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Deal in Ukraine; Crisis in Venezuela

Aired February 21, 2014 - 18:00   ET


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Leonard worked in the auto industry and as a butcher. He died five days before his 72nd birthday sitting in his backyard listening to a New York Yankees game on the radio.


STARR: And the review was in large part sparked by the family of Private 1st Class Leonard Kravitz, who died in Korea trying to save his other men. He, of course, never met his nephew and namesake, the great musician Lenny Kravitz -- Wolf. .

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for that story.

Barbara Starr, really appreciate it.

Happening now, breaking news: an alarming crackdown. As anti- government protests grow, Venezuela takes new action to prevent CNN from reporting in the country. One U.S. senator now calling it a dangerous assault on press freedom. We are going to hear from one of our journalists who just made it out of the country safely.

Plus, will the truce hold? We're on the streets of Ukraine's capital, where some police have joined forces with protesters as they face a deadline to disarm.

And a diplomatic soap opera. Is the producer of a popular daytime drama qualified to be a United States ambassador? Questions about the president's nominees and political payback.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour with the breaking news. A dangerous new development in the uprising in Venezuela. The socialist government there has revoked or denied credentials for CNN journalists in the country. This just hours after President Nicolas Maduro threatened to expel CNN, accusing the network of war propaganda.

He's facing the largest demonstrations against his regime since taking power almost a year ago. Some have turned violent.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio issued a statement calling the move against CNN "an assault on press freedom that further endangers Venezuelans."

We're joined now by CNN en Espanol anchor, Patricia Janiot. She's just arrived in Atlanta from Venezuela -- Patricia, tell us what happened, what you saw on the ground.

PATRICIA JANIOT, CNN ESPANOL ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, we were taping a special program with the students that were part of different protests during these past days, protesting the lack of basic products like milk, flour, sugar. They also are complaining about safety. They are complaining about crime.

And we were told by the vice minister of communications that our permit to work as a journalist in Venezuela has been revoked immediately.

So they also asked when are we leaving the country?

And this happened just a couple of hours after President Maduro, Nicolas Maduro, went on national television saying that CNN en Espanol needed to correct its coverage about Venezuela. He was complaining about CNN en Espanol presenting an image of Venezuela at war.

As you have reported, there are several protests that are going on throughout the country, many violent incidents, riots. So far, eight people have been killed and hundreds have been detained and injured.

So the country is asking for a dialogue between opposing groups to find a way to stop the violence and to find a way to guarantee some governability for President Maduro, that now is facing these protests all over the country.

BLITZER: Patricia you and your producer were detained at the airport by security forces.

Tell us what happened.

JANIOT: Well, we were going through the security checkpoint and I was asked to take off my shoes, as we all do here in the US. But they also said that there was an image on the heel of my shoe that might tell them that there was either explosives or drugs in the heels of my shoes.

So they took us to a tiny office, they say anti-narcotics. And we wanted to go with my producer. We wanted to be both of us together. And they didn't want us to be together. They said, trying to make fun of us, they made a comment like they probably are a couple. They probably are a couple, that's why they want to be together.

When I was transferred to this tiny room, my producer went to the bathroom. She wanted to take a moment to either text or call CNN and explain what was going on. And an officer followed her, standing there in front of the toilet door, waiting for her to get out, to ask her afterwards to erase everything that she has written or videotaped. We videotaped part of this episode.

But fortunately, finally, they went with a metal kind of knife through the heel of the shoe and they smell it and they cut it and they said, well, we know who you are. I mean they asked me my name, are you a journalist?

Yes. I mean you are Patricia Janiot?

We know you are not a drug dealer, but I'm doing my job. So put your shoes -- here are your shoes and go to the plane and thank you so much.

But it was a very uncomfortable moment. And I just wanted to add, Wolf, that in my bag, I had a bottle of water. And we all know that we cannot take liquids through the security points. And they didn't complain about the bottle of water, but they did about my shoes.

BLITZER: All right. Patricia, I'm glad you're out safe and sound.

Glad you're back at the CNN Center.

Thank you very much for that report.

We'll continue to follow what's happening in Venezuela.

Obviously, very, very disturbing, the assault on press -- the press, plus the other assaults, all of which combine for a very dangerous situation.

Let's get to the situation in Ukraine right now, which is also very dangerous. We're a dramatic difference, though, in the capital from Thursday's mass bloodshed to some glimmers of hope today. But make no mistake. There's still enormous concern that a new agreement between government there and opposition leaders could easily fall apart and that fighting could reignite.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen is joining us now live from Kiev with the very latest -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. You're absolutely right.

The situation still is quite tense here in the Ukrainian capital. One of the interesting things that happened is that after that agreement was reached between President Yanukovych and the main opposition parties, one of the leaders of the parties, Vitali Klitschko, went down here to Independence Square behind me and he explained the deal that had been reached.

People here, quite frankly, were not happy at all. There were some people who were booing him, and there were others who were saying it was treason. And there were who are saying that they will not stop short of anything that wouldn't involve President Yanukovych stepping down.

Now what's happened is some police officers have also joined in the protests. We visited them today. Have a look. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): A sight Ukrainians have probably never seen before, protesters barking out orders and policemen following. These cops have defected and joined the demonstration on Independence Square.

"We want to make a statement that we cannot tolerate what's going on anymore," the commander says. "We're from Western Ukraine. We want to show everyone that the police is with the people."

The men are all aware they might soon have to confront their colleagues on the other side of the barricades if the situation escalates again.

"Some of these officers have committed crimes," he says, "by shooting at unarmed people and medical volunteers. Those are crimes."

The police defectors say they decided to join the protesters when they saw the images of violence in the past days, with dozens killed on both sides and riot police with assault rifles seemingly firing at the crowd. But the violence also appears to have mobilized many additional civilians to come out.

(on camera): The traumatic events of Wednesday and Thursday clearly haven't deterred anyone from coming here to Independence Square. Many people that we're talking to say they're angry and they don't believe that there can be any solution involving Viktor Yanukovych staying in power.

(voice-over): As they mourn their fallen comrades with roses and photos, the animosity towards the president is evident and faith in a political solution clearly eroding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Proposition of the president is bad for Ukrainian people. This man is liar.

PLEITGEN (on camera): What do you think he should do?


PLEITGEN (voice-over): So, even as negotiations and diplomacy take center stage in the ongoing crisis, the protesters or Independence Square are digging in, fortifying the barricades, but hoping more bloodshed can be avoided.


PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, the police officers, it's really unclear if they are going to face any repercussions for obviously leaving their hometown and coming here to join the demonstrators.

I ask the police commander about that as well. He said that it doesn't really matter to him at this time. He says that his oath has been to the Ukrainian people and not to what he calls a bunch of criminals in the government -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Fred, Fred Pleitgen in Kiev, thank you.

We also are getting some new details coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now on peace efforts in Ukraine.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

What are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Very intense peace efforts and the talks going on for 22 hours. We're also getting U.S. officials confirming that the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, left the capital for Eastern Ukraine, but the State Department says it's not unusual for him to visit his base of support there in the Eastern Ukraine.

There is a new U.S. diplomatic initiative under way as the U.S. works to ensure implementation of this deal. Bill Burns, the number two at the State Department, will be traveling to Kiev.

And we're also getting new details on President Obama's call today with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We're told that it was the White House that initiated this call. It lasted about an hour. Senior State Department officials telling us that it was a constructive phone call, that all sides -- want to encourage all sides to refrain from violence.

The Russians saying as well that the call was substantive, although they were placing the blame more on the protesters, which shows one of the differences between the U.S. and Russia on the roots of these demonstrations and this violence.

But in that call, President Obama and Vladimir Putin agreeing that all sides need to remain engaged.


SCIUTTO: Today, President Obama called arguably the most powerful man in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House has waved off talk of a Cold War chess game playing out in the violence and bloodshed on the streets of Kiev.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is correct when he says that this is not about the United States and Russia or the West and Russia. This is about Ukraine and Ukrainian people.

SCIUTTO: But critics say that denies an obvious tug of war in Ukraine between East and West, the opposition leaning towards Europe, the government towards Russia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president doesn't think it's a chess game. Clearly, Vladimir Putin does. Vladimir Putin wants a restoration of the Russian empire, of which Ukraine is the crown jewel. And I'm very worried about what actions after the Olympics that Putin may take in order to ensure that.

SCIUTTO: But how much influence does the U.S. really have? To encourage a political solution, the U.S. banned visas for 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government and is considering freezing their assets overseas, but steps beyond that are limited.

ANGELA STENT, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You can have a much wider not only visa ban and economic sanctions, but really not being willing to meet with the Ukrainian leadership in any conference, so short of shunning them. The problem with that, and this is what the Europeans say, is, well, that just drives them closer toward Russia anyway.


SCIUTTO: U.S. officials are telling us that a key focus going forward is stabilizing the Ukrainian economy and this may be where the president's influence is greatest. Russia has offered the Ukraine -- Ukraine, rather, $15 billion in economic aid to tempt it away from closer association with the European Union.

The U.S. and its European allies now in effect have to outbid Moscow. We do see economic pressure can work. We hear, for instance, that these visa bans on senior leaders in the Ukrainian government really spooked a lot of President Yanukovych's supporters, because the prospect of them not being able to travel to the U.S., to Europe, the prospect of asset freezes, there's a lot of money going around Ukraine, some not into the right hands, was a real pressure tactic that might have led the president to lose some support.

BLITZER: All right, good report. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Still ahead, does producing a sexy soap opera qualify you to become a United States ambassador? We're looking into some serious questions about some of President Obama's diplomatic choices.

But, first, a doctor who's impacting your world.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For more than 20 years, Dr. Jim Withers has spent his days like this.

DR. JIM WITHERS, OPERATION SAFETY NET: You guys going to stay here or use the shelter?

CUOMO: Operation Safety Net is looking for patients.

WITHERS: Do you want a bottle of water?

We've seen people out here with all kinds of things that should never be on the street, catheters and tubes coming out of them.

Yo, Safety Net! CUOMO: Working in these conditions is rarely easy, but Dr. Jim Withers says turning his back on the homeless in Pittsburgh was never an option.

WITHERS: There were some times when I was kind of scared. I had a guy point a shotgun at me, and I had a guy threaten to cut my throat. But once you get to know people and they become real to you, it's hard to forget them.

I dropped you off some firewood.

CUOMO: On days like this, when temperatures are below freezing, the stakes are especially high.

WITHERS: When it gets below 15, somewhere in that range, everybody is at risk. So we do extra patrols.

Sometimes you sense when a person is giving up, and I found that that is a pretty strong predictor about who might not make it.

CUOMO: Withers says the payoff has been worth it. That's why he founded the Street Medicine Institute: to bring his vision to cities across the world.

WITHERS: I think there's just a sense that, if we weren't doing this, there would be no one there for them. And it gives an incredible amount of meaning to everyday work. I wouldn't give it up for anything.



BLITZER: The former Democratic senator who declared he's no real expert on China was just sworn in as the next U.S. ambassador to Beijing. Max Baucus was easily confirmed, despite his sort of eyebrow-raising remark.

But some of President Obama's other diplomatic nominees have stirred major controversy.

Here's our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama under fire for his picks to be ambassadors after some nominees, all fund-raisers for the Obama campaign, made a series of embarrassing gaffes. Listen to soap opera producer Colleen Bell struggle on what should have been an easy question for a potential ambassador to Hungary.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: What are our strategic interests in Hungary?

COLLEEN BELL, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO HUNGARY-DESIGNATE: Protect the security both -- for both countries and for -- and for the world to continue working together on the cause of human rights.

LABOTT: Hotel executive George Tsunis, the president's pick for Norway, called a party in that country's governing coalition a fringe group.

GEORGE TSUNIS, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NORWAY-DESIGNATE: We're going to continue to work with Norway to make sure...

MCCAIN: The government has denounced them? The coalition government -- they're part of the coalition of the government.

TSUNIS: Well, I would say, you know what? I stand corrected. I stand corrected.


LABOTT: Noah Bryson Mamet, who wants to be ambassador to Argentina, hasn't even visited the country.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I don't view this appointment as one -- I think this is a very significant post.

LABOTT: Late-night comics had a field day.

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": I was in Cancun and I dated a girl named Tina. Is that good?


MCCAIN: It is just embarrassing and we should not embarrass the United States of America. These countries look up to the United States of America.

LABOTT: Diplomatic expertise isn't a job requirement, but critics question the wisdom of rewarding campaign fund-raisers with plum overseas assignment.

Bell brought in more than $800,000 in 2012 to reelect President Obama. Mamet raised at least $500,000. President Obama promised to choose more career diplomats as ambassadors, but the American Foreign Service Association found 37 percent of his picks since taking office were political appointees. That's more than President Clinton and both Presidents Bush.

The White House defended the picks.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What I can tell you, that being donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.


LABOTT: And, Wolf, the nominees still need to get confirmed by the Senate. Next week, the American Foreign Service Association is coming out with its own set of guidelines for ambassadors serving overseas. Obviously, they'd like more career diplomats to get these jobs, but they say any candidate should have certain qualifications, including leadership and management skills, and an understanding of international affairs, particularly the culture and U.S. interests in the country they're serving, Wolf.

BLITZER: In fairness, though, you have got to remember that this has been going on forever. Since I have been in Washington, presidents have named big political fund-raisers to become various ambassadors.

LABOTT: That's right.

But what some of these experts say and former ambassadors say, look, a political appointee is fine, but there's a lot of qualified ambassadors and if you're going to be appointed to an ambassador in a state, it should be that you have knowledge of international affairs and you should do your homework, Wolf.

BLITZER: And at least you should have at least visited that country before going there as a U.S. ambassador.

LABOTT: Exactly.

BLITZER: All right, Elise, thanks very much.

Just ahead, Michelle Obama, comedy star? Stand by to see the first lady joking around busting a move on late-night TV.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ladies and gentlemen in D.C., watch out.


M. OBAMA: Malia Obama on the road.


M. OBAMA: I have security. So I'm good.


BLITZER: Michelle Obama, the first lady, giving ample warning to all the folks here in Washington, D.C., that her daughter Malia will be 16 soon, is eager to get her driver's license.

It was one of those must-see moments of her appearance with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" last night. The first lady also showed her comedy skills during a skit with Fallon and Will Ferrell, who play teenaged girls who host a spoof talk show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FALLON: Are you saying what I think you're saying?

WILL FERRELL, ACTOR: Eww, dance party!

FALLON: Eww, dance party!


BLITZER: She's good, though, the first lady of the United States.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.