is unfortunate that someone – Leopoldo Lopez, who should be presumed innocent – is being sentenced on national television by Venezuela’s president without the conclusion of a trial.”

Renowned Venezuelan legal scholars like Alberto Arteaga have also expressed theiramazement at Maduro’s proposal: “It’s unprecedented in Venezuela … The prisoner swap hypothesis is not contemplated in the legal system, and he [Maduro] is only allowed to grant a presidential pardon. What we’re seeing is that López’s persecution really is politically motivated and Maduro isn’t embarrassed to show it.”

Miranda governor and former presidential contender Henrique Capriles had harsher words for the president, saying Maduro “should turn on his brain” before speaking. “What is this? Asking for an exchange for someone who has nothing to do with us? We want justice for Leopoldo López and the rest of our fellow activists in jail.”

As both sides exchange political blows, López remains in Ramo Verde prison, and according to Juan Francisco Alonso of El Universal — who has closely followed López’s legal proceedings his situation is unlikely to change in 2015.

“[There is] clearly no precedent” for Maduro’s offer, said Alonso on local news radio. He also suggests the trial has been plagued by misconduct, unfairly favoring the prosecution, as the court has limited the defense’s ability to present counter evidence during pretrial hearings.

The prosecution is asking for a 16-year sentence against López, whose health conditions in prison have deteriorated since February 2014. The Popular Will leader, as well as the deposed mayors Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, have denounced abuses and poor living conditions inside the military jail.

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Maduro Touts Special Economic Zones to Grease Wheels with China #VenezuelaEnTerapiaIntensiva

Venezuelan Regime Seeks Construction Companies for Public Housing

On Sunday September 21, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced the creation of two “Special Economic Zones” (ZEEs) through the signing of four agreements with Chinese companies, as part of the Chinese-Venezuelan Fund.

“I want to inform the Chinese businessmen of the creation of ZEEs in two cities, Puerto Cabello and Anzoátegui, with special conditions for foreign investment — initially from China, and later open to anyone wanting to invest,” Maduro said.

Maduro did not elaborate on what those special conditions will be, but he did say a total of US$2 billion will be invested.

Pedro Benitez, a member of the Democratic Action Party and the Public Policy Unit of Analysis at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) told the PanAm Post that these agreements are nothing new: “Previous announcements of this type have been made, but official information regarding the details of these commercial exchanges is not available.”

According to Benitez, the arrangement is just another means of exchanging petroleum for cash that will allow Venezuela to honor its economic obligations, as opposed to Maduro’sclaim that, “We are going to be exporters of construction materials.”

Construction the Driving Force behind the Special Economic Zones

The majority of Chinese companies that will invest in the Venezuelan ZEEs are in the construction sector, which Maduro says will reinforce his public-housing program, known as the “Great Venezuela Housing Mission” (GVMM). The stated goal of the initiative is to provide housing for 25 million Venezuelans through the construction of 6 million houses by 2019.

Benitez, however, dismisses the notion that the program will solve Venezuela’s housing problem: “Public-housing policy has existed since 2011, but it has not solved any problem. The urban slums in major cities are still there, despite government announcements and claims of housing construction.”

The first two agreements of the ZEE initiative were made with Sany Heavy Industry, a Chinese company that will manufacture heavy machinery and prefabricated housing material for both domestic and foreign markets. Sany Heavy will build eight industrial construction plants, each with six production lines. Ricardo Molina, minister of public works and housing, said the company will begin with the construction of 200,000 houses.

The third and fourth agreements were signed with Citi Construction and JAC Motors, which will manufacture windows, doors, and construction vehicles respectively.

As part of the program, Maduro will permit the importation of necessary construction materials.

Window of Opportunity or Dead End?

“The export window must be opened,” Maduro said during the press conference for the deal. In addition to the Venezuelan market, the goods produced are expected to be exported toMercosur, PetroCaribe, and Bolivarian Alliance nations.

To strengthen Venezuela’s manufacturing base, Maduro proclaimed that “at least 20 percent of production must be exported.”

Again, Benitez sees the goal as dubious, since the agreements lack detail: “The Chinese-Venezuelan Fund is messy; there is no information regarding the price of oil Venezuela sells China, who pays transportation costs, nor how and when payment will be made. These new agreements signed as part of the fund simply resolve the immediate need for cash.”

As Benitez puts it, “Venezuela has an open line of credit with China.” He thinks the Maduro government will maintain this course as long as China values cheap oil. What Benitez does not know is how long the agreement will last, and what Venezuela will do without it.

The Chinese-Venezuela Fund began in2007. The following year, Hugo Chávez signed an energy-cooperation deal with China with thegoal of increasing Venezuela’s oil exports to China from 96,000 to 1 million barrels per day by 2012, in exchange for $4 billion in Chinese credit.

Benitez says that “In the long run,” though, “China benefits from these agreements, and Venezuela loses. Chinese businesses enters the country without any problem, but we never get to see the finished projects that the government periodically announces.”

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Venezuelan Exiles: Dictator Maduro, Stay Away from Panama!

Peaceful Protesters Reject Possible Attendance at Varela’s Inauguration

Yesterday morning, a group of Venezuelan residents in Panama City protested outside the residence of the new president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela. The demonstrators expressed their opposition to the possible presence of the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, at Varela’s presidential inauguration. They also asked Varela to take a firm stance against ongoing human rights violations inflicted by the Maduro regime in the oil-exporting country.

Venezuelans displayed signs with messages against President Nicolás Maduro and the violence, scarcity of basic goods, and imprisonment of student demonstrators in their country

The Venezuelan demonstrators acted in preemptive manner, since the Venezuelan president has yet to confirm whether he will attend the inauguration ceremony. The presidents of other countries, such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Spain, have given such notice, and unofficial sources suggest that Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Arreaza will travel in Maduro’s place.

Still, Andreína Chacín, a representative in Panama for the Venezuelan opposition party Popular Will, says the protests were carried out in advance precisely to let President Maduro know how the Venezuelan community there feels about the possibility of him visiting the country.

“He is a dictator. He is suppressing the democrats who took to the streets to protest against him, which is a legitimate right protected by our constitution,” said Chacín. She was referring to the deaths of 42 people and the arrests of more than 3,000 during the wave of protests that began in Venezuela on February 4.

Chacín also recalled that following the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Panama last March, Maduro was disrespectful to the Central American country.

“We do not support his visit. He disrespected Panamanians, and we want the international community to break its complicit silence. To the extent that they don’t make use of the international mechanisms to enforce respect for human rights, the death toll will keep rising. Many leaders that have not spoken out will have to live with the fact that they did nothing to stop the killings,” Chacín said.

After the delegation of the Central American country ceded their turn to speak to opposition leader María Corina Machado at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in March, Nicolás Maduro called Panama’s ex president Ricardo Martinelli a “lackey.”

The Popular Will representative asked Panama’s new president to continue the struggle for human rights and democracy in Venezuela, as allowed by international law.

Demonstrators, who remained protesting until noon, told the PanAm Post that both Varela and his wife, Lorena Varela Castle, waved their hands in a friendly gesture towards them while they were leaving their home.

“Here I Can Express my Opinion and not Die in the Process”

Many of the banners held by demonstrators protesting in Panama highlighted that in Venezuela they simply “cannot protest,” since between February and June, 3,000 peaceful demonstrators have been arrested there.

 Enlace permanente de imagen incrustada

Norema Asilah, a Venezuelan vacationing in Panama, said she was happy to be able to protest in the way that she is not able to in her home country.

“I came to visit my daughter, and I’m happy to be here to express the sadness and despair we Venezuelans feel. Our children have to look for a better future in other countries. In Venezuela, the government keeps wasting money while the misery of the people grows in front of our eyes,” she said.

Another protester, Verónica Velásquez, arrived in Panama a month ago with the intention of settling in the country.

“I lived through the protest period in Venezuela and did not dare to go out, because it meant putting a bullet to my chest. Here at least we can have our own small space for telling the world what we are going through back home,” she said.

Panamanian Rey Feurtado participated in the demonstation against Maduro's repression in Venezuela

Panamanians also approached the protest to show their support and solidarity.

“Given what is happening in our brother country, we cannot pretend to be deaf and blind. Students are being repressed in Venezuela.… Panama went through a dictatorship in the past, and many of our people had to flee to other countries. We must be unified,” said Rey Furtado, a Panamanian citizen who participated in the protest.

A group of Colombians also attended the demonstration in the company of family and Venezuelan friends.

“Human rights are violated all the time in Venezuela. That’s not what Simón Bolívar would have wanted for his country,” said Luis Fernando Cardona, who proudly wore the Colombian football team jersey, but held a banner against repression in Venezuela.

His Venezuelan friend, Jenny Ramirez, added: “How could they not show solidarity if they are our brother country? Maduro’s visit would be disrespectful. It is a government that indoctrinates our children and represses our youth.”

Citizens Affected by the Breakdown of Diplomatic Relationships

Chacín said that although Maduro and Varela have mentioned re-establishing diplomatic relations, in practice there are still unresolved issues between the two countries. Venezuelan nationals cannot solve their banking and consular problems due to the inactivity of diplomatic offices, along with Venezuela’s rejection of foreign currency transactions with Panamanian intermediaries.

Because the Chavista regime has established severe foreign-exchange controls, state officials can decide what type of operations are authorized for currency trading. Venezuelans who travel to Panama, for example, cannot exchange their currency into US dollars freely. But the situation is even more complicated for Venezuelans who reside in Panama and who study or receive their old age pension, as they need to convert their bolivars into dollars to cover their most basic living expenses.

“As Venezuelans in Panama, we are still not able to freely access our own money. It is important to note that this is not about the government giving any money to Venezuelans, it is about the inability to change our own money into dollars,” said Chacín. “With the high inflation rates prevalent in Venezuela, it is too expensive to buy dollars on foreign-exchange black market that has gown so large in [her] country.”

Over 60,000 Venezuelans live in Panama, and the figure is expected to increase due to theemigration wave currently sweeping Venezuela.

Chacín also noted that just like payments for remittances and pensions are frozen, traders in the Colón Free Zone in Panama still haven’t been payed either. “Venezuelan companies paid what they owed in bolivars, but the government does not pay the dollar equivalent here in Panama.”

Whole families attended the event and were greeted by president Juan Carlos Varela from his car

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Eye For An Eye: Washington Kicks Out Venezuelan Diplomats After Maduro Booted Americans


maduro usa.jpg

A helmet wearing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro cheers motorcyclists during a rally in support of his government in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Since Feb. 12, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro have been staging countrywide protests that the government says have resulted in scores of deaths and more than more than a hundred injured. The demonstrators blame Maduro’s administration for the country’s high crime rate and economic troubles. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)(AP2014)

  The State Department said Tuesday it has expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in response to last week’s expulsion of three U.S. consular officials from Caracas.

Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Venezuelan envoys First Secretary Ignacio Luis Cajal Avalos, First Secretary Victor Manuel Pisani Azpurua, and Second Secretary Marcos José García Figueredo, have 48 hours to leave the U.S.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from Caracas on Feb. 17, saying they were supporting opposition plots to overthrow him.

Psaki cited U.S. concerns about Venezuela’s record of human rights and support for democracy, but said Washington remains open to a diplomatic relationship with Maduro.

«Venezuela also needs to show seriousness for us to be able to move forward,» Psaki said. «And recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult.»

The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, though they have maintained embassies.

Since Feb. 12, Venezuelan opponents of Maduro have been staging countrywide protests that the government says have left at least 15 people dead and wounded about 150. Authorities have detained 579 people, of whom 45, including nine police officers and members of the National Guard, remain in custody.

Though violent protests have died down, Venezuela remains tense. Opposition protesters erected barricades to block traffic on major streets in Caracas and elsewhere Monday but there were no major clashes.