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Venezuela Crisis; Michael Cohen to Testify before Congress; Vatican Summit; $1 Million Bond for R. Kelly; North Korean Defectors Detail Kim's Grisly Purges; Fight against ISIS; 2019 Academy Awards. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired February 24, 2019 - 05:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Aid trucks set on fire as violent clashes break out at the Colombian border. Venezuela's opposition facing a huge setback in delivering much needed humanitarian aid.

Plus we head to Rome, where Pope Francis is addressing clergy members at the Vatican's summit for sexual abuse, calling abusers the, quote, "tools of Satan."

Also ahead this hour, sparking conversations of diversity at the Oscars. "Roma's" lead actress becomes the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for a top award.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm George Howell. The CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: 5:00 am on the U.S. East Coast.

Venezuela's sitting president Nicolas Maduro has been dealt a huge blow in his struggle to maintain power. More than 60 members of his security forces defected to Colombia on Saturday.

This during massive protests demanding humanitarian aid be let into the country. Officials say that five people were killed and nearly 300 others wounded in the opposition-led demonstrations that took place. At least two trucks carrying supplies from Colombia were set on fire at the border crossing.

And this: some protesters tried to save the supplies from the burning trucks. You can see how they desperately tried to remove that aid. Opposition leader Juan Guaido indicated Nicolas Maduro was responsible for the fires. He urged troops not to support the regime.


JUAN GUAIDO, INTERIM PRESIDENT OF VENEZUELA (through translator): You don't owe loyalty, members of the armed forces, to someone who burns food in front of the hungry. We saw a man burn medicine in front of the sick.

How many of you soldiers have sick mothers?

How many of you have children in school without food?

You don't owe any type of obedience to those who sadistically, because there's no other expression for it, celebrate that aid doesn't enter a country that needs it. You don't owe any type of loyalty.


HOWELL: And in the meantime, the United States is, again, blasting Mr. Maduro's aid blockade. In a tweet the secretary of state Mike Pompeo called the president a, quote, "tyrant" and said the images of burning trucks were "sickening."

The U.S. has also announced a meeting between vice president Mike Pence and Juan Guaido. It is set to take place Monday in Colombia.

Officials closed some of the border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia in order to evaluate the damage from the protests. Nick Paton Walsh was there at the scene as chaos unfolded and filed this report.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It had been billed as a new dawn when the opposition planned waves of Venezuelan refugees would simply take aid back into their homeland across the busiest border bridge with Colombia.

But it was closed, blocked physically by Venezuelan riot police and, behind them, violent pro-government gangs.

The young police taunted or begged into changing sides.

"I'm Venezuelan," she says, holding up her ID, "and my father was a sergeant. How will you stop me crossing?"

But they were Venezuelans, too, and also knew its collapse and its hunger and, here, its heat and thirst.

"The water you're drinking," she says, "it's Colombian because your president doesn't give you any. Bring him out here to us."

"I eat or drink soda whenever I want here," he says, "but the hardest pain is how my grandfather died because he didn't have medicine."

For a brief moment, the anger dissipated, the police lowered their shields, talked calmly. But down the road, the promised aid convoy arrived in a huge crowd intent on pushing through.

WALSH: Tension mounting here, the shields have gone back up again. And protesters are recommending people start to move back. WALSH (voice-over): This was why: a slow march of opposition protesters, peaceful in as far as they would not take no for an answer. It fast collapsed into tear gas, today's lofty goals soon lost in a --


WALSH (voice-over): -- routine exchange of hatred, rocks against rubber bullets and rocks thrown back.

WALSH: Did you expect to have blood on your shirt today?


WALSH: Did you expect that to happen today?


WALSH (voice-over): And as they lost staff on the bridge, the protesters took their fight underneath. They are many but Maduro's police are mightier. They have only whatever they could make.

None of this chaos got any aid across here. But it showed the uncompromising ferocity of the Maduro government and it led, throughout the day, to Venezuelan soldiers giving themselves up, Juan Pierre (ph) carried out, the mobs both cursing and cheering.

The opposition had promised defectors amnesty but this will only get uglier, seeing the mobbing of pro-Maduro militia here, battered by the crowd and spared only by Colombian police. And if the symbolic bid to get aid in peacefully failed, then these scenes are what Venezuela is left with -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Cucuta, Colombia.



HOWELL: Let's talk more about this now with Asa Cusack, Asa with the London School of Economics' Latin America and Caribbean Centre, joining us from London.

Good to have you with us.


HOWELL: Asa, two trucks carried in humanitarian aid from Brazil and at least 60 members of Venezuela's military defected.

What does that mean for Juan Guaido; what does it mean for Nicolas Maduro?

CUSACK: I think the defections are significant but perhaps not in the way that you might think immediately. You have to think about the fact that these are 60 fairly low-ranked members of the armed forces and the armed forces are made up of hundreds of thousands of people. Really, if anything, it shows how close the military remains to

Maduro. And so that creates a new problem for Guaido, since this is really the second time he's essentially rolled the dice on some kind of side-switching by the military and in neither case have we seen any major defections.

You need some much higher ranking officials to do that but, at the moment, it is not necessarily in their interests to do that. And there has been no real indication that's about to happen. So it does leave Guaido with a problem for what he's going to do next.

HOWELL: Despite the violence seen on Saturday, the images seen of burning trucks, Guaido urged people to continue trying to get aid into Venezuela.

How long do you see this continuing?

CUSACK: Well, at the moment, there is no clear way without any change in that military support; there is no clear route out of this. My worry really at the moment, just from the statements that Guaido has made and that Marco Rubio has also made, is that there is a move towards considering military intervention, which I think would be a disaster really, both for Venezuela and the wider region.

There are all kinds of different armed groups that are active in Venezuela; you could have military splits, some people supporting Maduro, some supporting Guaido. There is just a really toxic combination at the moment.

It could be a kind of Syria or Libya type situation if it began and escalated and spiraled out of hand. Then you could have a really disastrous situation.

So really I think the best thing would be to try and push forward and negotiate a solution, as the international contact group of European Union countries and some Latin American countries has tried to do.

HOWELL: You touched on this but, throughout the region, watching how relations change, given that Nicolas Maduro broke diplomatic relations with Colombia Saturday, what effect will that have on all of this?

CUSACK: Well, the relations with Colombia have been incredibly fraught, really, throughout the past two decades. Chavez had very, very bad relations with Uribe and the two countries almost came to war really around 2010. And President Duque is seen as really Uribe's candidate in the previous election.

So there is no real surprise there. I think the real problem is that it closes down another kind of possible channel to speak rather than going down a more violent route.

So, again, I think the negotiated option is the best one and there is a way to kind of do that, particularly with the economic sanctions. There were negotiations a year ago that almost managed to reach agreement on conditions for free elections. They fell apart --


CUSACK: -- at the last minute.

But in that situation, Maduro did give ground, based on sanctions being relaxed. So, from my point of view, that's what I would like to see attempted again.

HOWELL: Clearly the pressure is ratcheting up. U.S. vice president Mike Pence plans to meet with Juan Guaido in Colombia in support of the opposition, keeping in mind Mr. Maduro has also threatened military action against the United States. Both sides pushing hard here.

How do you see things playing out in the days and weeks ahead?

CUSACK: I think for a while the idea of military intervention from the U.S. seemed slightly farfetched but I don't really see that it is anymore.

If you look at some of the statements from Trump, we saw in the recently released book of McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, that Trump was saying basically why are we not going to war with Venezuela, it has all this oil and it is on our doorstep.

And then the people involved in this on the U.S. side, extreme hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pence and especially maybe Elliott Abrams, who was involved in some of the worse atrocities in Central America in the 1980s, these kind of people will be pushing for that option and I really hope that the opposition doesn't play along with that.

HOWELL: Asa Cusack from our London bureau, thank you for the insight.


HOWELL: That much anticipated sentencing memo against Paul Manafort was unsealed Saturday. Many people hoped that it would reveal crucial missing details about the Russia investigation. That didn't happen.

But the 800-page memo did lay out what prosecutors called bold crimes committed by the former Trump chairman, Paul Manafort.

Robert Mueller's team slammed Paul Manafort for lying to almost everyone around him; the list includes dozens of people, including the Trump administration. Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice. His attorneys are expected to file a sentencing memo on Monday.

Mueller's filing on Manafort is one event of several setting up a big week for President Trump. It could be a significant week that will have a big impact on his presidency.

First, on Tuesday, the House of Representatives will vote on Mr. Trump's national emergency declaration. It could be a crucial test to see where Republican lawmakers stand in that debate and whether they support the president on the border wall. The president's long-time fixer, Michael Cohen, is set to testify

publicly before Congress on Wednesday. Mr. Trump says he is not concerned with what Cohen will have to say.

And on that same day, President Trump will be in Hanoi for a two-day summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, marking the second meeting between the two leaders.

In the meantime, Kim Jong-un is already on his way to Hanoi right now. He's traveling by private train across China. North Korean state media only confirmed that the upcoming summit with Kim was preparing to leave North Korea.

Let's talk about this now with Inderjeet Parmar, a professional of international politics at City University, joining us from our London bureau.

Good to have you.


HOWELL: The U.S. president leaving all of these things behind for a moment in preparation for a meeting with Kim Jong-un. The last time it was more about optics than actual substance, concrete measures to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

What are your expectations this go-around?

PARMAR: I think it is going to be optics again. We have an immoveable object against an irresistible force, if you like, and I don't think that the North Korean regime is anywhere nearer denuclearizing or giving up its own nuclear weapons.

We note that the level of tension has clearly come down but, to some extent, President Trump himself had contributed to the raising of that tension in the first place and used the previous summit in Singapore to say that now the tensions were reduced and there was a prospect of peace and so on.

But, in practice, yes; there are no U.S. military exercises and there have been no ballistic missile tests, no nuclear tests either. But on the other hand, the nuclear programs of the North Korean regime have continued, as they kind of call security for their own administration.

HOWELL: Back in Washington, President Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, will be making the rounds this week, testifying on Capitol Hill. We know that he's unlikely to talk about Russia but may offer some insight into other investigations where he has spoken to prosecutors.

The president said he's not worried about what Cohen might say but should he be worried?

PARMAR: Well, he is worried.


PARMAR: Everything we've read about people who've -- from people who've left the administration, have written books or given interviews, we know that President Trump has -- is very, very angry, furious about what is coming out.

It has a cumulative impact. But whether or not this is going to add anything further to that particular kind of spiral is difficult to tell. What we can tell in the most abstract sense is, when we look at Michael Cohen and look at the convictions he's facing, Paul Manafort and others, is that President Trump has gathered around himself some of the people who have no ethics. They appear to have no respect for the rule of law and they basically have very few principles by which they actually operate in public life.

And I think more information may come out on that. But I suspect, in terms of political impact, most people are now almost immune to anything that comes out about this administration. They almost have been numbed by the amount of wrongdoing, which has kind of come out.

So, yes, there will be new evidence for people who watch these things very closely. If it does any political damage, it will have to be very, very big, it'll have to put President Trump right in the room when criminal wrongdoing was being done and being implicated in it to have a big impact.

HOWELL: Inderjeet, back in Washington, the House of Representatives set to vote on the president's emergency declaration. It is sure to pass the House. What happens in the Senate will be interesting.

Regardless, the president has already said he will veto this plan.

So what impact do you think it will have on Republicans, who will have to decide where they stand?

PARMAR: Absolutely. If you look at Republicans in terms of their theory of American government, they are upholders of the Constitution. They argue that, for the kind of 1787 framers of the Constitution wanted, the original idea.

The original idea was separation of powers and the containment of the power of the executive and its balancing by the judiciary and by the legislative.

What President Trump is doing is violating that separation of powers principle on a domestic question. This is unprecedented. What we have to look for on Tuesday in vote, if you like, is that the GOP has 197 seats in the House. If there is not 197 supporters -- sorry, voters for President Trump, that is for the emergency and anything very significantly less, I think there will be a lot of damage.

Then it goes over to the Senate. But, in the end, I suspect it is going to go to the Supreme Court.

HOWELL: Inderjeet Parmar with perspective and context, thank you.

PARMAR: Thank you.

HOWELL: Still ahead, years of allegations and accusations may have caught up with singer R. Kelly. Up next, we outline what is next for the troubled star and take a closer look at the accusations.

Plus Pope Francis is wrapping up the Vatican summit on sex abuse by the clergy. We'll take you live to Rome with what he has said lately. Stay with us.





HOWELL: We take you to the Vatican next, where the pope says priests who abuse children become "tools of Satan." The pope presiding over the final day of the extraordinary summit on clergy sex abuse. The Catholic Church openly addressing the problems of priests sexually exploiting children.

The four-day event marked first time the church acknowledged it destroyed evidence of abuse, a practice that went back many decades. Delia Gallagher is live in Rome.

And Delia, stand by for a moment, because we are hearing -- we heard what the pope said just a short time ago. Let's play this and then I'd like to get your comments on what else he had to say.


POPE FRANCIS, PONTIFF, ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): While greatly affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place in the church.

The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the church for it is utterly incompatible with our moral authority and ethical credibility.

Consecrated persons chosen by God to guide souls to salvation let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan.


HOWELL: The pope taking this issue head on, Delia.

What else did he have to say?

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, George, the pope did have some strong lines in the speech. He said no abuse should be covered up and that he sees the hand of evil in the abuse of children.

But, frankly, George, it was a speech that was sort of placing the church sex abuse in the context of wider society. And some of the things that he said about the church sex abuse are things that we have heard before. The pope himself going into this summit said he was looking for concrete steps.

So in that sense his speech did not address the concrete steps that might come out of this summit. He did speak about forming priests better in the seminary and about bishops having guidelines. But we knew that.

So, in sum, I think we're still waiting for the concrete steps about what came out of this meeting. The discussions seemed to indicate that there might be movement on, for example, lifting the pontifical secret on these cases.

That's when victims report their cases, it's brought to trial at the Vatican but don't hear anything more, sometimes for months and years. So there is no transparency with victims about what is going on in the investigation and the cases being judged at the Vatican.

It is what we have heard from people participating in the summit that they might like to lift. So that's one point, one concrete step but we haven't heard that from the pope today.

We'll see if in the days coming some announcement comes out of the Vatican about really specific steps because, George, that is what the pope himself and the survivors have been asking for.

HOWELL: All right, Delia Gallagher, following the story for us live in Rome. Thank you, Delia.

In Chicago, a judge has set a $1 million bond for singer R. Kelly, who turned himself in on Friday. This after being charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Our Sara Sidner has this story.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A judge set R. Kelly's bond for $1 million, $250,000 in each of the four alleged victims' cases. Now R. Kelly would only have to pay $100,000 of that after he has been charged with 10 counts of criminal sexual abuse. The prosecution laying out some very sexually explicit details in this case to the judge, including sexual and physical abuse of several of the women that are now alleged victims in this particular case.

There was an indictment from a grand jury first and then the prosecution filed charges against R. Kelly. The details include physical and sexual abuse against women who are now of age but were minors at the time, "under the age of 17 but older than 13," is how the prosecution put it.

We also heard from R. Kelly's attorney, Steve --


SIDNER (voice-over): -- Greenberg. He came out; he said initially, when R. Kelly was arrested and we saw him to go in to be booked last night, he said that all the women liars and called them liars very starkly and clearly.

Today he backed down a little bit from that but said, you know, you can't believe everything you hear, that he should be given, like any other defendant, a presumption of innocence. He also mentioned the 2008 trial, where R. Kelly was put on trial for 14 counts of pornography, child pornography, and he was acquitted in that trial.

He said people should give him the same kind of presumption of innocence as other defendants.

He did recognize that there is a lot of media attention here. He recognized that there were some women who were in the courtroom here today, listening and emotional. We can tell you that one of the victims, the alleged victims in this case, was inside the courtroom. She was emotional herself.

This has been a very difficult time for the women who have come out and accused R. Kelly of sexually abusing them when they were minors.

Where do we go from here?

Greenberg, R. Kelly's attorney, says that he does not think that R. Kelly has $100,000 just hanging around. So the question is, will he be able to get that money and get out of jail before his next hearing, which will be Monday? -- Sara Sidner, CNN, Chicago.


HOWELL: Sara, thank you.

Still ahead, North Korea's leader is on his way to Vietnam for his second summit with President Trump. We'll have more on that story ahead.

Plus, Brexit is on the beach. That's what the British prime minister Theresa May wants as she looks for a deal there. Stay with us.





HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world, you're watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Atlanta. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.


HOWELL: Anytime Kim Jong-un leaves North Korea, there is always risk he could be deposed. So Kim periodically purges anyone he considers to be a potential threat. We do warn you, going into this story, the details of those executions can be especially gruesome. Our Brian Todd has this. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kim Jong-un, the man President Trump will shake hands with again at a summit next week, who he now calls Chairman Kim.

TRUMP: I asked Chairman Kim, would it be possible to do that?

TODD: And who the president is counting on to get rid of his nuclear weapons, tonight faces new allegations of especially grotesque brutality against his own people. Stories of executions and torture, detailed by those who once lived under the regime, before fleeing. Kang Chol-hwan says he defected after spending 10 years in a concentration camp.

He says, witnesses told him that at one execution in 2013, two men, closely tied to Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who the dictator distrusted were brought in front of a firing squad of eight anti- aircraft guns. The men, the defector says, had lumps of iron stuffed into their mouths. He says, Kim's uncle was forced to watch his colleague's murder.

KANG CHOL-HWAN, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through translator): They let it fire against these people. And these two people instantly, like, just disappeared. And all the blood, it poured into Jang Song-thaek's face, who's forced to witness them and he fainted.

TODD: Kim's uncle would, himself, be executed later that year, also allegedly with an anti-aircraft gun. The accounts come as part of a new report released today by the North Korea strategy center, an organization led by Kang. The group which includes defectors, spotlights human rights issues.

The group says it interviewed several current and former North Korean officials. Kang says, his group was told about the execution of a top police official named, Oh Sang-Hyun, also close to Kim's uncle.

KANG: Kim Jong-un especially hated him. So Kim Jong-un personally ordered him to be executed by using a flame thrower. So, Mr. Oh was burned alive without even using the machine guns. And then after he was burned alive, the tanks around him kind of crushed him.

TODD: The reason for pulverizing their bodies? Human rights observers say, Kim believed they weren't good enough to be buried on North Korean soil.

GREG SCARLATOIU, COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: These senior officials who are executed by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun or flamethrower are denied this fundamental right of leaving behind a body for the family.

TODD: Kang says, another official and his mistress were executed by being stripped and mauled by a pack of dogs. This all came, this group says, on the personal orders of a man who President Trump has consistently expressed admiration for.

TRUMP: And then, we fell in love. OK. No, really.

TODD: Should President Trump be shaking Kim Jong-un's hands?

Calling him Chairman Kim?

Meeting with him?

Professing his love when all indications show this is a murderous dictator?

KANG: President Trump, don't take this bloody man's hands, meeting him in Vietnam, saying good things. He's a murderer. It sends a low signal to the world.

TODD: The Kim regime has repeatedly denied allegations of committing human rights atrocities inside North Korea.

Is President Trump going to discuss these alleged executions with Kim Jong-un when he meets with him in Vietnam?

We reached out to the White House, the State Department and U.S. intelligence; none of them would comment on that or respond to this latest report --


TODD: -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


HOWELL: Brian, thank you.

Forget Brussels, forget Downing Street. The Brexit spotlight is on Egypt for the next few days. That country hosting a summit for E.U. and Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The British prime minister Theresa May will be there and she may be looking for a way to push Brexit forward with E.U. leaders, a much- needed, you could say, deal in the desert. Let's go live to our international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, live in Sharm el- Sheikh, following this story.

And it is interesting to see what she plans to do there because E.U. leaders have been clear, it is the deal, the only deal.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It is. And it is very interesting that this summit alone comes at this time. And this is the first-ever Arab League or League of Arab States-E.U. summit; 49 different nations will be represented here, 21 from the Arab League and 28 from the European Union.

And when you try to sort of look at it and say, why now, why this timing, one of the fundamental issues and on the big item on the agenda here, of course, will be migration and terrorism.

And when you look at that issue of Brexit and the way that the European Union has dealt with the issue of migration coming from the Arab region, spilling over from the war in Syria, which has had that big disruptive force on Europe, which was one of the key factors that led to that referendum and the vote in the referendum in the United Kingdom for -- to trigger Brexit, in many ways, a whole summit, although it will be about climate, it will be about economy and it will be about security, in many ways, this summit itself is a recognition of the types of issues of Brexit that Europe is facing at the moment because the Arab League has been calling for this type of summit for about 20 years now.

It is finally happening now. But Theresa May will be using it to meet on the margins, specifically with the European Council president Donald Tusk, who is the co-host here or the co-chair, if you will, along with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president.

So Theresa May's meeting with Donald Tusk is the one where she may hope that she can make a difference, where she and the negotiators haven't been able to make a difference in Brussels over the past few weeks on her demand at the moment to get from the E.U. guarantees, legally binding guarantees, about the backstop, that part of the withdrawal agreement, of which there is so much angst in Britain at the moment.

HOWELL: Nic Robertson, following the story, we'll stay in touch with you. Thank you.

They have abandoned the last ISIS enclave in Syria but they have not abandoned the terrorist ideology. We'll hear what some true believers of ISIS have to say. Stay with us.





HOWELL: Welcome back.

With ISIS cornered in Eastern Syria, civilians are still trying to leave the terror group's last enclave. Many suffered under ISIS but there are also those who actually support its brutal ideology. Our Ben Wedeman has been reporting from the front lines and has a look at some true believers of ISIS.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a struggle to find space on the trucks taking them to camps further north. Here are the latest, perhaps the last to leave the half-mile- square camp, all that's left of the Islamic State.

But these are not the ones who claim to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are the true believers.

Mahmoud (ph), who is 15 years old, has absorbed ISIS' ideology.

He asked me, "Don't you know the verses of the Quran that say the Islamic State will experience hardship and then God will give it victory?"

WEDEMAN: One of the favorite slogans of the Islamic State was (speaking Arabic) or "The Islamic State is remaining and spreading."

Surprisingly enough, now that that Islamic State is just a speck on the map, many of these people still remain convinced of that idea.

WEDEMAN (voice-over): This woman, who identifies herself only as Om Vasem (ph), or the mother of Vasem (ph), tells me her loyalties still lie with ISIS.

"Frankly, we still believe in it," she says. "We just wanted to live in peace and wear our Islamic clothing, not to go out, not to see men and to be ruled by the law of the almighty."

At 25, she's already the mother of four children. And they didn't flee because of the bombing or the shortage of food. They were told to leave.

"We received orders from Abu Bakr," this woman says, referring to ISIS leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. Syrian Democratic Forces commanders say they do not believe Baghdadi is inside, however.

Not a word of regret did we hear nor any contrition over beheadings, terror attacks or the mass murder and enslavement of Yazidis. According to the peculiar logic of the state that called itself Islamic, even its demise makes sense.

"God is testing us," this woman says. "The unworthy will leave and the righteous will remain. Perhaps we are unworthy."

Or perhaps just deluded. ISIS may be about to lose its land but not its believers -- Ben Wedeman, CNN, in Eastern Syria.


HALL: Ahead, the Academy Awards, no matter what happens there, one indigenous actress is showing the world her star power and combating racism at the same time.






(VIDEO CLIP, "ROMA") HOWELL: Those are the scenes from "Roma," one of the films expected

to snag an Oscar this Sunday. That movie's lead actress has an incredible story and it is inspiring people around the world, especially in her home country of Mexico. Our Rafael Romo has this report.


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SR. LATIN AFFAIRS EDITOR (voice-over): On the red carpet, in covers of fashion magazines, 25-year-old Yalitza Aparicio is not only making waves in Hollywood but making history as well.


ROMO (voice-over): Her performance in the acclaimed film "Roma," led her to become the first indigenous Mexican woman to be Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a leading role. It also happened to be her first acting role.

News of the nomination left her in tears, overcome with emotion, as she lives out an unprecedented success story. Three years ago, Aparicio was living here, a small rural home in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca. She was a schoolteacher with no acting aspirations until she was discovered almost by accident, when she accompanied her sister to an audition.

YALITZA APARICIO, ACTOR (through translator): It is good that I took the risk of doing the casting, although at the --


APARICIO (through translator): beginning I didn't want to do it. It did well saying yes to it. This has been an intense journey and an amazing experience that I will remember forever.

ROMO (voice-over): In "Roma," Aparicio portrays an indigenous housekeeper and nanny living in Mexico City. It is a tale based on the director's own childhood there in the 1970s and it touches on race, class and anti-indigenous prejudice in Mexico.

ALFONSO CUARON, DIRECTOR: I'm very happy about the representation of a character who's a domestic worker from an indigenous background and that this character is being embraced in a very strong, emotional way from audiences all around the world.

So that, for me, is the most significant thing about the journey of "Roma" to this moment.

ROMO (voice-over): With 10 Oscar nominations and numerous awards, "Roma's" success has brought celebration and pride in Mexico but it earned praise from the country's recently elected leader.

Thousands gathered to watch it as the first movie shown at the former presidential palace and Aparicio's fairy tale story has been described as an inspiration. Sadly, however, her fame has also met with some racist backlash from

other actors and on social media. But in the face of offensive commentary, Aparicio is focusing on empowering others with her newfound platform.

APARICIO (through translator): This nomination is not only mine. It belongs to others that see themselves reflected on the screen, that can actually aspire to do something like what I've done, regardless of their economic status or their skin color.

ROMO (voice-over): At the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday, the first- timer is up against some well-known stars for Best Actress, including Glenn Close and Lady Gaga. But Aparicio says that, after her whirlwind experience, she feels she's already won -- Rafael Romo, CNN.


HOWELL: Rafael, thank you.

We are just hours away from the Academy Awards. People have been placing bets on who will win big at the Oscars. And according to multiple betting markets, "Roma" is the clear favorite for best picture, followed by "Green Book."

For best actor, Rami Malek who starred as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Glenn Close seemed to have a lock on best actress for her role as "The Wife."

Let's get the perspective of a person who knows really well on how this could play out. Richard Fitzwilliams is here with a preview, Richard a film commentator, joining us from London.

A pleasure to have you on the show, Richard.

RICHARD FITZWILLIAMS, ROYALTY COMMENTATOR: Well, it will be a fascinating evening and you had a wonderful report of "Roma" and of Yalitza Aparicio, who is a glorious actress, a wonderful performance in it.

I suspect everybody thinks "Roma" is going to win. And that will make history. It will be the first foreign language film ever to win best picture, there have been 10 nominated, nominated 10 times in different categories.

And also, of course, it will make history as being a Netflix movie. Netflix has spent some $30 million promoting it. So all of this is completely unprecedented but it would be well deserved.

HOWELL: Let's talk more about this. Your read on best picture, though, it seems to be a tossup, given the Guilds all awarded their best picture prize to different films. Roma seems to be a front- runner. The contenders are also strong.

FITZWILLIAMS: There is a possibility that "Green Book" might win. This is a story about Don Shirley, a black concert pianist, played by Mahershala Ali, who's most certainly going to win best supporting actor going into the Deep South with Viggo Mortensen as his driver.

There is no doubt that that's a possible but it's also been mired in some controversy and it hasn't got the uniqueness of "Roma." "The Favourite," it is a wonderful film, that's the British hope. But it does seem unlikely.

As for "A Star Is Born," I'm afraid it has sunk below the radar; there are commentaries online as to why a movie that was likely to be the favorite, the winner originally, Oscars don't tend to like remakes, which to say is all musicals. There's only been one win in 50 years. It doesn't seem to be a hope.

So with the "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a vague hope, it does look like "Roma."

HOWELL: "Roma," you say it is. The contenders for best actress, Glenn Close nominated seven times already. But Lady Gaga, could there be a surprise in the mix?

FITZWILLIAMS: I have to say that there probably won't be, because Glenn Close, with seven nominations, looks certain to get it. She shouldn't. I do have to make my view clear here. She gives a very good performance in "The Wife" but the film is mediocre.


FITZWILLIAMS: Lady Gaga is marvelous, the way she acts so sensitively and with such vulnerability as well as panache in "A Star Is Born;" Olivia Colman moving and alternately, very, very funny as well as touching, as Queen Anne in "The Favourite."

Or Yalitza Aparicio, all of those, in my opinion, would be more worthy winners. And Melissa McCarthy, fascinating, too, that's she's good in a drama.

HOWELL: All right, Richard, 30 seconds and two questions.

First, best actor, who do you see taking it, Christian Bale or Rami Malek?

FITZWILLIAMS: Rami Malek without any doubt, playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" as Freddie Mercury.

HOWELL: All right, very quickly, and also a show with no host, there will be no host.

What do you think?

FITZWILLIAMS: Well, I think it's absolutely bizarre. The saga with Kevin Hart has brought the Academy into disrepute, as is the intent. They made to have a best picture category which was a popular film, which has now been withdrawn.

And also this idea that the ceremony can only be three hours long and that they can hide four categories during advertising breaks and then show truncated versions of them, which caused fury in the Academy. This has been a disastrous year for the Oscars. Let's see what

tonight's ceremony is like, because it is the greatest show on Earth. It is the oldest and the most prestigious showcase for cinema.

HOWELL: And Richard, we'll be watching. Live from London, we appreciate your time.

And we thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. The news continues here on CNN right after the break.