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Deadly Protests in Ukraine and Venezuela; Iran Nuclear Talks; Raising the Minimum Wage; Olympic Medal Count

Aired February 19, 2014 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. Massive protests turn deadly in two countries. People in Ukraine and Venezuela, rising up against their governments -- flames shooting in the air, tear gas sending crowds scrambling. We're live with the cast of confusion that all unfolds this morning.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. It is Wednesday, February 19th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

A lot going on this morning. So, let's start straight away here.

We begin in the Ukraine. These are live pictures from the ground. This morning, Kiev's main square on fire.

You can see the smoke there. You can see the water cannons in the background. This is a scene, Independent Square, set ablaze, by protesters trying to keep police out after one of the bloodiest days in recent memory.

At least 25 people are now dead -- at least 25. And the number could be much, much higher than that. The protests camp all but surrounded. And Ukraine's president is resisting calls to pull back. You'll see it from these pictures here, a chaotic situation. That city is very much teetering on the brink.

Nick Paton Walsh is live in Kiev. He joins us on the phone right now.

Nick, give us a sense what you're seeing.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): All right. Just from that Central Square about two hours ago, John, and quite remarkable really. We've seen, I think it's fair to say, overnight the protesters pushed back in terms of the amount of area they controlled there. (INAUDIBLE) they found plank. But there's still a tense standoff, about 10 meters between both sides. Protesters occasionally throw missiles at police and have things thrown back at them.

But I think the real question now both sides look perhaps a little tired, perhaps a little bewildered after last night's remarkable violence. They seem to have killed 25, including nine police officers. I think many really quite wondering what happens next. We're seeing very little reconcile with the opposition of the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. He's been quite clear in a brief meeting that he had with the opposition he wants to see them distance themselves from radicals, he calls them, within the opposition ranks. And the opposition simply emerged from that, saying, look, (INAUDIBLE).

And given the absence of this negotiation at this point, John, I think the fear is what happens on the streets now. The issue perhaps last night, given how these things had spun out of the control, it was the organized police operation. It was the fact that police response to what was happening on the streets around them.

And I think the concern certainly now is there are few people there. But there are also few options for the government to try and control this great external pressure both from Moscow to see Viktor Yanukovych prevail as the leader of Ukraine, keeping it on Moscow's (INAUDIBLE).

And, of course, now increasing outspoken comments from the United States, putting pressure on the White House upon Viktor Yanukovych him saying, look, you're the president of this country, you need to rein this in -- John.

BERMAN: Of course, we're looking at these pictures in what was the deadliest day for the Ukraine in decades. As you said, Russia is trying to exert influence. We just read a statement right now from the Russia foreign ministry saying it will exert all influence they say to bring peace in the Ukraine -- of course, as you mentioned, closely allied with the president there, Viktor Yanukovych.

And we also understand that Vice President Joe Biden called the Ukrainian president. But the U.S. doesn't seem to have much sway right now.

WALSH: They haven't really been in the game for the past few months. That's been more the European Union's job. But the major problem here is the Europeans don't really have much to offer apart from the Western ideology and higher standards of living, in association with where the European Union might eventually bring Ukraine, a decade well off of that.

The question now is the Russian offer billions of dollars of hard cash coming into Ukraine's troubled government and economy. That's something that can genuinely could have prop the country up. That's perhaps why the support for Yanukovych is (INAUDIBLE) hundreds of thousands in this country, they back them up because they see that Russian assistance.

(INAUDIBLE) the Ukrainian economy. That's something which they are going to need to keep their families fed.

So, this is really an existential battle to the idea of what is Ukraine, the country split between the east and west. And now those two pretty incompatible sides are having to find out if there's any possible middle ground they can thread, or if simply the country have to be find a new identity -- John. BERMAN: Nick Paton Walsh on the streets of Kiev. Maybe the best thing Nick said is that both sides seem tired today. So, maybe that violence will calm a little bit.

All right. Our thanks to Nick.

ROMANS: All right. Halfway around the world, to Venezuela, where tensions are rising this morning now that the leader of the opposition has turned himself in to police. There have been days of violent protests on the streets. Tens of thousands of people streaming into the streets, and demonstrators want the President Nicolas Maduro to resign. And he is blaming the U.S. for stoking the conflict. We told you earlier this week, he expelled three U.S. diplomats.

Karl Penhaul is live in Caracas this morning. He joins on the phone.

Karl, can you tell us the latest? The pictures are just very dramatic, just thousands and thousands and thousands of people in the streets of Caracas.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Absolutely, Christine. Yesterday, tens of thousands of anti- government protesters dropped into the street. At one point, they were blocking the main freeway into the heart of Caracas and that producing big traffic jams.

But then as you say the Harvard-trained economist Leopoldo Lopez, one of the leaders of the opposition, turned himself into police.

And just after nightfall, he made his first court appearance, as the socialist government here have charged him with murder. They've charged him with terrorism. They've charged him with setting fire to public buildings, a very serious rap sheet there. He was held overnight in a military prison outside of Caracas, and he's due to appear back in court in the next few hours.

And that could be another flash point, because the opposition are calling for a huge rally to support him as he appears in court.

Then, other development, you mentioned the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats. Overnight, the embassy here in Venezuela did issue a statement saying that three of its diplomats had been active at Venezuela's university, the socialist government here accusing the diplomats of stirring up trouble among students but the U.S. embassy saying its diplomats were doing no such thing. They were helping students track visas so that they could study in the United States.

But as I say, the flash point likely to come in the next few hours as Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-trained economist, makes his next court appearance -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Karl Penhaul, clearly is this more than a simmering tension there in Venezuela. We'll continue to watch this protest throughout the day.

Thanks, Karl. BERMAN: So much going on this morning.

Happening today, a second day of substantive nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers in Vienna. The goal to find a permanent resolution over the dispute into Tehran's nuclear program. A six- month interim agreement has been in place since January limiting Iraq's exchange for lifting of some economic sanctions.

ROMANS: All right. The White House is apparently considering new options in Syria, now that peace talks have failed, and violence is on the increase again. Top aides are reportedly meeting this week to discuss what else could be done short of putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. The administration is said to be worried about the unintended consequences of anything they do.

BERMAN: This could get your attention. There's a new proposal this morning that could have the federal government tracking every move you make in your car. Homeland Security is now seeking a private contractor to build a national license plate tracking system.

Many local police departments already track license plates. But this system will connect all of those local databases, to make it much easier to know where people are going -- critics say any minute any of day.

A DHS spokesman tells "The Washington Post" that the database will be only be used as part of criminal investigation.

ROMANS: All right. This morning, a fuel in the fire over the debate of raising the minimum wage. It's a major priority of this administration and the congressional budget office finds that increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would help lift nearly 1 million families out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage would lift a million families out of poverty. At the time, the CBO finds it could cost half a million jobs.

Republicans called the report proof that raising the minimum wage is a job killer. Democrats and the White House disagree.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The opposition of raising the minimum wage that costs jobs, if you tease it out all the way, then it shouldn't be a minimum wage at all. And there are probably fewer than 5 percent of the American people who believe that.


ROMANS: The federal minimum wage right now is $7.25 an hour. Though many states, many states and some cities require higher minimum salaries for workers. Of course, the president has raised the federal minimum wage for federal contract workers. That starts soon.

Global stock markets mixed today. Japan finished lower after Tuesday's big rally. Hong Kong closed slightly higher. Stocks in Europe right now are basically around break even. There's a U.K. job list number coming out later.

And stocks here in the U.S., they're starting offer the day mixed as well. Disappointing earnings from Coca-Cola casting a shadow over the Dow yesterday. Some tech stocks, though, lifted the NASDAQ to eight straight days of gain. It's the longest winning streak for NASDAQ since last summer. So, it's been on a tear there. S&P 500 also closed higher.

This is a big day for economic news in this country. Markets around the world are waiting minutes from Ben Bernanke final meeting of the Federal Reserve. Those are set to release at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon. We're also going get housing numbers, housing construction in January produced price index. That measures the rate of inflation. A lot of potential stimuli for investors this morning.

BERMAN: A lot to look at with the weather, too. This morning, there's some good news and bad news.

The good news is the snow is over. It's getting warmer. That's good.

The bad news, the stuff I'm worried about with two feet of snow on my roof, flooding could be a huge, huge problem.

Indra Petersons is here with that.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Nailed it. One thing we're all loving right now. Look at these temperatures across the entire country. The bulk of you are going to be seeing above-normal temperatures but there you go, John just mentioned, it's the concern for flooding. That is going to be out there.

I mean, take a look, we're talking upstate New York and also around Illinois. That's a concern today for flood watches, especially into tomorrow as we start to see rain making its way through. In fact, we're going to be seeing showers kind of making their way through the Northeast today.

So, with that, not only warm temperatures but the rain on top of the snow also helping, kind of bringing those flooding concerns. The real story, this week, is going to be starting late evening tonight into tomorrow. Once again, we have the setup for severe weather, starting to notice the system pooling around the lakes.

Notice by tomorrow afternoon, tomorrow evening, really starting to see a squall line pulling all the way into the Gulf, and eventually extending into the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. And really, to the Southeast by Friday.

Let's talk about why this matters so much. Once again, you have the threat, not only for straight line winds, but even isolated tornadoes could be doubt there.

Jocelyn, looks like today you're under the gun. But really, the story is going to be tomorrow. It's almost 300,000 of you are going to be under that flight risk for spring-like concerns. Severe thunderstorms are really pushing their way through. And then notice by Friday, really pushing through the mid-Atlantic and extending all the way down into Florida. So, warmer air, I know we've all been waiting for, of course, it does bring concerns of severe weather.

Flooding first and then severe weather.

ROMANS: That's what you wish for.

BERMAN: Thanks, Indra.

All right. Do you have a few dollars you want to waste? Instead of burning your money with a lighter, you could buy a Powerball ticket. The problem really is the math. The odds of winning, 1 in 175 million.

ROMANS: That never stops anyone.

BERMAN: No, it doesn't, because they're looking at this other number, $400 million. That is the Powerball jackpot, $400 million is the sixth largest Powerball jackpot in history.

The lump sum, Christine Romans, when I win, will pay out around $230 million.

ROMANS: I'll take 2 percent to manage all of it.

BERMAN: You can ask Jack Lew, the U.S. treasury secretary, what he thinks of Powerball as an economic plan.

She's interviewing the treasury secretary today.

ROMANS: He's actually trying to get Americans to try to save more and I don't think lottery tickets are in his savings plan for more Americans.

BERMAN: Probably not.

ROMANS: All right. Passengers thrown from their seats when their plane suddenly starts shaking, turbulence striking without warning. Nine people hurt. We have dramatic pictures from in -- look at that -- from inside the cabin ahead.

BERMAN: And a cruise ship vacation turns tragic. A woman beaten, raped almost thrown overboard. Now, an employee has been arrested. We'll have the story, next.


ROMANS: Developing this morning, another flight and another case of dangerous turbulence, leaving at least nine people injured. These pictures are from on board a Cathay Pacific 747 flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong. That jet hitting turbulence.

Passengers say it was like being on a roller coaster. They were thrown. Several hit overhead bins. The airlines now investigating exactly what happened.

BERMAN: What a mess. I mean, you can see the stuff strewn about the cabin. Every piece, the trays, the cups they're like missiles when you hit that turbulence.

ROMANS: Even if you don't have the seat belt on, all that stuff is flying around.

BERMAN: But you better have the seat belt on. There's a good reason --

ROMANS: I know, you're right. You're right.

BERMAN: All right. Seventeen minutes after the hour.

This morning, police in Alaska are disputing an admitted killer's claim that she was responsible for nearly two dozen murders. State troopers say there's just no evidence complicating Amanda Barbour in any homicide in that state where she grew up. In newspaper interview, Barbour said she was part of a satanic cult and killed 22 people in four states.

Now, she's already jailed along with her husband in Pennsylvania after the death of a man they met on Craigslist. Barbour has made she killed him.

ROMANS: Bizarre.

All right. This morning, a cruise ship worker stands accused of a shocking crime, raping a passenger and then trying to throw her overboard. This happened on a Holland American cruise. The victim is a 31-year-old American citizen. She survived, airlifted to a hospital.

Police say the 28-year-old suspect is a room service attendant with a master key. He confessed to the crime, authorities said. The motive police say, he told them, was punishing the woman for insulting him.

BERMAN: All right. New details this morning in the shooting death of an Arkansas teenager after a prank went wrong. See if you can follow this.

Police say the shooter Willy Noble told them he was just trying to scare off whoever was on his property when he opened fire on a group of teenagers who were apparently covering his son's car with eggs and toilet paper as a prank. Fifteen-year-old Adrian Broadway (ph) was killed. Noble faces murder charges.

ROMANS: Happening later today, the Energy Department set to announce $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees to build the first new nuclear reactors in America since 1978. A group led by the energy firm Seven Company will use the funds to support the creation of two reactors in Georgia, an electric plant now being built 70 miles northeast of Augusta.

President Obama supports the project as part of an overall strategy to cut the nation's reliance on fossil fuels.

BERMAN: Part of the president's all-of-the-above energy plan.

ROMANS: That's right.

BERMAN: They're moving on at Ft. Hood, Texas. Military officials are demolishing the site of the deadly shooting massacre there. They will be replacing the trees, the gazebo in a remembrance plaque for the victims. Former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan opened fire on unarmed soldiers at a Texas base as they were preparing for deployment in 2009. He killed 13 people and wounded 32 others.

Caught on camera -- a brazen Valentine's Day break-in at a jewelry store. Police are looking for the robbers who backed their stolen pickup truck into the glass doors. Look at that. Then they grabbed whatever they could, wrapping cables around the safe and pulled it out the door. You see it there. Once it got out the door, they had a front end loader that scooped it up and dropped in the get away car.

They put the safe into a getaway car with a front end loader. What kind of planning there? This is all over in about two minutes. They made off with some $250,000 in jewelry.

ROMANS: Paramus, New Jersey -- they do it big in Jersey.

In today's "Road Warriors", low-cost airlines get fewer customer complaints than the big guys. Does that mean their service is better? Maybe not.

A report of the "Journal of Air Transport Management" finds passengers are simply more likely to complain about service on the bigger airlines. Why? The authors found expectations are higher for the bigger airlines since more of their travelers are flying on business and they paid higher fares. Another possible reason for fewer complaints about budget airlines, some of their staff just seems happier. The report reminds us a smiling face can mean a difference between an angry customer and an understanding customer.

BERMAN: It's so hard to smile when you're traveling. It really is.

All right. Twenty minutes after the hour. Coming up, win or go home. It could be do or die for the U.S. hockey team in Sochi today. It is do or die for the U.S. hockey team in Sochi. Go USA.

Andy Scholes has all the Olympic highlights in the "Bleacher Report", coming up next.


BERMAN: You say Oshie!

U.S. hockey team will return to the ice this afternoon for a spot for the semifinals on the line.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes joins us with more on the "Bleacher Report." Hey, Andy. ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Hey. Good morning, guys. If you thought the men's hockey was good so far, just wait until today. The USA will take on the Czech Republic in a win or go home matchup. Now, the U.S. is two wins away from reaching the gold medal game for the second consecutive Olympics. A win today would potentially set up a huge matchup between Canada in the semifinals.

But first things first -- U.S. needs to get a win over the Czech Republic. Puck drops at noon eastern.

American David Wise made history on Tuesday becoming the first person ever to win gold in the freestyle skiing halfpipe competition. This is one of eight new events in this year's Olympics.

The U.S. continuing to do well. The one that originated in the X- Games. That's one reason we are on top of the medal count with 20 total. Netherlands also has 20. Russia, right now, they're second with 19.

Trending right now on is the anticipation for today's women's figure skating competition. For the first time in quite a while, the U.S. women come in as underdogs. The Korean sensation Kim Yuna is the overwhelming favorite to earn a second straight gold medal. But Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds are going to try to pull off the upset.

And, of course, this is always one of the most watched competitions in the Olympics. I'll, of course, be watching, guys, for the skating. And of course, I want to see how Ashley Wagner reacts to her scores. Of course, her famous picture from the team skating competition, there you see it right there. Thought very pleased with what she thought was a good round. But let's see what she has today.

BERMAN: Big day at the Olympics. You know, Ted Ligety, a great giant slalom racer had a huge first run in the G.S., get a second one coming up. Could be another big gold medal game. A sport that the United States didn't invent, like Andy said. You know, we invent the X-Games so we can get some medals but these are regular giants on the game.

SCHOLES: Try some of the old ones, too.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Andy.

ROMANS: All right. Top headlines, everything you need to know for your very busy day, right after the break.