US Lawmaker Says Facebook Cannot Be Trusted to Regulate Itself

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Democratic U.S. Representative David Cicilline, expected to become the next chairman of House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, said on Wednesday that Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself and Congress should take action.

Cicilline, citing a report in the New York Times on Facebook’s efforts to deal with a series of crises, said on Twitter: “This staggering report makes clear that @Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers.”

“It is long past time for us to take action,” he said. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said a year ago that the company would put its “community” before profit, and it has doubled its staff focused on safety and security issues since then. Spending also has increased on developing automated tools to catch propaganda and material that violates the company’s posting policies.

​Other initiatives have brought increased transparency about the administrators of pages and purchasers of ads on Facebook. Some critics, including lawmakers and users, still contend that Facebook’s bolstered systems and processes are prone to errors and that only laws will result in better performance. The New York Times said Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, ignored warning signs that the social media company could be “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe.” And when the warning signs became evident, they “sought to conceal them from public view.”

“We’ve known for some time that @Facebook chose to turn a blind eye to the spread of hate speech and Russian propaganda on its platform,” said Cicilline, who will likely take the reins of the subcommittee on regulatory reform, commercial and antitrust law when the new, Democratic-controlled Congress is seated in January.

“Now we know that once they knew the truth, top @Facebook executives did everything they could to hide it from the public by using a playbook of suppressing opposition and propagating conspiracy theories,” he said.

“Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans,” Cicilline said.

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Report: China Appears to Ease North Korea Sanctions

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A U.S. congressional commission said Wednesday that China appears to have relaxed enforcement of sanctions on North Korea and called on the Treasury Department to provide a report on Chinese compliance within 180 days.

In its annual report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the Treasury report should include a classified list of Chinese financial institutions, businesses and officials involved in trading with North Korea that could be subject to future sanctions.

The bipartisan commission said China had appeared to enforce sanctions on North Korea more thoroughly than in the past in 2017 and in early 2018.

But this effort appeared to have relaxed since a thaw in relations between China and North Korea as the long-time ally of Beijing began to engage with the United States this year.

Key lifelines

“China appears to have eased off sanctions enforcement, despite its promises to keep sanctions intact until North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons,” the report said.

“North Korean workers have returned to jobs in northeast China, economic activity and tourism have picked up in border towns, flights in both directions have resumed, and the two countries have conducted high-profile official exchanges to discuss economic development,” it said.

It said China always left “key lifelines” in place for North Korea and there were “holes” in enforcement that included “ship to ship” transfers of goods.

The report said the Treasury Department, in recommending Chinese sanctions targets, should also “explain the potential broader impacts of sanctioning those entities.”

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for its weapons programs. The United States has imposed sanctions in the past on Chinese and other foreign firms for violating those steps.

Reward Pyongyang?

China and Russia have said the Security Council should reward Pyongyang for “positive developments” after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization.

China’s top diplomat and politburo member Yang Jiechi said after talks in Washington last week that China would “continue to enforce strictly relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Trump has suggested China may be exerting negative pressure on U.S. efforts to press North Korea to denuclearize in response to U.S. trade measures on Beijing.

The U.S. Treasury did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the commission report, but the State Department said it expected all U.N. states to implement sanctions resolutions until North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons.

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Poll: Safety, Time Are Women’s Biggest Transportation Concerns

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Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport in five of the world’s biggest commuter cities, according to a global poll released Thursday as improving city access for women becomes a major focus globally. 

A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 women in London, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Cairo found 52 percent of respondents overall cited safety as their main worry, with women in Mexico City the most fearful about safety. 

Almost three in every four women in Mexico City lacked confidence they could travel without facing sexual harassment and abuse or sexual violence, with Cairo coming a close second. 

The ratio was one in four women in the other three cities. 

The time it took to travel around the city — with studies showing women often take more complex routes with more stops than men because of household and child care duties — was named as the second-biggest concern, cited by 33 percent of women. 

Time was the biggest worry for women in New York, with two-thirds saying it influenced their decision to take or stay in a job, while the cost of transport concerned women in London most, with nearly three in four women saying it was expensive. 

The poll came as city authorities have been looking at ways to ensure women have safe, efficient transport to reach jobs, education and health care. The cities are seeking to tackle inequality and poverty and boost their economies by getting more women into the workforce. 

The poll also came amid growing concern in the #MeToo climate that transport networks are magnets for sexual predators who use rush-hour crushes to hide behavior and as an excuse if caught. 

“It is very rare to find a group of women in any city who don’t have concerns about safety, and it is important for planners to think about that when designing a transport system,” said Jemilah Magnusson, spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. 

“Most transport systems focus on the solo male commuter traveling at peak hours from home and work, but women have different trip patterns. … Women must be involved in planning transit to meet their needs.” 

Laws and smartphones 

The survey, conducted Aug. 13-24 and supported by Uber, asked 200 women in each of five of the world’s largest commuter cities with underground train networks in different cultural regions about safety, time spent traveling and cost, among other issues. 

A recent International Labor Organization study said limited access to and safety of transport were estimated to be the greatest obstacles to women’s role in the labor force in developing countries, reducing probable participation by 16.5 percent. 

Transport authorities and experts said moves to improve transport for women had become a major issue in recent years because of safety concerns and congestion. 

World Bank reports have stressed that improving transport can have immediate positive results on women’s lives, be it through adding safety laws, including women in planning, or offering alternative transport, such as ride-hailing apps or bikes. 

The World Bank introduced gender as an issue for the first time this year at an annual conference on transforming transportation. 

Magnusson said including the issue of women and transport exploded into a major issue after the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi shocked the world. 

“This was one story that brought out lots of other horror stories from women and really galvanized people,” said Magnusson, whose group promotes environmental and livable transport. 

This has led to a surge in women-only train carriages and taxi services, but just 47 percent of the women in the poll said this would improve women’s safety. 

Maria Jose Bermudez, 45, a cook who commutes three hours a day using public transport in Mexico City, said more needs to be done instead to educate men about women’s rights generally. 

“Women-only carriages don’t really solve the problem because the issue has to do with Mexico’s culture and how men treat women,” Bermudez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Coping with congestion 

Steve Swasey, spokesman for public transit app Moovit, said smartphones had triggered a “revolution” in mass transit with the emergence of ride-hailing apps and apps to use transport more efficiently by cutting wait times and avoiding bottlenecks. 

The Inter-American Development Bank found the higher the compliance with a transport schedule or the less congested, the lower the probability that a woman will be a crime victim. 

The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found that 56 percent of women globally said ride-hailing apps had improved their ability to get around their cities. More than half of women in every city but Tokyo said these new forms of transport were helpful. 

“City roads are at full capacity, and there is not one major city where congestion is not a major concern,” Swasey said. “You can’t easily or quickly put more lanes on a bridge or rails in a tunnel … but you can use data to regulate the influx of traffic and change the way people use transport.” 

Magnusson said most cities were aware they should make transport more efficient and faster — but this could be a very politically unpopular move as it means cutting back on cars. 

“Taking lanes from cars to make bus lanes and bike lanes, and introducing new parking and restriction schemes, can stop cars going into cities and help speed up transport,” she said. 

 

“It is not about just one thing, but it is about creating a transport system that is fair and allows women to fully participate in society, but that in itself can be very threatening to many people.” 

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Draft Brexit Deal Ends Britain’s Easy Access to EU Financial Markets 

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The United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed on a deal that will give London’s vast financial center only a basic level of access to the bloc’s markets after Brexit. 

The agreement will be based on the EU’s existing system of financial market access known as equivalence — a watered-down relationship that officials in Brussels have said all along is the best arrangement that Britain can expect. 

The EU grants equivalence to many countries and has so far not agreed to Britain’s demands for major concessions such as offering broader access and safeguards on withdrawing access, neither of which is mentioned in the draft deal. 

“It is appalling,” said Graham Bishop, a former banker and consultant who has advised EU institutions on financial services. The draft text “is particularly vague but emphasizes the EU’s ability to take decisions in its own interests. … This is code for the UK being a pure rule taker.” 

Britain’s decision to leave the EU has undermined London’s position as the leading international finance hub. Britain’s financial services sector, the biggest source of its exports and tax revenue, has been struggling to find a way to preserve the existing flow of trading after it leaves the EU. 

Many top bankers fear Brexit will slowly undermine London’s position. Global banks have already reorganized some operations ahead of Britain’s departure from the European Union, due on March 29. 

Currently, inside the EU, banks and insurers in Britain enjoy unfettered access to customers across the bloc in all financial activities. 

No commercial bank lending

Equivalence, however, covers a more limited range of business and excludes major activities such as commercial bank lending. Law firm Hogan Lovells has estimated that equivalence rules cover just a quarter of all EU cross-border financial services business. 

Such an arrangement would give Britain a similar level of access to the EU as major U.S. and Japanese firms, while tying it to many EU finance rules for years to come. 

Many bankers and politicians have been hoping London could secure a preferential deal giving it deep access to the bloc’s markets. 

Under current equivalence rules, access is patchy and can be cut off by the EU within 30 days in some cases. Britain had called for a far longer notice period. 

The draft deal is likely to persuade banks, insurers and asset managers to stick with plans to move some activities to the EU to ensure they maintain access to the bloc’s markets. 

Britain is currently home to the world’s largest number of banks, and about 6 trillion euros ($6.79 trillion) or 37 percent of Europe’s financial assets are managed in the U.K. capital, almost twice the amount of its nearest rival, Paris. 

London also dominates Europe’s 5.2 trillion-euro investment banking industry. 

Rachel Kent, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells who has advised companies on future trading relations with the EU, said the draft deal did not rule out improved equivalence in the future. 

“I don’t see that any doors have been closed,” she said. “It is probably as much as we could hope for at this stage.” 

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FCC Launches First US High-Band 5G Spectrum Auction 

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The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday launched the agency’s first high-band 5G spectrum auction as it works to clear space for next-generation faster networks. 

Bidding began Wednesday on spectrum in the 28 GHz band and will be followed by bidding for spectrum in the 24 GHz band. The FCC is making 1.55 gigahertz of spectrum available and the auctions will be followed by a 2019 auction of three more millimeter-wave spectrum bands — 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz. 

“These airwaves will be critical in deploying 5G services and applications,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Wednesday. 

5G networks are expected to be at least 100 times faster than current 4G networks and cut latency, or delays, to less than one-thousandth of a second from one-hundredth of a second in 4G. They also will allow for innovations in a number of different fields. While millimeter-wave spectrum offers faster speeds, it cannot cover big geographic areas and will require significant new small cell infrastructure deployments. 

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the spectrum being auctioned would allow for “faster broadband to autonomous cars, from smart [agriculture] to telehealth.” 

The spectrum being auctioned over the next 15 months “is more spectrum than is currently used for terrestrial mobile broadband by all wireless service providers combined,” the FCC said. 

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the United States was following “the lead of South Korea, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Australia. But we put ourselves back in the running for next-generation wireless leadership,” and she called on the FCC to clearly state the timing for future spectrum auctions. 

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum directing the Commerce Department to develop a long-term comprehensive national spectrum strategy to prepare for the introduction of 5G. 

Trump is also creating a White House Spectrum Strategy Task Force and wants federal agencies to report on government spectrum needs and review how spectrum can be shared with private sector users. 

AT&T, Verizon Communications, Sprint and T-Mobile U.S. are working to acquire spectrum and are developing and testing 5G networks. The first 5G-compatible commercial cellphones are expected to go on sale 

next year. 

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As Laws Fail to Slow Online Sex Trade, Experts Turn to Tech

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The online sale of sex slaves is going strong despite new U.S. laws to clamp down on the crime, data analysts said Wednesday, urging a wider use of technology to fight human trafficking.

In April, the United States passed legislation aimed at making it easier to prosecute social media platforms and websites that facilitate sex trafficking, days after a crackdown on classified ad giant Backpage.com.

The law resulted in an immediate and sharp drop in sex ads online but numbers have since picked up again, data presented at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference showed.

“The market has been destabilized and there are now new entrants that are willing to take the risk in order to make money,” Chris White, a researcher at tech giant Microsoft who gathered the data, told the event in London.

New players

Backpage.com, a massive advertising site primarily used to sell sex — which some analysts believe accounted for 80 percent of online sex trafficking in the United States — was shut down by federal authorities in April.

Days later, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which introduced stiff prison sentences and fines for website owners and operators found guilty of contributing to sex trafficking, was passed into law.

The combined action caused the number of online sex ads to fall 80 percent to about 20,000 a day nationwide, White said.

The number of ads has since risen to about 60,000 a day, as new websites filled the gap, he said.

In October — in response to a lawsuit accusing it of not doing enough to protect users from human traffickers — social media giant Facebook said it worked internally and externally to thwart such predators.

Using technology to continuously monitor and analyze this kind of data is key to evaluating existing laws and designing new and more effective ones, White said.

“It really highlights what’s possible through policy,” added Valiant Richey, a former U.S. prosecutor who now fights human trafficking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), echoing the calls for new methods.

Law enforcement agencies currently tackle slavery one case at a time, but the approach lacks as the crime is too widespread and authorities are short of resources, he said.

As a prosecutor in Seattle, Richey said his office would work on up to 80 cases a year, while online searches revealed more than 100 websites where sex was sold in the area, some carrying an average of 35,000 ads every month.

“We were fighting forest fire with a garden hose,” he said. “A case-based response to human trafficking will not on its own carry the day.”

At least 40 million people are victims of modern slavery worldwide — with nearly 25 million trapped in forced labor and about 15 million in forced marriages.

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May’s Brexit ‘Moment of Truth’

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Britain’s Theresa May scrambled Wednesday to sell to her Cabinet a draft Brexit divorce agreement British negotiators concluded after months of wrangling with their European Union counterparts.

But the 500-page draft remains a source of deep dispute within Britain’s ruling Conservative party and also in the country’s parliament, which will have the final say on whether to approve it.

As news emerged Tuesday that a text had been agreed, hardline Brexiteers lined up to attack the proposed agreement with former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, who resigned earlier this year, urging other ministers to join him in opposing the terms of the deal. Britain’s main opposition parties also announced their disapproval of the deal, which has not even been published yet. 

The agreement, if approved by the Cabinet and subsequently the British parliament, would see Britain remaining in a customs union for several years with the EU after it formally exits the bloc in March, but with an unclear legal path to quitting the customs arrangement while a fuller trade deal is negotiating.

Remaining in a customs union allows Britain and the EU to avoid introducing customs checks along the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and would also allow “frictionless trade” between Britain and its erstwhile partners in the EU.

Tough sell

But critics say it would reduce Britain to the status of a “vassal state” by requiring it to accept EU rules and regulations without having any say about them. It would also block Britain from signing trade deals with other countries while a trade agreement is concluded with the EU, which itself could take three or four years or even longer. Reaching trade deals independently with non-EU countries was a key selling point of Brexit for many who voted nearly two years ago in a referendum to relinquish EU membership.

“This is just about as bad as it could possibly be,” Johnson fumed Tuesday to reporters in the corridors of the British House of Commons. Other Brexiteers joined him to denounce the proposed deal, one they are determined to sabotage and which runs, they say, contrary to the Conservative Party manifesto they fought an election on a year.

“For the first time in a thousand years this place, this parliament will not have a say over the laws which govern this country. It is quite an incredible state of affairs,” Johnson added.

“She hasn’t so much struck a deal as surrendered to Brussels… the UK will be a slave state,” said Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Conservatives’ future at stake

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Theresa May. The draft agreement, May’s fate as Prime Minister and the longevity of the Conservative government are all hanging in the balance. The consequences of the process to get the draft agreement approved are difficult to guess and could end up sinking May, the Conservative government and even Brexit itself. “I don’t think anyone knows, to be truthful,” said Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna.

May’s minority government relies on the votes in the House of Commons on a handful of lawmakers from a quirky Protestant-based Unionist party, which is also opposed to the draft deal.

Without the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, and faced with an inevitable revolt by dozen of Conservative lawmakers, May will need to persuade opposition lawmakers to break with their party leaderships by arguing her deal is the best Britain can get.

Second vote?

But an increasing number of opposition lawmakers are jumping on the bandwagon of the People’s Vote movement, which is calling for a second Brexit referendum. Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of voters now, especially in traditional Labour heartlands, many of which voted in June 2016 for Brexit, now want Britain to retain EU membership, fearing the economic fallout from departure.

But even before seeking next month parliamentary backing for the draft customs union deal, May has to persuade her cabinet to back her — and that is not even a sure thing. On Tuesday — ahead of a full cabinet meeting called for Wednesday afternoon — May took a leaf out of the playbook of her Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who in 1990 called in ministers one by one to place them on the spot and demand their support. However, the tactic backfired on Thatcher and she was forced to resign. 

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith predicts May’s days will be numbered if she fails to reverse course and decides not to pursue a cleaner break from the EU. “If the cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t,” he said. Conservative lawmakers who want Britain to remain in the EU are also publicly opposing the draft agreement, placing May in a tight political vice.

Leave-supporting ministers were coming under intense pressure from hardline Brexiteers in the hours leading up to the cabinet meeting to reject the deal. They pointed to a leaked EU document outlining a strategy to force Britain to accept an almost permanent alignment with its rules and regulations governing state aid, environmental protection and workers’ rights.

In a note to EU ambassadors, Sabine Weyand, a deputy EU negotiator, said the customs union will form the basis for Britain’s future trade deal with the bloc. “They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. UK wants a lot more from the future relationship, so EU retains leverage,” she wrote. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Soft Wearable Tech is Helping People Move

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Robots with rigid metal frames are being used to help the paralyzed walk and have applications that could one day grant military fighters extra power on the battlefield. The problem is that they’re uncomfortable and heavy. But researchers at Harvard University are working on lighter, flexible devices that move easily and don’t weigh much. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Inside the FedEx Hub: How Packages Arrive at Your Door

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Several hundred private cargo planes in the United States deliver millions of packages per year. The FedEx superhub in Memphis Tennessee works around the clock to get parcels delivered to customers and hopefully – on time. VOA’s Lesia Bakalets traveled to Memphis to learn what part of day is the busiest for the FedEx team and how quickly they can load a plane.

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Fuel Shortages the New Normal in Venezuela as Oil Industry Unravels

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With chronic shortages of basic goods afflicting her native Venezuela, Veronica Perez used to drive from supermarket to supermarket in her grey Chevrolet Aveo searching for food.

But the 54-year-old engineer has abandoned the practice because of shortages of something that should be abundant in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves: gasoline.

“I only do what is absolutely necessary, nothing else,” said Perez, who lives in the industrial city of Valencia. She said she had stopped going to Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, just 20 miles (32 km) away.

Snaking, hours-long lines and gas station closures have long afflicted Venezuela’s border regions. Fuel smuggling to neighboring countries is common, the result of generous subsidies from state-run oil company PDVSA that allow Venezuelans to fill their tank 20,000 times for the price of one kilo (2.2 pounds) of cheese.

But in late October and early November, cities in the populous central region of the country like Valencia and the capital Caracas were hit by a rare wave of shortages, due to plunging crude production and a dramatic drop in refineries’ fuel output as the socialist-run economy suffers its fifth year of recession.

Venezuela produced more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude last year but by September output had fallen to just 1.4 million bpd. So far in 2018, Venezuela produced an average of 1.53 million bpd, the lowest in nearly seven decades, according to figures reported to OPEC.

Bottlenecks for transporting fuel from refineries, distribution centers and ports to gas stations have also worsened, exacerbating the shortages.

PDVSA did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Venezuela’s oil and communications ministries.

Relatively normal supply has since been restored in Caracas and Valencia after unusually long outages but the episode has forced Venezuelans to alter their daily habits.

That could hit an economy seen shrinking by double digits in 2018. For Venezuelans coping with a lack of food and medicine, blackouts and hyperinflation, the gasoline shortages could also increase frustration with already-unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

“My new headache is fearing I might run out of gasoline,” said Elena Bustamante, a 34-year-old English teacher in Valencia. “It has changed my life enormously.”

Production Shortfall

Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by more than half since Maduro took office in 2013. The contraction has been driven by a collapse in the price of crude and falling oil sales, which account for more than 90 percent of Venezuelan exports.

Three million Venezuelans have emigrated – or around one-tenth of the population – mostly in the past three years, according to the United Nations.

Despite a sharp drop in domestic demand due to the recession, Venezuela’s collapsing oil industry is struggling to produce enough gasoline.

Fuel demand was expected to fall to 325,000 bpd in October, half the volume of a decade ago, but PDVSA expected to be able to supply only 270,000 bpd, according to a company planning document seen by Reuters.

A gasoline price hike – promised by Maduro in August under a reform package – could further reduce demand but it has yet to take effect.

Venezuela’s declining oil production has its roots in years of underinvestment. U.S. sanctions have complicated financing.

The refining sector, designed to produce 1.3 million bpd of fuel, is severely hobbled. It is operating at just one-third of capacity, according to experts and union sources.

Its largest refinery, Amuay, is delivering just 70,000 bpd of gasoline despite having the capacity to produce 645,000 bpd of fuel, according to union leader Ivan Freites and another person close to PDVSA who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

PDVSA has tried to make up for this by boosting fuel imports, buying about half of the gasoline the country needs, according to internal company figures.

In the first eight months of 2018, Venezuela imported an average of 125,000 bpd from the United States, up 76 percent from the same period a year earlier, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.

But delays in unloading fuel cargoes have contributed to shortages, since Venezuelan oil ports are more oriented toward exports than imports, according to traders, shippers, PDVSA sources and Refinitiv Eikon data.

One tanker bringing imported gasoline mixed with ethanol was contaminated with high levels of water, forcing PDVSA to withdraw the product from distribution centers, a company source said, directly contributing to the shortages in Caracas.

The incident was the result of PDVSA seeking fuel from “unreliable suppliers,” in part because the U.S. sanctions have left many companies unwilling to do business with Venezuela, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The shortages last week prevented Andres Merida, a 29-year-old freelance publicist in Valencia, from attending client meetings.

“I had someone who used to take me from place to place but in light of the gasoline issue he would not give me a lift even when I offered to pay him,” he said. “He said he would prefer to save the gasoline and guarantee it for himself.”

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